Part 1 : Formation and Operations in British East Africa
October 1915 to April 1916
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On 3rd November 1914 the 2nd Battalion the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (2LNL) landed at Tanga on the Indian Ocean coastline of German East Africa (now named Tanzania) as part of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ that had sailed from India. The Battalion then possessed one section of two machine guns of .303 calibre. The British Force commander totally mis-calculated both the strength of German resistance and the fighting capabilities of troops who had not touched dry land nor eaten their accustomed diet since leaving India. After two days of heavy fighting in and around Tanga town the British commander withdrew his men by sea, leaving the force’s machine guns on the beach as the Royal Navy did not wish to risk damage to its boats during the evacuation.
Below: A 2LNL machine gun emplacement
Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ then disembarked at Mombasa in British East Africa (now named Kenya). The Battalion was deployed on defensive duties aimed at preventing German incursions into British East Africa. The main German target was the Uganda Railway that ran from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. During 1915 the Battalion increased its holding of machine guns to eight, and the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel J.E. Jourdain DSO, attached a section of two guns to each rifle company for operations. The battalion was provided with African machine gun porters to carry the guns and ammunition. The machine gunners saw action around Lake Victoria, with the most prominent occasion being a successful raid on Bukoba in GEA in June. Six guns were also in action during an unsuccessful attack on Mbuyuni the next month. During the withdrawal from this ineptly-led fight a section had nearly every man wounded and a gun was lost.
Formation of the first Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company
On 6th October 1915 Colonel Jourdain received orders for his battalion machine guns to be organised as a separate unit. This was to be the first of three machine gun companies in the East African theatre for which the Loyal North Lancashires would provide the manpower. The colonel immediately suggested that a separate war establishment be produced for the new company so that his battalion could request a draft of troops from India or England to restore its strength. As 2LNL was the only regular British Army battalion in the theatre it was being constantly denuded of personnel for new specialist sub-units that were formed and for extra-regimental positions in headquarters and training schools.
Above: A Loyal North Lancashire machine gun team
Whilst the staff pondered over the colonel’s suggestion centralised machine gun training started at Nakuru, a town on the Uganda Railway line 125 kilometres north-west of Nairobi. Captain J.F.B. Watson was appointed as the Machine Gun Company commander and he moved from Bura, the battalion location, to Nakuru to plan training activities. The battalion war diary mentions that on 30th November 2/Lts J.G.W. Hyndson and G.E. Bowden, 36 other ranks, 4 machine guns, 35 porters and 2 private followers returned from Nakuru. This party comprised Nos 3 and 4 Sections of the company. The following day Nos 1 and 2 Sections consisting of Lieutenants A.P.V. Piggot (attached from the South Lancashire Regiment) and A.A. Wale, 40 other ranks, 4 machine guns, 41 porters and 2 followers departed for training. It is likely that the followers were officers’ private servants, allowed for on the Indian theatre personnel establishment that the battalion was using. Nos 1 and 2 Sections returned to the battalion location with Captain Watson on 14th December. The training at Nakuru probably introduced the use of mules for gun and ammunition carrying.
Colonel Jourdain administered the Machine Gun Company but it was to be deployed tactically by Brigade or Divisional Headquarters. However the Colonel was a great experimenter in all things infantry, and just before Christmas 1915 he: . . . finished fitting a Maxim gun shield. This single shield weighs 28 lbs (12.7 Kg) whereas the double shield with stand as designed by the Divisional Machine Gun Officer weighs 72 lbs (32.7 Kg). From actual experiment the British rifle only slightly dents the shield if it is slightly tilted as is the case when it is in position. Unfortunately we have no photographs of either of these shields. There is no further mention of them and it is likely that they proved to be too cumbersome when trekking through the thick African bush.
