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Tell tales of Taita Taveta’s villages that bore first World Warbrunt

By Tony Mochama | November 11th 2018
World war veterans view items used by British and German soldiers at the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge in Taita Taveta County, recently. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

Exactly a hundred years ago – on the ‘11th hour of the 11th day of the eleventh month’ – in 1918, The Armistice, or an agreement to cease hostilities in World War One, came into effect in Europe, and the guns that had wracked the World during four years of world war fell silent.

It was one minute too late for Henry John Gunther, a 23-year-old American soldier from Baltimore, US, who had been shot dead at 10.59am by a German sniper at the champagne sounding town of Chaumont-devant Damvillers in France – young Henry being the last of the 116,708 American soldiers to die in a conflict that claimed almost 10 million military men.

Guerilla campaign

Down in Africa, two days later, with no habari of the Armistice, a German general called Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck was gleefully occupying a town called Kasama in Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia), which the British had recently evacuated.

General Lettow-Vorbeck, who had been waging a World WarOne guerilla campaign against the British in East Africa for over four years, had been expecting to put up a fight for Kasama, and was as surprised as the next man to find it deserted of the expected British garrison.

His fears of some kind of trap by his British enemies were soon allayed when a British officer, carrying the traditional messenger’s white peace flag, showed up in town with a telegram from London, announcing the Armistice.

The following day, on November 14, 1918, General Lettow-Vorbeck made the five-hour journey by foot, 25km journey to the steamy mouth of the mighty Congo River called the Chambeshi to formally meet up with a British officer called Evelyn Shard and acknowledge that, indeed, the Armistice between the British (and its American and French Allies) and the Germans (and their Axis supporters, the Austrians, Hungarians and the mighty Ottoman Empire) had come into effect.

But General Lettow-Vorbeck, by then known worldwide as ‘the Lion of Africa’ would not formally surrender for another 11 days; preferring to march his troops (the Schutztruppe) the 200kms north to the British outpost of Abercomb (present day Mbala) on the border of Tanganyika and modern Rhodesia, to surrender his men to the superior British Officer based there.

Such was the pride of this German commander, certainly one of the most successful guerilla leaders in history of the worldwho, time and again, in battle after battle, had bested the British (and their Portuguese allies) in East Africa; singlehandedly taking on over 400,000 Allied soldiers, sailors, merchants, marines, mercenaries, builders, bureaucrats and support personnel (not to mention 600,000 African askaris and porters working for the British (mzungu), in a guerilla warthat eventually cost the British Empire 13 billion Sterling pounds (in 2018 money) or Sh1.7 trillion.

When Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck first arrived in East Africa in the January of 1914, coincidentally travelling in the same sea liner with Danish author Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen (Karen is named after her), and with whom they would have a lifelong friendship, he was just a major in army rank – although no one could accuse him of being a cub soldier, seeing as he had been part of the German force quelling the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 (when he was 30).

It was from the Chinese that Lettow-Vorbeck learned about guerilla warfare against numerically superior forces.

He had also helped suppress the Herero rebellion in 1904 in German South West Africa – now called Namibia (and baptised ‘Nambia’ by Trump) – although he had protested at the genocidal methods of the German army, and been transferred for three years to South Africa, before being taken back to HQ in Germany.

Later on, during his World War I guerilla campaigns in Kenya, Tanganyika, Zambia and Mozambique, Lettow-Vorbeck would be the first ever European commander to elevate exemplary black askaris to officer level, saying: ‘In this war, down here, we are all Africans!’

Never mind that cynics may see this as a ploy by the wily German to win African loyalty. The very first East African skirmish of World War I took place in our very own TaitaTaveta.

Commanding a garrison of 2,600 German soldiers and 2, 472 German askaris, the soldiers in the Neu Moshi region engaged in the first offensive operation of the new World WarI theatre.

Three hundred askaris attacked British Taveta, and after a brief exchange of fire, the British beat a retreat into the Tsavo, leaving control of the district to the impudent German major Vorbeck.

The 2000 African askaris on Lake Tanganyika then raided Belgian facilities (the Belgians were allies of the Brits), destroying the river steamer ‘Commune’ and taking control of Lake Tanganyika.

British side

Nine days later, the German troops attacked Portuguese outposts all across the Rovuma River. This caused Lisboa (Portuguse capital) to protest angrily at Berlin, as the Portuguese had not (yet) joined the war on the British side.

In September of 1914, von Vorbeck began to raid deep into British East Africa, right up to Lake Victoria.

His naval power was limited to one gun boat, Hedwig von Wissman, and its local tug boat, Kingani, with its one big pom pom gun.

“The Wissman causes minor damage, but its commander (Vorbeck) is a major nuisance,” one British naval officer said wistfully.

In response, the British armed the Uganda Railway lake steamboats SS William MacKinnon, SS Kavirondo, SS Winifred and SS Sybil as improvised gunboats.

But von Vorbeck’s men managed to either trap, scuttle or chase away the three vessels, even sinking Kavirondo, then raising her later to dismount her guns and use the tug as transport.

German control

“Knocked out a few Brit teeth in Lake Victoria,” the German major boasted in a cable to Berlin. “German control of Lake Victoria no longer in any dispute.”

That very November, Paul Vorbeck would take on superior numbers of British soldiers in Tanga, with the Brits backed up by a rather cowardly brigade of soldiers from Bangalore (who fled the battlefield), and comprehensively beat them in what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bees, because Vorbeck’s men also unleashed swarms of angry bees on the Brits and Indians.

There was another skirmish in Longido, on the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, where 1,500 Punjabi forces, sent in by the Imperial British, fought well – but were overwhelmed by von Vorbeck’s forces, well prepared for them, and dug into defense.

It was deeds, and indeed bravado like this, that would later earn Lettow-Vorbeck not only promotion to general, but the indisputable title of the ‘Lion of Africa.’

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