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Operations in British and German East Africa 1915-1916

To see maps and further Photos relating to the article please click HERE

During the Great War a fierce campaign was fought in East Africa between the three allied nations of Britain, Belgium and Portugal against Germany.  The main battleground was the large colony of German East Africa (GEA, now Tanzania), which was surrounded on all sides except the east by the colonies of the Allies; to the east of GEA lay the Indian Ocean.  Britain built up its main military force in British East Africa (BEA, now Kenya) and the only British Regular Army infantry unit to serve in East Africa during the Great War, the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (2 LNL), moved to BEA from India in October 1915 as part of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’. 

The British colonies surrounding GEA were BEA and Uganda in the north, and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) to the south-west.  To the west of GEA across Lake Tanganyika was the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and to the south across the Rovuma River was Portuguese East Africa (PEA, now Mozambique); however Portugal did not enter the Great War until March 1916 and it was neutral until that date.  To their professional credit the Germans had a well-trained and experienced local army in GEA named the Schutztruppe, and that force had two outstanding assets, one being the number of field and machine guns that it possessed, all manned by German specialists, and the other being the calibre of its exceptional German commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a man who did not surrender his troops in East Africa until after the 1918 Armistice in Europe had come into effect.

The local Allied military forces in East Africa were in comparison less well equipped and trained, as their security role was the subjugation of poorly armed tribal insurgents, and British colonial administrators kept military budgets deliberately small.  The arrival of the Loyal North Lancashires in BEA injected professionalism into the British force as 2 LNL provided many specialists such as signallers, machine gunners, light artillerymen, armourers, storemen, and transport and staff officers. 

From the start of the war in August 1914 BEA had been forming mounted infantry units with varying degrees of success and one of these units consisted of local Somalis commanded by officers from BEA.  Eventually most men in this unit were from 2 LNL and this led to the formation of an independent unit named the Mounted Infantry Company that in the end was almost completely manned by officers and men seconded from 2 LNL.

Above: 2 LNL men of Coles's Scouts water their mounts



The Somali Scouts


Amongst the new units formed in BEA after the start of the War was a mounted unit raised by a well-known settler named Berkeley Cole, a younger son of the Earl of Enniskillen and a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, the unofficial leader of the colony’s European community.  The initiative for the unit came from Somali residents of BEA who met on the outskirts of Nairobi at Muthaiga and marched down to Nairobi House to offer their services to the Governor.  Captain Berkeley Cole, formerly of the 9th Lancers, was tasked to organize a company of the Somalis into mounted scouts.  He did this with the assistance of other settlers who joined him as officers, one of them being Denys Finch Hatton, son of the Earl of Winchelsea, whose later death in an aviation incident was depicted in the film "Out of Africa".

Initially the company was formed as a Mounted Infantry company of 3rd Battalion the King’s African Rifles (3 KAR) and was known as the Somali Scouts.  The company was used in the area southwest of Kiu Station to protect the Uganda Railway by patrolling the ground towards the GEA border.  At this time German demolition parties from GEA were targeting the railway line that ran from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria.  On 05 January 1915 37 of the 58 Somalis refused to go out on an operation with Captain Cole but they changed their minds the next day and then went out.  Trouble persisted in the unit until late February when the situation was regarded as a mutiny.  The reasons for the trouble are not clear and even Lord Cranworth whose book "Kenya Chronicles" describe these times could not understand why Cole and his officers did not contain this situation.  (Somali troops were never the easiest to command but KAR officers did the job satisfactorily, and soon Lord Cranworth would be doing it also.)

Anyway the officers of the Somali Scouts needed assistance and so on 22 February 1915 100 men of No 4 Company of 2 LNL left Nairobi by train for Kiu, south of the junction point of the Magadi branch line with the Uganda Railway; this party was commanded by Captain John Woodruffe, Royal Sussex Regiment, attached to 2nd Loyal North Lancashires.  There the men built a boma (an enclosure surrounded by thorn branches) and awaited the arrival of the Somali Scouts.  Three nights later the Somalis arrived at Kiu; when the Scouts were sat around their fire the men of No. 4 Company 2 LNL surrounded and surprised them.  The Somalis then laid down their weapons on the orders of their own officers and the mutineers were arrested and placed in the boma.


Cole’s Scouts

The British military headquarters in Nairobi planned to disband the Somali Scouts and place Captain Cole in command of a company of mounted infantrymen drawn from 2 LNL, but Lord Cranworth who was in BEA accompanying Colonel Kitchener, the Field Marshall's brother, on a fact-finding mission made a suggestion.  Cranworth offered to command 25 loyal Somalis in a mounted troop containing the unit machine gun, alongside the Loyal North Lancashire mounted infantrymen, all to be under Cole's command and known as Cole's Scouts.  The suggestion was accepted and the Commanding Officer of 2 LNL, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Jourdain DSO, was instructed to train 50 men for mounted infantry (MI) work.  This was not a difficult task for Colonel Jourdain as he had been awarded his Distinguished Service Order after commanding his regiment’s Mounted Infantry Company during the Boer War.

No. 4 Company returned to Nairobi but a detachment remained at Kiu and commenced training in mounted infantry duties.  Somali ponies were the mounts, and donkeys were used for transporting stores.  The ponies were striped like zebras with iodene, which created an effective camouflage in the bush.  The 2 LNL War Diary for 7th May 1915 lists Cole's Scouts as on an operation with a strength of 5 officers, 98 other ranks and one machine gun.   One of the officers, 2nd Lieutenant W. Parker, and over 70 of the men were from 2 LNL.  A new unit had been formed, trained and deployed.

