The Chuka Massacre

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Meria Mata

Elder Statesman
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Within a few weeks of the declaration of the Kenya Emergency in October 1952, reports of atrocities and excessive violence by colonial troops were filtering back to London.

By mid 1953 several cases had been prosecuted, though the sentences handed down to police, reservists and other British security forces were criticized for their leniency. There were also widespread accusations against the King’s African Rifles (KAR), comprising African rank and file with British officers, and against soldiers of several regiments sent from Britain.

But the Army in Kenya handled its own disciplinary matters and none of these charges came before the courts. But, still, cases of police and military brutality mounted.

Matters came to a head when a massacre of homeguards and civilians by British military officers took place at Chuka. The incident came to be known as the Chuka Massacre.

Concerned about the deteriorating levels of indiscipline, the British authorities decided to send in a new GCO for Kenya, General George Erskine, who arrived in Kenya in June, 1953.

He quickly sought to change the conduct of the security force, giving a stern warning to officers that indiscipline would not be tolerated under his watch.

The directive was issued on June 23rd, just days after the Chuka incident.

But what really happened at Chuka?

A platoon of British-led soldiers had slaughtered twenty Meru villagers near Chuka. The 5th KAR B Company had been sent to the Chuka area on June 13th to flush out rebels suspected of hiding in the nearby forests.

The Company commander, Major G.S.L. Griffiths, set up a base camp from which he directed operations – two platoons would sweep through the forest to flush out the rebels, while African members of the local Home Guard policed the forest boundary. The sweeps were conducted by two junior officers. This was a typical anti-Mau Mau operation.

The local police handed over two Mau Mau fighters recently captured in the area. The intention was to use them as forests guides to assist in locating rebel hideouts.

Griffiths and his two junior officers interrogated the men, and when the first prisoner seemed unwilling to cooperate, Griffiths ordered that a hole be made in his ear with a bayonet.

A string was then passed through the gaping wound of the hapless captive. The string would be used as a painful tether over the next four days.

The second prisoner, on the other hand, also proved uncooperative. He wasn't luckier than the first.

Griffiths ordered his men to amputate his ear. Later, the prisoner was summarily shot dead. Griffiths would later claim he had been shot whilst trying to escape.

Over the next two days, the KAR platoons flushed out a number of Mau Mau fighters who were caught by Homeguards patrolling the fringes of the forest. Then, in the early afternoon of June 17th, a patrol of ten men led by an African Warrant Officer moved out of the forest and into the surrounding farmland.

It came across twelve members of the Home Guard gathered at a farmhouse. For reasons that have never become clear, the twelve men were ordered to lie face down, and were badly beaten. Two of the victims were sent to fetch food for the soldiers – and subsequently made their escape – while the remaining ten were escorted into the forest by the KAR patrol. They reached the soldiers’ camp and made to lie face down in a line. At sunset they were shot where they lay, at close range, and in cold blood.

According to a probe related to the Chuka !assacre, the following morning, June 18th, the Warrant Officer led his patrol along the forest edge, close to the settlement of Karege. Again it encountered and interrogated a group of Home Guards. The soldiers pillaged food gardens in a village called Karege and shot a farmer before escorting their captives into the forest.

Some villagers saw a British officer with the patrol. Early that afternoon, the captives – nine men and one child – were executed in a clearing near a small coffee farm at the forest edge. Soldiers cut off the hands of six of the victims and tucked these into their packs before returning to camp.

The final killing occurred the next day, when the surviving guide, still tethered by his ear, was shot, allegedly while trying to escape. At dawn, the soldiers broke camp, heading back to B Company’s headquarters at Nyeri, leaving the body of their dead guide where it lay.

Once the soldiers had melted safely away from the scene, witnesses brought the local chief to see the corpses of those killed over the previous two days. The chief was shocked to see that members of his own Home Guard patrol had been killed by the Army.

The chief rushed to the local British D.O. and reported the matter. The D.O. informed the police that twenty villagers had been ‘murdered’ by the Kings African Rifles (KAR).