Above: A Loyal North Lancashire Machine gun section on the march with porters
Into action at Ngurungani
A German force of up to 500 men with 4 machine guns was reported to be approaching Mombasa on 8th January 1916. A column containing three 2LNL companies and two Company machine gun sections was despatched by train from Bura to Samburu. After some hard marching a sharp action was fought on 10th January. One of the LNL sections under 2/Lt Bowden accompanied the advance guard and fired effectively over the heads of the attacking Bharatpore Infantry. The guns were in action from about 1700 to 1800 hours and when dusk fell the British commander withdrew, advancing again the following morning. However the Germans had themselves hastily withdrawn leaving behind 1150 unfired cartridges in one of their four machine gun emplacements. The Bharatpores, an Imperial Service unit provided by the Ruler of the princely state of Bharatpore, lost three sepoys killed and three wounded. The only British casualty was a wounded soldier from the 25th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). The Company moved to a new base at Maktau where mules were issued.
Ammunition loads per machine gun were fixed at:
3,500 to be carried on porters. 6,000 on mules. 9,800 to be carried in the carts or lorries of the Ammunition Column that travelled in the rear of a Brigade advance.
The Company now started to mess separately from the Battalion.
On 19th January orders were received that a complete machine gun section, but without personnel, was to be sent temporarily to the 2nd Battalion The Rhodesia Regiment (2RR). Colonel Jourdain commented: The section should of course have been complete as it had been trained – a piece of bad staff work. The Battalion and the Company then moved to Mbuyuni Camp, where the guns were deployed by the staff for defensive duties. Captain Watson received a piece of strong advice from Colonel Jourdain when a section of guns was deployed on orders of the staff but without the Colonel being informed. Search parties unsuccessfully scoured the area of the withdrawal from the Mbuyuni fight in July the previous year but failed to find the gun that had been lost on that occasion. A battalion strength return on 29th January reported that 6 guns were held, and 104 gun porters were on strength but 20 of them were medically sick. The harsh equatorial climatic conditions of extreme sun and heavy rain, along with a cocktail of tropical diseases such as malaria and black-water fever, were adversely affecting the African as well as the European ranks.
In early February a reasonably accurate British intelligence report estimated that the enemy in German East Africa had around 2,800 European officers and senior non commissioned officers (NCOs) and around 10,000 Askari riflemen. The Germans employed most of their Europeans in Field Companies to command the Askari. European NCOs were always to be found firing the German machine guns.
Above: Salaita Hill from the north-east
The reverse at Salaita Hill
In August 1914 the Germans had crossed into British East Africa and occupied the town of Taveta after a fight with retreating British policemen. A strong German defensive position was then built 10 kilometres eastwards on Salaita Hill. The British military railway line that had been constructed from Voi on the Uganda Railway westwards to Maktau could not be advanced west of Serengeti camp because of the German position on Salaita Hill. The British decided to mount a Divisional attack on the hill. Several thousand new white troops from South Africa had recently arrived in British East Africa and this action was to be their baptism under fire.
Unfortunately the South Africans at this stage were poorly trained and disciplined, and many of them held contemptuous attitudes towards African and Indian troops. The British plan was for the 1st East African Brigade (2LNL, 2RR and the 130th Baluchis) to advance on the left and hold the enemy’s attention whilst the 2nd South African Brigade (5th, 6th and 7th South African Infantry) advanced on the right and turned the German positions from the north. Mounted infantry were deployed on both flanks, and artillery was to pound Salaita Hill before the attack. The Loyal North Lancashires Machine Gun Company was directed by the commander of 1st East African Brigade. British intelligence estimates indicated that 300 enemy troops occupied the hill with some machine guns but no artillery.
In fact the strength of the German garrison on the hill was over four times the British estimate. Six companies were located there and these contained, 120 Europeans, 1,200 Askari, 12 machine guns and 2 small field artillery pieces. In between Salaita and Taveta a German formation of 3 field companies with 600 men was held in reserve, and in and around Taveta were a further three companies. The German plan was to summon assistance with signal rockets when a British attack was made, and the reserve formation would then swiftly march around the northern end of the hill and counter-attack the attackers. This had been successfully accomplished when a previous British ‘demonstration’ had been made against Salaita Hill in March 1915. At dawn the British artillery opened fire and expended much ammunition on dummy trenches on the higher slopes of the hill. German Signal rockets were fired alerting the reserve formation which started speed-marching forward. The bulk of the German defenders waited unscathed in well-concealed trenches at the foot of the hill. The 1st East African Brigade advanced through the bush until it was about 3,000 metres from the hill. Meanwhile on the British right the three South African battalions, untrained yet in bush warfare, were disorientated, thirsty, and exhausted by the heat and their struggle through the dense bush.