Some problems amongst the men of the Somali troop persisted, but Lord Cranworth's description of how he imposed discipline is interesting.  One of the mutineers had escaped detection and was in Cranworth's troop, so a plan was made in conjunction with the Company Sergeant Major, a steady disciplinarian.  When the former mutineer transgressed by being late on parade and striking the non-commissioned officer (NCO) who cautioned him, Cranworth offered the man a military or a private punishment.  The Somali opted for the private measure and received 20 lashes, "They were laid on with a will, even I think with brutality.  At the end he jumped up, stood at attention and saluted.  I had no more trouble with him, or indeed with his comrades ....".  Flogging was in fact a legal punishment in the KAR until after the war, and it was often preferred by the Askari (African soldiers) rather than the alternative punishment of a fine being deducted from pay.

On 14th July 1915 Cole’s Scouts was in action at Mbuyuni, in between Maktau and Taveta, leading a right-flanking column during the approach to the German position that was to be attacked.  The British attack failed when the main column, making a frontal assault against entrenched and higher enemy machine guns, bogged down when the Commanding Officer of the Indian Army battalion the 29th Punjabis, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Vallings, was killed and his Adjutant wounded.  However on the right flank Lord Cranworth brought the Cole’s Scouts’ machine gun into action usefully, causing casualties in the enemy rear area.  The British commander, Brigadier General Wilfred Malleson, ordered a withdrawal, and the German defence claimed the victory.  Thanks to the results of its machine gunnery Cole’s Scouts had proved to be one of the most effective British units in the action.

The end of Cole’s Scouts came about in August 1915 through a fit of pique caused by Finch Hatton who intercepted a routine report from 2nd Lieutenant Parker, the 2 LNL subaltern in the Scouts.  The report was going to Colonel Jourdain who without doubt expected to receive regular reports from his officer in Cole’s Scouts as that unit had absorbed many of the Colonel’s men.  Although the other more mature officers saw little wrong in the report except that it was not channeled through Cole, Finch Hatton indignantly objected to mess-table chatter being reported and he persuaded Cole to send a fiery message to Army Headquarters in Nairobi.  But by this time Nairobi had had enough of Cole’s Scouts and after conducting various interviews ordered the disbandment of the unit.

Above: The German Usumbara Railway running below the Pare Mountains

Lord Cranworth greatly regretted the disbandment.  He considered that 2nd Lieutenant Parker was "both efficient & brave" and he concluded: "I, for one, was particularly sorry for this ending, and not least because of my admiration for the men whom we had had the privilege to command.  The Loyal North Lancashires, whether in East Africa or in France, had a record which will bear comparison with any regiment in the British Army."

The 2 LNL personnel, mules and donkeys returned to their Battalion whilst the remaining Somalis probably went to the KAR Mounted Infantry Company which contained many Ethiopians and was sponsored by 3 KAR.  Lord Cranworth returned to Europe, served in France then returned to serve in German East Africa with the Artillery; he later was awarded a Military Cross.  The other officers in Cole’s Scouts dispersed to various military appointments in East Africa, three of them also later receiving the Military Cross, and one of them sadly being killed in action in GEA.

Much credit is due to the Somali Scouts for volunteering and for patrolling between the railway and the German East African border.  When the unit was reorganized into Cole’s Scouts it performed well at Mbuyuni, and the Somalis in the unit at that time could be proud of their hard year’s operational service in the field.  Officers such as Lord Cranworth understood the man-management skills and techniques that were required when commanding very individual soldiers such as Somalis, but not all of his brother officers appeared to have possessed the same understanding.  Medal Index Cards (cards maintained in London to record qualifications for British Army medals) can be found for Somali members of both the Somali Scouts and Cole’s Scouts.  However the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records do not appear to list casualties from either unit.



The joint-unit Mounted Infantry Company

On the disbandment of Cole's Scouts the British military headquarters in Nairobi decided to form a Mounted Infantry Company (MI Company) using infantry men from 2 LNL and the 25th (Service) Battalion The Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) (abbreviated to 25 RF); 25 RF was a battalion that had been enlisted for the duration of the war only.  The Loyal North Lancashires had provided around 80 riders for Cole's Scouts and 25 RF had formed its own mounted sub-unit for operations around the Magadi branch railway line.  Some of the Loyal North Lancashires had served in Mounted Infantry Companies in the South African War and some of the Royal Fusiliers had ridden in Scouts and other mounted units around the world.  Each Battalion was ordered to provide 75 men plus a proportion of NCOs.  The MI Company had its own establishment tables for personnel, animals and equipment and it was recognised as an independent sub-unit.

Above: MI Mounts and men in the bush

The first Officer Commanding the MI Company was Captain John Woodruffe; he took up his appointment on 28 August 1915.  The other officers were: Lieutenant Alan Storey, South Lancashire Regiment attached 2 LNL; Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, 25 RF; 2nd Lieutenant Martin Ryan, 25 RF; and 2nd Lieutenant W. Parker, 2 LNL.

Officers were mounted on Somali ponies and the NCOs and men on mules.  In the tsetse fly regions of East Africa horses & ponies could only be kept alive for a very short time, however in the Maktau area as long as the mules were administered with 10 grains of arsenic every evening they were practically immune.  Also the mules could exist by grazing and they did not need a daily forage ration.  No officers in the MI Company had attended a Mounted Infantry Course but all the personnel were men who were accustomed to horses, and two of the officers, Parker and Ryan, had received their commissions from the ranks of cavalry regiments.

