The Old and the Bold

German East Africa

May to December 1916

With the Germans driven from the area north of the Ruwu River Lieutenant-General Smuts now saw it as an opportune time to reorganise the forces he had inherited on his arrival in theatre in order to “secure the smooth and harmonious working of a most heterogeneous army, drawn from almost all continents, and speaking a babel of languages.”  The two existing divisions were broken up and replaced by a three division organisation.  The First Division, which would include the Indian and other British forces under the overall command of Major-General A. R. Hoskins, comprised the First East African Brigade, under Brigadier-General S. H. Sheppard and the Second East African Brigade, under Brigadier-General J. A. Hannyngton whilst the other two divisions were to consist entirely of South African troops.

The First Division’s part in the invasion was to clear the German forces, centred on the Usambara Railway, from the Pare and Usambara mountain area.  This would entail the division being split into three columns, the main River Column would advance along the left bank of the Pangani River with two smaller columns proceeding along the railway (Centre Column), and the eastern edge of the Pare Mountains (Eastern Column).


The Illustrated War News, Volume 1 Part 3, 28 June 1916, Page 29

Here, until the 5th July, the men of the 25th Battalion formed their own perimeter picquets, provided guards and escort parties for convoys and telegraph parties, as required, along the road north to Kangata and 5 miles to the south and they also patrolled along the river.  

On the 6th July the battalion left the Msiha River camp for Makindu, “B” Company, 36 rifles and 3 signallers under Captain Welstead, took over the outpost on Red Hill from the 29th Punjabis and likewise “A” Company, 25 rifles under Lieutenant Gilham, the Lukigura Bridge Post.  On 10th July the Red Hill outpost was further reinforced by men of “C” Company.  Makindu was most noticeable for the daily shelling of the camp by the Germans using an assortment of naval guns, including 4.1”, from the Königsberg.  Although extremely accurate, which raised the question as to whether the camp was overlooked by a well hidden observation post, the battalion suffered no casualties through these bombardments.  

The battalion’s active strength by this time had been reduced to 16 officers and 226 other ranks of the original contingent as the conditions had taken its toll.  The break in the advance proved most beneficial as battalion and a share of Post duties were the order of the day whilst these men recuperated.  This pause in operations would eventually come to an end and, on the 5th August, the battalion was on the march once more with the First Division’s Reserve as the advance to the Central Railway resumed.

When the main invasion of German East Africa commenced, the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, once again reduced by order to 450 rifles under Lieutenant-Colonel Driscoll, left Mbuyuni on 18th May and marched to Himo, arriving on the 20th.  Here they became part of the Divisional Reserve which was to follow the main column, now designated No.3 Column, on its advance along the Pangani River, in order to facilitate a more rapid advance the men’s baggage was reduced to 15lbs and the officer’s accordingly.  Daily marches over difficult, trackless, terrain ensued for the next ten days as the German forces withdrew in front of the British advance, 130 miles was covered in that time with roads having to be cut through the bush as they went.  Buiko was reached on 31st May and here a short pause in the operation was necessary, the battalion providing guards for G.H.Q., Divisional H.Q. and an outpost whilst construction on the unfinished German bridge over the Pangani was completed.  More roads were cut through the bush with the battalion providing the manpower to cut a road from the German bridge to Swamp Camp and a junction with another road being cut by the 29th Punjabis.

The advance recommenced on 7th June with the battalion once again with the Divisional Reserve.  On the 9th the battalion heard firing a few miles ahead of them as the 130th K.G.O. Baluchis, 29th Punjabis and 2nd Kashmir Rifles of the First East African Brigade encountered the German main force entrenched at Mkalamo, after a sharp action lasting until nightfall the Germans retired down the trolley line towards Handeni.  The trolley line was now followed for some distance as No.3 Column continued to press the enemy as it fell back onto further prepared defensive positions with the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and the Divisional Reserve continuing to follow.

The marching was difficult in the extreme, about 200 miles had been covered through the bush along routes cut as the force advanced before a made road, running between Handeni and Morogoro, was encountered.  This was on 17th June, five days later the battalion, once again marching through thick bush, had a “distressing march marching 60 mins. & halting 10 mins.” in very hot & dusty conditions.  They reached camp at dark having covered 20 to 25 hard miles and a number of men collapsed on arrival, a further 31 reported sick next morning 12 of whom were hospitalised.

With the enemy reported to be holding a strong position on the Lukigura River it was decided to divide the force and form a flying column to hopefully get around the position and force the Germans to stand and fight.  

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The 25th Battalion, forming a composite battalion with the 2nd Kashmir Rifles, joined the flying column along with two battalions of South African Infantry and the East African Mounted Rifles all under Major-General A. R. Hoskins and marched on the morning of 23rd June for a point north of the bridge on the Lukigura River.  After marching for more than twenty four hours the force crossed the river and engaged the Germans just after mid-day on 24th June driving them from their positions in utter rout {see Kwa Direma 24th June 1916}.

The speed of the advance down the Pangani River had led to ever increasing supply difficulties as the lines of communications became more stretched.  The troops had been on half-rations for sometime and many units, the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers included, were reduced to as little as 30% of their effective strength as disease ravaged the units.  At this point it was necessary to halt the advance in order for the men to rest and for another reorganisation of the force.  To this end a large standing camp was formed on the Msiha River, some 8 miles beyond the Lukigura River.  