By 1000 hours the South Africans had been stopped by effective enemy fire when they were about 500 metres from the northern end of Salaita. An enemy company from the hill then started a counter attack but this was made redundant by the German reserve formation sweeping around the hill and charging straight into the South Africans who broke and fled, many without their rifles. Hundreds of German Askari with fixed bayonets shouted and screamed as they overtook stumbling South Africans and bayoneted them to death. The 1st East African Brigade was ordered to advance and engage the enemy, which it did until it was around 1,250 metres from the enemy trenches where open ground enabled the German field and machine gunners to stop the brigade’s advance. Now the commanding officer of 130th Baluchis faced his unit to the north and fired into the rampaging enemy.
This stoic action allowed the British artillery and machine guns to engage the Germans and slow them down, but not before the mules of the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company, which were near the 130th Baluchis position, had stampeded away shedding loads. But the German counter-attack was now dispersed as groups of Askari hunted down South African stragglers individually, and the weight of British artillery and machine gun fire stabilised the battlefield. At 1320 hours the British commander ordered a withdrawal. His division had taken 160 casualties, 140 of them being South Africans of whom 30 were missing and never seen again. The German casualty figures were believed to be around 9 killed and 34 wounded. The Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company, having fired to stem the German counter-attack, provided covering fire as the withdrawing British infantry wearily carried their casualties back to ambulance pick-up points. The only casualties in the company were No 8818 Machine Gun Porter Mitunga killed in action and 2/Lt Wale severely wounded in the foot. During the stampede of the mules 2,400 rounds of ammunition were lost.
A battalion return on 26th February stated that the Machine Gun Company had 8 guns and 88 gun porters. On the following day two sections of the Company provided machine gun support for a column tasked with seizing prisoners from a German field company located near Luchoro Springs. The enemy had 2 machine guns in action but his most effective fire came from snipers posted in trees. Once contact was made the two guns of an Indian Army mountain battery suppressed the German fire and the enemy withdrew having lost at least 9 men killed. The Company took no casualties, although the 2LNL companies in the column did have 4 men wounded; prisoners were taken by the Mounted Infantry Company that was led by Captain G.E. Atkinson of 2LNL.
The South African Lieutenant General J.C. Smuts had arrived a week earlier to command the theatre, and he took over his predecessor’s plans for an invasion of German East Africa.
Above: The Nek from Taveta, Reata on left and Latema on right
The battle for the Latema-Reata Nek
In the 2LNL War Diary the Colonel noted on 2nd March: Major Wedgewood (Josiah C. Wedgewood DSO, Member of Parliament and a staff officer to General Smuts) here inspecting machine guns. I mentioned want of Lewis Guns and more machine guns. He says that there are Rexer guns at Nairobi and that Battalion can ask for two. No one appears to realize how important machine guns are out here. I tried to get some Rexer guns for the Battalion privately more than a year ago.
Five days later orders for the attack on German East Africa arrived. The Germans abandoned Salaita Hill and withdrew to the border area. 2LNL remained in the rear holding the British base at Serengeti and then the town of Taveta, but the Machine Gun Company was deployed forward with 1st East African Brigade to operate in the assault on the Latema-Reata Nek, a pass between two hills that the military railway line needed to use. The Company marched forward on 10th March using a cart to transport greatcoats and cooking pots.
General Smuts’ plan was for the 2nd Division to attack from the east and seize Moshi, whilst the 1st Division advanced on a separate axis from the north and seized Arusha. As part of the 2nd Division operation 1st East African Brigade was to attack and hold the Latema-Reata hills whilst the South African Mounted Brigade outflanked the hills to the north. The Germans had 3 infantry companies, 4 machine guns and a battery of three 6-cm guns entrenched in commanding positions on the hills. During the action the defence was reinforced with 2 more companies and 4 more machine guns.