The new company operated from Maktau where the country was generally open rolling low hills with patches of woodland and dense bush; water sources were very scarce.  Visibility from high ground was quite good except around noon when the overhead sun produced a haze causing a mirage.  The duties of the MI Company were: reconnoitring, reporting on enemy movements (keeping in touch with advancing or withdrawing enemy units), looking for water sources, producing terrain reports, searching for downed British aircraft, clearing woods and dense bush of enemy troops when operating with armoured cars, and intercepting enemy raiding parties.  The duties were continuous & the work was very arduous.  The Mounted Infantry Company's baptism by fire was to occur very shortly.

above: A MI patrol dismounted




The Mounted Infantry Company Engagement on 3rd September 1915 and the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross

Maktau was the most important staging post on the British military branch railway line that was being constructed from Voi on the Uganda Railway to Taveta on the GEA border.  At 0835 hours on 3rd September 1915 the Officer Commanding Maktau Post, Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Price, 130th Baluchis, Indian Army, received a report that the down-line ballast train carrying railway construction materials had been fired on at Mile 34 which was 5 miles southeast of Maktau.  At the same time Mashoti Post reported heavy firing in the same area and one of its 10-man patrols near the railway line was fired at.  The enemy strength was estimated to be 40 men.

Colonel Price immediately ordered the MI Company to proceed about seven miles to the south of Maktau to intercept the Schutztruppe raiders as they returned to GEA.  Also a special patrol of 50 infantrymen from 130th Baluchis under Lieutenant Arthur Henry Wildman was ordered to march speedily in the same direction to support the MI Company.  Six mounted soldiers from the MI Company accompanied the Baluchis and an Intelligence Agent also marched with them.

Captain Woodruffe took 3 officers and 63 men out on the mission.  His order of battle (ORBAT) was:

No. 1 Troop:  2nd Lieutenant W. Parker with men from 2 LNL.
No. 2 Troop:  2nd Lieutenant M. Ryan with men from 25 RF.
No. 3 Troop:  Lieutenant W.T. Dartnell with men from 25 RF.

The MI Company cantered out well ahead of the Baluch to a position on a slight ridge covered in bush.  Around 1015 hours Captain Woodruffe deployed No 1 Troop in the centre facing east and No. 3 Troop on the right facing southeast, to cover that flank; No. 2 Troop was in reserve to the rear.  Mules were held in cover 100 yards behind the position. 

Above: The first grave of Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell VC

Picquets (small groups of men tasked with observation and listening duties) were placed forward of the position and Company Headquarters was behind No. 1 Troop.

At around 1130 hours a man in No. 3 Troop accidentally discharged his rifle.  It is more than likely that the sound of this shot attracted the enemy towards the MI Company's position.  Just after noon the picquets saw 90 or more enemy approaching.  When the enemy Askari were between 10 and 50 yards in front of the picquet line the picquets fired and quickly withdrew into their Troop positions, as per operational procedures.  Now seeing the direction of advance of the enemy Captain Woodruffe ordered No. 2 Troop into line on the left of No. 1 Troop.  The Schutztruppe was keen to fight & closed with the MI Company, firing furiously & accurately.  Both men and mules of the MI Company started receiving wounds.

In bush encounters such as this one the MI Company was not firing from the security of a trench but was lying or kneeling on the surface.  Although the bush to their front may have partially concealed the men it did not stop bullets from hitting them.  As the visibility of the men was dependent on the density of the bush, in thick bush they were tempted to move to get a better aim, and so they exposed themselves to bullet-strikes.  As No. 3 Troop's right flank was not facing the enemy it was not engaging them and so Captain Woodruffe ordered Lieutenant Dartnell to swing the right of his line to the east.  In the heat of the battle this order was misunderstood and as No 3 Troop moved it bunched towards the centre rear of No 1 Troop, offering an attractive target to the enemy Askari.

"Fix Bayonets!" was ordered by Captain Woodruffe who then received a severe wound in the back.  He saw that the situation was deteriorating rapidly and he ordered a retirement before the MI Company was encircled.  Private Harry Bristow, 2 LNL, who had been tending casualties, carried Captain Woodruffe away whilst under heavy fire.  2nd Lieutenant Parker took over command and re-organised the Company, getting every recoverable wounded man who could ride onto a mule.  He saw that Lieutenant Dartnell was wounded below the knee and prepared to evacuate him but Wilbur Dartnell requested to be left behind.  He stated that he hoped that his presence as an officer would prevent the other wounded men from being killed when the position was overrun.  Parker respected Wilbur Dartnell's wish and left him there.  Parker then brought the MI Company out of action at around 1230 hours, enemy Askari being only 25 yards away as they mounted, and the MI Company rode towards Maktau.

Meanwhile after marching for five miles Lieutenant Wildman was concerned that he was not in contact with the MI Company, so at 1045 hours he sent his six MI Company men to locate Captain Woodruffe.  Fifteen minutes later the Baluchis struck the spoor of 25 booted men with two porters, all moving west-south-west, and they followed the spoor but could not exploit it as they were without the mobility of the MI Company riders.

At noon the Baluchis heard firing a mile and a half to their south and double-marched towards the sound.  At around 1220 hours mounted men were seen moving rapidly to the northwest and were reported as being Germans.  The Baluch moved north to intercept them but saw that these men were elements of the MI Company withdrawing from the action.  The Baluch then heard a Schutztruppe bugler sounding a call.  At about 1230 hours the firing died away, then at 1240 hours about 4 shots and some screaming were heard.  At 1300 hours the six MI Company soldiers attached to the Baluch returned, having not seen either any enemy or Captain Woodruffe’s MI Company because of the clumps of dense bush in the area.

Lieutenant Wildman halted on a low crest and sent the six MI Company men left-flanking to reconnoitre the scene of the fight; they returned to report that corpses were on the ground but that the Schutztruppe had left the scene.  Wildman then advanced and at 1340 hours arrived at the scene of the fighting where he found eight Mounted Infantry corpses including Wilbur Dartnell’s; all had two or more wounds.

Above: In the area of the Wilbur Dartnell VC action

Two Schutztruppe Askari corpses and one other wounded enemy Askari who died soon after were found at the scene; all the British corpses were fully or partially stripped as European clothing was valuable to the Askari.  It appeared as though four of the British wounded had been finished-off.  German buttons with the insignia of 9 Field Company were found on one dead Askari.  The Baluch patrol and the MI Company men with them then cast for the Schutztruppe spoor but the ground was hard and a breeze was blowing.  They deduced that the enemy had split up into small groups moving westwards; the tracks of two mules were identified heading west.

