London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - EAST AFRICA

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919


The 25th Royal Fusiliers arrived at Mombasa, in British East Africa, on May 6th, 1915, and went at once to the military post, Kajiado, on the Uganda railway. Half of the battalion then went to Nairobi, the capital of the colony, for two months' training ; and the other half, split up into small bodies, was dotted about as outposts. Their work was the protection of the railway line from raiding parties, and up to the end of the year it never ceased to be necessary.

Bukoba. — On June 19th this part of the battalion was assembled and moved to the Victoria Nyanza in preparation for a raid on Bukoba, on the south-western shores. The boundary between British and German East Africa cut the lake into two parts ; and Bukoba, lying within German territory, was the centre of all the raiding activity on the Uganda frontier. With ample stores and a powerful wireless installation, it was an important base of German activity. About 400 strong, the detachment of the 25th Battalion detrained at Kisumu, the terminus of the Uganda railway, and on the 22nd sailed across the lake with the rest of the small force. At sundown on the second day Bukoba was sighted, and a night attack was planned. Three Fusiliers were to have overpowered a sentry at the landing place. But when at midnight the ships drew in, a sudden burst of rockets showed that all hope of a surprise was out of the question, and the ships drew off and waited for the dawn.

The main attack was made from the north ; and the troops landing there found themselves faced with the task of climbing a steep, cliff-like incline. It was fortunate that no opposition was attempted at this point. But a vigorous resistance was encountered when the battalion attempted to cross the rocky ground, at the southern foot of the hill, towards Bukoba. The black powder used by the Germans made the smoke-puffs clearly defined, and outlined their position. But it was late afternoon before it could be cleared, and then the weary men summoned their last resources of energy and charged up the opposite slope, from which the town was commanded. The sudden darkness gave the enemy a respite, and at the same time added a further burden to the troops, who slept as they could without food.

During the final advance on the following day a heavy thunderstorm imposed another pause on the operations ; and when the battle was resumed it was a body of men soaked to the skin, and with rifles out of action through the downpour and the mud, who broke down the last resistance and entered Bukoba. The wireless installation was blown up, ammunition and stores destroyed ; and at sundown on the 24th the men re-embarked and returned to Kisumu. It was one of the few incidents which were wholly satisfactory during the campaign.

Patrols. — The patrol work was nervous and responsible. The Germans were full of initiative, and did not hesitate to take risks where the objective seemed to justify it ; and in these vast spaces a small force might move for days without notice. In August, 1915, the battalion had their headquarters at Voi, in the eastern part of British East Africa, about fifty-five miles north of the frontier. Two companies lay at Maktau, to the west, much nearer the frontier ; and about half a company were operating along the coast. A small body of mounted infantry had been got together at Maktau, and about 50 of the battalion were lent to them. On September 3rd a party of the unit marched into an ambush, the inevitable accompaniment of warfare in such a country, and the Germans closed in on the little band. Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, of the 25th Battalion, was wounded in the leg, and was being carried away when he noticed the seriousness of the situation. The badly wounded could not all be removed ; and, knowing that the black troops murdered the wounded, he insisted on being left in the hope of saving the others. He was twice asked to leave, and at length directly ordered that the men should abandon him. When he was last seen the Germans were within twenty-five yards of his post. He fought to the end in defence of his fellows, and WctS awarded a well-merited posthumous V. C . He had only 1 with the mounted infantry two days, and it was but tw iys before the enemy party was itself ambushed and left 31 dead on the field.

Advance to Kahe. — So the year wore on to the close. The Fusiliers covered the extension of the line from Maktau towards the German frontier, and kept the area of their activity in a reasonable state of security. Troops arrived from South Africa in January, 1916, and on March 5th 450 officers and men of the battalion joined General Stewart's column, which was to move round the west of Kilimanjaro, while van Deventer marched to meet it at the German town oi Moschi. After a long and wearisome march, fortunately little molested by the enemy, the troops arrived in the rear of the German positions and marched into Moschi, which had already been taken. After three days' rest the battalion moved southward to take part in the operations against Kahe. About 5 p.m. on March 2, h a brisk engagement developed. After a hot and trying march the men were having a bathe near Store when suddenly shots were opened on them. One of them bolted as he was, and encountering the general and the colonel in a condition which hardly made for dignity, was forced to give a report of the situation. The firing suddenly died down, but three hours later the enemy advanced in force. Twenty times they charged and almost forced their way into the entrenched line, but at length they were beaten off with heavy loss.

