Speech by James G Willson, Author of ‘Guerrillas of Tsavo’ at the Launch of the 2018 Commemorations to mark the End of the East African Campaign of the First World War at the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museum of Kenya on Thursday 14th June 2018.
The Tsavo Heritage Foundation and the Tsavo battlefields Committee have invited me to talk to you a little about why we should remember or commemorate the End of the First World War in Kenya.
Well, the answer is simple. In 1914 when war broke out in Europe the African population of British East Africa, now Kenya, was about 4million men, women and children. Out of the 4 million people, over 1 million were involved in the First World War, not in Europe but here in East Africa. Many never made it home, paying the ultimate sacrifice because of battle wounds, disease and hunger. We must acknowledge all of these brave men. We must appreciate their struggles and we must recognise their achievements.
When discussing the first world war, we usually think of the trenches in the France and Belgium. Until recently few people knew that Africa had its own epic stories to tell. The most thrilling of which started in Taveta in Taita Taveta County.
War was never intended to break out in Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1885 decreed that the African colonies of the affected European countries at war with each other should remain neutral. In reality, however, it w as inevitable that the European settlers, many of whom already had some military experience behind them, would lock horns and fight. When War was declared in Europe on 4th August 1914, they quickly rallied to their respective King and colonies defence.
The first skirmishes of the First World War took place in Africa far from Europe, when the British destroyed the radio communication towers in the German colony of Togoland and in the port town of Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa, in an effort to disconnect their radio communication link with German Military Headquarters in Berlin. There was no Safaricom or Airtel back then.
10 days after war was declared, the German Colonial Defense Force, known as the Schutztruppe, under the command of Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck invaded British East Africa. Attacking the border village of Taveta in the early morning of 15th August 1914. They killed a border guard, the first causality of the East African Campaign, before advancing on the Police Post where the District Commissioner (Hugh La Fontaine) shot and fatally wounded the first European casualty (Herr F Broecker) of the East African Campaign. The Schutztruppe quickly occupied the town and surrounding area, creating a strongly defended strategic position on Salaita Hill.
From Taveta and Salaita the Shutztruppe embarked on harassing activities against British interests in Southern British East Africa. Von Lettow Vorbeck’s aim was to keep as many British and Allied troops busy in East Africa to prevent them being redeployed to the Western Front. One of his most strategic targets was disrupting the Uganda Railway – The British Colonies lifeline to Mombasa. This railway was said to have started somewhere and ended nowhere. A bit like the Madaraka Express today!
British Defence Forces
Meanwhile, the British Defense Force consisted of 3 infantry battalions of the Kings African Rifles under the Command of Lieutenant Colonel Ward. Only one company from the whole force was In Nairobi at the start of the War, the rest of the force was doing what the Kenya Armed Forces are still doing today - patrolling the Northern Frontier and the Ethiopian, Somali border area. As a result, the East African Mounted Rifles were formed with 6 squadrons of volunteers recruited from within the European Settlers. People like Dennis Finch Hatton and Baron von Blixen of Out of Africa fame were quickly deployed with their own ponies to Kajiado, Bissel and Namanga where skirmishes soon broke out with the Germans.
By September 1915 the British had reinforcements in the form of two Indian Expeditionary Forces to bolster the weak British defence line. Later, the Royal Fusiliers, Legion of Frontiersmen and the 2/Rhodesian Regts arrived followed by South African Expeditionary Force in December 1915. Numbers of the various allied troops now in East Africa had reached round 300,000.
But by now the military commanders were beginning to realize that East Africa was not an easy country to wage a war in.
Hunger, thirst, sickness and disease
The allied troops did not survive for very long, not as a result of battle casualties as in Europe, but due to the very harsh conditions. Hunger, thirst, sickness and disease – this is the crux of the whole East African Campaign.
The dusty village of Maktau marks the halfway point from Voi to Taveta and today has a population of around 600, in 1915 there were over 20,000 troops stationed here. The logistics for getting water alone to the camp was immense as the Serengeti plains were waterless, but what about ammunition, or even food? Think of the dietary requirements for the different ethnic soldiers’ present.
There were no roads to speak of, just a few ox wagon tracks through the bush following the old paths used by the slave caravans from Central Africa to Mombasa. No roads meant no cars or trucks to haul the paraphernalia needed by a fighting army in the field.