At Maktau at 1400 hours Colonel Price ordered the Maktau Mobile Column under Major Harold Robinson of 2 LNL to march out to the scene of the fight.  Major Robinson took 200 rifles of 25 RF under Major Harold Towse and 100 rifles of 2 LNL under Captain Robert Berkeley, plus a Medical Officer with a bearer party carrying 10 stretchers and water.  Major Robinson marched on a bearing of 200 degrees and was guided by Lieutenant Ryan, 25 RF, and some of his MI Company men who met up with the Mobile Column.  The column halted two miles short of the scene when it met two MI orderlies who advised where Lieutenant Wildman was.  Major Robinson pushed on with only the stretcher bearers and one 25 RF platoon, joining Wildman at 1700 hours.  It was Major Robinson’s opinion, after a cursory inspection, that all the British corpses had been shot or bayoneted after the casualties had been wounded or had died.

Dusk was approaching and at 1715 hours Major Robinson departed from the scene with the Baluch and the stretcher bearers to join up with the remainder of the Mobile Column, which marched north at 1820 hours.  Signal lamps were shown from Picquet Hill north of Maktau and these were very helpful as the Mobile Column returned through the dark bush; it arrived at Maktau Camp at 2010 hours.  The following day a Court of Enquiry was convened to take down evidence on oath.  British patrols went out to the southwest searching for the Schutztruppe raiders, but did not locate them.

Initially the casualty figures recorded for this action were:

Killed in Action: No. 10314 Private Frederick J. Bristow, 2 LNL; 8032 Private James A.S. Cooper, 2 LNL; 9222 Private Frederick Ward, 2 LNL; 9952 Private William A. Acton, 2 LNL; 10070 Lance Corporal Richard Brockbank, 2 LNL; Lieutenant Wilbur T. Dartnell, 25 RF; 15126 Sergeant Charles W. Phillips, 25 RF; and 12822 Private Duncan M. Henderson, 25 RF.

Wounded in Action: Captain J.S. Woodruffe, Royal Sussex Regiment, attached 2 LNL; No. 9808 Private Leonard Anderson, 2 LNL; 5161 Sergeant Ralph A. Wakeford, 2 LNL; 8617 Lance Corporal Richard L. Jones, 2 LNL; 9877 Private William J. Cornell, 2 LNL; 9721 Private George A. Heaton; 2 LNL; 9484 Lance Corporal Hughes, 2 LNL; and Private Wood, 25 RF.

Missing in Action: No. 10069 Private Henry Bradley, 2 LNL; 9177 Lance Corporal S. Goddard, 2 LNL; and 13478 Lance Corporal Harry Robinson, 25 RF.

Those men killed in action were buried at Maktau and later re-buried at Voi Military Cemetery, Kenya.  Lance Corporal Harry Robinson, 25 RF, and Private Henry Bradley, 2 LNL, were later recognised as being dead with unknown graves and both are commemorated on the Nairobi British & Indian Memorial.  Corporal S. Goddard, 2 LNL, is buried at Iringa Cemetery in southern Tanzania.  His grave was moved from Mahenge, Tanzania, where he died on 17th June 1916, according to German details recorded by the CWGC.

The fact that Lance Corporal Goddard died in Mahenge, then in GEA, is proof that the Germans did not in fact kill all the wounded men that they found, as was and still is often believed.  They may well have marched the three missing and wounded men towards GEA, burying Harry Robinson and Henry Bradley on the way when those two died, and then they buried Lance Corporal Goddard at Mahenge where he had probably died of his wounds.

The weapons, mounts and equipment lost totalled: 10 Rifles, 1 Pony, 6 Mules, 7 Saddles, 7 Bridles, 14 Bandoliers, 2 Blankets, 1 Haversack, and 2 Emergency Rations.  Schutztruppe casualties were believed to have been one German and three Askari killed and one German and several Askari wounded.  The MI Company believed that it had hit over 25 of the enemy with rifle fire and doubtless many German Askari were wounded, but the Askari of both sides were tough men, capable of marching with wounds that would have incapacitated Europeans.

In his report on the action the Area Commander, Brigadier-General Malleson, regretted that the Mounted Infantry Company had suffered a reverse so soon after its formation.  He noted that an accidental rifle shot may well have alerted the enemy, as the Germans had advanced in attack formation on the MI Company position.  He made two main criticisms of tactical conduct:

a.   The MI Company went ahead too fast, lost touch with its infantry support and never regained contact with that support.

b.   The MI Company’s position was in thick bush with a very limited field of fire when it should have been concealed on the edge of an open glade.  Thus the enemy, who attacked with great boldness, could close on the MI Company so quickly that the British firepower was never effective, and British attempts to adjust the position resulted in confusion.

After the action two gallantry awards were made:

A posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, 25th (Service) Battalion the Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), with the citation: For most conspicuous bravery near Maktau (East Africa) on 3rd September, 1915.  During a mounted infantry engagement the enemy got within a few yards of our men, and it was found impossible to get the more severely wounded away.  Lieutenant Dartnell, who was himself being carried away wounded in the leg, seeing the situation, and knowing that the enemy’s black troops murdered the wounded, insisted on being left behind to save the lives of the other wounded men.  He gave his own life in the gallant attempt to save others.

A Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to No. 10237 Private Harry Bristow, 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment: For gallant conduct on 3rd September, 1915, in attending to the wounded during the action to the south of Maktau (East Africa), and subsequently for rescuing an Officer under very heavy fire.

Above: Maktau Camp


The arrival of Captain G.P. Atkinson

On the 10th September 1915 Captain George Prestage Atkinson, 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, took over command of the MI Company; George was a career soldier who had qualified on the British Army MI Course at Longmoor Camp, Aldershot, and he was to earn a reputation as one of the best bush-fighters in the East Africa Campaign.  He soon displayed his mettle. 

