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The EK1

Indian Army Units in Action, March to mid-June 1916

East Africa in March 1916

In February 1916 the South African General Jan Smuts arrived in British East Africa, now Kenya, with thousands of recently enlisted but inadequately trained and poorly disciplined South African mounted and infantry units. Smuts was determined to quickly knock the Schutztruppe, or German East Africa military force, out of the war. Thereafter, the German territory, presently divided into Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi, could be occupied by the Allies.  Invasions of German East Africa were planned in the south from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, now named respectively Zambia and Malawi; in the north-west and west from Uganda and the Belgian Congo, now named the Democratic Republic of Congo; and most importantly from British East Africa to the north.  

Facing all these attacks was the experienced and professional German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck with sixty companies of infantry organised into nineteen abteilungen (formations), each named after its respective commander. The core of the Schutztruppe was its African infantry field companies supported by units of European reservists and former civilian rifle club members.  Each company usually had two or more machine guns.  German artillery ranged from light revolver-cannon to 4.1-inch naval guns salvaged from the cruiser Konigsberg that had been sunk in the Rufiji River delta. Von Lettow realised that his best contribution towards Germany’s war effort would be to attract as many Allied units as he could to oppose him in East Africa. It would also commit a considerable amount of scarce Allied shipping to supporting the British effort in the theatre.

As the East African campaign progressed, administrative planning was to become more important than actual combat. Von Lettow’s staff approached this aspect with professional efficiency. After fighting short actions to cause British attrition, the Schutztruppe withdrew, using prepared interior lines of communication where supply dumps were in place and where thousands of African civilians could be mobilised for porterage and the digging of new defensive positions. In comparison, the ex-guerrilla leader Jan Smuts knew far more about politicking than about commanding three divisions of troops, and he rejected administrative advice from the few British professional staff officers that he employed. 

Right: East Africa – from Nairobi to Dar-es-Salaam

Smuts was fixated on knocking von Lettow out of the war within six months, and he refused any discussion on aspects of logistics such as resupply, casualty treatment and evacuation, and transport.  This last subject was critical because of the lack of good roads in German East Africa and the scarcity of British motor vehicles.  Hundreds of thousands of overworked African porters were dragooned into carrying supplies for both sides, but the British never managed to raise sufficient numbers and the men themselves contributed to even more supply problems because they also had to be regularly fed. A favourite marching song of the porters was:

We are the porters carrying the food for the porters / carrying the food for the porters / (repeated appropriately) / carrying foods for the porters carrying the ammunition.

Several Indian Army units, including Imperial Service and Volunteer units, had been in East Africa since September 1914 when Indian Expeditionary Force ‘C’ under Brigadier-General J.M. ‘Jimmie’ Stewart, C.B., A.D.C., appeared in the theatre.  Many more had arrived two months later with Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ under Major-General A.E. Aitken, and others were individually arriving in 1916 as they were re-deployed from France and Egypt.  The South Africans held inflexible racial attitudes and most of them regarded sepoys as having the same standing as ‘coolies’ or labourers. Some Indian Army battalions had proved to be inadequately trained, prepared and led for offensive operations, and they had been relegated to duties on the lines of communication. Yet there were others who were actually fighting harder and more professionally than the South African troops. This article briefly describes the actions of the more aggressive Indian battalions between March and June 1916.

Above: Pangani Valley at  dawn

The fight for the Latema-Reata Nek

Before German East Africa could be invaded, a pass, or nek, through the Latema-Reata range of hills west of Taveta, had to be seized.  The military railway from Voi, located on the Uganda Railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, could then be pushed through the nek to join the existing German Usambara Railway that ran from Tanga on the Indian Ocean to Moshi, west of Taveta.  General Smuts’ plan was for the 2nd Division to attack the nek whilst the South African Mounted Brigade rode through the Mount Kilimanjaro foothills to attack Moshi.  The 3rd South African Division would be held in reserve.

Three Indian Army units took part in the British attack on the nek on the 11th and 12th March 1916.  The Cossipore Artillery Volunteers (known in East Africa as the Calcutta Volunteer Battery) and the Indian Volunteer Maxim Gun Company provided fire support.  The third Indian unit was the 130th King George’s Own Baluchis (Jacob’s Rifles).  The 130th Baluchis, a regiment with a previously outstanding record, experienced a bad start to the Great War.  In Bombay, a Mahsud sepoy attacked the second-in-command, Major Norman Ruthven Anderson, with a bayonet. Major Anderson died of his wounds, and the regiment was posted to Burma, a backwater of the war.  In Rangoon, the two Pathan companies mutinied and announced their refusal to fight their Turkish co-religionists. Around 200 men were court martialled; one Indian officer and one non-commissioned officer were executed, and the remainder were sentenced to various terms of hard labour.    

