The forgotten battlefields of Tsavo

Saturday November 06 2010

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

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.

However, the fight in Africa was a very calculated one — the Germans’ strategy was to keep the British Empire’s troops busy in Africa, thus depriving Britain of troops for their campaigns in Mesopotamia, the Dardanelles and Europe.

They also knew that destroying the railway would weaken the enemy — as it was the backbone of the Empire’s vast economy of the region.

Tsavo West National Park

Working as a lodge manager at the Salt Lick and Taita Hills Lodge back in the 1980s and with weekends to spare, Willson started to explore the First World War 1 battlefields using original wartime maps and correspondence.

At the best of times, the nyika or bundu is daunting. Driving through the desolate Tsavo West National Park, one gets the feel of what the area might have looked like a century ago.

It is an unforgiving terrain pockmarked with lava strewn hills, covered with dense thorn scrubs and dust bowls of red earth; the only water available is from the Tsavo River and the few springs thatfilter from the Chyulu Hills and Kilimanjaro, the most famous being Mzima Springs.

The place then teemed with all sorts of wild animals as attested to by the stories of the legendary man-eaters of Tsavo, not to mention ill-tempered rhinos and buffaloes and legions of venomous reptiles.

But with the Lunatic Express chugging its way across the drylands, it gave rise to towns like Samburu, Voi and Masongaleni, and the many settlements like Mwatate for the pioneering farmers who took to planting sisal, the “green gold” used in making ropes for the shipping industry.

Then came the war

Black and white sepia photographs show Mt Kilimanjaro with little snow just like it is today. Others show the hamlet of Maktau on the edge of Tsavo West filled with mud huts and tents and mountains of baled straw (to feed the bullocks that pulled the supply wagons), and where the first military airstrip in East Africa was built.

The photographs shows a busy military outpost in Maktau in 1915 where 20,000 Allied forces were stationed complete with armoured cars made by Leyland and Rolls Royce. The German soldiers called the Rolls Royce the Devi’s Rhinoceros.

In order to fortify the Maktau garrison against the Kaiser’s army and o resupply and reinforce British troops at the garrison, a new railway line was constructed in February 1915 between Voi and Maktau with Taveta as the terminus. Construction was put under the direction of the Royal Engineers using mainly Taita and Indian workers.

To a newcomer, the solitary hill some 25km south of Ziwani Voyager Camp looks ordinary — until Willson tells its story. The local people call it Salaita, a corruption of the English word “slaughter.”

It was the scene of the bloody Battles of Salaita etween the British Empire forces and the Germans in February and March of 1916.

The Germans occupied the hill in 1914 because it was a primeobservation point — being the only hill in the open plains between Kilimanjaro and the Pare Hills.

“The Germans reinforced the strategically located hill to prevent the British advancing into German East Africa,” says Willson.

The overall British commander, Gen Jan Smuts, later president of South Africa, was warned; “Do not shell the Germans trenches half way up the hill. The trenches that they are manning in force are at the bottom of the hill.”

But Smuts disregarded the advice and on February 12, 1916 the 2nd South African nfantry Brigade led by Brig Gen Beeves bombarded the hill with heavy artillery.

When the troops reached the base of the lava hill, the Germans advanced unscathed from behind the lower trenches amid a devastating hail of fire.

The other German soldiers who had lured them into the trap, simply ran round the hill to safety. About 138 South African troops were killed as they withdrew.

In confusion the Baluchi soldiers on their left flank fought on with the Rhodesians on the frontline covering the South Africans who had turned around to flee.

The Baluchis later wrote a letter to the South African commander asking them, “… do not call us Hottentots; we saved your asses.”

It’s an easy walk up Salaita Hill today over sharp lava stones and through the thorny commiphora and acacia trees past the dummy trench half way up the hill that would have been about a metre high forming a trench line built of tightly packed stones, still sturdy but reduced to about 60 centimetres high.