On 14 September 1915 four officers and 63 men of the Mounted Infantry Company, working with 100 Baluchi riflemen under Lieutenant Wildman, fought a very successful action seven miles southwest of Maktau.  An ambush devised by Lieutenant Wildman was laid on a known German route and after some time five deer ran across the killing ground, having been disturbed by the movement of people or predators.  Two minutes later about 60 German troops appeared.  The MI Coy and the Baluch, all operating under Captain Atkinson’s orders, opened fire at 100 yards range and advanced to within 20 yards of the now grounded enemy and fired again.  Lieutenant Wildman then led a Baluch bayonet charge into the killing ground, but he was killed in action there along with four Baluch soldiers; seven other Baluch and No. 9489 Lance Corporal John Hughes, 2 LNL, were wounded.  The unwounded German troops then hastily withdrew westwards, leaving 37 dead men behind.  The enemy bodies on the ground were one German white soldier, 28 Askari and 8 porters.

Lieutenant Martin Ryan, 25 RF, was an excellent marksman and he had been deployed as a rifleman, making at least 10 kills.  Inspection of the captured weapons with the dead German troops showed that as well as German Mausers the enemy Askari were using captured British .303-inch rifles and also larger calibre .450-inch rifles.  The MI Company expended 2045 rounds during the ambush.  Brigadier General Malleson had recently offered cash rewards for captured enemy troops – Rupees 300 for a German or an Austro-Hungarian and Rupees 200 for an Askari (an Indian Rupee was then worth one and a third English shillings).  Colonel Jourdain in his battalion war diary regretted this cash incentive as he felt that it may have led to the unnecessary Baluch bayonet charge into the ambush killing zone.   George Atkinson later received a Military Cross and Arthur Wildman received a posthumous Mention in Despatches.

Above: Lieutenant Martin Ryan of the MI Company

The MI Company continued to patrol the Voi-Taveta branch railway line for the remainder of 1915, skirmishing with small parties of Germans and bringing the company .303-inch machine gun into action whenever a suitable field of fire could be obtained amongst the thick clumps of bush that dominated the landscape.  On 9th December 1915 a large contact developed between German raiders and another BEA mounted infantry unit, Belfield’s Scouts, which was supporting four British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) armoured cars under Lieutenant Commander H.G. Nalder.   Four officers, one machine gun and 75 rifles of the MI Company were sent out to reinforce Belfields’ Scouts, whose commander, Major A.F. Arnoldi, had been killed in action as the contact developed.  Belfield’s Scouts was a unit of mostly Boer farmers from western BEA who had decided to support the British whilst many of their brethren across the border in GEA had sided with the Germans.

George Atkinson found that Belfield’s Scouts were more than holding their own against a superior force of enemy as the heavy machine gun fire of the British armoured cars, whilst not very accurate because of the thick bush, demoralised the German Askari.  The MI Company pursued the withdrawing enemy for 3.5 miles through bush 1,200 yards south of the Maktau – Taveta road.  This chase wore out the mounts and the company moved onto the road where it took prisoner two German whites and five Askari.  Meanwhile a group of Belfield’s Scouts under Lieutenant N.J. Grobler had killed around 20 of the enemy and taken two German whites prisoner; one of the Europeans, Volunteer Otta Spinge, was recognised as having been at the scene of the fight on 3rd September.  Most of the German troops in the action came from 19 Field Company.  The captured Europeans were later shipped to Prisoner of War Camps in India.  Nick Grobler, Belfield’s Scouts, was later awarded a Military Cross.

The next morning the MI Company returned to the scene of the action to search the area and had another contact with enemy troops who were also searching for wounded men and discarded weapons.  Due to thick bush the contact was inconclusive but at least one enemy Askari was killed.  Patrols and small actions continued for the remainder of 1915.


The progress of the MI Company in early 1916

On 1st January 1916 the MI Company consisted of 5 officers, one .303-inch machine gun, 65 rifles from 2 LNL, 51 rifles from 25 RF, 25 Africans employed as scouts, grooms, batmen and general workers, 12 ponies and 148 mules.  Lieutenant John Grenfell, 25 RF, had been posted into the company to fill the vacancy caused by Wilbur Dartnell’s death.  The MI Company war diary records that at any one time about 33% of the company were sick and unable to work; the relentless sun sometimes followed by drenching cold rain produced a debilitating climate for the men to work in.  The regular soldiers of the Loyal North Lancashires were far fitter that the recent civilians of the Royal Fusiliers who were on average 10 years older and unused to army rations and routines.  The men were also crowded into their tents, 16 men occupying a 160-pounder Indian tent; in comparison regulations for the British Askari in BEA stipulated that only 9 Askari could be housed in one such tent.

Reconnaissance patrolling continued whilst Indian Army Sappers & Miners steadily pushed the branch railway line westwards towards Taveta.  On 20th January during weapon cleaning routine No. 26 Trooper P.T.C. Du Plessies, Belfield’s Scouts, was accidentally killed by a shot to the head from Private Beresford of 25 RF and MI Company.  The 25th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) had been shipped out to East Africa from England without the benefit of recruit and basic infantry training, and that training, including skill at arms lessons, had been hastily conducted on arrival in BEA.  The next day eleven of the 25 RF troopers were returned to their unit for either being constantly sick or for expressing dissatisfaction; this reduced the average daily sick rate to around 20%.