A previous British commander in East Africa, General Richard Wapshare, had specifically requested that the regiment be posted to his theatre, and it had arrived in February 1915 – made up to War Establishment by the attachment of a double-company from the 46th Punjabis.  The regiment had performed well in East Africa but had the misfortune to be part of two unsuccessful attacks at Mbuyuni and Salaita, both conceived and commanded by Brigadier-General Wilfrid Malleson, the commander of the 1st East African Brigade.  At Salaita, where South African infantry broke and fled at the sight of attacking German Askari, the 130th Baluchis had fought a hard and isolated action, saving the situation for the South Africans.  Now the regiment was to be used in yet another of Wilfrid Malleson’s unimaginative frontal attacks.

Left: The British memorial to Indian Army sepoys at Moshi

At 11.30 hrs on 11th March, the 1st East African Brigade attacked the southern end of Latema ridge from the east.  The 130th Baluchis attacked on the right with 3rd King’s African Rifles to its left; the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment being retained in reserve. Three German field companies with two more in reserve defended the Latema-Reata position. The sepoys came under effective enemy fire when they were 900 metres from the nek, and the attack ground to a halt 550 metres further forward. The Baluchis were stopped not just by enemy light pom-pom guns and machine guns but also by many of their own artillery shrapnel shells that burst overhead.  Around 16.00 hrs in the afternoon, Wilfrid Malleson reported sick with dysentery, General Michael J. Tighe, D.S.O., commanding the 2nd East African Division, took over the attack, and South African reinforcements began to arrive. 

The Rhodesians were ordered forward to revitalise the attack at 18.00 hrs and they succeeded in getting men onto the Latema ridgeline. Then a decisive German counterattack pushed most of the Rhodesians off the hill. On the left the King’s African Rifles lost their commanding officer; most of the British Askari were pushed back by an enemy attack from Reata. On the right the Baluchis repulsed a German attack, but the sepoys were now short of water and ammunition, and they fell back to seek replenishment. At midnight Tighe ordered the 5th and 7th South African Infantry to attack. Small elements of both battalions gained the ridgelines of Latema and Reata and stayed there, meeting up with isolated Rhodesians and K.A.R. Askari. But the bulk of the South Africans became confused in the darkness and withdrew. Furthermore, on his way back from the nek, the commanding officer of the 5th South African Infantry, who also commanded this latest attack, dissuaded the Baluchis from mounting a bayonet assault, which they had been ordered to do.

During the night the Germans quietly withdrew most of their defenders, because von Lettow feared being outflanked by the South African mounted troops that were advancing to the north. At dawn Tighe’s patrols found a few isolated groups of British defenders still holding pockets on the ridgeline whilst the Germans could be observed withdrawing to the west. The battle was over. The Baluchis had lost Major George Newcombe and two sepoys killed. One sepoy dead from wounds, eleven were severely wounded and thirteen lightly wounded. One African machine gun porter was missing.  A total of 40,000 rounds had been fired, 6,000 of them by the machine gun section.  In papers written well after the event, one of the Baluchis’ officers admitted that much of the night had been spent unwittingly exchanging fire with an isolated group of Rhodesians. 

Above: Mkalamo Bridge, looking across the Pangani onto the battlefield

The advance of the 1st East African Division

General Smuts’ plan envisaged the Germans withdrawing westwards through Arusha and down to the German Central Railway that ran from Dar Es Salaam on the coast to Lake Tanganyika. Consequently Brigadier-General Stewart, commanding the weak 1st East African Division, was ordered to advance from Longido, south of Nairobi, to cut the supposed enemy route to Arusha.  Four Indian Army units were in 1st Division: the 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery; the 29th Punjabis; the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis; and the East African Squadron of the 17th Cavalry.  The mountain gunners and Punjabis had arrived as part of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘C’ in August 1914 and by now were well used to the theatre conditions; whereas the Baluchis had recently arrived from France.

