TAITA TAVETA COUNTY GOVERNMENT TO HOST WW1 COMMEMORATION ON 15TH AUGUST
(Posted 04th May 2014)
(James Willson seen here on Friday signing his book ‘Guerillas of Tsavo’ for this correspondent)
On the 15th of August 1914, more than two weeks after the war had broken out in Europe, were the first shots fired in anger in East Africa, as a long campaign pitting the German forces of Von Lettow-Vorbeck against the numerically superior allied forces, which were eventually led by South African General Jan Smuts, went underway. In fact the German forces were never defeated and outfoxed the allies time and again, drawing them all the way to what today is Mozambique and Zambia before eventually emerging from the bush, weeks after the armistice was signed in Europe as they had little way of getting the news. In a twist in the tail it was then the Germans with all their provisions they had commandeered, including nearly 2.000 cattle, who fed their British captors to whom they eventually surrendered as they marched all the way back to Dar es Salaam.
It all started in August 1914 in the Taita Taveta area of what is now Kenya and back then was under British rule, that Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces crossed the border and established a foothold on the tallest hill in the area, Salita Hill, where they dug in and fortified and from where they launched hit and run attacks, inflicting serious damage to the British and Commonwealth troops amassed against them.
(Railway material dates 1913, the carving in a famous Baobab tree of 1914 and the Maktau Indian War Cemetery)
James Willson’s book tells the story in great detail of what happened, where it happened and when it happened and to his credit has the Taita Taveta county government embraced the idea of commemorating the event. The Commonwealth Cemeteries in Voi, in Maktau and in Taveta are being spruced up – and it should be mentioned that they are kept in a very good state throughout for that matter – the various battle sites are being marked and mapped and at the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge a little museum was established by General Manager Willie Mwadilo, who worked with James Willson in the field to discover sites, collect shrapnel and spent cartridges, belt buckles, bottles and more to showcase to visitors. Willie is arguably the most knowledgeable person in the area but has trained some of the lodge staff to also act as guides and take visitor around, as to community based guides who will no doubt be busy when the anniversary takes place. Come 15th of August it is expected that the respective High Commissions and Embassies of the foes of old will be represented in the commemorations taking place in Taita Taveta, then hopefully opening the way for visitors from the warring countries of a hundred years ago to also make the trip and see, feel even the agony of defeat and the taste of victory, shortlived as it may have been in those days as one go the better of the other and vice versa.
The European sites of the First World War expect a record inflow of visitors to Verdun, the Somne and other battlegrounds where hundreds of thousands perished for the gain of a few hills, only to lose them days later again to the other side. The numbers in East Africa are going to be lower but that said, should the Kenya Tourism Board promote this niche tourism segment, no doubt will war buffs begin to flock to East Africa too, more so if the trenches and bunkers are fully or in part restored for visitors to appreciate what the place must have looked like a century ago.
Sadly have the governments in the region missed the boat to play their part in making these commemorations count and to honour their own war dead the same way the allies and Germans did with theirs. The Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Voi, Maktau and Taveta have given their fallen the decency of a place of rest, though Indian and Caucasians were strictly separated in death though they fell in the same battles and skirmishes side by side, but for the over 100.000 African porters and askaris, there is not one known war cemetery found across the battle grounds, and yet, word has it that sites of mass graves, where the African casualties of war were hastily buried a hundred years ago, are known and could have been used to recognize what part the African people played back then and what losses they suffered on behalf of their colonial masters. Perhaps, when the commemorations end in 1918, that long overdue task and challenge will have been fulfilled, by both Kenya and Tanzania. It would be a shame if the only memory vis a vis monuments would be the few statues displayed of the King’s African Rifles and other units, at times even displaying some of the old cannons, and yet, those who come to see these sites would only ever read about the sacrifices made by the Africans back then without being able to lay down a wreath or take ones’ hat off and bow with respect – even a century onwards.
For more details on articles written by this correspondent about the East African naval and land campaigns, visit: