World War 1 was about conquest and empire, not a defence against Germany

James Willson, the author of Guerrillas of Tsavo, stands next to one of the structures at Maktau cemetery in Taita Taveta County on August 1, as he takes journalists through the events that unfolded during the First World War in East Africa from 1914 to 1918. A number of events have been scheduled in the county for the coming four years in commemoration of the war. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT

What you need to know:

  • World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918 and resulted in the death of 10 million men, 15 million injured, while nine million became prisoners of war.
  • The British-controlled opium trade in China stands as one of the worst crimes of the 19th century.
  • The revolutions that followed this mass disobedience brought down three European empires and the Ottoman Empire of the Turks.

On August 11, you carried a centre-spread informing us of the relics of World War 1 in Taita Taveta County.

I am sure that, like me, many fellow Kenyans were not aware of the existence of this colonial memorabilia. I personally believe that such relics should be preserved as it is part of Kenya’s (hi)story.

In the same vein, I think it is very important to get that (hi)story correct, and a correct (hi)story is one that is written from a people’s point of view.

Normally (hi)story is written by the victor, in this case our colonial masters; it is our responsibility to reinterpret it from our perspective.

World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918 and resulted in the death of 10 million men, 15 million injured, while nine million became prisoners of war.

Almost all were working class people. It was a war between European powers, so why did we get involved?

Because some of these powers (Britain and Germany) had invaded and grabbed our territories, just as they had done on the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere.

EXCUSE FOR WAR

Thus it is that our territories became a terrain for the fight and that our men, African and Indian, died in these battles. And let it be clear — we did not ‘volunteer’ to fight for ‘a great cause’, we were forced into it.

WWI was hailed in bourgeois (hi)story as a ‘war to end all wars’. Well, events since have proved otherwise. The excuse for the war ran through a whole catalogue of pretexts: from a humanitarian war through a struggle for survival and a defence against Germans.

The reality was very different. The war was a clash of empires, a war to re-divide the globe fought between great capitalist states, and of these, the British Empire was the largest, the most rapacious and the most powerful.

In the course of the 19th century, the British state had extinguished the independence of more countries than the rest of the great powers put together. This was accomplished by massacre, rape and pillage.

The Indian subcontinent, Burma, Afghanistan, Tibet and other countries had been invaded and conquered. The British-controlled opium trade in China stands as one of the worst crimes of the 19th century. The biggest prize of WWI for Britain was getting hold of the oilfields in the Middle East, some of the richest in the world.

Our own continent had been arbitrarily divided and apportioned in the 1885 Scramble for Africa. In our region, WWI enabled victorious Britain to take over the German controlled territory of Tanganyika and incorporate it into British East Africa. The rest is history!

And what about our valiant men who were coerced and forced into this war between European powers, and for which many died?

We know that white soldiers were materially rewarded with our lands, our labour, etc. The Nation article informs us of the beautifully maintained graves of British soldiers in the Voi, Maktau and Taveta cemeteries. What about all the African soldiers who died? ‘There is no graveyard for African soldiers,’ the writer states. Yet their role as soldiers and porters was an essential to the war effort.

FIRST SOLDIER TO DIE

Corporal Murimu Mwiti who became the ‘first “British” soldier to be killed in action’, how is he commemorated? Did he even know what he was dying for? Was his family compensated for the loss of its breadwinner? Was he awarded the Victoria Cross?

Germany’s defeat has been presented by military historians as ‘a hard fought struggle to the bitter end’. The truth lies elsewhere. It was the gradual change of attitude by the frontline soldiers resulting in waves of draft dodging, desertions, mutinies and voluntary surrenders which finally ended the war.

The revolutions that followed this mass disobedience brought down three European empires and the Ottoman Empire of the Turks. By the time the Americans joined WWI in April 1917, almost half the French army had overstayed its home leave, deserted or mutinied.

Draft-dodging in Germany had become so common that enrolment in 1917 fell from 1.4 million to 0.6 million. The working class, in and out of uniform, were quitting the war and the war leaders were forced to call for an armistice. One deserting soldier wrote:

It’s all a Swindle:

‘The War is for the Wealthy,

The Middle Class must give way.

The People provide the corpses.’

While the victors celebrate and commemorate WWI, the rebellion of the soldiers and the wanton and meaningless havoc, wounding and killing of our colonised compatriots is neither recorded in our history books nor included in our school curricula.

Ms Patel is the editor of AwaaZ Magazine. ([email protected])

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