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The Indian Army on campaign 1900-1939

17 Cavalry in East Africa 1915-16

by Harry Fecitt, MBE, TD.


The Deployment


         At the end of 1914 British East Africa had been reinforced by Indian Expeditionary Forces “B” and “C”. These forces contained infantry, field and mountain artillery, pioneers, a machine gun company, and railway companies. In January 1915 Major General R. Wapshare, who had taken over command of the theatre from Major General A.E. Aitken, requested a cavalry squadron for use in the area south of Nairobi. This area, from Arusha and Longido mountain in German East Africa up to Kajiado in British East Africa, was a possible German invasion route. The area was also free from tsetse fly.   


        The 17th Cavalry was tasked and formed a composite Pathan squadron of 120 men chosen equally from ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons. Major R.C. Barry-Smith commanded and Captain V.C. Duberly and Second Lieutenant B.J.P Mawdsley were Squadron Officers. The Indian Officers in the squadron were: Resaldars Usman Khan and Sajid Gul, and Jemadars Wazir Khan and Wazir Mohamad. The squadron arrived at Mombasa on 4 February 1915 with all its horses and 66 mules. Effective mucking out and fitness exercises on the ship had prevented sickness amongst the mounts. The horses were slung off into lighters and then slung ashore. That afternoon the squadron entrained for Kajiado. Shortly afterwards a two-gun machine gun section was sent from the regiment to join the squadron.   


         For the first five months the squadron operated out of Kajiado and Bissil, sometimes patrolling alongside the East African Mounted Rifles who rode mules apart from the Scouts Section who had horses. Sometimes the immediate danger was from big game, and squadron members twice had to fire to halt charging rhinoceros. In this area the British had to use especially tall posts to carry signal cables so that giraffe could pass underneath without breaking the cables. In late July the squadron moved south across the border and based itself at a waterhole at Longido West, below the mountain. On 2 August 1915 a German mounted patrol seeking water rode into the Longido West position without making a proper reconnaissance and was greeted with British machine gun and rifle fire. Four German Europeans and two of their Askari surrendered whilst two Europeans and two Askari escaped. One of the squadron Sowars, Pir Dost, was severely wounded and later died. Two days later the squadron returned to the Kajiado-Bissil area.   


         On 21 September the squadron joined the East African Mounted Rifles and the King’s African Rifles in an attack on Longido West which had been occupied by a German force. The British failed to capture the enemy position and withdrew. The 17th Cavalry was not committed to the action, being retained for the pursuit that never happened, but three days later a squadron reconnaissance patrol established that the Germans had also withdrawn from Longido West.   


         The lancers were now patrolling out of Bissil and the War Diary records that in November 1915 Lieutenants A.C. Anstey and J.H.G. Knox were serving with the squadron, and that 86 remounts arrived from India and had to be trained. By this time a number of the original horses had succumbed to African Horse Sickness. Some patrols operated with the East African Mounted Rifles from Lone Hill, just north of the border. On 1st January 1916 the squadron held a Sports Day. Orders were then received to cross the border prior to a British advance and on 4 February 1916 Longido West was occupied again.


Operations North of Moshi


         The following day Captain Duberly accompanied by Lieutenant Mawdesley and 48 men, plus two Europeans from the Intelligence Department and their Masai scouts, patrolled to the southeast towards Engare Nairobi which lies west of Kilimanjaro Mountain. The mission was to establish if there were any advanced German posts on the route. A German field company and a European mounted unit, altogether totalling about 200 men, were at Ngasserai, 30 Miles along the route, but they remained concealed and observed the British cavalry approaching. On 6 February, coming across the Nanjuki stream, Captain Duberly gave orders to dismount, unsaddle and feed and water horses.   


         The Germans made a concealed approach through long grass and charged the unsuspecting cavalrymen. Captain Duberly and Lieutenant Mawdesley both wore pith helmets and so were quickly recognised as officers and killed along with Dafadar Said Gul; three others were wounded. Jemadar Wazir Khan took charge and brought the patrol out of action skilfully despite the long grass which obscured vision; he was later awarded the Indian Order of Merit. Both parties then withdrew. Lance Dafadar Khan Sahib had been wounded and left in the grass but using a discarded lance he hobbled back towards Longido for six days with no food and practically no water, bringing with him his rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition. He also was awarded an Indian Order of Merit.   


