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June 24, 2017

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Sun-baked battlefields of Africa's 'forgotten' blood-soaked WWI skirmishes

TSAVO, Kenya--On Kenya's vast Tsavo plains where lions lurk in yellow grass, little has changed for a century: including bitter memories of those killed in bloody colonial battles of World War I.

Far from the freezing mud trenches of Europe's Western Front, the rocky ditches and stone forts where soldiers fought and died under the blazing equatorial sun still remain today.

Mwamkono Mwavaka's grandfather was forced to serve as a porter for the British army, one of tens of thousands of Africans pressganged into the "forgotten" battles that raged here between British and German colonial forces.

Chochola died in the war, and a lock of his hair was returned home as proof of death. But more men were needed on the front and his son — Mwavaka's father — was then taken too.

"When his hair was brought, the others grabbed his son and took him away," said 75-year-old Mwavaka, who lives in a simple tin-roof home close to the now overgrown battlefields.

"People said: 'His own father has died while there, now this one will also go to die there?' So, people really cried back home."

His father survived, but many were not so lucky.

Tens of thousands of Africans from what is now Kenya and Tanzania were recruited by both Britain and Germany as porters, often forcibly.

'They suffered terribly'

Some 105,000 men died on the British side, the vast majority porters, the same number as British casualties in the 1916 Battle of the Somme in France.

More than 45,000 men from what is now Kenya died, equivalent of at least one in eight of the country's male population, according to historians, with some putting the figure far higher.

There are no records of how many Africans died on the side of the Germans, who recruited men from what is now Tanzania, then Tanganyika.

"They suffered terribly here, and we should remember that," said historian James Willson, crouching down in the snaking remains of a trench near Taita Taveta in Kenya's southeast, close to the border with Tanzania.

Willson waves at ancient tree stumps around the remnants of the trenches, the wood broken by the powerful trunks of the elephants who still stride across the plains, not the artillery guns that once pounded shells here.

"The troops didn't have the rat-infested trenches, with the mud and dreadful shelling of Flanders ... but here they had snakes, the heat, all sorts of diseases, and water was a very precious commodity."

Back in 1914, the region was also the frontier between British and German East Africa, close to the strategic railway line into the interior to Kenya's highland capital Nairobi, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) to the northwest.

The east Africa campaign spread over 1.9 million square kilometers (750,000 square miles) — three times the area of the German Reich — as 150,000 Allied troops battled a German force of some 25,000, said Edward Paice, director of Britain's Africa Research Institute.

'Colossal' Impact

"To call the Great War in east Africa a 'sideshow' to the war in Europe may be correct, but it is demeaning," said Paice, author of a book on the conflict.

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