On the summit, are a few more relics and the foundations of a fort. The Maasai guide, Lekatoo ole Parmitoro picks out bricks among the rubble – some inscribed with letters E, U, H, L and D.

“It could spell Deutschland,” she says.

Below, are the sprawling, red earth plains of Tsavo. The park stretches to the horizon, Grogan’s Castle (Grogan of Cape-to-Cairo fame, who marched the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of a woman) stands on the top of a distant hill towards Lake Jipe.

The surrounding hamlets slumber under the merciless sun while the Maasai women go about their daily chores of collecting firewood in the nyika and selling their beaded trinkets to the occasional tourist.

Wizened centuries-old baobabs still stand, among them the “Sniper Tree” where local legend has it that a German woman by the name Mama Sukurani hid and shot at the British soldiers to avenge the death of her husband, killed during the disastrous British seaborne invasion of Tanga in November 1914.

The story is told of how she vowed vengeance on the British. The ancient tree is pockmarked with the bullet holes of nearly a century ago.

But the truth from historical reports is that after her husband, Tom von Prince, was killed (Tom was nicknamed Sukurani on account of his fierce temperament when fighting) she returned to their farm on the Usambara mountains in GEA,where the farm exists till today.

However, reluctant Empire soldiers going out on patrol were often warned to be alert at all times since Mama was around and waiting to shoot at them.

We drive past Mahoo on the way to Taveta, where a pillbox can be seen on a pair of volcanic ash cones straddling the road across the old slave route from Taveta to Voi.

The story goes that it’s a German pillbox — a sturdy stone mini fort — but Willson is of the opinion that it could have been built and used by missionaries as a lookout and a hiding place during the closing years of the 19th century.

A little church on the other side of the road was built some time later. It was in this area that the thriving religious community in Taveta in 1897 established the first printing press and a weekly newspaper called The Taveta Chronicle that ran for several years. During the war, both hills were fortified with an extensive defensive trench system dug around them.

In Taveta proper, we drive by the now decrepit stone house where von Lettow-Vorbeck had his headquarters and on to the two well-manicured cemeteries with graves of the fallen soldiers — which are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission — overlooked by an enormous Cross of Sacrifice.

The neatly laid tombstones are sorrounded by lush pink flowers of the desert rose and show the regimentt, names and ages of the soldiers, many as young as 18 and 19 years.

A few metres away, are the Indian War Cemetery, with a stone memorial inscribed in Urdu, Gurmukhi and Hindi paying homage to the brave soldiers who fought for their Emperor.

“There are more than 20 such sites associated with the First World War around the Taita-Taveta area,” says Willson.

He’s excited by his latest “discovery” in March of a German fort on what was called Hill 931. So far he and his wife Eileen and daughter have traced 10 forts — three on Tsavo Ranch at Mt Kasigau and Pika Pika and others located on the Tsavo River are Mzima, Crater and Tembo Forts and at Tsavo River Bridge and one near Serena’s Kilaguni Lodge, in Tsavo West National Park.

There are also interesting battle sites at Mbuyuni, Serengeti, Salaita, Challa, Mahoo, Latema and Reata Hills around Taveta.

The site of Voyager Ziwani the beautiful tented lodge facing Mawenzi, one of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks, was once a garrison for the German Schutztruppe.

Of note is that 25 per cent of the African population at the turn of the 20th century was employed in various military activities, mainly in the carrying of supplies to the troops in a unit known as the Carrier Corps, also known as “Kariakoo,” (to date, one of Voi town’s oldest settlement is called Kariakoo in living memory of the town’s role in the great wars).

Initially, most of the troops fighting for the British Army were from India, arriving in 1914 with two Indian Expeditionary Forces to bolster the local volunteers and the Kings African Rifles, until they were substantially reinforced by a South African Expeditionary Force that arrived in January 1916 under Gen Smuts.

To find out more about the battlefields of the First World War around Taveta and Tsavo email [email protected]

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