On the following day another action was fought a few miles away at the Soko Nassai River. The enemy were entrenched at the defile where the river joins the Defu ; and the Germans fought not only gallantly, but skilfully. The machine guns were excellently placed and well served, and the battle ranged from early morning to nightfall. The Germans moved off under cover of darkness. Van Deventer, who had taken Moschi, had now captured Kahe station, and nothing remained for the enemy but retreat.

To Handeni. — After a short rest the Fusiliers again moved ahead, marching southward to the east of the Pangani River, while other columns marched along the railway line, and so cleared the richest, healthiest, and most populous part of the German colony. The route of the battalion literally involved " hacking through." The bush was so thick that small parties had to be sent ahead to clear away. Progress under such conditions was neither rapid nor pleasant but, as speed was necessary for the success of General Smuts' plan, the battalion frequently trekked all night. They became so weary at times that they marched like automata, practically asleep. A sudden halt had much the same effect as the checking of an express train. Food began to be short, owing to transport difficulties. The fearful monotony of it sank into insignificance.

On the last day of May, 1916, they reached Buiko, where the Pangani runs south some miles towards Handeni, after a trek of 145 miles in thirteen days. The main body of the enemy had passed through the village, and on June 9th the British column started once more. They now left the railway which the Pangani meets at Buiko, and marched south for the Central railway. On the 15th they left the river and followed the trolley line. The following day they were at Gitu, to the north-west, and on the 17th arrived at Ssangeni, west of Handeni, on the great caravan road.

Kwa Direma. — On June 22nd the column started south once more. Smuts' plan aimed at cutting off the enemy, as had been done in South- West Africa, by the operation of a number of swiftly moving columns. The alternative to envelopment was withdrawal, but the consummate skill with which the German commander put off his retirement to the last possible moment and compelled the British to suffer every disadvantage of operating in such a country dragged on the campaign to the end of the war. The Germans were first to be denied the use of the Central railway, and the Fusiliers formed part of one of the columns destined to cut this artery. On the 24th, after a practically continuous march of over twenty-four hours, they went into battle at Kwa Direma, on the Lukigura. They attacked at 4.30 p.m.

Utter weariness made them intolerant of opposition ; and before dark they stormed the position, Major White leading A and D Companies in a fierce bayonet charge. Among the captures were a i-inch Krupp gun and three machine guns. The enemy were posted so as to command a bridge across the river, and were taken by surprise. They had barely time to redirect the guns ; and Colonel Driscoll, seeing that delay was dangerous, obtained permission to rush the position. The battle was over in less than half an hour ; and, despite the hail of bullets which tore the trees and shrubs to pieces, the battalion only lost 3 killed and 18 wounded. The Askari, who fought with such remarkable courage, were unable to stand the bayonet, and they lost 25 killed and 28 wounded. Three whites were also killed, and 13 wounded. The battalion were warmly congratulated by the general, and their spirit after such a march was indeed wonderful. Some days were spent at Kwa Direma, where mails were received, an infrequent occurrence.

On July 7th the battalion moved south to Makindu, on the edge of the Ngura hills, and rested there for a month. The rest was very welcome, for this splendid body of men, who, number for number, could hardly have been surpassed for physique in any army, had dwindled from nearly 1,200 to less than 200. Long marches on rations which were intolerably monotonous and short, and with malaria almost invariably lurking ready to seize its victims, had taken their toll. At Makindu the enemy lay near, and the Fusiliers were shelled almost immediately on arrival with guns removed from the Konigsberg. But for the most part their stay there was restful, and some six-months-old letters marked a welcome break in the operations. On August 9th the Fusiliers assisted in clearing the Ruhungu position, a region of hill and bush country, of the enemy, who had turned it into a stronghold. Lying on the left rear, it threatened the communications, and the time had come to resume the advance.

To the Railway. — Every bridge had been blown up on the line of advance, and weary nights were spent in re-constructing them. The battalion marched by Turiani and Dakawa, on the Wami River, and then turned east-ward to cut the railway on the flank of Morogoro. This was achieved on August 28th, and within a week the eastern terminus at Dar-es-Salaam had also fallen. Morogoro was some 350 miles from the point of departure of the battalion ; but, though the railway was soon completely in allied hands, the enemy still remained at large. They had escaped by an unknown road through the hills, and the advance had to be continued.

