THE 57th WILDE’S RIFLES (FRONTIER FORCE), INDIAN ARMY, IN GERMAN EAST AFRICA

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July 1916 to September 1917

Introduction

In 1914 the 57th Rifles, a one-battalion regiment, sailed with the Lahore Division to France where it fought until December 1915 when it was despatched to Egypt. On the voyage to France the regiment had converted from an eight to a four company unit but retained the class composition of one rifle company each of Sikhs, Dogras, Pathans and Punjabi Mussulmans. After six months’ service on minor operations in Egypt the regiment embarked for East Africa, landing at Mombasa on 12 July 1916. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Willans DSO was the Commanding Officer and his regiment consisted of eleven British Officers including the Medical Officer, 21 Indian Officers, 843 Indian other ranks and 40 followers. The scale of machine guns in East Africa was one for each rifle company. Lewis Guns had not yet been issued in the theatre. German Field Companies were issued with at least two machine guns.

Initial deployment

The British commander in German East Africa was the South African General Smuts, and he was driving his three divisions, two of them being composed mostly of South Africans, southwards towards the German Central Railway that linked Dar Es Salaam on the Indian Ocean to Lake Tanganyika on the Belgian Congo border. However the British lines of communication near Tanga were being successfully attacked by German troops operating in the British rear area. The 57th Rifles was quickly despatched by train up the Uganda Railway to Voi, then westwards along a recently built military rail line to Kahe Junction and then down the German Usambara rail line to Mauri, the British railhead.

From Mauri the regiment marched eastwards to Korogwe and skirmished with enemy troops who were African Askari organised into Field Companies under German officers and non-commissioned officers. On 19th July three companies of the 57th Rifles advanced on the undefended German port of Pangani, occupying it at the same time as the Royal Navy arrived by sea, whilst the fourth company climbed up the southern Usambara Mountains to the German research centre at Amani, taking prisoner 25 German officers who were mostly unfit through wounds. The Amani research centre had been used to produce many useful commodities such as quinine that the Germans could no longer import due to the British naval blockade along the coastline.

The 57th Rifles was now ordered to join the 2nd East African Brigade at Handeni. The brigade was commanded by Brigadier General J.A. Hannyngton DSO and was part of the 1st East African Division commanded by General A.R. Hoskins CMG DSO. The other units in the brigade were the 3rd King’s African Rifles, the 129th Baluchis, the 40th Pathans and the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). On 4 August the brigade marched to join the remainder of the 1st Division on the Lukigura River.

The action at Matomondo

Two days later 2nd East African Brigade advanced south with the 57th Rifles forming the advance guard. After four miles contact was made but the German Askari were adept at fighting rearguard actions to cover tactical withdrawals and there was no serious fighting. Another two days of this skirmishing followed until the Germans made a stand near the village of Matamondo. Here the bush was very dense and the ground mountainous. On 10 August Colonel Willans was ordered to send one company forward to reconnoitre the enemy defences; No 2 Company under the command of Major James Henry George Buller, with Lieutenant James Norman Taylor accompanying him, was tasked and advanced at dawn. Meanwhile 3rd King’s African Rifles were conducting a similar reconnaissance on the left flank.

After advancing a mile the British came under very heavy fire from the German trenches, six enemy machine guns being used against them. Nevertheless both British reconnaissance parties attacked and severe fighting developed. On the No 2 Company axis Jemadar Sher Dil was killed whilst leading an attack and Subadar Arsla Khan, Bahadur, MC IOM was wounded. Major Buller saw that the situation was critical and led a charge onto the enemy’s left positions, but he was severely wounded in the leg and taken prisoner, every man of his party being killed or wounded. Havildar Salim Khan charged one of the enemy machine guns with his section, killed the crew and turned the gun onto the enemy until it jammed; he then withdrew with the captured gun. Lieutenant Taylor brought the company reserve forward and tried to rescue Major Buller but he was beaten back by devastating enemy fire.

