top of page

India's Contribution to the Great War in East Africa

The East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918

When war was declared in August 1914, British East Africa (BEA), now Kenya, was immediately threatened by military aggression from the adjacent colony to the south, German East Africa (GEA), now Tanzania.  The indigenous regular troops in BEA were the King’s African Rifles (KAR) who were nearly all deployed on the northern and eastern borders with Abyssinia and Somalia.  In any case the KAR, although a formidable force against tribal insurgents and cattle thieves, was not equipped or supported to tackle military operations against another European power.


The BEA Governor, Sir Henry Belfield, sent a telegram on 4th August to the Colonial Office in London describing the defenceless condition of his Protectorate.  India was considered to be the guardian of the British Protectorates in eastern Africa, and in all previous emergencies Indian troops had been dispatched to supplement the various Protectorates’ forces.  The Colonial Office turned to India for military support, but India was by this time also arranging support for operations in France and Belgium and she referred the request to the Committee of Imperial Defence.  This Committee formed a sub-committee titled the Offensive Sub-Committee which immediately addressed the East African situation.

On 5th August a recommendation was made to send an Indian Expeditionary Force to attack Dar Es Salaam, the GEA capital located on the Indian Ocean coast.  The following day saw a further recommendation made to dispatch another Indian force of two, quickly increased to three, battalions to safeguard internal security in BEA.  Both recommendations were approved and implemented.  The Dar Es Salaam expedition, later diverted to Tanga, was named Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) ‘B’, and the second Indian expedition to BEA was titled Indian Expeditionary Force  ‘C’.

So started a chain of events that saw nearly 50,000 Indian troops pass through the East Africa theatre during the next four years, although the number in-theatre was never more than around 15,000 at any one time.  Three thousand of these soldiers did not leave East Africa because they were killed or died there, as besides suffering combat casualties the sepoys were very susceptible to deadly tropical diseases, particularly ‘fever’ or malaria.  Compounding this health problem was a savage climate that could produce prolonged and heavy rainfall and also fierce sunshine, whilst jigger-fleas burrowed under toe nails, incapacitating men.  Meanwhile in the thick bush where the sepoys fought, dangerous animals and snakes abounded whilst crocodiles lay in wait in the rivers that had to be crossed.

So far there has been little official recognition of the role that Indian units played in East Africa between 1914 and 1918, but without support from India strategic places in BEA could have been successfully invaded by the Germans.  But as well as supplying fighting troops India also supplied the logistical infrastructure and military supplies that allowed Britain and Belgium to slowly grasp the initiative in the fighting, and to drive the Germans southwards into Portuguese East Africa (PEA, now Mozambique).  Click here for a list of the Indian units and corps that served in East Africa.

Meanwhile in GEA the talented professional military commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was doubling the size of his local forces and energetically preparing to tie-down in BEA as many British troops as possible.  Von Lettow-Vorbeck had no illusions about the massive problems he faced in defending GEA, but he wished to assist the critical European France and Flanders front by providing an African diversion that would attract Allied military resources.


Operational activity between September and December 1914

IEF ‘C’ (those units listed in Annexure I that arrived in September 1914) was immediately deployed to protect the Uganda Railway.  The 29th Punjabis was the first Indian unit to come into action anywhere in the world as it engaged a German demolition party to the west of the railway line.  During this action the first Indian Orders of Merit awarded in the Great War were received by Naik Gul Muhammad and Subadar Sher Baz; both recipients served in the 29th Punjabis and sadly Sher Baz was killed during the action.

IEF ‘B’ (those units listed in here that arrived in November 1914) commenced landed at Tanga on the GEA coast on 3rd November.  However British commanders mis-managed both the ensuing fighting and the troops themselves, as some sepoys had been on board their ships for over a month without disembarking for fresh food or exercise.  IEF ‘B’ failed in its mission and withdrew from Tanga on 5th November.  Although one battalion broke and ran and another refused to advance, the other battalions fought well despite not having previously experienced effective enemy machine gun fire.  Subadar Bakhtawar Singh, 13th Rajputs, Sepoy Fazil Khan, 101st Grenadiers, Subadar Rahim Singh, 2nd Kashmir Rifles and Lieutenant Colonel Durga Singh, 3rd Kashmir Rifles were all awarded Indian Orders of Merit for gallant actions.  IEF ‘B’ then disembarked at Mombasa and merged with IEF ‘C’.


Operations during 1915

In mid-January 1915 several Indian units were involved in a British attack across the GEA border at the Indian Ocean coastal village of Jasin.  The Germans resisted strenuously, losing many men in the process, and the British attack was repulsed.  However individual acts of gallantry resulted in Subadar Harnam Singh, Jind Infantry, Sepoys Bal Bahadur Chetti and Dal Bahadur Thapa, both 2nd Kashmir Rifles, receiving Indian Orders of Merit. 

