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Tracing First World War fighters in East Africa



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In the early morning of August 15, 1914, a column of 200 soldiers of the German Schutztruppe marched into the Taveta township and exchanged fire with a British East African Police Border Detachment. A German officer mounted on a mule charged out front, before the British District Commissioner, Hugh La Fontaine, shot him through the open window of the police station.

The officer was Friedrich Broecker, La Fontaine’s drinking companion from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. He was also the first German casualty of the East African Campaign of the First World War.

When Britain declared war on Germany 11 days earlier, it was inevitable that the European settlers of neighbouring British East Africa and German East Africa (now Kenya and Tanzania) would take up arms against one another.

This initial battle in Taveta effectively nullified a treaty of the 1885 Berlin Act, which stipulated neutrality in the colonies in the event of war in Europe. What followed was 20 months of brutal bush warfare, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and affecting millions more.

And yet very little was known about the East African Campaign in the West. Even today, it is largely remembered as a militarily insignificant sideshow to the main events on the Western Front.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the prevailing perception of the war is of one between colonisers; there has been little recognition of the fact that the main burden of the fighting fell on the shoulders of the colonised.

The majority of the 250,000 soldiers involved in the East African Campaign were either Africans (mainly East Africans) or Indians.

Four million Africans from British East Africa, 25 per cent of the population at the time, also contributed in some way as the feet and hands of the army. About 100,000 died carrying out their duties as porters, through illness, exhaustion or malnutrition.

To supply their troops with food, water and ammunition, the British administration created a military labour organisation called the Carrier Corps.

Porters were recruited from as far away as the Belgian Congo and Mozambique, and were forced to carry heavy loads long distances across rugged terrain without sufficient road or rail infrastructure.

Keeping a large body of foreign troops supplied throughout the campaign proved to be a logistical nightmare, and British lines of communication were constantly being stretched by the Germans.

It was largely by German design that the conflict was concentrated in this arid corner of British East Africa. The Schutztruppe — or German Colonial Protection Force — were outnumbered, but frustrated the British troops throughout the campaign with their guerrilla tactics, under the remarkable leadership of Colonel Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck.

He recognised early on in the campaign that his meagre forces could play an important role in engaging as many British troops as possible in a subsidiary conflict far away from the Western Front.

He did this with great success for the first two years of the war by cutting off British supply lines, especially the Uganda Railway, which ran from the port of Mombasa to Port Florence, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

They managed with few supplies of their own, as a result of a British naval blockade of all commerce in and out of German territory. Isolated from the outside world, the Germans developed a fruitful agrarian-based economy.

The Schutztruppe fared better against the elements than the British, too, thanks to Lettow-Vorbeck’s discovery that the quinine-bearing tree, Cinchona officinalis, grew relatively well in the Usambara Mountains. The extract from this tree created a bitter anti-malarial brew that the German soldiers affectionately nicknamed “von Lettow Schnapps.”

The main German stronghold was a fort at the top of Salaita Hill, near the town of Taveta, to the southeast of Mount Kilimanjaro. This was the site of a bloody battle between the Schutztruppe and British, Indian, Rhodesian and South African troops on the February 12 1916. The Germans resisted the advance of the allies, who lost 172 soldiers — 138 of them South Africans.

With heavy reinforcements, the British finally managed to capture the hill from Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops a month later, marking a significant shift in the balance of the conflict in their favour.

Up to that point, the astute German colonel had successfully engaged his enemy in a long-drawn-out and expensive conflict, thousands of kilometres away from the main theatre of war in Europe.

Over a century later, there is still evidence of these battles on Salaita Hill. Strewn among the volcanic rock at its peak, and on the floors of weathered trenches, are thick shards of glass and fragile bullet cases. And from a distance, the low defensive wall that protected the fort is clearly visible.

Most of the battlefields of the East African Campaign are scattered across the savannahs and scrubby bush of national parks, and among hills surrounding sleepy rural villages. The majority have not been preserved, but still reveal clues of their forgotten history.

Not far from Salaita Hill is the town of Maktau, which was the key British position in the campaign. Today, Maktau sits on the edge of a vast, dry stretch of the Tsavo West National Park, famed for its dense bush and rust-coloured soil.

In 1915, Maktau hosted over 20,000 British troops, 15,000 porters and 100,000 horses and mules. But there’s little evidence of that now.

The crumbling structures that line the abandoned railway are coated in layers of red dust, and the paint-stripped walls of the old railway station are lost in the branches of a striking pink bougainvillea tree.

On the opposite side of the grass covered tracks is a small cemetery, immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. At its heart is a stone plinth, with the names of Indian soldiers killed during the campaign.

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