No 2 Company and the King’s African Rifles on its left pulled back. The 5th and 6th South African Infantry battalions came to assist and were deployed on a left flanking attack which eventually drove in the German right flank, but the enemy maintained his aggressive defence until nightfall, when he withdrew. The German Commander in Chief, Colonel Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, later wrote in his reminiscences:

“Captain Stemmerman’s Detachment, which had been pushed out a short day’s march due north of Tuliani, was attacked at Matomondo by a strong force of Europeans and Indians. The enemy was very skilful. A machine gun of the 6th Company, placed on a rocky slope, was seized by a few Indians, who had crept up to it from the front unobserved, and thrown down the steep slope, so that it could not be found again. The enemy, who had penetrated our lines, was thrown out again with heavy loss by a counter-attack by the 21st Company. At close quarters the English Major Buller, a son of the well-known General of the South African War days, put a bullet through the hat of the Company Commander, Lieutenant von Ruckteschell, but was then severely wounded by the latter. Major Buller was got away to the German hospital at Dar Es Salaam and nursed back to health by the wife of his opponent, who was working there as a nurse. During the actions at Matomondo English horsemen had worked round further to the west, and suddenly appeared in one of the mountain passes leading from the west to Tuliani. In the dense bush the 2nd Mounted Brigade, which had come from South Africa under General Brits, apparently sustained heavy casualties.”

For his gallantry that day Major Buller was later awarded a Distinguished Service Order with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He gallantly led his men against superior forces of the enemy and captured a machine gun. He succeeded in penetrating to the enemy’s second line, where he was wounded.

Lieutenant Taylor was awarded a Military Cross with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action. He displayed great courage and devotion to duty in attending to the wounded under very heavy fire.

Major Buller was later recovered by British forces when Dar Es Salaam was captured in early September 1916. The total of the 57th Rifles’ casualties in the action was:

1 Indian officer and 4 Sepoys killed in action, 1 Sepoy died of wounds, 1 Indian officer and 21 Sepoys wounded in action, and 1 British officer and 3 Sepoys wounded and taken as prisoners of war.

The advance beyond the Central Railway

The 2nd East African Brigade, now including an Imperial Service unit, the 3rd Kashmir Rifles (provided by the Ruler of Kashmir, a Princely State), and also the King’s African Rifles Mounted Infantry Company and the 27th Mountain Battery, Frontier Force, Indian Army, continued pushing the Germans southwards. On 27 August the brigade captured Mikese Station on the railway line, but by now re-supply problems were slowing the advance. General Smuts believed in first moving rapidly, as he had visions of finally defeating the whole German Schutztruppe near the Central Railway, and then worrying about logistics later, if at all. The result was that the British troops had to exist on half-rations as the supply chain of African porters could not bring enough supplies forward quickly enough. This debilitated the men and reduced their resistance to tropical ailments such as bush sores and ulcers, malaria and blackwater fever. Also jigger worms buried themselves under toenails, snakes bit unwary soldiers, and sometimes sentries were attacked by lions. Tropical rain was another discomfort as tentage was not issued, and the African machine gun porters with the battalion showed the Sepoys how to quickly build night-time shelters from leaves, poles and bark found in the bush. A steady stream of officers and men from the battalion had to be medically evacuated and even though drafts were arriving from India, the effective strength of the 57th Rifles kept decreasing.

Meanwhile Colonel von Lettow Vorbeck had no intention of being trapped by the British, and he continued to withdraw, standing to fight only when the ground favoured his defence and where he could cause maximum casualties amongst his attackers. As the brigade approached the Missambissi River Nos 1 and 4 Companies of the 57th Rifles formed the advance guard. On reaching the wooden bridge crossing the river it was seen to be alight. The leading Sepoys ran across the burning bridge and No 4 Company engaged the withdrawing enemy whilst No 2 Company successfully extinguished the flames and saved the bridge. As the Germans withdrew they harassed the advancing British brigade with artillery fire; the Indian mountain guns, carried on mules, did not have the range to engage the enemy gunners. However the terrain and small bush tracks gave the enemy gunners problems during their withdrawal and the brigade came across an abandoned and destroyed 4.1-inch naval gun (removed from the sunken German cruiser Konigsberg in the Rufiji River delta) that the enemy could not drag any further south.