After this failed action London ordered that British troops in East Africa were to remain on the defensive until reinforcements arrived.  The Germans kept up their pressure by sending raiding parties across the border both along the coast, through the trackless bush east of Mount Kilimanjaro and along the shores of Lake Victoria.  The Indian battalions and mountain batteries, along with the Indian Volunteer artillerymen and machine gunners, were fully committed on guarding the Uganda Railway and in repulsing these enemy intrusions.  Sepoy Sewaz Khan, 101st Grenadiers, Subadar Balbir Singh, Bharatpur Infantry, and Subadar Ghulam Haider, 130th Baluchis (posthumous award) all received Indian Orders of Merit during 1915.

The 130th Baluchis had arrived in January 1915 and from then onwards Indian battalions and support troops trickled into East Africa as shown by the arrival dates in Indian Service Units list.  Some units containing significant numbers of Pathans were sent to East Africa to avoid them having to fight co-religionists in Mesopotamia, whilst others were sent as reinforcements or to relieve Indian units that had been too long in theatre and who were debilitated by disease.  From 1915 onwards all Indian Army units in East Africa received drafts containing many men from other regiments, as the scale of the Great War requirement was overwhelming the traditional recruiting activities of unit depots back in India.


Operations during 1916


For the first twelve months of the war Indian Army sepoys had formed the bulk of the troops in East Africa.  London had only allocated three European battalions to the theatre, and the Protectorate Governors were reluctant to train and arm more African troops.  However once South Africa had completed its conquest of German South West Africa, now Namibia, it agreed to reinforce BEA with the intention of invading GEA.  This resulted in a South African Expeditionary Force composed of nine infantry battalions, four mounted regiments and five artillery batteries moving to BEA.  All the South African units were white with the exception of one mixed-race battalion recruited from the Cape Coloured community.

However the white South African troops were poorly trained, badly disciplined and over-confident of their own abilities against the black German Askari.  In their first encounter at Salaita in BEA on 12th February two South African battalions broke and ran when German Askari put in a fierce bayonet charge in thick bush.  The South Africans were saved by the other British units standing firm, especially the 130th Baluchis who withstood heavy enemy attacks until a defensive line had been established behind them.  The arrival of the South African General Jan Smuts as British theatre commander established control and some discipline over the South African units, and in early March GEA was invaded through the Mount Kilimanjaro region.  Similar invasions of German territory were mounted in the south from Nyasaland, now Malawi, and from Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and also across Lake Tanganyika by Askari from the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At Jasin in January 1915 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had learned that he should not engage the British in set-piece battles, as his resources of military manpower, weapons and supplies were finite and had to be produced from within GEA.  So his tactics against the Allied invasions of 1916 were to fight for a time from well-prepared positions, causing attrition to his opponents, and then to withdraw tactically to the next defensive positions in the vastness of GEA.  Every time that the Germans withdrew they were shortening their lines of communication, making re-supply easier, whilst the Allies were constantly lengthening their own lines of communication.  This made Allied re-supply and casualty evacuation more difficult and more costly in terms of the numbers of local African porters who had to be dragooned into carrying supplies forward and carrying casualties back to hospitals in the Allied rear.  There were few roads and motor vehicles in the theatre at this time, and every porter that the Allies used had himself to be fed by other porters coming up behind him carrying rations.  The Germans had fewer problems within GEA because they were the colonial rulers, and village chiefs were ordered to provide hundreds of men whenever new defensive positions needed digging or ammunition and supplies had to be carried.  The hangman’s rope awaited those village chiefs who did not respond with alacrity to German orders.

All the Indian units took part in General Smuts’ invasion of GEA and initially, whilst the Allied advance followed railway lines, the sepoys were adequately fed, clothed and administered.  But once the Germans broke away from their railways and marched through the dense bush the British administrative procedures broke down.  Smuts, despite having been a successful mounted guerrilla leader against the British during the South African (Boer) War, was not a professional soldier.  He had no interest in logistics and he continually failed in his tactics of trying to encircle Von Lettow-Vorbeck and force him into a decisive battle.  The result was that from this time onwards the Indian units, along with most other Allied troops, received insufficient supplies and rations, often being forced to reduce to half or quarter-rations per day; the dragooning of African porters could never match the requirement, which grew daily as fresh Allied advances were made.  From now on the health of all the Indian troops in the field declined rapidly, because as well as being exhausted from marching and fighting in the bush, the sepoys were debilitated by eating an inadequate diet that was often insufficiently prepared.  Without strong bodies many sepoys succumbed too easily to fevers and other ailments.  General Smuts was never sympathetic towards Indian and African troops, whom he regarded as being inferior, and those Indian units that had the misfortune to serve under South African formation headquarters suffered from being allocated the lowest administrative priorities.  It has to be said that white South African units also suffered from Smuts’ inability to effectively administer his troops, and this resulted in some adverse reporting on Smuts in the South African press and in the refusal of some South African troops to parade before him.