A police investigation was began and a pathologist, Dr. Irvine, brought to examine the bodies. Statements were also taken from local villagers who had witnessed the incident.

A military inquiry was hastily convened for the following Monday, June 22nd. But its findings were never made public. Rumours of what had happened spread quickly, but the colonial government - to this day - refused to acknowledge the affair publicly.

Fragments of information nonetheless found their way into the public record. From these sources, two Britons have been able to reconstruct what they believe happened.

A letter held in the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi makes it clear that, in an effort to prevent a 'haemorrhaging' of support towards the Mau Mau in the Chuka area, the colonial government authorized the payment of compensation to the families of the murdered villagers.

General Erskine then wrote personally to the local chief, a loyal ally, to reassure him that ‘investigations have satisfied me that whoever is to blame, it is not any of the persons killed.’

Despite this, the army did not pass its findings to the Attorney General, and so prosecutions could not be taken forward ‘due to lack of evidence’.

There was in fact no lack of evidence, only reluctance on the part of the Army to expose that evidence to public scrutiny.

Gen. Erskine was keen to rein in the behaviour of his soldiers, but even keener to protect the reputation and image of his command.

His directive on the mistreatment of suspects by the Army, issued to all ranks the day after the internal enquiry at Chuka, was the first step. Next, all the soldiers involved in the operation were placed under open arrest at Nairobi’s Buller Camp – an order that effectively confined them to barracks (Buller Camp is today the Kenya Regiment Association offices near the Ngong Rd-Hospital Rd junctions).

The process of gathering evidence for the court martial of Major Griffiths began. Toward the end of August 1953, the soldiers held at Buller Camp were placed under closed arrest and separated from one another – almost certainly because it was realized that they were colluding in their statements. The African soldiers would later claim that a British officer in B Company threatened them to influence their testimony – a revelation that proved to be highly significant.

By putting Griffiths on trial, Erskine hoped to send the strongest possible signal to other officers that they must take full responsibility for the actions of their men. However, when the case was heard in November 1953, the charges related not to the incidents at Chuka, but to separate events one week earlier when, it was alleged, Griffiths had murdered two Kikuyu men at a roadblock.

Brutally machine-gunned at close quarters, one victim had been struck by so many rounds that his torso was severed. This prosecution was most probably chosen because the evidence against Griffiths appeared to be much stronger than at Chuka. It also kept the awkward Chuka incident out of the public glare.

But in no time, the case had drawn the attention of the press, with descriptions of British battalions keeping score-cards of Mau Mau ‘kills’, giving cash rewards to soldiers who ‘bagged a rebel’, and chopping off hands to identify victims. After hostile questions in the Commons, the Government ordered a full inquiry into the conduct of the Army in Kenya. It was chaired by Lieutenant-General K. McLean.

From the Mclean inquiry, it was clear that there seemed to have been occasional use of ‘rewards’ to soldiers for kills, and that there was the practice - though not widespread - of severing of hands for purposes of identifying kills.

Griffiths was eventually found guilty of murder and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. But the two junior British officers at Chuka and the ten African soldiers of the patrol have never faced trial.

Maybe they were allowed to go free in return for their participation in the prosecution of their commanding officer? It does seem like Gen. Erskine was really keen to have Maj. Griffiths serve as a lesson to wayward officers.
Meria Mata, I have said many many many times, when I see some of my countrymen praise/believe people like the British ambassador that they don't know what they are dealing with. Unfortunately - and am not being tribal here - those whose ancestors do not come from central Kenya do not have the full picture of what Whitties are capable of, because they did not live through the emergency. Brutality beyond what the devil himself can do.

Most of Africa's most despotic and cannibalistic dictators actually served in Whitty armies and learned well from their commanding officers. Mobutu. Amin. Bokassa.


Village Elder
MM iko hapa
Thanks MM. This is definitely going up the MM chronicles, lest we forget our history.

I am very saddened and disturbed after reading this article as I believe that this is an accurate account of how Africans were dehumanized and treated worse than animals in their own land.

I don't know why some people can defend such wicked and evil men

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Who will win the 2022 elections? Ruto vs Raila.Cast your vote!

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