There was only the one railway between Nairobi and Mombasa and that was under constant attack by parties of the Schutztruppe.
Ox wagons with teams of 16 oxen were used to pull wagon loads of supplies and heavy artillery pieces. Horses, ponies and mules were used by the cavalry. They all needed fodder much of which had to come from as far away as Brazil and Australia and still had to get to the front. All these animals would usually perish within 6 weeks of being at the front, again not from battle wounds but due to the notorious tsetse fly. In 1916 alone, deaths rates for the horses was recorded as 290% of the initial stock numbers.
So how did supplies ever get to the troops...
Both sides used porters and carriers, this was, after all, the traditional way of travel into Africa since time immemorial.
In Kenya, the military initially used volunteer labour, recruited primarily from Western Kenya, they called themselves ‘Kavirondos’. As the need increased, thousands more were press-ganged from Central Kenya and from the coast until virtually the entire African male population in both countries were involved in the logistics. The volunteer labour force became the Carrier Corps. Today the locations in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Voi called ‘Karriercor’ are a legacy from the time the carriers were assembled before being sent to the front.
Initially, 15,000 porters per day moved the Maktau garrison requirements in three stages from Voi to Maktau. Each porter having to carry his own rations and water as well as a load of 25kgs or more. They moved the equivalent of three canter lorries per day. They were the very “feet and hands of the army” that enabled the war to progress.
The military was not only recruiting for porters. Soldiers for The Kings African Rifles were also being enlisted in ever-increasing numbers since early 1915, They had proven their worth in discipline and stamina, being extremely proud of who and what they were – fighting soldiers. In battle they never lost their rifles and always managed to recover their casualties, more importantly, they coped well with the privations associated with campaigning in the bush. These capable soldiers started to take over from the European and Indians, and by the end of the war, they exceeded 30,000 well-trained men proud to serve their King and Colony.
Infrastructure Development in Taita Taveta
The Military was also recruiting for The Pioneer Corps made up of mainly Indian and African engineers. They achieved many amazing feats of engineering and were ultimately responsible for bringing the first infrastructure development to Taita Taveta. The first of which was upgrading the ox wagon track from Voi to Taveta to a murram road. It took another 100 years before the road was upgraded again to the beautiful tarmac road we have today.
The Pioneers went on to build bridges and a railway branch line from Voi towards Taveta reaching the garrison at Maktau in mid-June 1915. This railway line was in use till the mid-1980s but now lies forgotten like those who built it. One of my daughter's many memories of growing up in Taita is catching the train from Voi to Maktau on her 6th birthday. It would be wonderful to be able to do this again one day.
A water pipeline was installed by the Pioneer Corps from the Taita Hills to Maktau. This gravity-fed pipeline is still the main source of water for this dusty village, even with much of the original plumbing still intact.
The Pioneers were also involved in was the building of the first airstrip in Kenya - not in Nairobi or Mombasa but in Maktau. This was where the Aviation Industry in Kenya started with 4 aeroplanes and lots of trial and error.
Up until 1914, there was no hospital in Taita Taveta only small mission clinics at Bura and Taveta. A Base hospital, which eventually became Voi Hospital, was started under canvas, followed by large field hospitals in Mbuyuni and Taveta. These primitive medical facilities had to cope not only with the trauma injuries sustained in war but also disease, dehydration and exhaustion. Assisting the medical corps was Saint Irene Stefani better known as Sister Nyaatha from the Consulta Sisters. During the East African Campaign, she earned the nickname of the Angel of Charity for taking special care of the sick porters.
Despite the amazing work done the Medical Corps, many many soldiers and porters died during the Campaign. The statistics are staggering, however, no two records give the same data and so will always be suspect in their accuracy.
Hew Strachan, a well-known scholar and historian estimated in 1970 that British losses in the East African campaign were 3,443 killed in action and 6,558 died of disease. He goes on to estimate that 90,000 African porters had died. My own research for Guerrillas of Tsavo suggests a much higher mortality rate amongst the Carrier Corps.
In 2007, Edward Paice another historian and researcher recorded 22,000 British casualties in the East African campaign, of whom 11,189 died. This was 9 per cent of the British forces in the campaign.
Another interesting statistic was that in 1917 it was recorded that 75% of all Taita adult males were employed away from home on some form of military activities.
We are talking about huge losses of manpower that our forefathers were involved in and yet very few of us know their story or even stop to remember them