On the outbreak of the Great War the energetic military commander in
German East Africa (GEA), Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, wasted little time
in attacking both Nyasaland and British East Africa
(BEA). Four natural invasion routes were
available from German territory into BEA and Schutztruppe troops used all of
them. On the Indian Ocean coast a push
on Mombasa was repulsed by the British at Gazi,
whilst further to the north-west fierce fighting too place in the thick bush of
the Tsavo River Valley. The more arid route to Kajiado and Nairobi from GEA, via
Namanga, was used by mounted German raiding parties who clashed with
detachments of the Magadi Defence Force and the East Africa Mounted Rifles. Also an advance towards Kisumu, the British railhead
of the Uganda Railway, was made along the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria.
Captain Wilhelm Bock von Wulfingen, the German commander of 14 Field
Company in Mwanza, was reinforced with 7 Field Company from Bukoba and tasked
with advancing towards Kisumu to destroy viaducts on the Uganda Railway. Captain von Wulfingen assembled a force
consisting of 52 Germans, 266 Askari, 101 Ruga-Ruga from the Wagaya tribe that
inhabits the south eastern shores of Lake Victoria,
3 machine guns and one 3.7 centimetre field gun. Facing them across the border was the British
garrison in Kisumu consisting of the 90 Askaris of ‘G’ Company, 4th
King’s African Rifles (4KAR), 100 British East African policemen and 130
Volunteers who had been enlisted in the Kisumu Town Guard. At Kisii was a District Commissioner with a
small police detachment.
The German commander marched across the British East African border and
occupied the undefended port
of Karungu on 9th
September leaving a small garrison there.
On Lake Victoria the German armed tug Muansa accompanying him to support the
advance. The Germans now moved on towards
Kisii and the news of this caused the District Commissioner and his policemen
to withdraw towards Kendu, using prisoners from the Kisii gaol to carry a
considerable amount of tax revenue coins with them. This British withdrawal was unfortunate as
the local Gussi people had been roughly handled by King’s African Rifles
punitive expeditions in 1905 and 1908 and a popular local belief predicted that
the white men would soon leave the Kissi district.
Above: German Askari firing blackpowder weapons
The British response to the German occupation of Kisii was to send as
many troops as possible from Uganda
across Lake Victoria to Kisumu and then on to
Kendu, the nearest port to Kisii.
Captain Edward Gerald Mytton Thorneycroft, the Adjutant of 4KAR, was
placed in command and his force consisted of ‘G’ Company 4KAR which was already
at Kisumu, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies 4KAR from Masaka in Uganda, and 50 British
East African police from Kisumu. The KAR
carried two machine guns with them. Lieutenant William John Townsend Shorthose
commanded ‘G’ Company which was recruited from the Baganda tribe, Lieutenant
Edward Lionel Musson commanded ‘C’ Company and Lieutenant Harry Arthur Lilley
commanded ‘D’ Company. ‘C’ and ‘D’
Companies were composed mainly of Sudanese Askari. The armed vessel Kavirondo provided protection for ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies as they
moved across the lake.
Captain Thorneycroft occupied a ridge of high ground overlooking Kisii
town on the morning of 12th September and observed the enemy force
parading and preparing to march towards Kisumu.
However the Germans were soon alerted by local Africans that the British
were occupying the ridgeline and a determined enemy attack was mounted. The British ridgeline had three summits and
‘G’ Company with one machine gun was on the left, ‘C’ Company was in the centre
and ‘D’ Company with the other machine gun was on the right. The police were held in reserve.
Above: The hill on the British left seen from Kisii. The Germans attacked from the right of the picture
As the German Askari opened fire it was apparent that they were using
black powder ammunition in their rifles as a cloud of smoke identified each
shot fired, often causing the firer to have to stand up to fire his next shot
over the smoke. Similarly the enemy 3.7
centimetre gun drew attention to itself with smoke as it fired each round. The 4KAR Askari fired volleys back into the
smoke, hitting many enemy riflemen and gunners.
