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Kenyan heroes who died in First World War mere footnotes

By Amos Kareithi | July 21st 2013

By Amos Kareithi

When an Austria-Hungary monarch, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated 99 years ago in Sarajevo, it appeared like a remote act of no consequence.

In Africa, the killing of the couple in June of 1914 meant very little. At the time, the mode of communication was still rudimentary and consisted of runners with spiked sticks in case of official communication.

The beating of drums to announce some social event was a popular mode of communication then. However, all this changed dramatically in Taita Taveta, which was sucked in a global conflict precipitated by the Serbia killings and the resultant World War 1.

Deadly conflict

True to the Swahili saying, that when two bulls fight the grass which is not party to the disagreement also suffers, Taita Taveta was transformed into a key theatre of the deadly global conflict.

In East Africa, the Africans, just like the Germans and Britons resident in East Africa took no heed as the First World War started and later escalated, drawing in many allies united against Germany.

The buildup of the conflict in East Africa is vividly retold by Dr Wolfgang H Thome in an article, Battlefield East Africa: 98 years and counting: at first both Germans and Britons were fraternising and appeared to be the best of friends, united against Africans, who they were trying to subdue.

However, all this changed when Germany realised it had to fight for survival and discretely dispatched war ship, Koenigsberg and her supply ship to Dar es Salaam, while Graf von Goetzen and her supply ship were dispatched to Lake Tanganyika.

Thome explains, “The Koenigsberg slipped away on August 3 1914, as war was officially declared the next day and subsequently caused trouble for the allied naval forces.”

The ship are credited with inflicting huge loses as far as Aden, on Zanzibar, and many parts of the African coast line.

Reigned terror

The same was replicated by Graf von Goetzen in Lake Tanganyika where the ship reigned terror for a while before her guns were later silenced. Before the war, Germans residing in Tanganyika, then known as German East Africa had a force of 5,000 professional soldiers. These soldiers were under the iron hand of Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, who was a strict disciplinarian,  master guerilla fighter and strategist.

Another writer, Hew Stratchan, in The First World War in Africa, says that German soldiers who disobeyed orders were subjected to 15 lashes of the horsewhip. According to Stratchan, almost a month before the war broke out in East Africa, German’s military consisted of 218 Europeans and 2542 askaris divided in 14 companies of 150 men each.

On the other hand, statistics from the British side indicate that Kenya African Rifles had 70 British Officers, three non-British Commissioned Officers and 2325 Africans.

However, by the end of the war in 1918, the numbers had swollen to 1193 British Officers, 1,497 British non-commissioned Officers and over 30,000 Africans.

Despite the Allies’ apparent numerical strength that at one time stood at 160,000, men served by a million carriers, when it came to the real battle, the Germans had the upper hand as demonstrated by the incursions they had in Taita Taveta.

The Kenya Uganda Railway was an irresistible target to the Germans who plotted night and day to bomb it out of existence so as to defeat the Allies.

One of the most memorable battles in the region took place on September 29 1914, when an attack by the Germans was repulsed with devastating effects.

The invading troops got a hiding as 30 African askaris on the German side were annihilated. At the same time, three German officers were killed in a mission, which resulted into a spectacular failure.

 It was the intention of the Germans to blow up the railway and severe the movement of the British and other allied troops through Mombasa into the greater part of East Africa.

Had this mission succeeded, Kenya’s first corridor would have been devastated.

Major attack

A major attack was launched in the area on September 29 1914 at what has been called both Mile 27, as well as Bridge 27. At first the Germans appeared overwhelmed as they were throughly whipped. They lost three of their officers as well as 30 African askaris in but the tides later turned in Britain’s favour.

The Germans mounted a spirited battle and successfully fought off attempts by some reinforcements to disembark the train. On July 14 1915, the Germans launched a major onslaught at Mbuyuni as they tried to capture Taita Taveta.

According to Thome, The German’s main thrust was however repulsed on February 12 1916 during the battle of Salaita Hill .

During the decisive battle, German was kicked out and Taita Taveta hurled out of the East African Protectorate, or what we know today as Kenya. At one point, Germany had subdued British and other allied forces in Taita Taveta and established some administrative posts.

Nevertheless, the most decisive was the battle of the Salaita Hill that took place on February 12 1916. There were more confrontations in March, 1916 in Latema and Reata Hills that saw Germans forced to withdraw from Taita Taveta. 

Heavy bombings

Despite fighting fiercely, the Germans were humiltated and kicked out Kenya, although the scars of the battle are still evident in Salaita.

These scars, occasioned by heavy bombings are  still evident,  a century later in form of  shrapnel fragments at the top of the hill. After being rooted out of Taita Taveta and Kenya in general, the Germans retreated into Tanganyika.

This did not mean the end of the war as the commanders leading the troops, Lettow-Vorbeck’s and South African’s Lt Gen Jan Smuts who was leading the allied side still engaged in a battle of wits.

Historians observe that although some Germans surrendered, majority of the troops  outfoxed the allied soldiers. They escaped to present day Tanzania and fled all the way to Mozambique, then referred to Portuguese East Africa.

From Mozambique, the Germans sneaked back to Tanganyika briefly and attempted to stage a comeback but they were driven to Northern Rhodesia, today known as Zambia.

This brought relief in Taita Taveta and Kisii, the two areas where Germans had persistently harassed British troops in East Africa when the First World War finally came to an end on July 25.

The war had devastating effects  on both sides who had to contend with heavy casualties. The Africans were not spared either. Most Africans drafted as carriers who acted as ambulances and taxis in the war zones, carrying weapons and food, as well as those killed or injured in the war.

The grim statistics are captured by Maina Kiarie in an article penned for National Musuems of Kenya publication, Enzi. The author states that the First World War fought between 1914 and 1918 led to the deaths of 24,000 Kenyans.

This tallies with the figure of 23,869 given by R Mugo Gatheru in Kenya, in his book, From colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970.

Mugo further estimated that there was more fatalitity among the 163,000 Africans who served as carriers.

There are reports that as many as 76 per cent of the carriers died from influenza, translating to 124,000 deaths.  It would appear that Africans fared badly in the war as many of the carriers died not from the super powers’ bullets or bombs but from diseases.

To the carriers  forcefuly conscripted specifically for the First World War, this was a death sentence. The African carriers felled by enemy fire at the battle fronts was 4,300 compared to the staggering 42,318 who were decimated by diseases.

Some of these Africans died while defending the British positions and military installations in Taita Taveta that the Germans were keen on capturing.

The passage of time has deadened the pain suffered in the course of the war but most of those felled are interred in well manicured war cementries in Taita Taveta.

 Although the colour of those killed in the war no longer matters in death, in their graves they are seperated according to their races.

The unsung heroes who died fighing the white men’s war are stashed in segregated graveyards and their roles dismissed as mere footnotes of history. Many of their descendants cannot afford to visit their graves which are now within the confines of  the Sarova Taita Hills resort.


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