         Captain D.Mc.L. Slater, 11th Rajputs attached to 17th Infantry, joined the squadron on 1st March and commanded the machine gun section. On 5 March an Advance of the British 1st Division, commanded by Brigadier General J.M. “Jimmie” Stewart, began from Longido following the Ngasserie – Engare Nairobi route towards Moshi, south of Kilimanjari Mountain. An almost simultaneous advance by the British 2nd Division was coming from the east also directed towards Moshi. The squadron was initially used for reconnaissance by 1st Division, Sowar Khalid Gul being killed by a German ambush on 9 March. As the advance continued through forest and bush the squadron’s tasks changed to rear and flank guards, and piqueting duties at night. On 11 March Dafadar Said Gul was killed by enemy machine gun fire whilst riding on Right Flank Guard duties. The squadron then moved forward into the reconnaissance role again, reaching the Arusha-Moshi road without incident and arriving at Moshi, which had been taken by the 2nd Division, on 16 March.   


         Two days later heavy infantry fighting started on the approaches to Kahe Station on the German Usambara Railway line that ran from Moshi to Tanga on the Indian Ocean coast. The ground was covered by bush too dense for successful mounted action and this became a mainly infantry battlefield. On 21 March the squadron acted as escort to South African Field Artillery that came into action 300 yards from the enemy’s trenches. Both sides suffered several casualties during this battle, but the Germans managed to break contact and withdraw cleanly – a tactic that the British were to get used to – and the enemy moved a few miles down the railway line.   


         Heavy rains now halted this British advance into German East Africa and the British commander, General Smuts, ordered a pause and a move into encampments. Three officer replacements arrived for the squadron from India: Captain H.S. Stewart and Second Lieutenants A.B. Knowles and A.W. Ibbotson. The squadron was withdrawn across the British East African border to Mbuyuni to the east, where there was both a military railway line branching from the main British Uganda Railway line, and a British airfield. Remounts now came from depots in British East Africa. On 7 May a draft of 13 reinforcements arrived from the Regiment in India. At Mbuyuni the squadron was tasked with searching for downed airmen and also with working alongside the Mounted Infantry Company that was manned by men from the 2nd Battalion of The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. This company was commanded by Captain George Atkinson MC whose brother served in the 17th Cavalry. Long joint patrols were sent towards the Pare Mountains south of Lake Jipe to reconnoitre a route that was later used by the 3rd King’s African Rifles.   


The Advance down the Pangani River   


         On 21 May the squadron was back in German East Africa and patrolling forward of the British River Column (which in fact was most of the 1st East African Brigade under the command of Brigadier General S.H. Sheppard). The column advanced down the Pangani River cutting its own trail. Five days later a German picquet of one European, five Askari and five porters was captured. Lance Dafadar Musalli saw members of the picquet and fired from the saddle, inducing the surrender. The squadron cooperated again with the Mounted Infantry Company and the Scouts of the East African Mounted Rifles, mopping up enemy stragglers as the main enemy force steadily withdrew ahead of the British advance. On one occasion an enemy train was observed withdrawing and the cavalrymen tried to get ahead of it to block the line, but a German picquet thwarted the advance, wounding one Sowar and two horses. The Germans had mounted a field gun on their train and used it to harass the advancing British.   


         In early June the river column moved west of the railway line and entered thick bush alongside the Pangani River. In this terrain mounted scouting was not possible and the horses were led. At Mkalamo the infantry, principally the 130th Baluchis, had an extremely fierce fight in dense bush against a dug-in German force. The cavalry was not in action but was fired at by the enemy, but the density of the bush absorbed or deflected the vast majority of the enemy rounds.


Advancing to Morogoro


         At Mkalamo a trolley line ran south to Handeni and the Germans withdrew down the line. The squadron and the 2nd Rhodesian Regiment were tasked with following up the enemy. The dismounted Sowars engaged the German rearguard in thick bush at short range. Lieutenant Knowles was leading from the front, and was in the act of firing at the enemy, when he was shot through the neck and killed.   

         The column advanced through Handeni and south to the Lukigura River where on 26 June a dug-in German force stood and fought until it was bayoneted out of its trenches by the infantry, principally the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) and the Kashmir Rifles, who had attacked from a flank. During this fight the squadron was tasked to demonstrate towards the enemy front as a diversion, and in doing this Sowars Hashim Ali Khan and Alam Khan were killed in action. Three horses were wounded.   


