This month, a memorial service will be held in Kenya’s Taita-Taveta county for the loss and capture of the local community 100 years ago. It is one of many services that will take place over the next three years to remember the 95,000 carriers, several thousand soldiers and an estimated 368,000 civilians who died in the East Africa campaign of the First World War.
Discussion of WWI tends to stick to the ‘main shows’ – the battles of the Somme or Ypres, trench warfare and poppy fields. This cultural canon, coupled with the tension of remembering colonial history, neglects the war in East Africa. Edward Paice of the African Research Institute argues that ‘to call the Great War in East Africa a “sideshow” to the war in Europe may be correct, but it is demeaning. The scale and impact of the campaign were gargantuan.’
For four years, British and German forces fought across an area three times the size of the Third Reich and so far from Europe that conflict continued unknowingly after the armistice. The land’s vastness made it a physical war on nature – one million carriers were conscripted to get supplies to remote battles, eventually by force.
‘The real enemy was not the Germans, who were comparatively small in number, but the devastatingly harsh environment,’ explains Bill Nasson, historian at the University of Stellenbosch. ‘The war caused massive civilian depopulation and destroyed agricultural livelihoods. After 1918, peasants did not return.’ Weakened by the prolonged fighting, the region lost millions of lives in subsequent epidemics and famines.
Since 2014, there has been more acknowledgement of the East Africa campaign than ever before. ‘Nations have to come to terms with their history,’ adds Paice. ‘The centenary should be an opportunity to bring the less remembered conflicts into public recognition.’
This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine