The situation in early March 1916
Whilst the 2nd East African Division under Major General M J Tighe prepared to fight the battle of Latema-Reata Nek, General Smuts also had other formations on the move. From the north Indian Army Brigadier General J M Stewart's 1st East African Division advanced from Longido with the task of blocking any German withdrawal along the Moshi to Arusha road. To the north of Latema Hill Brigadier General J L van Deventer's South African Mounted Brigade rode to seize the heights above Chala Lake as a prelude to advancing to Mamba Mission and then to Moshi, the terminal of the Usambara Railway that ran down to Tanga on the Indian Ocean. Brigadier General C Berrange's 3rd South African Infantry Brigade followed van Deventer, whilst Brigadier General P L Beves' 2nd South African Infantry Brigade consisting of the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th South African Infantry followed the axis of the British advance as the Force Reserve.
Van Deventer's advance
The South African Mounted Brigade consisted of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd South African Horse. Berrange's brigade, the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th South African Infantry, marched in support as did the horse-drawn 13-pounder guns of Nos 2 and 4 Batteries South African Field Artillery, the six mule-packed 10-pounder guns of the Indian Army 28th (Lahore) Mountain Battery, plus a Divisional Ammunition Column. In the morning of 8 March the South African Horse used a crossing secured by Berrange's infantry to ford the River Lumi and advance on Lake Chala. An enemy detachment held a good position on the Chala Heights but the Germans withdrew south to Taveta when they saw the 1st and 2nd South African Horse approaching. Further south the 3rd South African Horse met opposition on the Lumi and was delayed until the enemy withdrew. The Indian Army 61st (King George's Own) Pioneers then quickly constructed a bridge that allowed the artillery and supply wagons to cross the river.
On 9 March the South African Horse advanced south-west towards Taveta whilst Berrange cleared the area of enemy patrols and ambush parties. On the following day the mounted South Africans attacked Taveta, looted the town, and pushed the defenders back onto Latema Hill. Here the Germans stood and fought and, as a result of gallantry displayed during this action, 899 Corporal F A Joubert, 2nd South African Horse, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:
At LATEMA, 10th March 1916. Assisted Corporal Nel in bringing out wounded man, and then returned alone and brought out No 366, Trooper Harding who was lying wounded within 25 yards of enemy's machine gun.
The 4th South African Horse was part of Tighe's 2nd Division and on 11 March it supported the Divisional attack on Latema-Reata by advancing along the Taveta to Moshi road accompanied by Berrange's 12th South African Infantry. This small force briskly skirmished with enemy troops on the northern flank of Latema Hill who stopped the British advance. Meanwhile van Deventer's brigade concentrated at Chala; the following day the 9th South African Infantry and the 28th Mountain Battery advanced to Mamba Mission and followed the Himo River down to the demolished bridge on the Taveta to Moshi road. Early on 14 March the South African Mounted Brigade seized a deserted Moshi town and promptly looted it; the troopers then fired on soldiers of the 1st Division as that formation advanced on Kahe from the west displaying an enormous Union Jack. The Germans had moved all the rolling stock southwards from Moshi to locations south of Kahe Station, ripping up the track as they withdrew.
The commander of the local German army which was named the Schutztruppe, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had planned an area ambush against van Deventer's and Berrange's brigades in the foothills of Kilimanjaro Mountain, but a report of bad news from the Latema-Reata battle had caused him to cancel this ambush. When he later saw that the Latema-Reata position could have been held, von Lettow regretted this cancelation as he had surrendered his strong left flank position. The German commander now withdrew all of his 24 infantry companies to locations around Kahe. Meanwhile Stewart's 1st Division had cut the Moshi to Arusha road as ordered, but 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 towards Stewart as a British reconnaissance plane flying from Mbuyuni had reported incorrectly that Stewart was not yet on the Moshi to Arusha road.