At noon on 11th March the 130th Baluchis and 3rd King’s African Rifles (3KAR) attacked Latema-Reata Nek under a British artillery barrage, part of which unfortunately fell short onto the attacking troops. The Company was deployed to provide fire support for the Baluchis. Both the Baluchis and the KAR were held up at the foot of the hills; the 3 KAR commanding officer was killed by machine gun fire as he led an assault and the Baluchis lost some ground to a German counter attack. After five hours out in the sun without replenishments of water both battalions and the Machine Gun Company were exhausted and suffering casualties from their own artillery fire.
At 1720 hours the Rhodesians of 2RR mounted an attack in an attempt to break the deadlock. Four Loyal North Lancashire machine guns supported this attack. However the enemy riposted with a strong counter-attack. At 1815 hours the Company was ordered to withdraw. Two South African battalions were brought up to make a bayonet attack at 2000 hours, but this failed when the Germans counter-attacked again. The noise of this action caused a stampede of the Company mules. The British divisional commander then pulled back all his forward troops to replenish. The British artillery had ceased firing when dusk impaired observation. However, unknown to the commander and his staff isolated groups of KAR, Rhodesian and South African troops, supported by at least one man from the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company, had seized disconnected sections of the Latema ridge-line. These courageous men fought throughout the night to keep their positions secure despite repeated German attacks and shouted invitations to surrender. As dawn approached the German commander, hearing of the successful mounted out-flanking move to the north, broke contact and withdrew. He left behind over 40 dead and his men abandoned in the bush one field gun and three machine guns. The total of the British casualties was estimated at 270 men killed, wounded or missing.
After the battle the Rhodesians’ commanding officer gave two reports to Colonel Jourdain:
Sir, I have the honour to bring to your notice the great assistance rendered to No 3 Section 2RR MG Coy by 9266 Private Robertson Loyal North Lancs. It happened on the occasion of the enemy night attack on 11.3.16 at LATEMA. The section was under a very heavy crossfire and had just had two casualties, the Nos 1 and 2 of the left hand gun, when Pte Robertson came along and volunteered to help. He acted No 2 on the gun, helped to carry the gun out of action when we retired, and remained with the section for a considerable time afterwards. Pte Robertson arrived at a very critical time for the section as we were very short handed, and his services were invaluable. He helped to dig the gun in at various positions we were ordered to hold, and only left us when his own section came in touch with us. By this time we had collected a few men and were in a position of comparative safety. Your Obedient Servant, Sgt D. Sharp, MG Coy 2RR.
Colonel Jourdain cited Private Thomas Robertson, who had been severely wounded at Mbuyuni in July 1915, for an award.
The second report, which is not copied into the 2LNL War Diary, led to Colonel Jourdain writing this citation: 9507 Temporary Corporal CONNOR, William 2LNL. At LATEMA on 11.3.16 he, with a small part of Rhodesians held off and defeated a superior body of the enemy who had called upon them to surrender. He used his machine gun efficiently and probably saved the situation. Reported to me by Officer Commanding 2nd Rhodesia Regiment. No previous mentions but has always behaved with credit in action.
William Connor was later awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal but Thomas Robertson was not.
The Company had five casualties during the fighting on Latema, most of them caused by ‘friendly’ artillery fire: Captain A.P.V. Pigott, Slightly Wounded. No 9569 Pte Kay, Slightly Wounded. No 9790 Corporal Ward, Slightly Wounded. No MSA 818 Machine Gun Porter Tundi Mogtaba, Missing. No MSA 483 Machine Gun Porter Malieka, Severely Wounded.
One machine gun was damaged and 6,321 rounds were expended during the action.
Above: Latema after the battle
Whilst most of 1st East African Brigade now moved forward into German territory, 2LNL and the Company stayed on the British East Africa side of the border to man westward-facing defensive positions on the Latema-Reata hills. On 19th March two officers of the recently-formed Machine Gun Corps, Lieutenants P. Liesching and G.W. Schofield, were posted to the Company. A strength return at the end of the month listed 4 officers and 77 Other Ranks fit for duty. The battalion and the Company moved back to Mbuyuni Camp, and on 1st April 110 men reported sick with malaria and other tropical ailments. Two days later 115 men reported sick but there was only one vacant bed in the hospital.
