The Old and the Bold


3rd September 1915

The 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) had been in British East Africa for no more than a couple of weeks before it had formed some of its establishment into a Battalion Mounted Infantry Section.  The provision of a more mobile section for the defence of the border areas not only extended the area over which the country could be patrolled but also allowed for a quicker response in reaction to any German incursions into British East Africa.

On 28th August 1915 this section of mounted infantry, 50 rifles strong under Lieutenants M. Ryan and W. T. Dartnell, moved from its position on the Magadi Railway to Maktau.  Here it joined a similar number of men from the 2nd Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in forming a combined Mounted Infantry Company all under the command of Captain J. S. Woodruffe, Royal Sussex Regiment attached to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

At around 8.30 a.m. on the morning of 3rd September Lieutenant-Colonel C. U. Price, 130th Baluchis, the officer commanding Maktau Post received a report that an enemy patrol had fired upon the down ballast train at Mile 34 on the Voi-Maktau Railway.  Orders were immediately given for Captain Woodruffe and the Mounted Infantry Company, 3 officers and 63 rifles strong in three troops, to proceed to a point about 7 miles to the south of the camp in an attempt to intercept the raiding party.  

The Mounted Infantry Company were organised as follow;

No. 1 Troop:

Second Lieutenant W. Parker (2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment) and men of the 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

No. 2 Troop:

Second Lieutenant M. Ryan (25th Royal Fusiliers) & men of the 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

No. 3 Troop:

Lieutenant W. T. Dartnell (25th Royal Fusiliers) & men of the 25th Royal Fusiliers

A special patrol of 50 rifles of the 130th Baluchis, accompanied by six men of the Mounted Infantry Company, all under Lieutenant A. H. Wildman was to follow as infantry support.

Image courtesy of “The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum via Harry Fecitt”

The Mounted Infantry left camp at 9.00 a.m. and proceeding at a canter had reached their intended ambush position by 10.15 a.m.  The mules were taken out of sight about 100 yards to the rear of the now dismounted infantry who extended to form a firing line on a slight slope in the bush facing east.  No.1 Troop were in the centre, No.2 Troop were initially in reserve but were moved forward onto the left flank with No.3 Troop on the right flank facing to the south-east, Captain Woodruffe took up a central position behind No. 1 Troop.

At around 11.30 a.m. one of the fusiliers in No. 3 Troop accidentally discharged his rifle, the sound of this shot most probably gave away the Mounted Infantry Company’s position and attracted the enemy patrol towards it.

A number of three men picquets had been posted forward of the firing line and at around 12.15 p.m. these reported the approach of an enemy patrol, of unknown strength but estimated at around 200 men, from the east and at a range of about 50 yards, the bush having concealed their advance until they were almost on top of the picquets.  Having fired at the German patrol from as close as 10 yards the picquets withdrew rapidly back onto the firing line which had now started to take casualties amongst No.1 and 2 Troops as the enemy returned fire.  No.3 Troop, which at that time was not engaged with the enemy, was ordered to bring their right flank forward but misunderstood the order causing them to bunch towards the centre and thus making for a better target for the German askari.  Orders were given to fix bayonets as the two forces came closer together, Captain Woodruffe was severely wounded in the back, Lieutenant Dartnell hit in the leg and casualties amongst the men continued to increase as the Germans threatened to surround the outnumbered British force.

At this point Captain Woodruffe gave orders for the Mounted Infantry to break off contact with the enemy.  He was carried out of the action under heavy fire by Private H. Bristow, 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who had been tending to the wounded, Private Bristow was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts.  Meanwhile Second Lieutenant Parker reorganized the Mounted Infantry Company and a successful retirement to the waiting mules was effected.  Taking with them as many of the wounded as could ride, the mules were mounted and the position abandoned.  It was considered that if they had remained any longer then they would have been completely surrounded as the enemy were by then within 25 yards.  Those remaining casualties unable to be moved had to be left behind.  Lieutenant Dartnell, fully realising the risk that he was undertaking, knowing as he did that the wounded were likely to be treated unfavourably by the enemy askaris, refused Second Lieutenant Parker’s attempt to rescue him and asked to be left behind, his reasoning being that the presence of a British officer might be enough to save the lives of the wounded.  Sadly his gallant conduct was in vain and he met his death along with the majority of the wounded.