The only brigade in 1st Division was the 2nd East African Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General S.H. Sheppard, D.S.O., R.E., and the Punjabis and Baluchis in the brigade served alongside the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), the South African Cape Corps and four companies of the 1st King’s African Rifles from Nyasaland.  The division was not involved in serious fighting during its march through the western foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Moshi to Arusha road was cut and blocked as ordered.  The division then marched towards Moshi where, despite displaying an enormous Union Jack, it came under fire from South African troops who were busily looting the town.

General Smuts criticised the length of time that Stewart, an experienced North West Frontier soldier, had taken on his march through the western Kilimanjaro foothills. This was not entirely fair to Stewart, as a British reconnaissance plane flying from Mbuyuni had reported incorrectly that Stewart was not yet on the Moshi to Arusha road. Stewart was blamed for failing to trap the Germans before they reached Kahe to the south of Moshi, although that had never been his primary task. Stewart’s real problem was that he had argued with Smuts, requesting an additional two days for his march from Longido; Jan Smuts did not like argumentative subordinates, especially when they were British generals.

Generals Stewart, Malleson and Tighe were now returned to the Indian Army for redeployment. ‘Jimmie’ Stewart ended the war commanding the British garrison in Aden.  Stewart had been let down by the lack of aggression and speed displayed by the commander of his mounted troops, Lieutenant-Colonel F. Jollie, 28th Cavalry, Indian Army; Jollie was also returned to India.  Wilfrid Malleson, who had left his brigade commander’s post, ostensibly because of illness when the Latema-Reata attack ground to a halt, later re-surfaced with a promotion as commander of the British forces in Bolshevik Russian Transcaspia.  Michael Tighe had been appointed to be Inspector of Infantry in India and Jan Smuts took pains to praise Tighe’s service in the East African theatre.  

Above: Indian Army Mountain Battery gunners in German East Africa.

28th (Lahore) Mountain Battery

Whilst the battle of Latema-Reata Nek was in progress, the Indian Army’s 28th (Lahore) Battery had been marching with its six mule-packed 10-pounder screw guns in support of the South African Mounted Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General J.L. van Deventer.  The battery had arrived in East Africa in November 1914 with Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’.  It did not come into action as it advanced from Lake Chala to Mamba Mission and then down the Himo River, but many gunners were affected by malaria from the prevalent mosquitos.

Having secured Moshi, General Smuts discovered that the bulk of the Schutztruppe had not moved west but had withdrawn down the Usambara Railway.  The 1st and 3rd Divisions were ordered to ‘left wheel’ and advance through thick bush towards Kahe Station, south of Moshi.  The 28th Mountain Battery was in action on 17th March as it supported South African attacks on the mostly undefended hills of Unterer Himo, Kifumbu, Soko and Euphorbian.  It also performed effective counter-battery fire against German guns deployed on Rasthaus Hill. Two days later the 3rd South African Brigade, with the 28th Mountain Battery in support, ran into the first serious opposition to the general advance.  Abteilung Otto (9th and 24th Field Companies) was well dug in covering a cleared area two and a quarter kilometres south of Euphorbian Hill.  The 12th South African Infantry led the advance and was suddenly punished by heavy enfilade fire.  Around ten South Africans were killed and thirty more, including the commanding officer and his adjutant, were wounded before a withdrawal was organised under the effective covering fire of the mountain gunners.  Lieutenant Edwin Arthur Eden, East African Volunteer Artillery attached to the 28th Mountain Battery, received a Military Cross for gallantry displayed in this action. Lieutenant Eden and several of his gunners were amongst the wounded.   

The night attack at Store

General Smuts now began to appreciate the difficulty of advancing formations of men through thick bush. He decided to concentrate his infantry on an advance directly towards the Ruwu River whilst he sent van Deventer’s mounted brigade around to the west to deny the Germans a withdrawal route down the Usambara Railway and Pangani River valley. Sheppard’s brigade marched through Masai Kraal to a location named Store, where the brigade entrenched. Reconnaissance was ordered and a patrol from the 129th Baluchis approached a river. No 32 Lance-Naik Alim Khan (127th Queen Mary’s Own Baluch Light Infantry, attached to 129th Baluchis) scouted forward and walked into a five-man enemy picquet. Four of the enemy did not survive the Lance-Naik’s marksmanship and the fifth man fled.  For this action Alim Khan was admitted to the 2nd Class Indian Order of Merit with the general citation: ‘For gallantry and devotion to duty in the field.’  That day, 20th March, Sheppard had been appointed commander of the 1st Division in place of Stewart, but because of the uncertainty in the air about German intentions he remained with his old brigade headquarters.

