Sunday, December 25, 2011

Battlefield Tour

East African Theatres of World War I

I am standing at ‘Mwakitau’ cemetery by a memorial of soldiers - ‘some corner of a foreign field’ that is forever India. Martyred for an alien cause, they are among nearly 1400 Indian soldiers commemorated in various Commonwealth Cemeteries across Kenya. This safari was turning out to be more of a  pilgrimage. And yet it was a bit of both. The whistle stops we made on this tour were in the middle of nowhere amidst thorny scrub of euphorbia and acacia or as war correspondents would dateline: “somewhere in Southern Kenya”. We are not here to indulge in tribal tourism or gawk at esoteric animals, though they are there, animating these sites in their exclusive territory. We are on a mission to hear the winds blow and carry forgotten tales of the past; we are here to track milestones, coordinates on a map that witnessed history as a subtext to The Great War. 

 While everyone is aware that Europe was the main theatre of war of WWI, few may have heard of the East African narrative, in what was a fierce but (according to many) a fruitless war. The East African campaign did not serve the grand strategic purpose, at large, and was relegated to footnotes of history. However, today, nearly a century later, certain historians are trying to shed fresh light on this battle, particularly the British side of the campaign in Kenya. Revisiting the sites is one part of the renewed endeavour. 

The history of the East African campaign is beyond the pale of this essay, but a brief perspective is in order: with the declaration of war in Europe, the East African Protectorates of Britain and Germany (BEA & GEA) with their respective spheres of influence - present-day Kenya and Tanzania – were also dragged into conflict. In November 1914, the British Imperial Army attempted an amphibious landing at Tanga to take over GEA in the now infamous Battle of Tanga. It was a huge disaster in which, incidentally, many Indians died. Thwarted at sea, the BEA altered course to more conventional tactics and decided to invade GEA via the land route through the Voi - Taveta axis (Taita Enclave).


 The first pit stop is the Voi Railway Station. It may seem just another small-town sleepy station with the rare freight train making an appearance, but back then it was the base from which the Brits carried on their forward march right up to the Tanzanian border. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the British (with Indian labour providing the sweat and blood)  had achieved the Herculean feat of building a railway, the Lunatic Line, as many described it derogatorily, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast right up to Lake Victoria in Uganda. The Germans sought to target Uganda Railway (as it was officially called), the very backbone of British Imperial Army to make tactical gains and thus unfolded a parallel railway narrative as a backdrop to the East African campaign. The Brits in an attempt to stymie the German machinations decided to take the offensive into the enemy camp by building another railway line – an offshoot from Voi on the Uganda Railway to Moshi in Tanzania (part of German Usambara Railway) at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. This was also designed to enhance logistics support and enable quick transportation of men and material. The attempts by both antagonists to defend or disrupt the lines of communication resulted in a number of battles which took place, in the trench warfare tradition of WW I, in the killing fields of Taita-Taveta. 

As a result, the Taita Enclave, which is part of Tsavo National Park (of the famed man-eating lions) in South Kenya, witnessed skirmishes and battles from 1914 – 1918. Today, we are revisiting this land campaign, a lesser-known and forgotten chapter of WWI. Even today this enclave is marked by trenches and stone fortifications – signs of garrisons, ammunition depots and observation posts, not to mention cemeteries to honour the fallen soldiers of the British units that comprised Indians, Kenyans and South Africans. The harsh weather conditions of the equatorial sun and the barren bush were not to British tolerance, hence the large more adaptable other component. The Taita landscape is littered with battlefield debris (memorabilia, for the battle history buffs) such as cartridges, vehicle chassis, padlocks of gates and even shards of lemonade bottles that are evidently from that era. These remnants are testimony to the battles that took place which are well-documented through original maps, correspondence and photographs largely archived by the British.

With this primary source of information, Mombasa-based historian James Willson has been researching the overlooked campaign, surveying places and establishing equivalence on ground for his forthcoming book, Guerillas of Tsavo. As the erstwhile Manager of the Sarova Group of Hotels, which have their two exclusive lodges on the Taita property, he could gainfully utilise his time exploring the terrain and indulging in his passion. There are only a few who are privy to this historical minefield of information and the current manager, Willy Mwandilo, one such foot soldier, is our guide.

 Willy leads us to the forgotten hamlet of Maktau (pronounced Mwakitau by the locals), a British garrison during WWI where a large number of troops was stationed.  Willy tells us how the oft-repeated order of “mark time” was phonetically distorted by the local soldiers to ‘Mwakitau’. We also learn that many places in vicinity derive their names from war lingo, thus “more shots” became the town of Moshito and “Carrier Corps” gave way to Kariakor. Here, in Maktau, there is an exclusive Indian Cemetery to commemorate the soldiers who laid down their lives in this theatre of war. A Hindi and Urdu inscription graces this collective memorial.  Like the Voi Cemetery, this too falls under the umbrella of Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Nearby, atop the Maktau Hill, ruins of an observation post overlooking the vast arid expanse of the Tsavo West National Park still abound.

Tsavo expanse from observation post

Observation post atop Maktau Hill

En route to Taveta with the majestic Kilimanjaro - dripping rivulets of snow from its mantle - in the background, we halt at Mbuyuni. This battlefield was the second largest encampment after Maktau. Today, only thorny acacias nurse the secret of the once volatile garrison with a full-fledged sick bay.  An unlikely battlefield landmark that we encounter is, not a piece of land, but a tree - a baobab tree, the quintessential African mascot. Baobabs are known for their gigantic bulbous boles and one such tree was used as sniper post by a German lady. Legend has it that she wished to avenge the death of her husband who was killed in the Battle of Tanga, and therefore, hid herself in the tree to ambush the Allied troops. Whether there is any grain of truth in this, nobody really knows, but the tree bears gunshot wounds giving it certain credibility. Further up, we climb Salaita (from “slaughter”) Hill, which was the scene of bloody battle in which the Allied Forces met a crushing defeat. Standing on this hill, we take in the panorama; a Maasai settlement amidst baobab outcrop and, in the far distance, Lake Jipe, before heading to the border town of Taveta. At Taveta, once again, there is an exclusive Indian cemetery to honour Indian soldiers who died in the Salaita encounter.

Bullet-riddled baobab bole

Sniper post

Nearly 20 theatres of war were spread over the Taita Enclave and one of them closest to the border was in Chala. The next venue is Lake Chala, Kenya’s best-kept secret (in the next blog).

Battlefield Tour continues in the next blog

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 

No comments:

Post a Comment