The day when Europe’s war came to East Africa


(Posted 28th July 2014)

On the 28th of July 1914, when the Austrian empire’s army fired the first artillery volleys in preparation of a ground offensive against Serbia, was a chain of events put into motion which saw one world power after the other drawn into what was to become the First World War, aka The Great War. Lasting until the armistice was signed on the 11th of November 1918, it cost over 9 million lives in direct action and many more among civilian populations as a result of hunger, cold and disease as resources were diverted to the war efforts.

While the Austrian empire were the first to go offensive, did their ally, the German empire, swiftly follow suit with an invasion of Luxemburg, Belgium and France while in the East Tsarist Russia mobilized its armies.

Complex pre-war alliances and treaties swiftly drew Great Britain into the war before the Ottoman Empire joined in November 1914, followed by Italy and Bulgaria in 1915, Romania in 1916 and the United States in 1917.

Theatres of war spread from the centre of Europe to the Balkans, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and the Sinai but also other parts of the world, notably Africa, where the colonial powers – inspite of pre-war agreements not to drag the colonies into the war – also started to face off.

The two main protagonist groups, the Allies comprising France, Great Britain, Russia and later on Italy, the United States and Japan, were facing the Austrian and German empires, the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. When the war ended in November 1918, were the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia, the Austrian and German empires no more, carved up and torn apart by revolutions and uprisings.

Why do I write about this you might wonder? Well mention was already made about the war spreading to Africa where Great Britain and Belgium had colonies in Eastern and Central Africa while Germany had colonized Tanganyika and Ruanda-Urundi. [There
was also action in West Africa where Germany was colonial power in Cameroon and
Togo] Earlier articles from 2012 and 2013, the links are available below, already extensively looked at how the action on ‘Battlefield East Africa’ played out after British troops from the Ugandan Protectorate launched an attack on the German positions on the 05th of August across Lake Victoria before two British warships then bombarded Dar es Salaam on the 08th of August, prompting the Germans under Von Lettow-Vorbek to invade the Kenyan colony on the 15th of August and dig in at Taveta and the surrounding area as a thorn in the side of the British and allied troops.

James Willson’s book ‘Guerillas of Tsavo’ is beyond doubt the most accurate account of the East African campaign available today after he spent years to carry out his research in the Taita Taveta area and elsewhere in East Africa and of course spent endless days to research old War Office records in the UK before he completed his book and then published it in 2012, well ahead of the upcoming 100th anniversary commemorations of World War I in East Africa, to raise awareness and allow for preparations – site visits as well as memorial services.

At the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge did General Manager Willie Mwadilo, who accompanied James Willson on his research field trips, establish a small museum with location maps, artifacts and items found and recovered from the battle grounds in the Taita Taveta area, giving visitors invaluable insights into the various engagements, locations and troop movements. No doubt will the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge be at the centre for visits of war buffs and historians coming out to Kenya to see those sites where 100 years ago the European powers fought each other over supremacy in the East African colonies and where Africans paid the main price with over 90.000 troops and porters killed in action and by disease alongside hundreds of thousands of civilians who died as a result of disease and famine after their livestock and grain stores were raided by the warring troops, leaving them to starve.

I will write some more on that come 15th of August when the campaign started in the Taita Taveta area, paying tribute to the African losses in World War I, of which little is remembered today as unlike the Allied War Cemeteries, maintained by the Commonwealth, there are no such memorial sites for the African casualties of war.

On that day will James Willson and many more be in Voi / Kenya where starting at 08.00 hrs until 17.00 hrs several commemorative events will take place to pay tribute to the fallen and honour their memory. Watch this space.

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