Lest we Forget

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November 2018 will be the centenary of World War One. Britons, South Africans, Indians and Germans are lying side by side but of the many more Africans who died there is no trace

In the shadow of the monolithic walls of Fort Jesus, in old town Mombasa, a pair of wheel-mounted naval guns guard the entrance to a small sheltered courtyard. Salvaged from the wrecks of destroyers – the British Pegasus and German Konigsberg, and rebuilt for use on land – where they were dismantled to be transported on the heads of porters, these solid and formidable guns are relics from the East Africa Campaign in the First World War.

The war in East Africa has been largely relegated to the footnotes in the official histories of World War One, despite taking place over a vast swathe of Africa including modern day Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Congo, Ruanda, Burundi and as far south as Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Unlike the mass slaughter of the troops on the Western Front – at the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg & France, where the decisive battles took place, there were few casualties from actual fighting.

The neat rows of headstones in the Commonwealth War Graveyards scattered around East Africa are filled with soldiers who died from malaria, blackwater fever, typhoid, dysentery and attacks by rhino, lion and hyena. In the dry season, there was no water and in the wet season, too much when motor vehicles and ox wagons became bogged down in the glutinous black cotton soil.

Here, the undefeated German General, Paul von Lettow Vorbeck (friend of Karen Blixen), led his loyal force of African askaris, the ‘schutztruppe’ in a successful policy to needle the British Allies into deploying soldiers away from fighting in the Western Front.

In 1914, there were only three active battalions of the Kings African Rifles (KAR) based in British East Africa. On 5th of August, the East African Mounted Rifles was formed from a motley collection of settler volunteers. In their own versions of a uniform, they converged on Nairobi decked out in bandoliers and armed with their own hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols. Celebrated hunters, game wardens, farmers and pioneers formed themselves into units.

Bowker’s Horse was a unit under the command of Russell Bowker, a fierce looking settler who wore a snarling leopard head as a hat. Some wag nicknamed them Bowker’s Foot after they had their horses rustled during the Battle of Longido. Longido is a mountain in Tanzania, close to Kilimanjaro in what was then known as German East Africa. Cole’s Scouts was a cavalry unit made up of Somali volunteers; Belfield’s scouts were South African Boers who farmed up in Eldoret; Monica’s Own, named in honour of Governor Belfield’s daughter, fancied themselves as Hussars and cantered down Nairobi’s main street armed with home-fashioned lances.

In Mombasa, Wavell was a former officer of the Welsh Regiment who gave up his commission to live in Nyali. An Islamophile who had smuggled himself into Mecca where he had been caught and imprisoned, he is described as ‘British East Africa’s version of T.E. Lawrence’. Wavell formed and funded his own company known as the Arab Rifles, recruiting his soldiers and water carriers from the prisons of Mombasa and Lamu.

Mombasa was the only major port of Strategic importance and highly vulnerable to attack. September 1914, the Germans were steadily making their way up the South Coast kept only at bay by Wavell’s Arabs and detachments of the KAR. Wavell was eventually killed in an ambush in Shimba Hills early in 1916. A stone obelisk, stands in gratitude for the Arab Rifles in the little garden at Fort Jesus in Mombasa, guarded by those two naval guns.

The 25th Battalion of the Royal Fusilliers, known as the Legion of Frontiersmen and nicknamed by Ewart Grogan, as the ‘Boozaliers’, included in its ranks, Sir Northrup MacMillan, renowned for his enormous girth. Also, the famous wildlife photographer, Cherry Kearton, a footman from Buckingham House, a Canadian Mounted Policeman, members of the French Foreign Legion, Texan cowboys, seal poachers and the legendary hunter and naturalist, Frederick Courtenay Selous. Wild and undisciplined, they were fearless on the front line. Over one thousand of them arrived in Mombasa in May 1915. Barely two years later, only 60 were alive. Selous, who was 65, was killed at the Battle of BehoBeho and lies buried where he fell, in the midst of the vast game reserve in Tanzania that bears his name.

Soon after the declaration of war, on 13th August 1914, Von Lettow-Vorbeck attacked and occupied Taveta, a small town within British East Africa. By capturing Taveta, strategically situated between Kilimanjaro and the Pare mountain range, he had efficiently sealed off the corridor into German East Africa. The Ugandan railway following the old Arab slaving route, crossing Tsavo and the Taru Desert, ran perilously close to the border. Von Lettow Vorbeck and his officers concentrated on bombing the track and trains to hinder the transport of troops and munitions.

Later in 1914, a skirmish in Kisii on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria between the Schutztruppe, the KAR and the volunteers of the East African Mounted Rifles resulted in a small victory for the British. 10,000 imperial troops from India along with the deployment of the British regiment, the Loyal North Lancs, planned to rout out the Germans in a two-pronged attack from the north of Kilimanjaro commanded by Brigadier General Stewart and from the port of Tanga in the South under the commands of Brigadier General Tighe and Brigadier General Wapshare.

Followed by the three-day battle of Tanga, commencing 2nd of November, it turned into a debacle. The heavily demoralized Indian Expeditionary ‘B’ Force retreated to their boats leaving the Germans the gift of eight machine guns, half a million rounds of ammunition, telephone equipment, uniforms and blankets. British casualties would be tallied at 817. The Germans lost 125 men. The Commander in Chief, Major General Aitken was quietly dismissed. Apart from a small mention in the East African newspaper ‘The Leader’ a few days later, news of the battle was gagged until years later. It was a major morale boost for the Askari Schutztruppe. Von Lettow Vorbeck described Tanga as the “birthday of the soldierly spirit in our troops.” Skirmishes on Mount Longido and at Jassin, resulted in further humiliations for the Allies as Von Lettow Vorbeck proved himself master of the military chessboard.

