05 September 1915 – Uganda Railway

One of the most daring railway projects ever conceived, the Uganda line was completed in 1901 at a cost of £5 million over just six intense years. The railroad crosses every type of terrain on its 660-mile length, including jungles and swamps, rising to 8,000 feet above sea level in the mountainous highlands on its way from the Kenyan coast to what is now the border of Uganda. Some 35 viaducts, as well as 120 bridges and culverts, had to be constructed to support the weight of wood-burning steam locomotives imported from Bombay. A fleet of small boats on Lake Victoria provides the final gateway into the heart of Uganda.

More than thirty thousand Indian laborers immigrated to complete the project, with thousands of them dying from various dangers — most famously the man-eating lions of Tsavo, but also from disease and a series of violent clashes with Maasaai and Nandi tribesmen. Constructed almost entirely out of imperial interest, especially the perceived need to keep up with their German colonial neighbors to the south, the project was controversial from its beginning, spurring writer and parliamentarian Henry Du Pré Labouchère to write satirical verses that cemented the frontier railway’s nickname as ‘the Lunatic Express.’

What will it cost no words can express
What is its object no brain can suppose
Where it will start from no-one can guess
Where it is going nobody knows.

What is the use of it none can conjecture
What it will carry there’s none can define
And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line

These doubts were largely dispelled by the eventual success of the project, which immediately became a hit with the burgeoning tourism trade as curious Westerners came on safari. But the Great War has tremendously enhanced the railway’s strategic value, for it runs parallel to the northern border of Germany’s East Africa colony, providing a vital supply route for the campaign to surround and cut off East Africa. The Uganda Railway is therefore a natural logistical target for German raiding parties, given that much of its remote length cannot be patrolled or guarded in sufficient force or frequency.


Above: a map of the Uganda Railway. Below: a British armored train destroyed by an improvised explosive device

To protect this vital strategic asset, the Army of India first militarized the personnel who run it, putting them in uniform and handing out arms without any real training or preparation for combat. As trained military units arrived from India to take over the security role, railway employees were returned to their civilian roles along the track, but still wearing their uniforms and responding to the new chain of command. Over the last year, they have fabricated armored trains to patrol the most desolate sections of track, erected dozens of new stations, and pre-positioned repair crews for rapid response to sabotage.

Their efforts are still not enough, however. Today, two trains are derailed by small mines placed underneath the tracks. Designed to explode under the locomotives, these spring-trigger weapons presage the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) used against American supply and reconnaissance trains along the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan. Crawling along at a mere twenty miles an hour, neither train is going fast enough to incur any serious casualties, but the resulting rescue and repair operations are still disproportionate to the tiny raiding force sent by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German resistance in East Africa.

Rather than fight a decisive battle he cannot win, Lettow-Vorbeck has chosen to wage a classic guerrilla campaign against the enemies who surround him — a clear example of the emerging asymmetrical nature of modern warfare, a trend which is not always so easily-discerned at the scale of the industrialized battlefields of Europe. Far away from the means of mass-production, Lettow-Vorbeck is instead a master of tactics for use by the weak against the strong, and his native students will not forget the lessons.


British African troops lined up at Tsavo Station, where a pride of man-eating lions plagued construction crews in the 1890s

Local conditions, and a simultaneous drain on the strength of the Army of India due to unrest along the Northwest Frontier, make  it necessary to recruit black Africans to the fight; over a million will serve both sides in the course of the war as soldiers, porters, and support personnel. Their experiences will forever shatter the magical grip that white Europeans have consciously exerted on the African mind ever since the ‘scramble’ to possess and exploit the continent began.

Despite strenuous efforts to maintain the line as well as the new infrastructure, constant mobilization and logistical demands of Great War put such stress on the Uganda Railway that it is decrepit and unsafe by 1919, requiring another large infusion of capital to restore it to capacity. Like most of the railroads that colonial powers have constructed on the ‘Dark Continent,’ these tracks across Kenya become a key factor in the wave of urbanization transforming Africa throughout the 20th Century — and the eventual full disintegration of the European order in Africa.


Conflict lines: imperial railways remain vital to emerging African states during decolonization — and see much action during local bush wars and episodes of political violence during the 20th Century