Above: Indian Army 29th Punjabi sepoys resting after the Soko-Nassai battle, March 1916

During the evening of the same day, in an attempt to discover British locations and intentions, von Lettow ordered an attack on what he assumed was a light enemy screening force south of Store. The Germans attacked with several Field Companies and pushed the British screening outposts back until the entrenched 2nd East African Brigade was met. At that moment, around 22.00 hrs, a relief was being conducted in the trenches between the Punjabis and the Baluchis, and many extra men were in the British firing line; also the ground forward of the trenches had been cleared of bush to a distance of 100 metres. The Germans mounted repeated attacks, as usual making good use of bugles for battlefield signalling, but the British position was not penetrated. After five determined attacks had been stopped by the rifles and machine guns of the Indian sepoys, the Germans withdrew at around 01.00 hrs on 21st March, taking their wounded and most of their dead with them. Von Lettow lost three company commanders that night, Lieutenants von Stosch and Freiherr Grote dying of wounds while Captain Augar suffered a foot amputation. The 2nd East African Brigade’s casualties numbered around thirty men and thirty animals.

Meanwhile, van Deventer’s mounted brigade was taking advantage of the full moonlight to move from Moshi, halting before daybreak west of the Pangani River opposite Baumann Hill.

The battle around Kahe on 21st March  

At dawn, the South African Horse failed to find crossings over the deep and fast-flowing Pangani and moved north towards the Kahe railway bridge, which a German demolition party blew before the horsemen arrived. Some intrepid South Africans swam the Pangani to seize the vital ground of Kahe Hill. The Germans now used two of their heaviest artillery pieces, the Konigsberg’s salvaged 4.1-inch naval guns. One of the guns was mounted on a railway wagon and the other was hauled alternatively by oxen and large African labour gangs. They fired on Kahe Hill whilst German infantry attacked it, but the South African defenders held their ground. Van Deventer had left his two radio sets behind at Moshi and had no direct communications with Smuts. However a British plane flew over the battlefield, observing and assessing situations on the ground and dropping reports onto Smuts’ headquarters. Sheppard had no contact with van Deventer at all.  

Above: Indian Army sepoys cross the dropped German railway bridge over the Ruwu River at Kahe,1916

East of the Pangani, Sheppard’s 1st Division was advancing directly on the Ruwu River bridge which carried the main dirt road running south from Moshi.  The division advanced with the attached 2nd South African Brigade on the right and the 2nd East African Brigade on the left.  The battlefield was confined by the Defa River on the west and the Soko-Nassai River running in from the north-east to join the Defa. Both rivers were strongly running and housed aggressive crocodiles. The German main road running north to south down the battlefield was both the axis of advance and the boundary between the two brigades.  Support was provided by South African 13-pounder field guns, British howitzers and the Indian Army’s 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery. Two armoured cars manned by men from the Machine Gun Corps (Motors) operated on the main road.   

Unfortunately, Sheppard’s reconnaissance patrols had failed to realize that the main German defensive position was not on the Ruwu River but on the Soko-Nassai river line which lay to the northwest of the Ruwu. Considering the dense bush and lack of good maps, this intelligence error was understandable, but it also came as a complete surprise to Sheppard. The Germans had a good field of fire and their many machine guns quickly caused attrition right across the British front. The German artillery observers were using prepared platforms in trees and they brought down accurate fire. Sheppard ordered his men to dig in whilst he attempted to outflank his enemy.

The British artillery observers could not at first see their fall of shot due to the dense bush, and so artillery fire was of little use to the infantry until mountain guns were brought forward into the firing line. The men of the 27th Mountain Battery fired 292 rounds, mostly over open sights whilst in full view of the enemy. The guns received continuous bullet strikes on the shields.  For distinguished conduct in the Field this day, Subadar Sher Baz was appointed to the Order of British India. Two non-commissioned officers received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.  

No. 702 Havildar Bhan Singh: At SOKO RIVER, 21st March 1916.  As No. 1 of his gun in the infantry firing line, displayed great coolness and determination in the working of his gun under heavy fire, setting an excellent example to his men.
No. 1141 Lance Naik Sundar Singh: At SOKO RIVER, on 21st March 1916. Went forward as telephonist with the Battery Commander into the infantry firing line and did excellent work under heavy and accurate enemy gun and rifle fire, which he utterly disregarded, and kept the telephones working the whole day.  