Kissaki. — On August 31st the battalion marched south once more in the central of the three columns operating in the Uluguru area. They moved by a " zigzag, well-engineered road cut out of the steep hillsides in pre-war days at the expense of gigantic labour." * This was the unknown road by which the Germans had escaped. The scenery through which the men were now moving was very beautiful, but the conditions of the march were even more trying. On one day no rations at all were received, and the strain of long marching in blazing sun on insufficient food provided a heavy ambulance population. Some days 5, sometimes even 10, per cent, of these hard-bitten troops collapsed and had to be carried back. At Magali on September 5th the troops had the satisfaction of destroying the elaborate observation post from which the naval guns had been directed, and three days later had a small skirmish at Mwuha. Tulo was found deserted, with every appearance of disorder. The battalion had a few days' rest here, and some of the huntsmen filled up the larder for the moment. But the columns had outmarched the commissariat, and weary months of delay followed. On September 30th the Fusiliers moved to Kissaki, on the Mgeta River, there to remain for about three months.

* " Three Years of War in East Africa," by Captain Angus Buchanan, M.C., p. 127.

Behobeho. — Despite the hardship of marching under such conditions, the battalion were consumed with impatience at the delay, and the only relief was elephant hunting. At this time the battalion had dwindled to about 60 before reinforcements arrived. Selous, returning on December 16th from England, where he had been invalided, brought 150 of these with him. He was sixty-five years of age at this time, and this return to the front after an enforced absence through sickness stands out as remarkable even in a remarkable man. Its effect on the Fusiliers was very noticeable.

Checked by the weakness in the ever-lengthening line of communications, the column was now immobilised in December by heavy rains. On January 1st, 1917, the Fusiliers took part in the attack on the Mgeta position, which in the end was almost surrounded. About midnight on January 2nd the battalion halted below Wiransi, only to find that their resting-place was an encampment of fighting ants. It is a striking testimony to the men's weariness that, after much swearing, they dropped off to sleep in the midst of their enemies. In this part of the march the Fusiliers had been sent out to the west of the main advance, and before dawn on January 4th they turned eastwards towards Behobeho to cut off fugitives from the main column. Very few were encountered, and the battalion marched to a ridge north of the settlement. The reflection of the sun from the white gravel proved a terrible experience even for men who had long experience of tropical suns, and sniping from the adjacent trees made the position costly. It was while commanding his company in attack on this occasion that Selous was killed. He was a striking figure, and his loss was felt. The enemy were well entrenched, and when Selous fell Lieutenant Dutch took over the command of the company, and, though soon riddled with bullets, continued to direct the attack while being attended to. He was carried back to Dakawa, and died two days later.

The position was taken. Behobeho was occupied, and the bank of the Rufigi. But the rains were at hand. The battalion were marched back to Morogoro, and then went to the Cape for three months' rest. On May 12th, 1917, this very welcome break came to an end, and the battalion left Cape Town en route for Lindi. When the battalion had left German East Africa, the enemy had been driven into the unhealthy region south of the Rufigi. They were now to be driven from the country altogether. In the strategy of converging columns, which had proved itself successful, the last phase of the fighting would take place in the south-eastern part of the colony. Columns were striking from the Rufigi and from Kilwa, and the Fusiliers formed part of the Lindi column operating near the Portuguese frontier.