The MI Company began to work closely with the RNAS Rolls Royce armoured cars that were armed with a single water-cooled .303-inch Vickers machine gun; Lieutenant Commander Nalder’s unit was named No. 10 Royal Naval Armoured Car Battery.  On 22nd January both units worked together in a British advance that pushed the Germans off their Mbuyuni position, and a day later a similar operation further westwards attacked the enemy on the Serengeti position.  South of Serengeti 2nd Lieutenant Parker was seriously wounded by German machine gun fire; the MI Section in action there withdrew, Parker’s loose horse bolted and he was left in the field alone except for No. 9671 Private W.R. Higgins, 2LNL and MI Company, who stayed to try and unsuccessfully mount Parker on a mule.  Higgins then ran to the nearest armoured cars and requested assistance in evacuating Parker.  This was courageously achieved despite heavy German fire from machine guns and a pom-pom (a quick-firing gun heavier than a machine gun).

William Higgins was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal: For conspicuous gallantry, under heavy machine gun & rifle fire, in going to the assistance of an officer.  In endeavouring to place the officer on his mule the animal broke away.  Private Higgins then ran some 600 yards, again under heavy fire, to the armoured cars which were in action, and warned them of the officer’s predicament which led to his rescue.

The results of this successful British action were that 1 German white and 19 Askaris were killed whilst 1 white and 7 Askari were captured; 2nd Lieutenant Parker was the only serious British casualty.  Three days later No. 8451 Private John Cunningham DCM, 2 LNL and MI Company, died of pneumonia at Maktau.  John was rated an excellent soldier and had been awarded his Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallant conduct at Tanga whilst operating under heavy enemy fire.

On 11th February 1916 a large British attack was made on the German-held Salaita Hill; this was the last major position that the enemy defended on the track to Taveta.  The attack failed when two South African white battalions broke and ran when confronted by a German bayonet attack; 30 South Africans were never seen again, doubtless having been bayoneted by enemy Askari and then devoured by the many carnivorous beasts in the bush.  During this battle the MI Company secured the British southern flank but did not come into action.

Above: RNAS armoured cars


The attack on Latema-Reata Nek and patrols towards German East Africa

The new Allied theatre commander, the South African General Jan Smuts, pushed his command forward towards GEA and the enemy withdrew from Salaita Hill without a fight.  Smuts had brought more than 18,000 South African troops to BEA. The MI Company, RNAS armoured cars and Belfields Scouts (who were now commanded by Major J.J. Viljoen) were heavily engaged in reconnaissance patrolling whilst the branch railway line was constructed up to Taveta.  West of that town was a range of hills, the most prominent of which were named Latema and Reata; between those two hills was a low pass called a nek which had to be secured before the railway line could be laid through it.

On 11th March the British attacked the strong German positions on Latema, Reata and the Nek; the attack failed and was resumed after dusk fell but only small groups of British soldiers held and secured positions on the crest line.  However on the German side a nerve broke and the enemy withdrew before dawn, surrendering the hills and nek to the British.  During the battle the MI Company secured the British southern flank, digging-in at dusk and sending the mounts back to Taveta.  The company .303-inch machine gun was used but the soldiers did not use their rifles during the battle; the company came under enemy artillery and machine gun fire during the night but the trenches that had been dug were sufficient to ensure that there were no casualties.

In mid-March the MI Company commenced long reconnaissance patrols southwards past Lake Jipe and towards the Ngulu Gap in the Pare Hills; this was a potential British entry point into GEA territory and the patrols resulted in the Germans preparing defensive positions on either side of the Gap.  Intelligence Agents, all residents of BEA, accompanied the patrols with their locally recruited Intelligence Scouts.  On one occasion the MI Company had to hold its mounts all night as many rhinoceros were active in the bush, disturbing the mules and horses.  Sometimes small detachments of men were deployed at night on standing patrols, where they remained in one location monitoring any enemy movement that they observed.  During daytime ambushes were laid on likely enemy On 17th March 2nd Lieutenant Parker was invalided to England for further treatment of his serious wounds; 2nd Lieutenant R. Holmes, 2 LNL, joined the MI Company as Parker’s replacement.

Above: German trench line on Latema-Reata Nek

By now the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashires was a hollowed-out unit as the strain of working in extreme climatic and malarial conditions for 18 months had debilitated most of the battalion.  Medical inspections were held and the minority of fit men remained in East Africa serving with either the MI Company, the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company or No. 6 Field Battery.  The remainder of the battalion was shipped to the Cape region of South Africa to hopefully recover health in a congenial climate where fresh rations could be consumed daily.  The MI Company sent 12 sick men, all from 2 LNL, with the battalion to South Africa and received 13 fit men to replace them.

During April 1916 the MI Company continued working in the direction of the Ngulu Gap from its wet-weather base at Mbuyuni, often providing protection for 3rd KAR work parties that were cutting a cart track towards the Gap.  There were no losses due to enemy action but men were always ill, the sickness statistics in April when heavy rain was falling averaged 60% for officers and 40% for men.  On 6th May a major decision was taken and all the Royal Fusiliers (Lieutenants Grenfell and Ryan with 38 men) were returned to their battalion; Lieutenant Charles Crosby and 20 men from 2 LNL plus 10 Armed African Scouts joined the company.  Charles Crosby was a welcome addition as he had attended a MI Course at Longmoor in 1904.  The MI Company was now manned by four officers and 82 men from The Loyal North Lancashires with the exception of 2nd Lieutenant Holmes who was a local officer from BEA.   




The Mounted Infantry Company during May and June 1916

In early May Captain Storey was invalided to South Africa and was replaced in the MI Company by Captain A.P.V. Pigot, 3rd Battalion the South Lancashire Regiment attached to 2 LNL.  The Company ORBAT was: ‘A’ Troop commanded by Captain Arthur Pigot, ‘B’ Troop commanded by Lieutenant Crosby, ‘C’ Troop commanded by Lieutenant Holmes, and ‘D’ Troop commanded by No. 6736 Company Sergeant Major Thomas Hewitson.

