Where are the Africans, the missing ‘feet and hands’ of the army of the First World War?

Unnamed African soldiers and carrier corps [Courtesy]

A recently erected plague, resembling a headstone or a tombstone written in white font over a green background with a miniature tiny cross break the monotony of acres and acres of grassland savannah in the Tsavo East Game sanctuary.

The headstone declares: 1914- 1918 This is erected to the memory of the unnamed African soldiers and carrier corps to that (sic) gave their services and lives for common good during the East African campaign of the First World War.

They have no marked grave or known resting place…

But there was a concerted effort even before the War was over in 1917 to honour and commemorate the people who lost their lives, read the Indians, the British and their allies.

The evidence is all over Voi and Taveta, where the East African Campaign of the World War was largely waged through the well managed Indian and military cemeteries by Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Not far from this plague, which has been erected by the management of the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge in a bid to encourage battlefield tourism, which was a Garrison Camp for the British Army during the war, is the Maktau Indian Cemetery.

Kings African Rifles officer. How the Standard captured the moment [courtesy]

Incredibly, according to Mwadilo, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission recently flew from London to correct a typo on the surname in one of the headstone’s, that of Kistna Abdul Rahiman, which shows the extent they go to keep the memories of the world war departed alive.

You can’t help but wonder, why was there no effort taken to recognize the Africans, whom historians like author James G. Wilson believe won the war for the Empire?

In his seminal book on the World War 1, Guerrillas of Tsavo, James G. Wilson notes that the war was not won by fighting only, but by the sheer ability to survive in adverse conditions. The British soldiers and the allied forces faced overwhelming challenges on the battlefront including hostilities from wild animals, extreme weather and thirst and exposure to malaria, heat and other tropical diseases.

It is when the King African Rifles, who the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in its website refer to as the ‘backbone of the combatant force’ in East Africa who, when enlisted in the frontline, shifted the scales against the ingenious German who thrived on guerrilla warfare tactics. KAR comprised of Indians, Africans in the British Protectorate, Sudanese, South Africa, West Africa and even from the Arab countries mostly Yemen.

Wilson says that over one million Africans were employed during the War as the feet and hands of the Army. This is because most of them were used as what came to be known as carrier corps.

First World War Centenary Comemoration: Journalists walk around the Taveta Commonwealth War Graves in Taveta Town during a tour of the battle fields over the weekend where the war took place. Some of the British and German fighters were burried here between 1914 and 1918. The centenary commemoration of the WW1 will be held on August 29 this year in Taita Taveta County. [Photo by Gideon Maundu]

But the CWGC War puts the number at 600,000, grouping them as non-combatant porters, stevedores (a person working at a ship to load and unload goods) and followers of the Military Labour Corps. It says that almost 50,000 of these men were lost, killed in action, died of sickness or wounds but no names appear on the memorials as there is no complete record of their names in existence.

The African memorials, one in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam seem almost an afterthought. As we have said, during the heat of War in 1917, the CWGC was constituted through the Royal Charter to ensure that men and women of the commonwealth nations in the force were never forgotten. As such it honours 1.7 million people who died in the First and Second World Wars. This is through building and maintaining cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries.

The African memorials were shipped in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar as Salaam in 1924, 1926 and 1927 respectively.  They were designed by James Alexander Stevenson and created in London.

Many Kenyans have probably seen the Askari Memorial along Kenyatta Avenue, in Nairobi, but majority wouldn’t know what the bronze sculptures signify as this part of history has been missing in the Kenyan school history books and in daily lexicon.

The Nairobi memorial, which commemorates the almost 50,000 soldiers of the African troops and followers who died during the East African campaign of the First World War. [Courtesy]

Mr. Willie Mwadilo the general manager, Sarova Taita Hills Lodge takes us to a tour of the cemeteries in around Voi and Taveta in a hot Tuesday early this month.  At the Voi Cemetery, which like all the rest is well maintained by the CWGC, he wrestles with the lock combination at the gate, evident of the good care the Cemeteries get. There is a notice with contact information at the gate, requesting the guest to ask for the combination as the cemetery does not have a guide.

“It is unfortunate that the people whose name and ranks appear here and in other cemeteries are from other countries,” says Mwadilo, “our people have been denied a part of their history and perhaps closure on what their ancestors underwent.”

He highlights the sentimental and emotional value such commemorations have by narrating the story of a former senior officer of the British Army Training Unit in Nanyuki. Every year since 2016, the BATUK visits the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge, to learn about the First World War history. In the inaugural class in 2016, the Commander, Colonel Tom Vallings mentioned that his grandfather was in the war, and that his family suspects that he might have been buried somewhere around here.

“Imagine then his joy and shock when we toured the Taveta Cemetery, and the Colonel saw his name in one of the headstones.”

It reads: Lieutenant Colonel H. A. Vallings, 29th Punjabis, 14th July 1915 age 49.

He recognised it immediately as his grandfather’s. Col Vallings broke down in tears. Later, says Mwadilo, he hired a chopper from Nanyuki, and brought a wreath to the grave of his long-lost kin, whose footsteps he took. A month later, he flew his family from the UK, and they had an emotional time at the cemetery.

Journalists from various media houses and an official from the Kenya Tourism Board kneel down to pray infront of one of the tombs at the Maktau Indian Commonwealth war graves in Maktau where soldiers who died during the First World War were buried between 1914-1918. [Photo by Gideon Maundu/STANDARD].

“That is why we need to do all we can to remember our people, our story our history, the reason we have erected the plague at the Sanctuary as a reminder of this dark past and the sacrifices of our ancestors,” says Mwadilo.

But at least, Carrier Corps have a place in posterity in Kariokor, Nairobi, and Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma. Apparently, the Carrier Corps had been given housing in these places, and in true African fashion, we corrupted the names to ‘sound’ like us.