Generals Stewart, Malleson and Tighe were now returned to the Indian Army for redeployment; Stewart was blamed for failing to trap the Germans before they reached Kahe, 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, and ‘Jimmie' Stewart ended the war commanding the British garrison in Aden. Wilfrid Malleson had left his post ostensibly because of illness when the Latema-Reata attack ground to a halt; he 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 Smuts took pains to praise his service in the East African theatre.
Smuts now appointed South Africans and more amenable British officers to senior command appointments. Von Lettow also was dissatisfied with one of his commanders, Major Eric Fischer, who had withdrawn too easily before Stuart's advance. The German method of removing inadequate commanders was more direct. When Fischer reported to the Schutztruppe headquarters at New Steglitz Plantation von Lettow handed him a loaded revolver; Eric Fischer dutifully went outside and shot himself.
The advance towards Kahe Station
The Indian Army 25th and 26th Railway Companies (Sappers & Miners) worked hard to push the British military railway from Taveta through the Latema-Reata Nek and down to Kahe where it could be linked into the German Usambara Line. But first Kahe had to be seized from the Germans and the area west of the Ruvu River needed to be held in strength before the April monsoon rains set in. Von Lettow dug his men in and prepared to resist the British advance.
Smuts' plan to seize Kahe envisaged infantry advances directly onto the predicted German defensive positions whilst van Deventer's mounted troops rode round the western flank and cut the Usambara railway south of Kahe, blocking an orderly German withdrawal. But the South African Generals as well as the soldiers had not yet realised how difficult it was for infantry to advance to plan through thick and dense African bush; nor had the mounted troops yet accepted that to win meant closing with Germans and killing them, with all the personal risks such an action involved, rather than just manoeuvring around them.
A British general advance from the Himo and Moshi areas commenced on 17th March. The 2nd and 3rd South African Infantry Brigades attacked on the left of the battlefield whilst the mounted troops of the 1st Division advanced on the right. On the left the South African brigades were strengthened with two battalions from the 1st East African Brigade, the 130th (King George's Own) Baluchis and the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, and were supported by the 5th Battery South African Field Artillery (4 x 13-pounders), the 28th Mountain Battery (6 x 10-pounders) and the 9th Battery (4 x 12-pounder naval guns manned by Royal Marines).
The first objective on the left was Unterer Himo Hill which was first seized by Belfield's Scouts, a British East Africa Boer unit, on the night of 17 March, but then relinquished when the enemy counter-attacked and re-gained the hill. On the following day Beves' brigade deployed to attack the hill at noon. The 5th Battery fired 231 rounds onto and behind the hill whilst the 7th South African Infantry assaulted it. Meanwhile from the west a section of the 28th Mountain Battery also fired rounds onto the hill, and from the direction of Latema-Reata No 9 Battery fired more rounds. The infantry seized the hill without loss and German casualties were found to be two dead Askari on the summit plus one dead rhinoceros behind the hill. This heavy over-expenditure of hard-to-transport artillery ammunition caused acrimonious debate which was settled by General Smuts pronouncing: "Ah, well, ammunition is cheaper than human lives". However profligacy such as this was never practised again simply because ammunition stocks were never high enough on the gun lines.
Concurrently Berrange's brigade attacked Kifumbu, Soko and Euphorbian Hills just to the west, supported by the 28th Mountain Battery with the 4th South African Horse acting as right flank guard. The small enemy detachments on those hills withdrew before Berrange's men reached the summits. The Indian mountain gunners performed well, silencing German artillery that was located on Rasthaus Hill.
On the right the mounted troops provided by 1st Division and commanded by Major H S Laverton advanced to Masai Kraal, but found the location well defended by Abteilung (Formation) Stemmerman (3rd, 10th, 11th and 14th Field Companies). The mounted troops, the East African Mounted Rifles and the Indian Army 17th Cavalry East Africa Squadron, could not advance and Brigadier General S H Sheppard's 2nd East African Brigade (25th Royal Fusiliers 29th Punjabis, 129th Baluchis, and the South African Cape Corps) was ordered forward from Moshi to the Mue River.