          By now the horses were emaciated due to lack of grain. The men also often went on short rations as the supply service, composed of African porters struggling through the bush and carrying loads on their heads, could not deliver sufficient quantities of supplies. (General Smuts, the British theatre commander and a former Boer guerrilla commando leader, could never be persuaded to discuss logistics seriously.) After the Lukigura fight the Mounted Infantry Company was disbanded due to sickness amongst both the remaining men and their mules, and Captain George Atkinson MC, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was attached to the squadron. A column camp was made at Msiha but unfortunately it was within range of a German 4.1-inch gun recovered from the sunken cruiser Konigsberg, and the camp was intermittently shelled especially during the night. On 19 July one follower was killed by shell fire, one Sowar and eight followers wounded plus one horse and nine mules wounded. Five mules had to be destroyed. The following day a move was made to a safer camp. By the end of July, despite having received remounts, only 68 horses were left in the squadron, most of whom were quite unfit for prolonged work. A small amount of millet was purchased from villagers for feeding to the horses. The strength of the Sowars too was decreasing as the unhealthy climate took its toll and men died or were hospitalised with malaria and blackwater fever.   


         During August the brigade advanced to the Wami River, the squadron being tasked with patrols when the ground was suitable. Captain Stewart was posted out of the squadron to be Post Commandant at Makindu. During the fight on the Wami on 17 August when the 25th Punjabis and the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment forced the enemy out of its position, the squadron escorted the South African 5th field artillery battery. One mule was killed and two horses were wounded by enemy fire. A few days later 25 horses were either shot or handed over to the Mobile Veterinary Hospital because of debilitation due to lack of grain. The advance continued and Morogoro on the Central Railway was taken but the Germans withdrew further south into the Uluguru Mountains. On 31 August only 20 horses were fit for work and none were fit for more than 15 miles at a slow pace.   


Pursuing the enemy south of the Central Railway   


         During the second week in September 100 remounts and 47 Rank and File, with three Indian Officers, caught up with the squadron. Despite these reinforcements the squadron’s effective strength was still under the War Establishment figure and it was decided to reduce the Machine Gun Section from two guns to one because of the shortage of animals. Captain George Atkinson MC was sent on attachment to the 3rd Kashmir Rifles on 16 August. Captain D. McL. Slater followed him five days later. The squadron continued marching south with the brigade and reached the Mgeta River but tsetse fly was killing the horses. On 16 October Major Barry-Smith reported to brigade headquarters that his squadron was unfit for further service. This was acknowledged and the squadron ordered to return to Morogoro. By now only about 30 fit but weak men remained and only 20 of them had horses. The unlucky ones walked back until some returning empty Ford supply cars overtook them and provided transport.   


Return to India


After a month waiting in Morogoro for orders from India the squadron moved by train to Dar Es Salaam on 24 November and was re-clothed. Here the administrators took over and insisted on issuing a full complement of new saddlery. Despite Major Barry-Smith explaining repeatedly that this saddlery had just arrived from India and was urgently needed at the front and that the squadron was returning to India without horses, the administrators would not change their decision. The new saddlery was issued, re-loaded and shipped back to India, the squadron embarking on the transport Havildar on 17 December and arriving at Bombay in January 1917.   


Major Raymond Coape Barry-Smith was Mentioned in Despatches. Second Lieutenant Archie William Ibbotson was awarded a Military Cross. Lieutenant Barton James Platt Mawdesley lies in Kajiado Cemetery and Lieutenant Andrew Brooks Knowles lies in Tanga European Cemetery.   


These 18 men are commemorated on the Nairobi British and Indian Memorial in Kenya: Captain Vernon Conrad Duberly, 1974 Sowar Nazar Gull, Follower Jalal, 2255 Sowar Mian Gul, 2281 Sowar Pir Dost, 1385 Dafadar Said Gul, 2428 Sowar Kalid Gul, 1396 Dafadar Said Gul, 2209 Sowar Hashim Ali Khan, 1883 Sowar Alam Khan, 2712 Sowar Mir Gul, 2108 Sowar Muhammad Ibrahim, Follower Khuda Baksh, 247 Sowar Akbar Khan, 2464 Sowar Said Mir, 2225 Farrier Hikmat Shah, 2398 Sowar Jahan Dad Khan and 641 Follower Puran.   


These two men are commemorated on the Dar Es Salaam British and Indian Memorial in Tanzania:   2446 Sowar Hazarat Gul and 2679 Sowar Sultan Khan.   


SOURCES:   


Official History. Military Operations East Africa August 1914-September 1916 by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.   


Star and Crescent: Being the Story of the 17th Cavalry from 1858 to 1922 by Francis Yeats-Brown.   


War Diary 17th Cavalry East Africa Squadron 25 July 1915 to 17 December 1916. (WO 95 5336).   


Commonwealth War Graves Commission Records.   


The London Gazette.   


(An edited version of this article appeared in a recent issue of Durbar, the Journal of the Indian Military Historical Society.)