Ziwani . — Lindi was reached at the beginning of June, and on the night of the 10th the battalion, with three machine guns, were placed in two lighters and towed eight miles up a creek to the head of the delta by motor launch. " We landed in a swamp past the enemy's lines and made our way inland. By 7.30 a.m. we had covered about twelve miles of ground, and came up behind and against their main position in dense bush and bush-covered valleys and ridges ; somewhere inside of all this they had a 4-inch naval gun with which they used to bombard the town. They knew we had landed, as shots had been exchanged with their scouts in the darkness. The path we followed led into a swamp belt in the valley between us and the enemy, and from various hidden places on the enemy's ridge machine guns and rifles opened fire on our advance guard. We immediately took up a position in the bush with our main body and called in the advance guard. Meanwhile they kept up continuous rifle and machine-gun fire, and we sustained a few casualties, but did not fire a single shot in return. In about two hours they were all round, and still our men lay low and silent. About noon they started a terrific fusillade from all round ; and on one flank three machine guns and a considerable force crept up within thirty paces, under cover of the bush, and opened a terrific fire. Our three machine guns moved at once to that side, and engaged them at close quarters, twenty-five to thirty paces, putting one of theirs out of action immediately. For an hour the noise of firing was deafening. Then, having reinforced the company nearest to the main attack, we made a bayonet charge through the bush, which caused them to retire, and we captured the three machine guns. Two of them proved to be British guns taken from our people early in the war. Next morning, finding a better path, we pushed forward, only to find they had disappeared from their positions, abandoning all their stores, workshops, etc., and they had removed their big gun through the valleys by a cleverly constructed and hidden trolley line. They have vanished from the district entirely. During the fight the bees came for us in swarms and stung us badly. I saw some of the men running round not caring a penny for the bullets, but trying to beat off the bees." *

* Extract from a letter from an officer of the 25th Battalion published in the Frontiersman, War Number, 191 8.

In this engagement the battalion lost 20 killed and wounded, including Captain Robinson. It was his first battle, and his gallantry and coolness were remarkable. In the letter already quoted a strange coincidence was remarked. In the action at Kwa Direma the Royal Fusiliers had captured three guns. One, a German gun, lacked its feed block, and the substitute never acted satisfactorily. When the guns captured at Ziwani were being examined, one of them was found to have the missing feed block, which had been adapted to a British gun.

Tandamuti. — After this battle it was thought necessary to wait until the column from Kilwa could co-operate, and the battalion spent the next six weeks at Lindi. Captain Buchanan established an outpost on the north-west approach to Lindi, but the twenty-four days spent on this work were without incident. In the first days of August the enemy were holding a strong position on the left bank of the Lukuledi River, five or six miles south-west of the site of the battle of Ziwani and on the Ziwani ridge. Its southern flank lay on Tandamuti hill. The battalion moved out against this position on the night of August 2nd, and came into contact with the enemy about 6 a.m. on the 3rd. Two companies of Fusiliers reinforced the King's African Rifles in the attack on the hill fortifications. A gallant charge brought the men to a dense thorn obstacle, and they had to withdraw under intense fire. Some fifty yards away the machine guns and Stokes guns opened a galling fire, and at 3.30 p.m. the enemy's reply had ceased. At this moment, when the enemy were retiring, the battalion were ordered to fall back. The British had fared badly on the rest of the battle front. The Fusiliers found Germans in their rear, and had to fight a brisk skirmish to open up the way to Ziwani. On the 10th the position was occupied without opposition after the monitors Mersey and Severn had heavily bombarded the hill.

Narunyu. — On August 18th the Fusiliers marched out with the 1/2 King's African Rifles to attack Narunyu, about twenty miles south-west of Lindi. They moved north, then west, and then south, to take the position from the west. Near the hill overlooking Narunyu the King's African Rifles were heavily engaged, and the Fusiliers at once formed with them a hollow square. It was as well they had taken the precaution, for very soon they were attacked from all sides. In this confined position they fought for five days, with very little water, no cooked food and hardly any undisturbed rest. On the night of August 22nd they were ordered to retire, and did so under cover of darkness. The battalion, as usual, were really suffering more from the terrible climate than from the enemy. On September 4th they took over the front line at Narunyu from the 8th South African Infantry, who were suffering still more. About six weeks later the Kilwa and Lindi columns joined hands, and another action was fought in the Lukuledi Valley on August 18th. In this action the troops found themselves suddenly confronted by an overwhelming body of the enemy, and in covering a temporary retirement the Fusiliers were cut to pieces.

In many ways this was a supremely fitting ending of the 25th Battalion's work in Africa. The enemy were at their last blow. Six weeks later Von Lettow was over the frontier, and before the end of the year the colony was clear of Germans. It was the Royal Fusiliers' last action. They had sprung into existence quite suddenly ; they passed cleanly when the work was done. A romantic body of adventurers, they desired no better fate. Colonel Driscoll, their commander, had a genius for the sort of warfare which filled this campaign. Swift in decision, resolute, ingenious and experienced, he directed his battalion with marked ability, and the 25th won for itself great fame in the most trying campaign of the war.