I came across The Last Colonial Regiment whilst on holiday in Kenya, when our
neighbour, an ex-member of the Kenya Regiment, thrust a large book into my hand and
said, "Patrick you must read this, it's the new history of the Kenya Regiment" . My heart
sank, as all my previous experience of regimental histories was of turgid narrow-focussed
volumes, with never-ending indices and few maps or pictures. However, it was quite
obvious from the moment I opened the book that this was different.
The author, Ian Parker, who served in the Regiment during the Mau Mau emergency
and still lives in Kenya, has not attempted to write a conventional history, which is
not surprising, bearing in mind that from its foundation the Regiment was intrinsically
unconventional. Instead, he has scrupulously assembled the Regiment's military record
from a wide selection of sources, and set these within the historical background of both the
Colony and world events, thereby wonderfully capturing the true character of this unique
To my great joy, he commences the history by properly setting the scene, with a brilliant
foreword by John Lonsdale (7 KAR 1956/58, Professor of Modern African History,
University of Cambridge 1969-2004), and an excellent historical background of the Kenya
Colony from its formation, thus allowing the less knowledgeable reader to place subsequent
events within their proper historical context. The Regiment's early antecedents from the
ad hoc settler-raised East African Mounted Rifles of WW1, and the subsequent emergence
of the Kenya Defence Regiment following that war, is well covered; as is the increasing
breakdown of trust during the interwar years between the white settler community and
the Colonial Government over Whitehall's ambivalent attitude towards the future of the
colony and the KDR. These divisions were to ultimately lead to the formation of the
Kenya Regiment in the thirties.
From the outset the new regiment's principal role was to provide officers and specialist
expertise to the King's African Rifles in times of war and national emergencies; a role in
which it was soon to excel in the fast approaching world conflict.
The author acknowledges that the major campaigns of World War 2 have already been
extensively described, and avoids repeating the wider strategic history of the campaigns
in Abyssinia, Madagascar and Burma. Although the Regiment did not enter the field as
a formed unit, I found these chapters enthralling, not only for their description of the
Regiment's outstanding performance in these campaigns as part of the KAR, but also how
the growing sense of comradeship developed between the Askari and their white officers
as both were tested in the cauldron of war.
For me the book comes into its own in Part 3, which covers the post-war reorganisation
of the Kenya Regiment; the deterioration of the security situation as the winds of change
swept across Africa; the rise and ultimate suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency, and
finally the sad, but I suspect inevitable, disbandment of the Regiment at Independence.
Drawing on a wide range of personal reminiscences, and not afraid to tread on the more
sensitive post-colonial toes, the author not only describes the Regiment's role during
these difficult years in detail, but sets these against an honest no-nonsense account of this
period of Kenya's history, when the old social order was having to come to terms with the
inevitable changes and uncertainties that independence would bring.
The Regiment's special knowledge and skills were in high demand during the
emergency, when in addition to providing operational patrol companies it also deployed in
support of the Kenya Police, Special Branch and KAR - and as the insurgency progressed
with British units, who lacked both local knowledge and language skills. This is well
illustrated at Appendix III and IV, which show the widespread deployment of the Regiment
in November 1954 and May 1955 (it must have been a CO's nightmare).
Thanks to his knowledge of the area and people, I found Ian Parker's description of the
Regiment's part in setting up and supporting the various specialist intelligence and patrol
units, whose deployment deep into the Aberdares was to prove so decisive in defeating the
insurgents, quite excellent. It was also good to see the role of the African tracker described
in these operations, and the Regiment's part in their recruitment and training. The wide
divergence of tribes who were recruited for this special role is detailed at Appendix VI.
At midnight on 12 May 1963 the Regiment was formerly suspended and disbanded. By
the end of the week the suspension was being regarded as symbolic of the closing days of
Colonial Kenya. Luckily this wonderful history captures and preserves the character role
and achievements of this unique Regiment for posterity, a sentiment best expressed by the
author in his final paragraph:
'It would be wrong to mourn the Regiment's passing for under present day conditions
it could never retain its character; a unique and colourful character originally evolved
from a blend of the British Territorial and the Kenya Settler, a character which has now
passed into history.'
A wonderful history, not only of the Kenya Regiment, but also of Kenya itself. I cannot
recommend it strongly enough.