Sheppard ordered two companies of the 29th Punjabis to advance south-eastwards across the Soko-Nassai River. The Punjabi jawans achieved this objective but were then held up by effective enemy machine gun fire and the density of the bush.  Lieutenant Harry George Rodney Bowes-Scott and nine sepoys were killed and machine gun officer Lieutenant G.S. Darby and sixty-five sepoys were wounded.  No. 4 Company of the 129th Baluchis, under Captain H.J.D. O’Neill, was ordered to extend the line to the left and locate the German right flank.  O’Neill did this but he and several of his men were wounded when their own machine gun jammed whilst they were charging an enemy gun.  At 17.00 hrs that evening, the Punjabis and Baluchis east of the Soko-Nassai were withdrawn back across the river.  Captain Henry Terence Skinner, 29th Punjabis, was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 

On the right of the advance the South African Infantry was stopped and could not progress, but courageous individuals returned fire aggressively.  On the main road, the armoured cars attracted heavy enemy fire and their commander was mortally wounded whilst firing from his gun turret.

Sadly, while 1st Division fought and bled before the Soko-Nassai River, the South African Horse to the west was busy looting Kahe station and village, which included the Kilimanjaro Hotel. Van Deventer declined to move south and block a German withdrawal. More than a few South African senior officers appeared to dislike risking their men’s lives in direct confrontations, but preferred manoeuvring in order to force enemy withdrawals. This played into the hands of the astute and professional von Lettow, who did not wish to stand and fight for long. The Germans had very limited military manpower and other resources, but they did have the whole of German East Africa to withdraw into.

That evening, faced with the prospect of a move by van Deventer around his left flank, and having received a report suggesting that Kissangire to his rear was being threatened, von Lettow ordered his abteilung commanders to silently break contact and withdraw down the Usambara Railway. This they did with professional military efficiency whilst the 1st Division licked its wounds and the South African Horse slumbered.  British dawn patrols found the Germans gone and an abandoned and destroyed Konigsberg 4.1-inch gun.  It had been too heavy to drag away speedily.

Heavy rains set in

In the fighting on the 20th and 21st March, the British lost forty dead and 220 men wounded; thirteen sepoys had been killed, seventy-seven wounded, and three were missing. The German casualty figures between the 18th and 21st March probably totalled 200 men killed, wounded or missing.  As very heavy rains set in, Smuts halted his advance on the Ruwu River and sent most of his troops back to higher ground near Moshi and Taveta. Further south, the Germans were back-loading stores down to the Central Railway that ran from Dar Es Salaam to Lake Tanganyika, and were digging extensive defensive positions. 

The battle at Kahe was the best chance that the British had to destroy the Schutztruppe in 1916, and the chance was squandered.  From now on debilitation through disease, climatic conditions and malnutrition caused by inadequate logistic support would shrink the British forces. During April, Brigadier-General Sheppard talked about the Soko-Nassai action with the commanding officer of the 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel C.E.A. Jourdain, D.S.O.  Jourdain’s unit, which had arrived as part of the 27th Bangalore Brigade in Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’, was the only regular British Army battalion in the theatre. Sheppard said that he now saw the need for infantry companies to have their own sections of machine guns always with them during fighting in thick bush, and that field guns were more useful when brought forward into the firing line than they were when firing without effective observation from the rear. He also saw a use for controlled rifle volley-firing when engaging a fleetingly-glimpsed enemy in thick bush. Sheppard also commented that ‘General van Deventer lost a chance of defeating the Germans badly when near Kahe.’  However, in his report, General Smuts dealt mildly with his old Boer War comrade’s failure, and promoted him to command a new 2nd Division.  

Major-General van Deventer and his mounted troops were despatched westwards on an epic trek through the mud to seize Kondoa Irangi.  Indian Army units supporting this move were the 28th Mountain Battery and the Indian Volunteer Maxim Gun Company. A section of the mountain gunners often marched and fought alongside the machine gunners.  Jacob Louis van Deventer was to end the war as the commander of the East African theatre.