In 1915, arrival of the ‘real army’ meant the soldiers in the East African Mounted Rifles were encouraged to go home to their farms. Some, such as Richard Woosnam, the first chief warden of the newly established game department, left for the main theatre. He was killed in Gallipoli in 1915. In Nairobi, the Indian Army officers took a dim view of the settlers with their sentiment that they were “great fellows in the bar… but they make one quite nervous fighting.” However, in September, the settlers convened at the Theatre Royal where, following a rousing speech by Ewart Grogan, they along with a number of Indian residents, voted unanimously for conscription, making the protectorate the first and only British territory to vote for compulsory enlistment into the army, long before it became law even in Britain.

In February 1916, the South African, General Jan Smuts arrived, a former enemy of the British during the Boer War, his secondin- command, Jacob Derventer, had to ask who they were fighting – the British or the Germans! With Smuts came an army of South Africans – inexperienced soldiers, suffering their first defeat at the Battle of Salaita, near Taveta. All that remains today of this ferocious battle is the lava cinder block rubble of the German blockhouse. After Salaita and the nearby twin-hills of Latema Nek were finally taken by the allies, there followed an elaborate game of cat and mouse with von Lettow Vorbeck setting the pace.

The allied forces found themselves deep in German East Africa, always one step behind the German General and his Commanders. The towns of Moshi and Morogoro, Tabora and Tanga and eventually Dar-es-Salaam fell. Everywhere, they found sick and wounded soldiers, German settler wives and children, all left to the mercy of the enemy. In his memoir “My Reminiscences of East Africa”, von Lettow Vorbeck, writes “the conduct of the British regular officers was invariably chivalrous and that the respect they paid us was fully reciprocated.”

Towards the end of 1916 a long drawn out battle took place around the hill-top German fort at Kibata. The British troops were hunkered down in water-logged, rat-infested trenches, cowering from the onslaught of the artillery and shells fired from the Konigsberg guns. The Allies finally gained control of German East Africa on 25th August 1917. The Germans crossed over into Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, before moving in to Northern Rhodesia – Zimbabwe. On 18th November, at Abercorn, having been informed of Germany’s defeat, von Lettow Vorbeck handed in his formal submission of surrender. He was down to 155 Germans officers and 1,156 Askari from a force that had been ten times that size. The Allies had lost 976 officers and 17,650 men.

The logistics of supplying a campaign of this magnitude where there was never enough food or water, was impossible. Varied diets also had to be catered for: the Hindus would not eat beef, nor the Muslims pork and many were vegetarian. The soldiers carried a few hard biscuits and a meagre pint of water with them and these rations often had to last for two days as they marched through the inhospitable bush under the boiling sun. As one soldier in the campaign described it: “…It is really a matter of fasting and thirsting, of toiling and waking; of lacking and enduring; which demands above all things moral courage.”

A young soldier who had witnessed the decimation of his half-platoon in the trenches on the Western Front, wrote home to his mother from East Africa: “I would rather be in France than here.”

Von Lettow Vorbeck was almost totally dependent on what he and his troops could take from the land, stripping farms and smallholdings like a plague of locusts and ingenious in their inventiveness: tyres for bicycles – Von Lettow Vorbeck’s main form of transport, were made from sisal dipped in home-grown rubber, currency ‘the Tabora Heller’ was stamped out from British cartridge casings and even ‘Lettow Schnapps’ quinine rich sap was carried from locally planted trees.

The ‘Carrier Corps’ was formed to transport food, water, medical supplies and munitions. In 1916 the British supply line started at Durban in South Africa where it was shipped to the nearest railhead and a load of 50lbs put on the head of each porter. Long columns of porters had to carry not only supplies for the troops but also for themselves. It is estimated that 16,000 carriers were required to transport a ton of supplies which was enough to feed 1,000 men and the camp followers for a day. One of the tragedies of this campaign is that close to 50,000 of the 260,000 porters conscripted into this war lost their lives. Most died unremembered, without a headstone and unaccounted for.

In his book, “Kenya Chronicles”, Lord Cranworth, who fought first in Cole’s Scouts and later as a staff officer, reflected:

“I hope that when the history …is written, justice will be done to the efforts of the inhabitants of Kenya, whether black or white. This was the only part of the British Empire to know invasion…..with regard to the native population: it was not their quarrel nor were they of fighting stock, yet they made overwhelming sacrifices in the common cause. It is not known, I think the truth would be staggering, how many natives in the humble yet essential role of porter laid down their lives. I have always thought that a more generous recognition of their immense services might be forthcoming.”

Rudyard Kipling’s epitaph on the Memorial to the Missing in Mombasa, currently under restoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, reads:

“This is to the memory of the Arab and Native African troops who fought, to the Carrier Corps who were the feet and hands of the army, and to all other men who served and died for their king and country in eastern Africa in the Great War 1914-1918”.

Julia Seth-Smith is currently writing an account of the East African Campaign, based on the diary kept by her husband’s grandfather, Donald Seth-Smith, scheduled for publishing in November 2018. A fund raising website has been established to preserve the battlefields of Tsavo. https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/22157


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