Deeds That Thrill The Empire

For his selfless actions on that day Lieutenant Dartnell was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the citation for which read “For most conspicuous bravery near Maktau (East Africa) on 3rd September, 1915. During a mounted infantry engagement the enemy got within a few yards of our men, and it was found impossible to get the more severely wounded away. Lieutenant Dartnell, who was himself being carried away wounded in the leg, seeing, the situation, and knowing that the enemy's black troops murdered the wounded, insisted on being left behind in the hopes of being able to save the lives of the other wounded men. He gave his own life in the gallant attempt to save others.

The outcome of the engagement may have been different if the Mounted Infantry Company had not cantered off so quickly and lost touch with its infantry support, a criticism levelled at the officer commanding the company after the event.  Contact was lost fairly early on and after marching for five miles Lieutenant Wildman was concerned that he was not in touch with the Mounted Infantry. At 10.45 a.m. he despatched his six mounted infantry in an attempt to locate Captain Woodruffe and soon after mid-day heard firing a mile and a half to the south.  Doubling towards the sound of the gunfire a number of mounted men were seen moving rapidly to the north-west and the Baluchis moved north to intercept.  It was quickly realised that these troops were in fact the Mounted Infantry Company men extricating themselves from the action and so the Baluchis turned east-south-east towards an enemy bugle sound.  By 12.30 p.m. firing had all but ceased although four gunshots were heard ten minutes later.  At 1 p.m. the Baluchis picked up the six mounted infantry sent out earlier and advanced towards the scene of the action.  Halting the patrol Lieutenant Wildman sent the six mounted men to reconnoitre and they returned soon after to report corpses on the ground but no enemy present.  At 1.40 p.m. the patrol reached the scene of the engagement and found eight British corpses, all partially and four entirely stripped, along with two dead German askaris and another who died of his wounds.  At least four of the British dead had been finished off at very close range and all had two or more wounds.

Image courtesy of “The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum via Harry Fecitt”

At Maktau at 2 p.m., on hearing of the action, Lieutenant-Colonel Price ordered Major H. A. Robinson, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, to proceed with a mobile column of 200 rifles 25th Royal Fusiliers under Major H. B. Towse and 100 rifles of 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment under Captain R. E. Berkeley, to take stretchers to the scene and assist Lieutenant Wildman as necessary.  The column moved out at 2 p.m. and were met by Lieutenant Ryan and some of his mounted infantry who guided them to a ridge 5½ miles from camp and a couple of miles short of the scene of action. Here they met two mounted infantry orderlies who told them where Lieutenant Wildman was, Major Robinson pushing on with the stretcher bearer party and a platoon of 25th Royal Fusiliers to eventually join Lieutenant Wildman at 5 p.m.

Major Robinson saw the eight British corpses that had been collected and in his opinion, based on a cursory examination of the bodies, concluded that all had been shot or bayonetted at close range, after being either dead or wounded.  At 5.15 p.m. he ordered Lieutenant Wildman and the Baluchis along with the stretcher party to rejoin the column and at 6.10 p.m. started back for Maktau.  The camp was reached after dark at 8.10 p.m., signal lights on Picquet Hill being of great assistance in guiding the column back to camp.  At no time, either going or on the return, were any signs of the enemy patrol seen.

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

WO95/5336 – Mounted Infantry War Diary 1915 September - 1916 July.

WO95/5339 - 2nd Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diary 1914 October - 1916 September.

WO95/5363 – Maktau Post Base Commandant War Diary 1915 August - 1915 December

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

London Gazette, No.29384 dated 29th November 1915.

London Gazette, No.29414 dated 23rd December 1915.



25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers

Lieutenant W. T. Dartnell

15126 Sergeant C. W. Philips

12822 Private D. M. Henderson

2nd Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

10314 Private F. Bristow

8032 Private J. A. S. Cooper

9222 Private F. Ward

9952 Private W. A. Acton

10070 Private R. Brockbank


Royal Sussex Regiment attd. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

Captain J. S. Woodruffe

25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers

13740 Private E. H. Wood

2nd Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

9808 Private L. Anderson

5161 Sergeant R. L. Wakeford

8617 Lance Corporal R. L. Jones

9817 Private W. J. Cornell

9721 Private G. H. Heaton

9489 Lance Corporal J. C. Hughes

Wounded & Missing

2nd Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

10069 Private H. Bradley *


25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers

13478 Lance Corporal H. Robinson *

2nd Bn. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

9177 Lance Corporal S. Goddard *

* Later accepted as having died.


Image courtesy of “The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum via Harry Fecitt”


Image courtesy of “The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum via Harry Fecitt”