On 19th May the MI Company started marching westwards from Mbuyuni into GEA, camping at Taveta, Himo River and Soko Nassai.  Four officers, 65 rifles and 8 Armed Scouts were fit to march, whilst 12 rifles and 2 Armed Scouts were in hospital.  The First Line Transport that accompanied the Company consisted of 7 pack mules and 2 light carts; the main load of these mules and carts was ammunition and water.  The Second Line Transport that followed some way behind the Company consisted of 6 light carts, 1 water cart and one American Cart; the loads of these carts were mainly the administrative requirements of the Company such as cooking equipment, rations and necessary stores.  The Company’s tents had been left standing at Mbuyuni.  All the carts were pulled by mules.

Above: A MI patrol in wet weather

At Soko Nassai the Company became part of the reserve troops of the 1st Division, and joined the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company.  The MI Company was placed in No. III Column which advanced down the Pangani River.  The march was uneventful until 26th May when the Company was working near the East Africa Squadron of the 17th Cavalry, Indian Army, and a contact occurred with a German picquet.  The cavalry captured most of the picquet but the MI Company seized one enemy Askari who was armed with a .450-inch rifle.  On the following day the Company acted as Advance Guard for the cavalry and had a spirited contact with a withdrawing enemy patrol; three porters and one Askari armed with a captured British .303 rifle were captured.  The pursuit could not be maintained because the mules were exhausted as no grain ration had been received for them during the last three days. 

The branch railway line from Voi had been pushed through Taveta, over Latema-Reata Nek, and had joined onto the German Usambara Railway line that ran from Moshi near Mount Kilimanjaro to Tanga on the coast.  However General Smuts, a former Boer guerrilla leader used to living off the land, had no appreciation of or time for logistics and he kept pushing his troops forward well ahead of the railhead that moved behind them.  This deliberate relegation of logistics was to result in underfed soldiers and mounts, the men often being on half and sometimes on a quarter of the normal daily ration allowance.

As the British advanced, extending their lines of communication and consequently their supply problems, the Germans fought delaying actions and then broke contact and withdrew to their next selected defended location.  At these locations the Germans required local villagers to dig defences, clear bush to provide fields of fire, and to produce crops, domestic fowls and livestock to feed the Askari.  The Germans were operating on their own territory where their word was law, and they were withdrawing on interior lines of communications that economised their effort.

Above: Graves of the Mounted Infantry Company

During the advance down the Pangani River the enemy rearguard included a train carrying artillery guns that were fired from the rail trucks.  As the train withdrew demolitions blew up culverts and bridges behind it, adding to the tasks that the Indian Army Sappers & Miners had to complete in order to advance the British railhead.  From the railhead porters recruited from BEA carried supplies forward on their heads; these porters were themselves underfed and consequently malnourished, and just like the debilitated soldiers the porters easily succumbed to tropical diseases.  Thus the British supply system could never produce the required amount of food, boots and clothing for men and grain for mounts.  But this was of little concern to General Smuts who just pushed his troops to the limit in a vain attempt to end the campaign quickly.

At the end of May the enemy train was nearly caught by the MI Company, 17th Cavalry and Wilson’s Scouts, a white mounted unit raised in BEA.  The action occurred near Mabirioni where the Pangani River swung eastwards and ran adjacent to the railway line.  However an enemy picquet shot a few of the British mounts and hit a cavalryman, forcing the riders to withdraw and regroup; this allowed the train time to defiantly steam further down the line to fight another day.  On the last day of May the numbers of the MI Company in the field were 4 officers, 40 men, 13 horses and 117 mules; many men had been hospitalised or detached on light duties and the mounts were showing signs of suffering from lack of grain.  All ranks were supplied with only 50% of the official ration scale for the next six days.  Because of the loss of men to hospital the MI Company machine gun was taken out of action as from the 10 men trained to use it only two remained fit, and they were needed for scouting duties.

Above: The Pangani Valley at  dawn - marched down by the Mounted Infantry Company

At Bwiko the bridge across the Pangani was partially demolished and the Company crossed the river, leading the mules two at a time over a narrow temporary bridge built on a platform of Berthon boats; these were collapsible canvas-sided boats that could be carried by teams of porters.  The supply carts crossed on rafts made from local materials whilst gangs of African labourers on both banks pulled the rafts across, singing tribal chants to unite their strenuous efforts.  A couple of days later the river was crossed again at Makayo but here the mules swam over three at a time whilst their saddles were carried across a narrow plank bridge equipped with handrails.

At Bwiko on the Usambara Railway line the German train and a few German troops had continued south-eastwards down the line towards Korogwe whilst the main body of German troops had moved south-westwards down a hand-powered trolley rail line that German plantation owners had previously used for transporting crops.  The MI Company as part of Divisional Reserve followed the trolley line south from Mkalamo on the Pangani to Mbagwe.  Captain Pigot was evacuated with dysentery on 14th June whilst about half the men were displaying signs of malaria.

In the latter half of June the combination of insufficient rations and continuous hard work in a tropical climate began sapping the strength of even the stalwarts in the MI Company, and on the 17th of the month only 10 men were fit for night-time outpost duty.  The Company now had more mules than it could cope with.  The following day, after three previous days without meat or tea being supplied in the rations, a live bullock was issued to the Company.  However when a volunteer butcher attempted to poleaxe and slaughter the beast the bullock retained its sense of survival and escaped into the bush, never to be seen again.  Next day a tamer beast was issued and gratefully consumed.  Shortly afterwards biltong (strips of dried meat) was issued as the meat ration.

Above: Preparing mules for branding



The fight at Kwaderema

On 24th June whilst working on vanguard duties with the 17th Cavalry and a recently arrived armoured car unit raised by Major Sir John Willoughby (who had paid the costs of raising the unit himself), the Company was involved in a contact near the Lukigera River.  The Germans set a successful ambush by digging a trench across the road at a critical point, forcing the armoured cars to halt and come under pom-pom fire which caused them to retire speedily.  The Company and the cavalry reconnoitred and found abandoned enemy trenches but were ordered not to exploit further as a column that included the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company was moving across country to get in the rear of the main enemy position that was on a prominent ridge.