As the brigade approached the Ruvu River on 31 August the 57th Rifles led the advance with No 3 Company forward. Enemy skirmishers sniped but did not impose delays and the riverbank was reached, but no bridge was found. The only aid to crossing was an intact rope support stretching across the river. Under cover of machine gun fire No 3 Company used the rope to wade through the breast-high water, and then advanced to picquet the facing hills whilst the remainder of the battalion crossed. No 3 Company took two enemy Askari prisoners who told the British intelligence officer with the battalion that an enemy attack was planned for that night. At 0200 hours the Germans opened heavy machine gun fire from 600 yards range on the regimental bivouac position near the river, accompanied by Verey Lights for illumination. No 3 Company picquets successfully returned effective fire, and the only regimental casualties were 1 other rank killed, 3 other ranks, 3 African machine gun porters and 2 African stretcher bearers wounded. At dawn No 4 Company advanced to take the crest to the front and came under enemy artillery fire. Later in the day a South African field battery arrived and neutralised the German guns with counter-battery fire. The remainder of the brigade, plus the newly-arrived Gold Coast Regiment, now passed through the 57th Rifles’ positions and fought the enemy through the Uluguru Mountains that lay ahead. The 57th Rifles provided support on the left flank.

From the Dutumi River to Mssanga

The next position on the brigade axis where the Germans stood and fought was at Nkessa’s Village forward of the Dutumi River. This action commenced on 10 September. The enemy force was Abteilung Stemmerman again, consisting of four companies totalling 900 men and 10 machine guns. More enemy troops were known to be across the river. When the advance guard, 3 Kashmir Rifles, made contact the 57th Rifles and the 27th Mountain Battery were quickly deployed onto the prominent Kitoho Hill on the right flank. 3 King’s African Rifles moved through and beyond the 57th, whilst on the road below the 3rd Kashmiris and the Gold Coast Regiment advanced on the enemy trenches supported by fire from the Loyal North Lancashires’ Machine Gun Company. The British advance, hampered by tangled elephant grass, made little progress against the enemy fire. On Kitoho Hill the 57th Rifles arrived just in time to break up an enemy counter-attack on the hill and received support from the mountain guns. Two of the 57th Rifles companies then descended to support the Kashmiris’ right flank. When darkness fell the British maintained their positions.

At dawn 3 King’s African Rifles and the Gold Coast Regiment developed an attack on the right flank that was met by a strong German counter-attack. Kitoho Hill was the vital ground on the battlefield and at 1400 hours a determined enemy assault supported by artillery and machine gun fire was made on the hill. The 57th Rifles held its ground and after an hour’s fighting the Germans were beaten off. More British troops now arrived including the 29th Punjabis, a South African field battery and the machine guns of the 129th Baluchis which were attached to the 57th Rifles. Nevertheless Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, using companies brought up from Kisaki, attacked again in the late afternoon on both British flanks whilst Stemmerman’s men fought from their trenches. However at dawn on 12 September British patrols discovered that the Germans, true to form, had made a clean break during the night and were withdrawing south of the Dutumi River.

During September the 57th Rifles remained in close contact with the withdrawing enemy who inflicted several casualties on the Sepoys. One of those killed in action was Sepoy Bhan Singh, Indian Distinguished Service Medal. On 27 September Nos 2 and 4 Companies under Captain J.A. Glegg penetrated an enemy outpost line. Captain Glegg was later mentioned in dispatches. On 28th September the 130th Baluchis of 1st Brigade relieved the 57th Rifles who withdrew to the 2nd Brigade camp at Nkessa’s Village for two weeks of rest. Because of casualties and medical evacuations Lieutenant Colonel Willans now had under his command only two British officers and 180 other ranks.

The British had now seized Dar Es Salaam and were converting the harbour and town to be the main British East African supply base. However roving German companies were threatening the town and so the 57th Rifles was despatched to march towards the coast to engage any enemy troops that could be found. One section of the 27th Mountain Battery and one section of an Indian Field Ambulance accompanied the regiment. The trek through thick bush was rugged and difficult, especially for the battery mules and the heavily laden African porters in the column. River crossings were dangerous, supplies as usual were very meagre and guides were sometimes untrustworthy. Mssanga was reached on 21 October and contact made with the garrison, the Jind Imperial Service Infantry. As enemy posts were close by an intensive period of patrolling and counter-patrolling commenced and skirmishes occurred daily. Although drafts from India arrived the flow of medical evacuations continued unabated.