In Colonel Jourdain’s list of recommendations for Mentions In Despatches dated 9th April he listed 2/Lt Bowden:
Has been with the Battalion since 3rd December 1914 continuously as a company officer and machine gun officer. I understand he was brought to notice for efficient command of a Machine Gun Section at Ngurungani on 10.1.16. Always alert, energetic and capable.
However Gilbert Bowden had to wait until August 1918 before he received a Mention in Despatches. (He was awarded a Military Cross later during the East African Campaign, and after the war he became an Adjutant of the Machine Gun Corps Depot.)
In mid-April Colonel Jourdain wrote to Divisional Headquarters:
Unless drafts from England arrive, and unless all men on Extra-Regimental employment are returned to the Battalion (2LNL), I can see no hope of ever having the Battalion anywhere up to War Establishment. This being the case, I would suggest that all fit men that are available be trained in machine gun work (Maxim and Rexer) and as mounted infantry, or both, so that a continual supply can be forthcoming from some training centre. . . . I think that I am the person to conduct this training and to continually inspect these two units, if organized. 10 to 20 mules and ponies and one of each kind of machine gun would be enough to train with. Officers and men could be temporarily relieved when necessary, and everything would be much more satisfactory than at present. The Battalion has always been too much split-up while in East Africa and men get out of my hands which is not good for them.
This suggestion, made by the only British Regular Army commanding officer in the theatre, and one who had been awarded a Distinguished Service Order whilst commanding a mounted infantry company in the South African War, was returned without comment by the Brigade Staff.
The Colonel’s comments at this unprofessional and ill-mannered action were pithy. (At that time General Smuts had convinced himself that he would end the East African Campaign within a few months, and so long-term planning and training was not needed.)
A decision was now made to move to South Africa all sick Loyal North Lancashire personnel who could travel, in order to provide an opportunity for recuperation. Medical Boards were arranged to determine the fitness of all officers and men. The fit men were to stay in East Africa manning the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company, the Mounted Infantry Company and No 6 Battery of field artillery (known as Logan’s Battery after its commander Captain R.H. Logan 2LNL).
On 16th April the staff told Colonel Jourdain that the strengths of the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company and the Mounted Infantry Company would be 150 men and 80 men respectively. This created an immediate problem as only 130 2LNL men were classed as being fit and available. The staff partially solved this situation by convening a Special Medical Board which certified that 24 of the unfit men were in fact fit. The Colonel’s comment was: This sort of thing is unsatisfactory and discreditable to the Medical Department.
Finally 167 fit men were shared between the Machine Gun and the Mounted Infantry Companies, with the majority becoming machine gunners. On 10th May 1916 the battalion sailed for South Africa, leaving the Mounted Infantry Company, No 6 Battery and the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company to be used by the staff as they saw fit.
The Machine Gun Company was commanded by Major R.E Berkeley and the other officers were Lieutenants G.E. Bowden, H. Wilkinson and W. Halton and 2nd Lieutenant. H.P. Woodgate. Lieutenants A. Schofield and W.M. Liesching, Machine Gun Corps, were attached for duty with the Company.
The Company Sergeant Major (CSM) was T. Nelson.
The Company equipment and transport was:
8 Maxim guns of .303 calibre. 120 First Line Machine Gun Porters to carry spare parts, water for the cooling systems and First Line ammunition (immediate reserve ammunition). 500 Second Line Porters to carry baggage, supplies and additional ammunition. These men marched in a separate column some way behind the Company. 40 mules to carry the guns, plus ammunition to be used when coming into action.
And so with the departure of Colonel Jourdain and 2LNL the Company now truly was an independent unit. Its organization and transport reflected the fact that it no longer expected to confront the enemy on the line of march as a battalion would, but that it was a firepower asset to be used at the direction of a Brigade or Divisional commander.
-The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1914-1919 by Colonel H.C. Wylly CB. -Official History. Military Operations East Africa, Volume I, August 1914 – September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern. -War Diaries of 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 25th Bn The Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) and The Mounted Infantry Company. -The London Gazette and Medal Index Cards. -Photographs of the machine gunners of the 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were kindly provided by the copyright holder The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum, Preston, UK.
(The activities of the first Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company in German East Africa will be described in a second article.)