Documenting World War 1 on Kenya’s battleground

By Harriet James
Thursday, November 21st, 2019

The dramatic entry of a Kenyan scout into a nondescript police station in Taita to alert the then District Commissioner about the lining up of German soldiers in neighbouring Tanzania marks the beginning of an interesting tale of forgotten soldiers of the First World War.

It was Thursday August 14, 1914, when Luka Kirigisha burst into the outpost headed by Hugh la Fontaine, then DC, to report the sighting of soldiers led by Captain Tom Von Prince yonder in Moshi preparing for war, the book, Guerillas of Tsavo, written by James G Wilson starts. It then takes a visual tour of the battle known as the East African Campaign.

Wilson, a hotelier and once general manager of Taita Hills lodge, was born in England and his parents moved to Kenya in 1946, when he was just three months old. His father, a tea planter and soldier in the two great wars moved to Kenya after the tear gas lobbed at them in the trenches affected his lungs. He had hoped the clean Nyeri air would cure him, but this was not to be as he died shortly after arriving in the country. 

“I never really knew my father. In the first gas attack nearly 87,000 British and allied soldiers were affected and by the end of the war 8.5 million soldiers were dead,” says Wilson, who was a hunter and operated a hunting enterprise in the 1970s . 

When the government instituted a ban on hunting, Wilson gravitated towards the hotel industry, and found employement at the Hilton International, Taita Hills lodge in Taita Taveta (now the Sarova) in 1979. This is where his desire to know about the First  World War in Taita Taveta was born.  Part of the Hilton policy was that management had to be off  the premises at least one day a week, forcing  Wilson to find something to do during the free time. 

Ice cream war

“We used to tune into BBC every morning and one day, they read a story for students called An Ice Cream War. We got curious and religiously tuned into the programme to find out what it was all about,” he narrates.

This was in 1980. The Ice Cream War, whose backdrop was in Taita Taveta county and in Europe, involved a European family who had migrated to Mwatate.  Although the war broke out in Europe during their stay in Taita, the family’s proximity to German East Africa meant it was affected. On the show, they woud talk about conflict between the settlers along the borders.

James Wilson with a copy of his book documenting the East Africa campaign of WW1.

“It was read once a week and we would religiously listen and try to retrace everything said. Being fiction, we discovered it was not accurate  as Mwatate is a dry place and only sisal grew there,”  Wilson says. 

His curiosity arose and he began researching events of the war in Taita Taveta. Judy Oldrich, fellow member of  Friends of Fort Jesus, advised him to research and write down everything he discovers as no one had recorded about this war in Africa. 

After eight years in Taita Taveta, Wilson moved to Diani where he ran the Southern Palms Beach resort and lived with his wife and daughter. His marketing position saw him travel to Europe to market the hotel in exhibitions in Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris. 

“I spent the next couple of days visiting museums and libraries, trying to gather information about the war. It was a time-consuming job, though, because I did not understand their filing system,” he explains.

He also read history books written by people who participated in the war such as Fredrick Courteney Selous and learnt expansive Kenyan history by reading the army diary written by Colonel (Rtd) Richard Mienertzhagen, the British soldier who killed the Nandi Orkoiyot Koitalel arap Samoei to quell the community’s resistance.

Triggering assassination

After 30 years of research, reading and travel, Wilson wrote and self-published his book in 2013. It comprises new facts and figures he discovered as well as personal stories from people involved in the war.  Wilson says what triggered the First World War was the assassination of the Austrian crown prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. Since European nations were split into alliances, each country  sought to protect its ally, resulting in the war. Eventually, it spread to colonies. 

More information came out since the first edition, making him reprint the book in 2014 with updated details, one of which was that the very first British administration in Kenya was not in Mombasa, but in Shimoni, the then capital of British East Africa and the centre of Indian Ocean slave trade. 

“Mombasa was the island of war and couldn’t have been the capital as there were too many factions of Arabs, Muslims and locals fighting. Dhows would call at River Muchemu to inquire whether it was safe to go to Mombasa and if it wasn’t, they would go to Malindi,” he notes.

In one of his visits to Zanzibar before it became part of Tanzania, Wilson discovered and bought a German warship dubbed Alchemus Pegasus from a local man. It is now on display at Taita Hills Lodge alongside other WWI artefacts he had discovered. 

Wilson, through his reading, also discovered a fort near the Lodge in 1987. Today its one of the most beautifully preserved earthenware fortes built by the British in 1915.  He also discovered three forts along Tsavo River, which have been largely unknown. One of the forts had not been visited for years if the tin cans, garbage and tent pegs and ropes found were anything to go by. 

“I was very excited and collected a representation of the garbage, currently on display at Taita Hills Lodge,” Wilson adds. So far over 100 sites have been discovered and documented in and around Taita Taveta county.

While he could write another book on the same, his old age has made this seem like an impossible mission and Wilson laments that finding someone who can succeed him has been tough. “It would be more suitable for a retired Kenyan army officer, who lives in the area, has military experience and can relate and has read a bit of history to piece up what happened down there,” he recommends. 

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