In 2014, most of Europe, the UK, North America and the majority of the former British colonies and territories will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. These commemorations will be times of reflection, of memory and certainly not of celebration. Much has happened in Africa since 1914 but not many people realise that there was an active and very real war fought during that period. If the Burma campaign of World War 2 was fought by the forgotten army, the African campaign of World War 1 was the forgotten war.
Whereas the carnage in Europe dominated and obliterated all other news coverage, the African campaign (campaigns) was notable for many reasons:
- The campaign in East Africa was the longest campaign of the war (5 August 1914 – 25 November 1918)
- The first shot fired in anger by a British combatant in WW1 was by RSM Grunshi (Gold Coast Regiment) in Cameroon
- The only naval vessel from WW1 still in active service today is the MV Liema (formerly the Graf von Goetzen) plying her trade as a peaceful passenger/cargo steamer on Lake Tanganyika
- The German general von Lettow-Vorbeck was the only undefeated German general of the war
- The same general was the only German commander to occupy British territory during the war; Taveta in British East Africa
- It was the first war in which organised native troops (African) on either side fought with white men and against them
- The highest casualty rate of the whole conflict due to illness and starvation rather than wounds in battle: 75%
- The longest naval battle of the war was against the German light cruiser Königsberg in the Rufiji Delta
Due to its scope and range, the majority of interest in the African campaign is focused on East Africa. Sensing an interesting and alternative tourist experience, the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge and its dynamic manager Willy Mwadilo have recently started offering battlefield tours; similar to the tours undertaken in northern France and in Zululand. In the Taita Taveta area, a significant amount of shell casings and other battlefield remnants have been found in the trenches and along the encampments.
One of the most curious stories of the war has its origin in this area: that of a German lady sniper (out to avenge her dead husband) hidden in a hollowed-out Baobab tree, which then became a target for the British and survived as the most shot at tree during the whole war and still has the bullet holes to show 100 years later.
The Kenyans and Tanzanians are the keenest to promote this battlefield tourism. Not only for the interest it will generate and money which it will earn but also as a chance to tell the story from an African perspective; of the tens of thousands of indigenous tribesmen who fought on both sides but who have no known grave and are not commemorated in well-kept cemeteries.
This is part of our universal duty of memory and it is fitting that it occurs on this great anniversary.