Historic Kilimanjaro


askariThere probably are not that many military history enthusiasts likely to read this, but for those among you who would make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, to the beaches of Normandy or the islands of the South Pacific, then Kilimanjaro is about as interesting a battle site as you could hope to find anywhere…

World War One only probably has a handful of years left before its slips completely beyond the realm of living memory. Among those like me who have gleaned the story through History Channel or snippets of information that I have picked up in my travels, it might come as a surprise to know that some of the most iconic battles of the War were fought in the area immediately surrounding Kilimanjaro.

As one example, Ndarakwai Camp in Western Kilimanjaro, a popular apre climb safari destination, has a number of old trench systems that served both the British and the Germans in the campaign for control of the country during the difficult years of 1914 – 1918.

Colonial Struggle…

The nation of Tanzania began life as an outpost of the German colonial empire. It was known then as German East Africa, or Tanganyika, and was a close neighbor to Kenya, or British East Africa, which at that time also included Uganda. When war broke out between Britain and Germany in 1914, it was not long before war broke out between German and British East Africa. The railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi and beyond became the focus of German attacks, and later the railway line from Moshi to the Indian Ocean port of Tanga became the German line of retreat once the colony had been invaded.

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The Kilimanjaro district, with its coffee farms, pleasant climate and clean altitude had long been the main focus of white settlement in German East Africa. Besides this the geography of flat plains interspersed with low and isolated hills was the perfect defensive landscape for both sides. A number of important battles were fought east and west of Kilimanjaro, and the towns of Moshi and Arusha the headquarters of the German High Command.

Colonial Brigades…

Another interesting aspect of the War in East Africa was that it was fought by British and Commonwealth forces. This by definition meant fighting men drawn from every colony or former colony (except America) in the Empire. Much of the heavy fighting was done in the early stages by men of Indian origin, and in later stages by local black levies and various native colonial regiments from all over the continent.

Lost History…

You would definitely draw blank looks from your climb or safari guides in Tanzania if you brought up the subject of World War One around the campfire or in the mess tent. The subject is not widely taught and the old battle sites are neither preserved nor marked in any particular way. However a little bit of background reading, and a keen sense of geography, will help you pick out some of the more notable sites on Google Maps which in turn will lead you to them. A good place to start is at Ndarakwai Camp where their chief game scout Thomas is surprisingly knowledgeable about the colonial coming and goings in the region.

In a land where the last vestiges of colonial history have been scrubbed off the landscape, it is sometimes interesting to imagine a place like Tanzania as a pawn in the global/strategic games of a by-gone era. Scratching around the battle sites of the period is definitely something worth doing if you get a chance…

If you are interested in the battlefields of East Africa, and you would like some pointers drop me a line…