Reorganisation of the 1st Division

In late May the rains eased sufficiently for General Smuts to continue his pursuit of the Schutztruppe down the west flank of the Pare Mountains. A major reorganisation had taken place and 1st Division was now commanded by Major-General A.R. Hoskins, a former Inspector-General of the King’s African Rifles.  The division now contained columns instead of brigades.  Sheppard commanded the River Column, destined to follow the Pangani River, which included the 130th Baluchis, 2nd Kashmir Rifles (Imperial Service Troops), the 27th Mountain Battery less one section and the 17th Cavalry squadron.  Brigadier-General J.A. Hannyngton, D.S.O., commanded the Centre Column which was to follow the track of the Usambara Railway. The Indian units under Hannyngton’s command were the 40th Pathans recently arrived from France, the 129th Baluchis, and a half-battalion of the 3rd Kashmir Rifles (Imperial Service Troops). A third column, appropriately named Eastern Column, marched south from Mbuyuni towards the Ngulu Gap in the Pare Mountains, and this column contained a section of 27th Mountain Battery that supported the 3rd King’s African Rifles. The 29th Punjabis and the Calcutta Volunteer Battery were positioned as part of the Divisional Reserve.

The Kashmir Rifles, when attached to 1st East African Brigade, had been in action on 23rd March against a German blockhouse on the Ruwu River south of Taveta; the Calcutta Battery fired in support. After some further adventures, the Germans withdrew.

The fight at German Bridge

Centre Column advanced without serious opposition to Same, where it turned east to join up with Eastern Column and then advanced down the east side of the Pare Mountains as one unified column under Hannyngton.  River Column slogged its way down the banks of the Pangani River, often having to hand-cut tracks for the mounts and supply wagons, until near Mikocheni the river swung east towards the mountains.  Here was an uncompleted wooden bridge at a location quickly named German Bridge. Four enemy field companies were in the area and a defensive position had been sited.  Heavy German artillery support came from a Konigsberg gun mounted on a railway truck. 

On 30th May, Sheppard sent the 2nd Rhodesian Regiment in a frontal attack on the enemy position whilst 130th Baluchis and 27th Mountain Battery ascended partway up the mountainsides on the left flank to support the Rhodesians.  The Germans fought but did not stay long, as Hannyngton’s enhanced Centre Column was advancing on the other side of the mountains to cut them off.  German Bridge was captured with a total British loss of eleven Rhodesian casualties.

The action at Mkalamo

On 1st June, River and Centre Columns met at Bwiko but had to halt for four days as the British advance had out-run its replenishment capability.  Behind the leading battalions, railway track destroyed by the enemy was being repaired by the Indian Army’s 25th and 26th Railway Companies (Sappers & Miners), and bridges and roads were constructed or repaired by the 61st King George’s Own Pioneers and the Faridkot Sappers & Miners (Imperial Service Troops). Casualties, and sick men whose numbers increased dramatically each week due to disease and debilitation, were carried by the carts and trucks of the Indian Field Ambulances as far as the railheads prior to evacuation.

From Bwiko, Hannyngton’s column advanced down the railway whilst Sheppard’s again hacked its way down the Pangani River. From Mombo, southeast of Bwiko, a hand-powered trolley line ran southwest to Handeni, and the Germans were moving equipment and supplies down this line and onwards by porter towards the Central Railway. Aerial reconnaissance flown by 26th Squadron Royal Flying Corps reported an enemy defensive position at Mkalamo, where the trolley line crossed the Pangani. Improvised bombs were dropped onto this position.

Mkalamo was approached on 9th June. Lieutenant-Colonel P.H. Dyke commanded the advanced troops and his regiment, 130th Baluchis, was in the lead with the 29th Punjabis in support, the latter unit having been brought forward from Divisional Reserve. A company of the 61st Pioneers and a section of 27th Mountain Battery were also up with Dyke. The main body of the column was about four kilometres to the rear. The British were on the west bank of the river which at this point was fast-flowing, thirty metres wide and teeming with crocodiles that lay in wait for men, horses, mules and oxen. Abteilung Doring (Nos. 1, 3 and 16 Field Companies with a platoon of No. 5 Field Company) was entrenched in thick bush just west of the trolley line bridge. 

Dyke had been advancing along the river bank but, at around 11.30 hrs, German gunners on hills to the east spotted him and engaged the column. To avoid this fire Dyke veered his advance away from the river into thicker bush. Here at around 13.00 hrs the two leading companies of Baluchis under the second in command, Major H.D. Moore, stumbled onto No. 3 Field Company’s trenches and were engaged at close range. Moore tried to find an enemy flank but lost men quickly, including 2nd Lieutenants Roderick Spicer Russell Porter and Lawrence Benjamin Myers mortally wounded and machine gun officer Lieutenant Cousins severely wounded. But the Baluchis held their ground and beat back counter-attacks by Nos. 1 and 16 Field Companies.  

