By AMOS KAREITHI
The air in the town was electric, palpable with tension. Watchful eyes combed the doorways over panicked settlers who were furiously digging up their concrete floors of buildings atop the mist
covered hills, villagers too watched, tongues wagging as the overlords scurried around guns at the ready.
All valuables were then stashed in the open ‘graves’ within buildings, which were then expertly concealed by the harried owners who then scrammed for safety.
Top military brass meet the king and his prime minister after the end of the World War at Buckingham Palace on May 5,1945. They are from (left to right) Marshal of RAF, Sir Gerald Portal, Winston Churchill, The King, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, and Admiral of the fleet Andrew Cunningha. [PICTURE: FILE/STANDARD]|
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For days, Kisii town had been awash with rumours that the German troops were rapidly advancing to attack the British, who were in charge of the East African Protectorate.
The Government had drilled all the white people in Kisii on what to do in the event of the outbreak of the First World War.
When the global war was formally declared in August 1914, all the Europeans residing in Nyanza were instructed to secretly dig holes inside their houses where they would bury their valuables.
Before the German invasion, all the women and children were to be evacuated from Kisii to Kisumu.
As the women were being evacuated the men hid their valuables with hawk-eyed sentries keeping vigil rest the Germans staged a surprise attack.
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To facilitate the evacuation, one boat was kept at Kendu Bay and another at Homa Bay to assist the Government evacuate all Europeans from the wrath of the Germans.
As the British authorities made frantic efforts to secure the safety of its national, the German troops landed in Karungu in Homa Bay on September 9 and started their march to Kisii.
The following day on September 10, two companies of Kenya Africa Rifles supported by 500 Baganda porters began their march from Kisumu to confront the advancing Germans.
Along the way, the British troops picked some able-bodied European men they encountered in Kendu Bay and instantly conscripted them into military officers.
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By the time the British troops arrived in Kisii the following day, they found the Germans had already occupied the town and were happily welcomed by the locals, who perceived them as liberators.
"On learning Europeans had fled from the area, the residents descended on their offices and homes, looting and plundering. Books and papers were destroyed," writes Hans Burgman in his book, The Way the Catholic Church Started in Western Kenya.
To the Kisiis, it was time to avenge the brutality the British government had meted on them from massacres, torching of houses, and impounding of their livestock in two previous expeditions.
The encounter between the British and the German troops was a spectacle as the locals watched the men who had earlier mauled their sons with bullets meet their match.
The battle was punctuated by hilarious anecdotes as happened on September 12 when Father Stam and Jack Wall furiously peddled their bicycles to the war front only to end up on the enemy side.
"The soldiers on either side were hidden in their trenches as heavy artillery was exchanged. The two fathers unwittingly went in the middle and were easy target for each side." Burgman narrates.
And as the two sides fired at each other, the two men dropped their bicycles and crawled to the British side. Father Staum was to later explain how he had been guided by the white smoke of the British gunpowder, claiming the German side produced black smoke.
Father Staum wrote in his diary how he watched as Captain Thorneycroft was killed in action, while yet another British officer, Lt., Gray lost his hand.
He recalled how he rescued Gray, put him under a tree away from action but on returning to the trenches, miscalculated and found himself in front of the British front where he could be shot any time.
At one time the British troops had a major crisis after the porters refused to take ammunition to the soldiers who were battling with Germans on top of a hill overlooking Kisii.
Hardened veterans later described the father as a battle nuisance as he insisted on administering the last sacrament to dying soldiers regardless of their nationality.
He was accused of obstructing British troops from firing at their German targets, as he roamed the battlefield attending to the mortally wounded and conducting prayers for the dying.
Later when he was sent away from the battlefield to fetch a doctor in Kendu bay, he got lost in the darkness and strayed into the waiting arms of some Kisii spearmen who wanted to finish him off and had to act mad to be let free.
On September 13, the British hightailed out of Kisii to Kendu Bay after being driven out and pushed to as far as Awach. There was jubilation in Kisii as the victors fraternised with the locals.
The following day, a rejuvenated British side regrouped and started marching back and arrived on September 15 in Kisii, where they found the Germans occupying their houses and offices.
Prisoners of war
The British troops used the element of surprise to their advantage and finally drove out the Germans, killing over 50 of them, while others were captured as prisoners of war.
Father Staum’s mandate was expanded after the capture of Kisii town as he was commanded to tour the battlefield in search of any survivors and at the same time identify the dead.
Some of the bodies, he later narrated, were so decomposed that they had to be interred immediately while the fresher ones were accorded dignified burials, complete with military honours.
At the present day Kisii Golf Club, the white tombstone marks where Captain Thorneycroft was interred, with an epitaph describing how he died.
"Captain EGM Thorneycroft Royal Lancaster Regiment and Kings African Rifles September 12, 1914. Aged 23. In proud and loving memory killed while gallantly leading his troops in a successful action."
Besides the meticulously kept grave, the region has very little evidence of one of Kisii’s blackest moments during the tumultuous periods.
The stout eucalyptus trees, which once dotted the Asumbi, Suneka road all the way to Kilgoris town junction, are reputed to have been planted by the German prisoners of war. A few others in sections of Kisii town were planted at that time.
They have however been cut down one after the other, leaving nothing but tree stumps as a bitter reminder of the price Kisii paid during the First World War.
As soon as the last German canons were silenced, the rules of engagement changed as the British troops now turned to another mismatched enemy, the Kisii, whose only weapons were spears and arrows.
The British soldiers were angry with the Kisii whom they accused of plunder and pillage.
For the third time since 1905, the superior British canons were now aimed at the locals, whose cowsheds were raided, the animals confiscated and those who resisted were killed.
In a raid staged at 3am in the morning the troops stormed houses in the pretext of looking for stolen ammunition. They then torched the houses and claimed that the ammunition hidden in the grass thatches exploded.
On September 18, angry Kisii warriors planned retaliatory attacks and positioned themselves all round the hills encircling Kisii town but they were mowed down.
After the debacle, the prime suspect was arrested, subjected to court martial and later executed in public, in a move designed to teach the locals a lesson.
In some mock court martial, men who could not understand English were tried and sentenced to death but Wall wrote, in his Kisumu Diaries, that this made very little impression on the locals.
By the end of the exercise, an estimated 1,000 houses had been burnt, 150 locals summarily executed without trial and more than 2,000 cows confiscated.
For weeks, the military troops, comprising of British officer, Nubian soldiers, Baganda porters, and some policemen roamed the streets of Kisii, for weeks in a show of might designed to intimidate locals.
Later the troops were withdrawn and deployed to Karungu, where they joined North Lancashire to drive away the Germans who had also taken the town and established themselves in Shirati.It has been 97 years since the First World War was fought and the Germans vanquished but the loss suffered by the Kisii has never been accounted for.
The sons of Kisii land massacred defending their property and honour from the British troops lie in unmarked graves.