The next day, 19 March, Laverton was held up again but Sheppard sent forward the 129th (Duke of Connaught's Own) Baluchis who pushed the enemy back. The Baluchis had arrived from the Western Front and they were not alarmed by incoming enemy fire but they were stopped in their tracks and temporarily dispersed by swarms of angry bees whose hives had been fractured by small arms and artillery fire. Sheppard dug his brigade in for the night at Store, four and a half kilometres south of Masai Kraal. That day Sheppard had been appointed commander of the 1st Division in place of Stewart but, because of the uncertainty in the air, he remained with his old brigade headquarters.
That same day Smuts pushed his South Africans down to take Rasthaus Hill, but the 2nd South African Brigade and the 5th Battery soon lost momentum as they became entangled and disorientated in thick bush. The brigade was eventually withdrawn to its start line to re-organise. To its right the 3rd South African Brigade with the 28th Mountain Battery made better progress until it ran into the first serious opposition to the general advance. Abteilung Otto, (the 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 30 more including the commanding officer and his adjutant were wounded before a withdrawal was organised under the effective covering fire of the mountain gunners.
Captain Everil Edwin Froneham, 12th South African Infantry, and Lieutenant Edwin Arthur Eden, East African Volunteer Artillery attached to 28th Mountain Battery, both received Military Crosses for gallantry displayed in this action. Lieutenant Eden and several of his gunners were amongst the wounded. Two Privates of the 12th South African Infantry, 9834 Duncan Henry Webb and 7556 Albert Ernest Langman, received Distinguished Conduct Medals with the citation:
At HIMO RIVER, 19th March 1916. Who, after Lieutenant Colonel Breytenbach, 12th South African Infantry, was wounded, brought him out of the firing line under heavy fire.
The brigade returned to Euphorbian Hill for the night.
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 Kahe 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.
The day of 20 March was spent in reconnoitring the ground that lay ahead. The 5th, 6th and 8th South African Infantry of Beve's brigade were sent to bivouac a couple of kilometres north of Store, in case 2nd East African Brigade needed support. A German patrol surprised a party of East African Mounted Rifles watering mounts north of Store, and 214 Trooper Noel Martin Gibbs, the commanding officer's orderly, was shot dead. But the Germans were also surprised when a patrol from the 129th Baluchis approached the Ruwu River. No 32 Lance Naik Alim Khan scouted forward and walked into a five-man enemy picquet, killing four of his opponents. For this Alim Khan was awarded an Indian Order of Merit 2nd Class with the citation:
For gallantry and devotion to duty in the field.
That evening von Lettow, in an attempt to discover British locations and intentions, ordered an attack on what he assumed was a light enemy screening force south of Store. The Germans attacked with several Field Companies and did push the British screening outposts back until the entrenched 2nd East African Brigade was met. At that moment, around 2200 hours, a relief was being conducted in the trenches between the Punjabis and the Baluchis and so 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 0100 hours on 21 March, taking their wounded and most of their dead with them. Von Lettow lost three company commanders that night: Lieutenant von Stosch and Freiherr Grote dying of wounds whilst Captain Augar suffered a foot amputation. 2nd East African Brigade's casualties numbered around 30 men and 30 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 21 March
At dawn the South African Horse failed to find crossings over the deep and rapid Pangani and so moved north towards the railway bridge, which a German demolition party blew before the horsemen arrived. Supported by the fire of the 2nd and 4th South African Field Batteries two squadrons of horsemen under Major J J Koen swam the Pangani and seized the vital ground of Kahe Hill. Artillery Lieutenant H Court-Smith of No 2 Battery also swam the river to act as a Forward Observation Officer in support of Koen's defence of the hill. More horsemen crossed the river and Baumann Hill to the south was also seized and held, but later relinquished.