After a false start, the battalion having to return to Makindu with the transport as the route through the mountains was completely impracticable, the advance recommenced on 10th August with the battalion following Sheppard’s division along the main road.  During the advance, as part of the Divisional Reserve, the battalion saw little action but were instead employed on Line of Communication tasks.  Between the 10th and 16th August, when the battalion arrived at Kwedihombo, they had been employed on rebuilding numerous bridges, destroyed by the Germans as they withdrew before the advancing troops, over the rivers flowing from the Kanga and Nguru mountains.  At Kwedihombo, where they stayed for a further four days, they performed the usual battalion duties and provided part of the post’s defence but were also employed in culverts repairs and animal burning, a necessary precaution to prevent the spread of disease as conditions took its toll on the animals too.  The battalion performed much the same duties for the remainder of the month as they followed behind the main advance although “A” Company, under now Captain Gilham, was detached from the battalion at the Ngerengere River on 27th August to provide protection for the artillery cars and would remain so until late September.


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A reinforcement draft of some 250 men, the first since the battalion had arrived in theatre in May 1915, disembarked at Kilindini in British East Africa on 20th August although it would be mid-December before any of the men would catch up with their parent battalion.

On 4th September the situation changed, for a short time, as the battalion was attached temporarily to Hannyngton’s 2nd East African Brigade and they got a little closer to the action.  Ordered to occupy Magali Ridge on the 5th September the battalion covered the left flank of the advance through the Uluguru mountain pass down which the Germans were withdrawing.  The men of the Gold Coast Regiment were occupied in clearing the enemy from the pass but were hampered by the fire from the German’s naval guns some six miles in the rear and safely out of range of any of the British artillery.  The 25th Battalion up on the ridge was able to locate the enemy’s forward observation post which was directing fire for their naval guns and, with their machine guns and two guns of 27th Mountain Battery, was able to wipe out the post and thus silence the, now blind, big guns.

Continuing the advance through the pass the battalion provided escort to the 27th Mountain Battery as they marched to Mwuha on 8th September.  A small enemy group was encountered near the village but, as the battalion was ordered forward, the Germans retired before deployment commenced.  Tulo was reached on 9th September and the battalion camped that night, south-west of the village, with the 2nd East African Brigade.  The following morning the brigade left Tulo but the battalion remained behind as its attachment ceased and for the next week they provided their own sentries and a picquet for the camp until, on the 18th September, Lieut.-Colonel Driscoll and the 25th Battalion took over complete responsibility for the post’s defence.  The supply chain was still under extreme pressure and rations still short whilst at Tulo but, here at least, the men were able to supplement them as organised parties were sent out north-east of the Ruwu River to privately purchase fresh produce from the villages there.

By the middle of September the German forces had been driven completely from the Uluguru mountains and taken up a defensive line along the Mgeta River but the British advance against these positions was not pressed though as the men “exhausted and worn out with ceaseless fighting and marching for several weeks through most difficult country on half rations or less” were by now in need of a thorough rest on both military and medical grounds.  

The 30th September saw the battalion move from Tulo as they marched the twelve miles to Dutumi to join Sheppard’s 1st East African Brigade and the following day marched a further twelve miles to “A” Camp, the old Arab Fort, or boma, at Old Kissaki where the majority of the battalion would remain for the rest of the year.  Some dispersal of the battalion did take place though on 2nd October as Captain Gilham & Lieutenant Cunningham with 30 rifles of “A” company with the remainder made up by “C” Company moved three miles to Kissaki to man the fort there.  In manning these two forts the battalion found themselves on the extreme right of the Mgeta front which ran east to west along the river where the advance had now come to a halt.

On 6th October the 29th Punjabis, under Lieut.-Colonel Ford who took over overall responsibility for the post, arrived at “A” Camp to share the duties as Lieut.-Colonel Driscoll of the 25th Royal Fusiliers left for Nairobi to gather together the battalion.  He would not return until 18th December when he arrived back at the battalion with the reinforcement draft that had landed in August and a further draft that had arrived in November.

Also arriving at “A” Camp” with the 29th Punjabis on 6th October was No.7 Battery.  This artillery unit was “probably the most heterogeneous of all units which served in East Africa” as its personnel consisted not only of Royal Garrison Artillery from Mauritius and Cape Garrison Artillery from Cape Town but also of a number of fellow 25th Royal Fusiliers troops who had been detailed to man the battery on its formation.  They would stay at the camp until 3rd November when they, along with the Punjabis, left the post with Major H. H. R. White assuming command responsibility in Lieut.-Colonel Driscoll’s absence.

The rest of the year was spent in providing daily picquets and standing patrols, most notably at the drift at the river, and also in constructing barrack and hospital ‘bandas’, entrenching the camp, clearing fields of fire and cutting roads through the bush. Rations also improved whilst at the camp as the lines of supply were finally able to catch up but were still also augmented by obtaining produce from the local villages.

It became known on 20th December that the advance was to recommence and preparations were commenced accordingly.  On 30th December General Beves’s Column passed through the camp going west en route to Kirengwe to advance against Mkalinso on the Rufigi River and the following day the battalion, consisting of 18 officers, 224 rank and file with two Maxims & two Rexers, joined the rest of the 1st East African Brigade in camp.


WO95/5340 - 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary 1915 May - 1916 Nov.

WO95/5332 - 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary 1916 Dec. - 1917 Feb.

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

Lieut.-General The Hon. J. C. Smuts Despatch dated 27th October 1916, London Gazette, No.29906 dated 17th January 1917.

Lieut.-General The Hon. J. C. Smuts Despatch dated 28th February 1917, London Gazette, No.30026 dated 18th April 1917.

Three Years of War in East Africa – Capt. Angus Buchanan M.C.