Dyke tried to find an open enemy flank by sending forward four companies of 29th Punjabis on the right of the Baluchis and three companies on the left, one Punjabi company being retained as rearguard. To counter this, Doring extended his flanks. The Indian mountain guns came into action but the bush was so thick that targets could not be identified. The Baluchis were fighting fierce close-quarter actions and the Punjabis were trying to find the Baluchis’ flanks and the enemy rear, but thick bush continued to impede both observation and movement as well as machine gun and rifle bullets, which were deflected or absorbed.

The column’s main body now came up and Sheppard took command of the battle. However he did not take control, as his men were either fighting individual battles or trying to orientate themselves in the bush. No. 2 Company Kashmir Rifles was sent to reinforce the Punjabi left flank and it repulsed an enemy attack mounted by No. 3 Field Company, but not before German Askari had overrun the column medical aid post. As dusk fell the Germans pulled back and the British column dug itself in.

Doring had fought a useful action and during the night his abteilung made a clean break down the trolley line towards Handeni. The Baluchis had lost eleven men killed and twenty wounded, the other units involved lost a total of six killed and fourteen wounded.  The low number of casualties was attributed to the enemy Askari firing high, as they usually did in thick bush.  The Germans were thought to have lost thirty or more men killed, wounded and missing.  For gallantry displayed both at Ruwu River and Mkalamo, Captain John Valentine MacDonald, M.D., Indian Medical Service, attached to 29th Punjabis, was awarded a Military Cross.  

The long road ahead

On 18th June, after skirmishing down the trolley line, Sheppard’s column entered Handeni unopposed, but his units and those in Hannyngton’s column were losing many men daily to malaria and other diseases.  General Smuts kept pushing his troops forward in the hope of achieving his knockout blow, but his opponent had the upper hand tactically and the Germans maintained this initiative until after the war in Europe had ended thirty months later.  

Today the Kahe battlefield can be easily visited and all the major geographical points can be located. The rivers are now only trickles and not torrents, but crocodiles remain a hazard. The British buried or cremated their dead where they fell, but the Europeans were reinterred in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Moshi Cemetery. An adjacent German memorial, stark but atmospheric, commemorates European and African Askari dead of the Schutztruppe, whilst a stone memorial commemorates the dead Hindu, Sikh and Moslem soldiers of the Indian Army. Sadly today metal parts in the cemetery, even from the Cross of Sacrifice, find their way into the yards of local Asian scrap metal merchants.


Lt-Col. Charles Hordern (compiler), Military Operations East Africa Aug 1914 to Sep 1916 (HMSO, London 1941); Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa (Hurst & Blackett, London c. 1920); W.S. Thatcher, 4/10th Baluch Regiment in the Great War (University Press, Cambridge 1932); Brig.-Gen. C.A.L. Graham, DSO, OBE, DL, The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery (Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1857); Maj.-Gen. Rafiuddin Ahmed, History of the Baloch Regiment 1820-1939 (Baloch Regimental Centre, Abbottabad 1998); Andrew Kerr, I Can Never Say Enough About the Men – A History of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles throughout their World War One East African Campaign (PMC Management Consultants Ltd, 2010); Richard Head & Tony McClenaghan, The Armies of the Indian Princely States, Volume 4, Sappers and Miners – Part 1 (Military Press, Milton Keynes 1999); Major-General D.K. Palit, VrC, Jammu and Kashmir Arms (Palit & Dutt, Dehra Dun 1972); R.M. Maxwell, Jimmie Stewart – Frontiersman (Pentland Press, Edinburgh & Falkirk 1992); Edward Paice, Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2007); Major F.C.C. Yeats-Brown, The Star and Crescent, Being the Story of the 17th Cavalry from 1858 to 1922 (Pioneer Press, Allahabad 1927); The Archdale Papers in the Liddle Collection (Leeds University); East Africa General Routine Orders (National Archives, Kew); War Diaries: 29th Punjabis, 130th Baluchis, 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (National Archives, Kew); Medal Index Cards (National Archives, Kew);  London Gazette.   (An edited version of this article appeared in a recent edition of Durbar, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society:

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