During one small action Lieutenant Ronald Leslie Piper, out on patrol with 50 men, confronted a German patrol about 40 strong near Mkwata and dispersed it, inflicting several casualties and capturing several rifles. On the following day the body of the German commander was discovered in the bush where he had crawled to die of his wounds. Lieutenant Piper was later awarded a Military Cross. In a similar incident Captain E.K. Fowler MC, with 2 Indian officers and 70 rifles, attacked an enemy position at Makuka. When it was realised that the enemy were in superior force with machine guns, a skilful withdrawal action was fought with the loss of only one Sepoy killed. Captain Fowler was later awarded a Brevet Majority.

Operations in the coastal region

From January 1917 onwards the 57th Rifles operated against enemy units near the Indian Ocean coast. Often reconnaissance missions were carried out in columns that might also contain the Jind Rifles, a South African white infantry battalion, the South African Cape Corps of mixed-race soldiers, the 27th Mountain Battery or the 16th Field Battery. Skirmishes and fire-fights were normal activity as the Germans preferred to mount ambushes rather than make attacks. For actions during this period Lieutenants Edward Edleston and Evan Bertram Charles Preston were later both awarded the Military Cross. Heavy rains hampered movement and re-supply, and periods of extremely hot sunshine exhausted the Sepoys. By the end of March 1917 the 57th Rifles was reduced to 198 other ranks, a large proportion of whom were quite unfit for active service due to recurring attacks of malaria.

In March at Utete the battalion had re-joined 2nd Brigade which two months later was re-designated No 2 Column. The other units in No 2 Column were the 129th Baluchis, 1/3 and 2/3 King’s African Rifles, 11th (Hull) Heavy Battery, Royal Field Artillery and the 27th Mountain Battery. Aggressive patrolling duties continued, but by mid-May the 57th Rifles was reduced to the size of a company because of casualties and medical evacuations. From the end of July the battalion was placed on Lines of Communications duties because of its low strength, but contacts with enemy patrols occurred regularly. The Germans rarely patrolled with less than 20 men and on two occasions they quickly overwhelmed small standing patrols or observation posts manned by the 57th Rifles.

On the 18 August the battalion was ordered to concentrate prior to embarkation for India. Two companies of the 40th Pathans relieved the 57th Rifles at Chemera and the battalion moved to Kilwa Kisingani. Here it met a draft of 135 ranks from India that raised the battalion strength to 10 British officers, 9 Indian officers and 206 other ranks. The battalion sailed up the coast to Dar Es Salaam on 2 September and sailed again from there 26 days later, arriving in Bombay on 10 October 1917 and then moving to Rewat in the Murree Hills.

Thirty five members of the 57th Rifles were buried in East Africa and they are commemorated on the British and Indian Memorials in both Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Sepoys from other Frontier Force units were drafted into the 57th Rifles in East Africa as attached personnel, and any who died are commemorated under the titles of their parent regiments. The Battle Honour East Africa 1916-18 was awarded to the 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force). In the 1922 reorganisation of the Indian Army the regiment was re-titled The 4th Battalion 13th Frontier Force Rifles (Wilde’s).

Four officers stayed behind in German East Africa. Lieutenants Piper and N.G. Guy were attached to the 129th Baluchis; Lieutenant Piper gained a Bar to his Military Cross before he was killed fighting on the Lukuledi River on 10 October 1917. Lieutenant H.H. Wadeson was attached to the 40th Pathans. Lieutenant Taylor MC was attached to the 33rd Punjabis and died of wounds during fighting at Narungombi on 27 July 1917.

Awards Received by the 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) for service in East Africa

Distinguished Service Order Major J.H.G. Buller.

Military Cross Lieutenant J. Taylor, Lieutenant E.B.C. Preston, Lieutenant E. Edlestone, Lieutenant R.L. Piper.

Mentioned in Dispatches Lieutenant Colonel T.J. Willans DSO, Major L. Forbes, Captain J.A. Glegg, Lieutenant R.L. Piper MC, Subadar Rabel Singh, Jemadar Zargir, Havildar Rahmat Khan, Naik Ran Singh.

Order of British India 1st Class Subadar Major Arsla Khan MC IOM.

Order of British India 2nd Class Subadar Bahadur Khan, Guides attached.

Indian Distinguished Service Medal Jemadar Hira Singh, Naik Khala Khan, Havildar Kapur Singh, Sepoy Sher Mahomed.

Indian Order of Merit 2nd Class Havildar Salim Khan, Naik Sher Baz.

