Over this last year, a few people have reached out to me regarding coming to Kenya for a holiday. I am no travel expert, but I am more than happy to chat about places to go and things to do. If anyone is planning that trip of a lifetime to see the big game, then drop me a line at [email protected].
I received quite a few emails about last month’s newsletter. It seems that we all enjoy lost snippets of history. After researching the battle of Rufiji Delta, if you missed it then here is a link. I became intrigued by the battles that were fought over East Africa. The kaiser was very keen to make sure the British had to keep an eye on East Africa. He thought it took valuable manpower and materials from the western front. And he was right.
With the idea of taking Olivia and Pauline to Tsavo, I was keen to see if there were any areas in and around the game park I could have a quick look at. I amazingly came across Salaita Hill which is a small mound right in the middle of the Tsavo West. However, it is close enough to Taveta to make it interesting. Taveta is renowned among us geeks as the only piece of British land to ever be taken by the Germans during World War One.
This lonely hill is situated about 25km south of Ziwani Voyager Camp and close to Lake Jipe. Another strange feature is the way the border swerves from its usual ruler straight British lines and heads into Tanzania then back out again. I wonder if this has something to do with the war?
Today, all that makes this area even recognizable is the Salaita Primary School with a scattering of subsistence farms that seem to cluster around the hill.
The forlorn hill is more aptly described as a mound, but back in 1916, it was the center of the universe for over 7000 troops. In 1914 the Germans occupied the hill as it was the only high point between Kilimanjaro and Pare Hills. They could also see the smoke from the trains that plied the Lunatic Line from Mombasa to Kisumu and then on to Uganda. This was a prime location for the Germans to keep an eye on what was going on in British East Africa.
The Brits in their infinite wisdom decided that the hill was strategically important to them and wanted it back. General Jan Smuts, later to be the president of South Africa, was warned on more than one occasion; “Do not shell the German trenches halfway up the hill. The Germans are only manning the ones at the bottom.”
As what seems to be the norm during the British rule of East Africa, he completely ignored the advice and bombarded the top of the hill with heavy ordinance from the four-inch guns that had been salvaged from the sunken cruiser HMS Pegasus. Bear in mind at this time in history this hill was in the middle of nowhere. Back in 1916, it must have been just wild bush with lions and elephants wandering all over the place. The battle also took place only about 20 years after the Lunatic Line was built: and very close to the location of the infamous story, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo where it is estimated that 135 workers were taken from the camps by a fierce pair of lions. The film is worth watching if you like Val Kilmer click here for more information. I also have a blog on the Lunatic Line here.
Anyway, I digress, once the bombardment was over, Smuts ordered Brigadier General Beeves to advance on the hill. He had 6500 men under his command. The soldiers were a mixture of the 130th Baluchis from India and the 6th South African Infantry Regiment. They advanced in a loose skirmish formation toward the base of the hill expecting little or no resistance since the place had been bombed so heavily.
However, in what appears to be a recurring theme in these battles, The Germans had been hiding in the lower trenches, as Smuts had been told. They had not suffered at all from the shells raining down from the British. The Rhodesians charged up the hill seeing that the upper trenches were empty. However, the Germans waited for their chance then came around the hill from the lower trenches, flanking the Rhodesians, and opened fire on the exposed troops with the machine guns they had taken from the British at the battle of Tanga! (see earlier newsletter).
Utter confusion ensued as the Germans put the British forces under withering fire. 172 men were cut to pieces in the first few minutes. This caused a rout as the badly trained and ill-equipped Rhodesians retreated in disarray, they even started firing on each other. The Bauchi soldiers on the left flank however saw what was happening and managed to take out one of the machine gun posts and chase the Germans back up the hill.
At the end of the battle, there was a standoff that was to last the length of the war. The Baluchis, who did not like being called “Coolies” by the Rhodesians, sent them the machine gun they had captured with a note, “Stop calling us Coolies!”
Below the hill is an old wizen baobab tree, the grey bark Is pockmarked with holes. It is known as the sniper tree. The story goes that Mama Sukurani—a German woman whose husband was killed in the Battle of Tanga in 1914—vowed vengeance against the British she would follow the German forces around and take potshots at any British soldiers. This myth pervaded the British; often sergeants could be heard saying, “Keep your heads down lads, Mama Sukurani is out there!”
The original name of Salaita Hill is lost to time. The locals say the place is named after the slaughter of the soldiers on the 12th of February 1916. Lest we forget!
Well, that wraps it up for this month. I hope you enjoyed this snippet of history. Please get in touch if you have any more information about this battle or just want a chat.
Oh, I almost forgot, my books make a great Christmas present! You can order the whole series for your nearest and dearest here.
I wish you one and all a very happy New Year and speak soon.