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The EK1

The death in combat of Major H.W.G. Meyer Griffith, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

The Freetown Memorial in Sierra Leone commemorates the names of the soldiers of Sierra Leone who died whilst serving with the Royal West African Frontier Force in West Africa, and whose graves are not known, or are not maintainable by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Inscribed on the memorial is the name of Major Harold Walter Gooch Meyer Griffith, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who was killed in action on 28th May 1915, aged 36 years.  Harold had served as a subaltern with the South Wales Borderers in South Africa, gaining the Queen’s Medal with three clasps and the King’s Medal with two clasps.  Later he joined the 3rd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment as a Captain, and in August 1910 he became Major (unattached) Territorial Force, commanding the Glenalmond Officers’ Training Corps for three years.

In 1913 Harold took up the appointment of ADC and private secretary to the Governor of Sierra Leone.  He was an Army Interpreter in French, and also an enthusiast in the Boy Scout movement, becoming Commissioner for Scouts in Sierra Leone.  On the outbreak of war in August 1914 Harold resigned as ADC and purchased his own passage back to UK in order to enlist, but as the West African Frontier Force was expanded Harold was requested to stay and to serve in the Force.

In August 1914 Germany possessed two colonies in West Africa, tiny Togoland and the much larger Kamerun (Cameroon).  Togoland (the first British shot of the Great War is said to have been fired here on 12th August 1914 by RSM Alhaji Grunshi DCM MM of the Gold Coast Regiment) was quickly invaded by British and French forces and the final German surrender took place on 26th August 1914. 

Cameroon covered about 300,000 square miles and the military garrison consisted of 200 German and 3,200 African soldiers (these figures were quickly more than doubled by an effective mobilization plan) organized into 12 field companies.  The Germans possessed 12 field guns and many more machine-guns than the British.  However the Royal Navy secured the Cameroon coastline easily as the Germans had no fighting ships in the region.

Left: The Colonial Post Office at Douala

After Britain suffered reverses with three small dispersed columns of West African soldiers sent across the border into Cameroon, an Allied Expeditionary Force composed of French, British and Belgian local infantry units was formed, under a British General.  The German port of Douala was seized by the Allies on 27th September 1914, the Germans making fighting withdrawals in three different directions.

As there were no British Ordnance officers in the Expeditionary force Major Meyer Griffith was appointed Chief Ordnance Officer and based at Douala in the captured German barracks.  As the Allies advanced into Cameroon, British units moving from the west, French forces from the north and south, and French and Belgian units from the east, Harold Meyer Griffith was appointed as Officer Commanding Lines of Communication.  His base was at Wum Biagas, 75 miles east of Douala.

The “Bond of Sacrifice” in its two-page biography comments:

“This post was no sinecure.  There was no railway line beyond Edea, the expedition was experiencing strong opposition, and his lines of communication grew longer and thinner.  Furious tornadoes enlivened their long and scorching marches; insects of every description harried them.  They had often to cut their way through dense bush and cross streams spanned by frail and broken bridges over which the guns had to be lifted.  There was neither telegraph nor telephone: every message and dispatch had to be sent by runner.  The carrier columns were sometimes two and three miles long, and difficulties of food and transport had all to be thought out and arranged for.  At the end of a heavy march, when others could perhaps secure a little rest, the Chief Ordnance Officer, in sopping clothes and squelching boots, would have to hurry round for another two hours settling differences and arranging matters.  Defence arrangements were often inadequate and native information perhaps received that a German force had concentrated four miles south-east, intending to attack!”

As the Allies pushed into the thick bush of Cameroon exhaustion and fever depleted the ranks.  An Allied convoy of porters carrying medically evacuated soldiers was ambushed by the enemy in dense forest near Wum Biagas on 28 May 1915.  Receiving a report of the ambush Harold immediately marched to the assistance of the convoy with a party of French Tirailleurs Senegalaise and a few British troops .  Reaching the scene of the ambush Harold and his Tirailleurs rescued the convoy and, during a 90-minute engagement, drove the enemy for a mile down a bush track.  On coming to a clearing he ordered “A final volley.  Fix bayonets and charge!”  Harold led the charge but he was killed and five of his men were shot down and wounded before the now leaderless Allied detachment withdrew.

The following day a British search party found a grave under a small cluster of palm leaves placed by the Germans.  Harold’s brother officers erected a large cross, but within weeks the grave would have been covered and concealed for ever by fast-growing bush.  The French troops were impressed by Harold as a man and a soldier, and on page 12040 of the Supplement to the London Gazette dated 9th December 1916 notification was published of the award of the French Croix de Guerre to:                                                            

Major Harold Walter Gooch Meyer-Griffith, late Unattached List, Territorial Force, employed with West African Frontier Force.  (Reserve of Officers, late North Lancashire Regiment, Special Reserve).

Below: The Freetown Memorial in Sierra Leone

The campaign continued for another nine months.  Finally the Germans in the south of Cameroon escaped across the Spanish Guinea border into internment, and those in the north surrendered at Mora on 18th February 1916.

Because the British infantry used in Cameroon were West African and Indian the campaign is not well-known in Britain, but the combat was at times very fierce and the terrain always rough.  Contacts were at extremely short range and strong and courageous leadership was required.  Harold Walter Gooch Meyer Griffith was an outstanding and brave leader.  The motto in his diary sent home to his widowed mother read:

“Give me leave, therefore, always to live and die in this mind : that he is not worthy to live at all that, for fear of danger or death, shunneth his country’s service and his own honour.”

Sources and further reading:

Official History: Military Operations Togoland and the Cameroons.

“The Great War in West Africa” by Brigadier-General E. Howard Gorges, CB, CBE, DSO.

“The History of The Royal West African Frontier Force” by Haywood and Clark.

De Ruvigny’s “Roll of Honour”.

“The Bond of Sacrifice”

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