A column of German troops led by their Europeans marched towards the
British left flank. Lieutenant Shorthose
was firing the machine gun on this flank and he hit several Germans. This caused the column to disperse into
skirmishing order and continue the attack in small groups. The enemy seized a small feature below the
British left flank and the British East African police counter-attacked. After fierce fighting the enemy assault was
Captain Thorneycroft then advanced with a party into Kisii town but he
was soon surprised by a German patrol and shot dead. The British right flank now felt the pressure
of an enemy assault and both British officers there, Lieutenants Musson and
Grey, were wounded. An African officer
of 4KAR whose name sadly has not been recorded was killed along with 6 Askari
and policemen. Twelve other Askari and
policemen were wounded.
fighting 1771 Sergeant Miydiyo of 4KAR acted with commendable gallantry and
later he received a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
His citation read:
For doing very good work
and displaying great bravery when at close quarters with the enemy, although
twice wounded at the action at Kisii.
As dusk fell Lieutenant Lilley, now the British commander, concentrated
his men in the centre of their ridge and fired volleys at the enemy, hoping to
encourage them in the belief that a British attack was starting. The British were now nearly out of ammunition
and Lieutenant Lilley withdrew his men towards Kendu port. But the enemy was in disarray having lost 9
Germans and 33 Askari killed and 9 Germans and 38 Askari wounded or
missing. Many porters and Ruga-Ruga had
disappeared back towards German territory.
Captain von Wulfingen, himself wounded, decided to abandon his
demolition mission. He left the wounded
that he could not carry and quickly withdrew his survivors back directly
towards the border and then across the Mara River
in GEA. The local inhabitants of Kisii,
believing that their prophecy had been fulfilled descended on the empty
government bungalows and abandoned Indian shops and looted them.
Meanwhile the 4KAR Reserve Company and a detachment of Uganda Police,
commanded by Lieutenant Harold Senhouse Pinder, had landed at Kendu from Uganda and were
marching towards Kisii. Upon meeting
Lieutenant Lilley’s force a halt was made for the night and ammunition carried
by the Reserve Company and Uganda Police was redistributed. The following day, 13th September,
the British re-occupied a thoroughly looted Kisii and found 5 wounded Germans
and 16 wounded enemy Askari lying on the ground, along with abandoned rifles, revolvers
and baggage. A military garrison
occupied Kisii and the authorities took stern measures to discipline the
looters and to re-establish the British East Africa
Brigadier General J.M. Stewart’s headquarters in Nairobi assumed that the withdrawing Germans
would make for Karungu port. ‘B’ and ‘E’
Squadrons of the East African Mounted Rifles, a newly-raised local white
Volunteer unit, were transported without their mounts by rail from the Magadi
region south of Nairobi
to Kisumu. There they sailed on HMS Winifred for Karungu, arriving shortly
after noon on the 15th September.
The German garrison was flying a national flag and the Winifred was immediately fired
upon. This was a baptism of fire for the
Volunteers who lay on the deck and returned fire. The German Muansa then appeared fromthe reeds along the lake shore using
her 3.7 centimetre revolver gun to and fire at and hit the Winifred. The Winifred withdrew to meet up with the Kavirondo.
When the two British vessels returned to Karungu later they found
that the German garrison had returned to German East
Africa on the Muansa. Karungu was then garrisoned by the
Captain Thorneycroft’s solitary grave lies in Kisii on the site of the
old Boma that is now a social club. After
being visited and photographed by the writer the very weathered headstone is
being replaced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The graves of the Germans who died at Kisii are
in the CWGC cemetery at Kisumu. The
burial places of the dead Askari of both sides are regrettably not known.
The King’s African Rifles by
Lieutenant-Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.
Official History Of The
War. Military Operations East Africa August 1914 – September 1916 by
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hordern. Sport and Adventure in Africa by Captain W.T. Shorthose.
Operationen in Ostafrika
by Ludwig Boell
Magadi. The Story of the Magadi Soda Company by M.F. Hill.
The Story of the East
African Mounted Rifles by C.J. Wilson.