The encircling column, commanded by Major General A.R. Hoskins, did its job well by attacking the enemy from an unexpected direction and bayonetting gun crews.  Some of the German troops fell back towards the dismounted MI Company which was now in a dry watercourse adjacent to the road; the Company immediately engaged enemy Askari and porters with rifle fire as they emerged from the bush.  The enemy then began surrendering as they could not move because soldiers from the 29th Punjabis were blocking the escape route.  The MI Company expended 110 rifle rounds and captured 12 of the enemy and two rifles, several of the enemy Askari having thrown away their rifles before raising their hands.

The fight at Kwederema had been the first occasion since British troops entered GEA that an enemy position had been encircled and prevented from withdrawing.  The Germans had employed around 500 men in the fight, most of them coming from No. 1 Field Company and Nos. 5 and 7 Schutzen Companies; the latter two units were formed from German settlers and they had withdrawn before the fighting reached its climax.  The British had killed 4 Europeans and 30 Askari and captured 21 Europeans and 32 Askari; British casualties were 10 men killed and 36 wounded.  The bulk of the German defenders had got away through the bush but without all of their heavy weapons as some had been abandoned. 

On the last day of June the fighting strength of the MI Company totalled 25 men: 3 officers, 1 Warrant Officer, 13 NCOs and men, plus 8 Armed Scouts.  The other personnel were in hospital.

Above: A MI patrol in bush formation



The disbandment of the Mounted Infantry Company

On 3rd July 1916 the 1st Division Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master General, the chief administrative staff officer in the Division, ordered the disbandment of the Mounted Infantry Company.  The reason given was that the Company had fallen too far below its established strength and that no reinforcements were available.   As yet unknown to the Divisional Headquarters was that a draft of 150 men for 2 LNL was due to arrive in BEA in two days’ time, and the MI Company could have been brought up to strength from that draft if time had been allowed for training and theatre familiarisation.   But General Smuts was not interested in anything except his fond dreams of continually advancing to destroy the German Schutztruppe; the die was cast and the MI Company was disbanded.

The following postings and disposals were ordered:

·         Captain George Atkinson to the 17th Cavalry East Africa Squadron, Indian Army.
·         Captain Arthur Pigot to the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company.
·         2nd Lieutenant Holmes to the staff of the Force Requisitioning Officer, East Africa Protectorate Forces.
·         Company Sergeant Major Thomas Hewitson and all the Armed Scouts to the 1st Division Intelligence Department.
·         Three signallers and six privates, all mounted, to No. 1 Signal Company.
·         The remaining NCOs and men plus the company machine gun with its mules to the Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company.
·         15 porters to the 25th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen).
·         1 groom to the East African Mounted Rifles.
·         1 groom to 17th Cavalry with Captain Atkinson.
·         The 2 light carts to the 1st Division Signal Company.
·         The remainder of the carts, transport mules and personnel to 1st Division Senior Transport Officer.
·         The remaining mounts to the 1st Division Remount Officer.
·         The spare saddlery to Ordnance stores.

Above: Loyal North Lancashire graves in Voi Military Cemetery, Kenya




Conclusion – the short but eventful life of the Mounted Infantry Company

After an improvised start when involved with the Somali Scouts and Cole’s Scouts the newly-established Mounted Infantry Company suffered a bad reverse on the occasion of Wilbur Dartnell’s death; sadly that incident has attracted much slack research and description, and aspects have been unnecessarily dramatized as several other brave men died that day with Wilbur and most of them were from the Loyal North Lancashires. 

However after George Atkinson took over command a professional grip was established that quickly showed results when 5 enemy Europeans and 93 Askari and porters were killed or captured when the Company operated side by side with the 130th Baluchis and the RNAS armoured cars.  Operations during the advance into German East Africa were conducted professionally but company personnel were constantly debilitated and hospitalized for varying periods by short rations, hard work, tropical diseases and a harsh climate.  When the Company became all-Loyal North Lancashire then the advantages of using British Regular Army soldiers were seen both in the tactical ability, discipline and comportment of the soldiers and in the care of the mounts, weapons and equipment.

The names of those members of the Company who were killed in action, all of them prior to George Atkinson taking over command, have been included in this article, and most of them are buried in Voi Military Cemetery, Kenya.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps that cemetery and others in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in good condition; photographs of the Loyal North Lancashire individual graves are available from the digital archives of the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Preston.  Those archives also contain lists of Loyal North Lancashire personnel who served in the Company.

As stated in the article one Victoria Cross, one Military Cross and two Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to members of the Mounted Infantry Company.  Mentions in Dispatches were awarded to: Captain G.P. Atkinson; Lieutenant W. Parker; and No. 6736 Company Sergeant Major T. Hewitson.

  SOURCES: (the most economical publications are shown)


Ø  Cranworth, Lord. Kenya Chronicles. (Macmillan & Co Ltd, London 1939).
Ø  Hordern, Lieutenant Colonel Charles (Compiler): Official History.  Military Operations East Africa Volume I, August 1914-September 1916. (reprints produced by The Battery Press and Naval & Military Press).
Ø  War Diaries. The Mounted Infantry Company (WO 95/5336); The 2nd Battalion the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (WO 95/5339); Mombasa Headquarters (WO 95/5360).
Ø   Wylly, Colonel H.C. The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 1914-1919. (Naval & Military Press reprint).


Colour photographs accompanying this article were taken by the author.  The photograph of Coles’ Scouts watering comes from Lord Cranworth’s Kenya Chronicles.  All other black and white photographs come from the archives of the Lancashire Infantry Museum, Fulwood Barracks, Preston, England.  (See: http://www.lancashireinfantrymuseum.org.uk/ )

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