The Germans now used two of their heaviest artillery pieces, 4.1-inch naval guns salvaged from the cruiser Konigsberg that had been sunk in the Rufiji River delta. One of the guns was mounted on a railway wagon and the other was hauled by oxen or large African labour gangs. These guns 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 so he had no direct communications with Smuts. However a British plane flew over the battlefield with its observer assessing situations on the ground and dropping reports onto Smuts' headquarters. Sheppard had no contact with van Deventer at all.
On the ground Sheppard's 1st Division was advancing directly on the Ruwu River bridge whilst Berrange's brigade at Euphorbian Hill should have advanced on Rasthaus. The 1st East African Brigade battalions at Unterer Himo were held in reserve. In the event only 1st Division fought as the Rasthaus advance never got underway through the thick bush; Berrange remained at Euphorbian Hill apparently to protect Sheppard's left flank.
1st 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 they housed aggressive crocodiles. The German main road running from north to south down the battlefield was both the axis of advance and the boundary between the two brigades. Support was provided by the 1st and 3rd South African Field Batteries, the mule-drawn No 12 Howitzer Battery (two 5-inch howitzers manned by Royal Garrison Artillery gunners from South Africa), the Indian Army 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery and two armoured cars manned by men from the Machine Gun Corps (Motors) that operated on the main road. The 25th Royal Fusiliers and the 5th South African Infantry were held in reserve.
However Sheppard's reconnaissance patrols had failed to realize that the main German defensive position was not on the Ruwu River but was on the Soko-Nassai river line which lay to the north-west of the Ruwu. Considering the dense bush and lack of good maps this intelligence error was understandable but it also was 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 gallantry displayed that day Subadar Sher Baz was admitted to the Order of British India whilst 702 Havildar Bhan Singh and 1141 Lance Naik Sundar Singh received Indian Distinguished Service Medals. Bhan Singh's citation read:
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.
Sundar Singh's citation read:
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 Punjabis achieved this but were 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 Darby and 65 sepoys were wounded. No 4 Company of the 129th Baluchis under Captain H J D O'Neill was ordered to extend this 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 1700 hours that evening the Punjabis and Baluchis east of the Soko-Nassai were withdrawn back across the river. Captain Henry Terence Skinner, 29th Punjabis, was awarded a 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. Two Distinguished Conduct Medals were won by the infantry. The citation of 4530 Private John Louis Norton, 6th South African Infantry, read:
At SOKO NASSAI, 21st March 1916. This Private, under most heavy rifle and machine gun fire, repeatedly crossed a beaten zone (200 yards across) to bring back wounded; subsequently, finding a Maxim Gun native in front, he again went back and brought him under cover. This young Private's fine example undoubtedly had a great effect on all who were witnesses of it.
The citation of No 5353 Sergeant James Bernard O'Hara, 8th South African Infantry, read:
At SOKO NASSAI, 21st March 1916. As senior Machine Gun NCO of the battalion, was in charge of two guns, and whilst changing one of his guns to an alternative position, one of the native Machine Gun Porters was severely wounded and dropped in the open. Sergeant O'Hara, after getting his gun safely placed, returned and carried the wounded native under cover under heavy fire. This NCO's example of coolness and gallantry had an excellent effect, especially on the Native Porters.
As the battle progressed the Forward Observation Officers of the 1st and 3rd South African Field Batteries, Lieutenants C P Piers and D St J Clowes respectively, took great risks in exposing themselves to enemy fire in order to observe the fall of shot. The two batteries fired a total of around 300 rounds. Dennis St John Clowes was awarded a Military Cross and one of his signallers, 55 Gunner J R Banks, South African Field Artillery, received a Distinguished Conduct Medal:
For conspicuous gallantry in action. He displayed great courage and determination in establishing and maintaining communication under very heavy fire. He set a splendid example throughout.
On the main road the armoured cars attracted heavy enemy fire and their commander, Captain Harry Thomson Whybrow, Machine Gun Corps (Motors), was mortally wounded whilst firing from his gun turret.