Indian Meritorious Service Medal Havildar Prabh Dial, Havildar Feroz Ali, Lance-Naik Tayab Singh, 55th Rifles attached, Lance-Naik Khewa Khan, Sepoy Nand Singh, Havildar Gobinda, Naik Amir Shah, Naik Sharifulla, Guides attached, Havildar Udham Singh, Havildar Jaimal Singh, Guides attached, Sepoy Sher Singh.

Brevet Majority Major E.K. Fowler.

(Havildar Salim Khan IOM was later murdered by Zakkha Khel tribesmen when proceeding home on pension in 1921.)

SOURCES:

Regimental History of the 4th Battalion 13th Frontier Force Rifles (Wilde’s) reproduced by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.

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

My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck.

India’s Army by Major Donovan Jackson.

Record of the 3rd Battalion The King’s African Rifles During The Great Campaign in East Africa 1914-1918. (National Archives UK).

Hart’s Annual Army List for 1915.

The London Gazette & Medal Index Cards.

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

Author: Harry Fecitt

Leading on from Howard’s initiative please may I introduce myself. This is a best done by reference to an internet site Harry’s Africa where you will see some biographical detail and the results of some of my research into African military history, especially the Great War period
Reference to another site, in the Great War Forum (http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=65037&st=0), should you have the stamina to plough through it, will show you the Great War East African battlefields that I have visited and photographed:
Recently I have turned my research attention to German & Portuguese East Africa as operations in those countries are not fully covered by an official history, and so much interesting & important military information lies unperused in the UK National Archives.
The results of some of this work can be seen at http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-on-land/other-war-theatres.html and http://peterbaxterafrica.com/.
I am particularly interested in the roles played by the African, Indian, West Indian, Cape Coloured and Arab soldiers of both sides during the East African WW1 campaign. Nearly all books on the campaign tend to highlight the activities of white units, yet most of the heavy fighting was done by darker-skinned soldiers.
I wish to actively support any activity that leads to more public awareness of the Great War East African campaign.
I have tried to interest people in battlefield tourism in East Africa, but I failed to make significant progress – now I prefer to leave that to the specialists. I can provide some of the historical information if required.
(I believe that a first step should be a guidebook containing good military information about the units involved, so that the guidebook becomes a reference book to interested parties around the world, even if they never visit East Africa.)
As the centenary of the Great War approaches I am determined to do my best to try and make the general public aware that the Great War did not just happen in France & Flanders. To this end I have started contributing to another site named Harry’s Sideshows (http://www.kaiserscross.com/304501/home.html).
You will see an interesting comment there on German plans to promote a Turkish invasion of Sudan & Uganda aimed at supporting von Lettow’s resistance in East Africa.
What time is left, and I hope for quite a bit of it, will be spent in trying to commemorate through words the gallant actions of soldiers of all creeds & cultures on both sides of colonial & imperial struggles around the world.
At first I wanted to write a book or two, but my belief now is that most publishers will only entertain scripts about unknown war theatres if the accent is on sensationalism and the writing is dumbed down to the level of today’s casual reader. So I concentrate on writing short articles. I do not copyright my work and I see it being ‘lifted’ by several others. That is good – the word is being spread. I hope that we can collaborate in as many practical ways as possible.

2 thoughts on “THE 57th WILDE’S RIFLES (FRONTIER FORCE), INDIAN ARMY, IN GERMAN EAST AFRICA”

  1. “On 19th July [1916]three companies of the 57th Rifles advanced on the undefended German port of Pangani, occupying it at the same time as the Royal Navy arrived by sea, whilst the fourth company climbed up the southern Usambara Mountains to the German research centre at Amani, taking prisoner 25 German officers who were mostly unfit through wounds. The Amani research centre had been used to produce many useful commodities such as quinine that the Germans could no longer import due to the British naval blockade along the coastline.”

    19th July 1916 was also the day that the AIF, newly arrived in France from Australia via Egypt, got their first baptism of fire at Fromelles, near Lille. It was also where Lieutenant Eric Harding Chinner of the 32nd Battalion AIF lost his life, leading a party of “bombers” trying to defend the newly-captured German front-line trench near Delangre Farm against counter-attack. From 18.00 hours on 19th July to 07.00 hours on 20th July, the Australians suffered some 5,500 casualties.

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