The forgotten battlefields of Tsavo

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Indian Commonwealth War Memorial for First World War casualties in Taveta. Picture by Rupi Mangat

Indian Commonwealth War Memorial for First World War casualties in Taveta. Picture by Rupi Mangat 

By Rupi Mangat

Posted  Monday, November 8   2010 at  20:16

Few people today outside military historical circles know the extent to which East Africa was one of the bloodiest battlefields of the First World War pitting the British against the Germans.

The fighting was concentrated in the Taveta Enclave (modern day Taveta) in Tsavo West.

In the past three decades however, James Willson, a battlefield enthusiast and historian living in Diani, on Kenya’s South Coast, has been mapping the area’s history at the dawn of the 20th century out of personal fascination with past wars.
Accompanied by his family, Willson still roams the old battlefields finding the odd bullet, smoking pipe and rifle. His wife Eileen, recently found an old German cartridge during a hike.

In Latema, one of the two hills near Taveta, an unexploded 12 pounder shell from the First World War was found a few years ago.

It is the largest piece of battlefield debris to be found lately, apart from bits of shrapnel and shell casings that turn up periodically.

Now writing a book on the First World War-era in Kenya titled Guerrillas of Tsavo, Willson says, “The war is really an important part of Kenya’s pre-Independence history that many people are unaware of. If we are not careful, we will lose it.”

Willson is an accomplished tour guide through the expansive Tsavo West National Park. Battlefield tourism has a large worldwide following. “There is often a two-year waiting list to see the Boer battlefields in South Africa,” says Willson.

“Just as it is in Europe.” As Kenya’s tourism seeks new direction, this is one area waiting to be explored.
Tsavo West and Taveta

With the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro as the backdrop, Tsavo West and Taveta were the scenes of intense fighting during the early months of the First World War after Britain declared war on Germany on August, 4, 1914.

The following day, the governor of British East Africa, Sir Henry Belfield, advertised in The East African Standard (currently The Standard) that the Protectorate was also at war — pitting British East Africa (BEA) against German East Africa (GEA) — that is present day Kenya against present day Tanzania.

In reality, the war in Europe had nothing to do with Africa, but because of their imperial interests in the “new territories,” the British in BEA turned out in large numbers with their ponies and mules to guard the Uganda Railway (dubbed the Lunatic Line) against the Germans and the Schutztruppe next door.

The German Askaris under the command of Col Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck reacted 11 days later by advancing into BEA to take over the Taveta Enclave, 120 kilometres to the west of Voi and the Uganda Railway.

Defending the District Commissioner’s office in Taveta was acting DC Hugh La Fontain, who shot through a side window at the advancing German column, hitting Lt. Boelle, making him the first German casualty of the campaign.

Today, at the abandoned DC’s house, Willson points to the window through which the German was shot.

“The German Kaiser said the war would be over by Christmas but he forgot to say Christmas of which year,” jokes Willson, who has been exploring the terrain along the Kenyan-Tanzanian border for the forts and battlefields of the First World War.

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