Anticipating a German counter-attack, at 1600 hours Sheppard brought forward his reserve, the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) and the 5th South African Infantry. These units came under effective enemy fire and took casualties whilst entrenching. 13359 Private Allen Harden, 25th Royal Fusiliers, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal:
At RUWU River, 21st March 1916. Showed conspicuous gallantry and self-sacrifice in going out under heavy fire and bringing in a wounded Private of another unit.
Sadly whilst 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 generals appeared to dislike risking their mens' lives in direct confrontations, but preferred to manoeuvre to force enemy withdrawals. This played right into the hands of the astute and professional von Lettow, who did not wish to stand and fight for long anyway. 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 Abteilungen 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 and 3rd Brigade slumbered. British dawn patrols found the Germans gone and an abandoned and destroyed Konigsberg 4.1-inch gun left behind. It had been too heavy to drag away speedily.
The aftermath of battle
In the fighting on 21 March the British lost 40 dead and 220 men wounded. The German casualty figures between 18 and 21 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. Van Deventer and his mounted troops were despatched westwards on an epic trek through the mud to seize Kondoa Irangi.
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. Thirty months of hard marching and fighting lay ahead for the British troops, and during the final year of the war it would be only African infantry that was in the field, the white and Indian battalions having been withdrawn on medical grounds.
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 Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel C E A Jourdain. Jourdain's unit 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 comrades' failure. He wrote that Van Deventer had had to retire after a brush with the enemy. "He waited for the following day to develop the turning movements after his whole brigade should have been brought across the Pangani." But the hastily trained and poorly disciplined South African officers and men were on a steep military learning curve, and when later in the campaign General Van Deventer became the theatre commander he proved to be a much more aggressive commander. Experience taught him that Boer War tactics had to be revised and upgraded if the Schutztruppe was to be beaten. In the event von Lettow was still fighting after the November 1918 Armistice had been declared, as he marched his depleted Schutztruppe across Northern Rhodesia, now named Zambia, towards Portuguese West Africa, now named Angola.
Today the Kahe battlefield can be easily visited and all the major geographical points can be located although the rivers now are only trickles and not torrents, but crocodiles remain a hazard. The British buried or cremated their dead where they fell, but later the Europeans were re-interred in Moshi Commonwealth War Graves Committee Cemetery. A stark but very atmospheric German memorial adjacent to the cemetery commemorates the dead Schutztruppe Europeans and African Askari, whilst a British stone memorial commemorates the dead Hindu, Sikh and Muhammedan sepoys 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 scrap metal merchants.
Article submitted by Harry Fecitt MBE TD.
(Author's Note: The award citations quoted are primarily those found in unit War Diaries, Regimental Histories or in East Africa General Routine Orders, as such citations are usually more comprehensive than those found in the London Gazette.)
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- Official History. Military Operations East Africa August 1914 to September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.
- My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
- The South Africans with General Smuts in German East Africa 1916 by Brigadier J J Collyer CB, CMG, DSO.
- General Smuts' Campaign in East Africa by Brigadier General J H V Crowe CB.
- They Fought for King and Kaiser. South Africans in German East Africa 1916 by James Ambrose Brown.
- Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa by Edward Paice.
- The South African Field Artillery. German East Africa and Palestine, 1915-1919 by F B Adler, A E Lorch and H H Curson.
- The Story of the East African Mounted Rifles by C J Wilson.
- The 4/10th Baluch Regiment in the Great War by W S Thatcher MC.
- The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery by Brigadier General C A L Graham DSO, OBE, DL, psc.
- Jimmie Stewart - Frontiersman by R M Maxwell.
- Army Diary 1899-1926 by Colonel R Meinertzhagen CBE, DSO.
- East Africa General Routine Orders.
- War Diaries: 29th Punjabis; 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen); Headquarters No 2 Artillery Group, 2nd East Africa Division; 17th Indian Cavalry, East African Squadron; The East African Mounted Rifles; 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.