But whilst they still could march and fight the Allied troops did just that, slowly pushing the Germans down to the Rufiji River until heavy monsoon rains prevented movement.  Despite a blockade by the Royal Navy two German supply ships had so far covertly arrived in GEA territory bringing much-needed weapons and ammunition.  To counter such blockade-runners the British occupied all the ports on the GEA Indian Ocean coastline, resulting in some Indian units holding defensive positions around ports whilst German troops commanded the interior.  During this period over twenty more Indian Orders of Merit were awarded, some going to new Indian units in the theatre such as the 17th Cavalry, 55th Coke’s Rifles (Frontier Force), 40th Pathans, 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, 30th Punjabis and 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force).


Operations during 1917

The year 1917 saw General Smuts transferred to London; unfortunately there he gave the erroneous impression that the campaign in East Africa was nearly over thanks to his own military abilities.  This resulted in his successor as theatre commander, the experienced British General A.R. Hoskins, a former Inspector-General of the KAR, being unable to convince London that many more resources were needed in East Africa.  Hoskins was conspired against and transferred to Mesopotamia so that another South African, General J.L. Van Deventer, could take Hoskins’ place.  Van Deventer possessed all the traits of a white South African of his time, but he was more pragmatic that Smuts had ever been.  Van Deventer knew that the only way to beat Von Lettow-Vorbeck was to close with and to kill as many Germans as possible as quickly as possible.

South African units were now being withdrawn on health grounds and Van Deventer pushed columns of his remaining troops – British, Indian and West African, with Belgian Congolese additions – down towards the south-east corner of GEA.  Indian units fought prominently in some major actions, notably at Narungombe in July and in operations along the Lukuledi River south-west of Lindi.  The 25th Cavalry (Frontier Force) arrived in September 1917 but despite doing good work in raiding German rear-areas, the sowars soon found out that their mounts had a very short lifespan due to attacks from tsetse fly. 

By now the remaining British and Indian troops in East Africa were worn-out with disease and debilitation.  Belatedly it had been recognised that this was a black soldier’s theatre of war, and a massive expansion of the KAR was underway.  Most remaining white and Indian troops were withdrawn from East Africa at the end of 1917.  Eighteen more awards of the Indian Order of Merit were made for gallantry displayed during 1917, some going to newly-arrived units such as the 5th Light Infantry, the 1st Kashmir Mountain Battery and the 17th Infantry (The Loyal Regiment).  After a serious mutiny in Singapore in 1915 the 5th Light Infantry had been re-formed and posted to West Africa where it fought in German Kamerun until that campaign was concluded; it was then transferred to East Africa.


Final operations during 1918

To escape the increasing pressure from Van Deventer’s columns Von Lettow-Vorbeck drastically slimmed-down his troops and retained only the best; with them he crossed the Rovuma River into Portuguese East Africa (PEA), now Mozambique.  Portugal was now an Ally but its troops in PEA were no match for the two thousand ruthless and battle-hardened German invaders.  The Germans replenished their requirements for weapons, ammunition, clothing and food by attacking and seizing Portuguese army depots.

Van Deventer despatched columns into PEA from Nyasaland and from PEA ports that he occupied, but despite some heavy fighting the Germans as usual always managed to successfully break contact and slip away.  During this period three Indian fighting units remained in the field: the 22nd Derajat Mountain Battery, the 14th Company, Madras Sappers & Miners and a rifle company from 58th Vaughan’s Rifles (Frontier Force).  However many Indian logistical units, especially railway and medical troops, remained in East Africa until the end of hostilities.  Van Deventer’s army would not have been able to function effectively without Indian logistical and administrative support, including the military equipment and supplies that were manufactured or farmed in India for East African requirements.

As an Armistice was being agreed in Europe Von Lettow-Vorbeck had sprung a surprise on Van Deventer by re-entering GEA, marching around the north end of Lake Nyasa, and invading Northern Rhodesia.  The Germans were heading towards Portuguese West Africa, now Angola, where they knew that they would find many more Portuguese army depots waiting to be captured.  Fighting continued in Northern Rhodesia for a couple of days until news of the Armistice filtered through to the African interior; two weeks later Von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered his men and their weapons at Abercorn, now Mbala, at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika.  The East Africa Campaign was finally over and India, despite receiving insufficient public recognition, had played its very proud and substantial part during the entire four-year long campaign.

Related Links


Indian Army, Indian Volunteer and Indian State Forces Imperial Service Units that served in East Africa during the Great War


Gallantry awards made to Indian servicemen in the Great War East Africa theatre

Indian Army casualties in East Africa


Abbot, Peter: Colonial Armies in East Africa 1850-1918. (Foundry Books, Nottingham 2006).

Duckers, Peter: Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918. (Jade Publishing Limited, Oldham 1999).

Graham, C.A.L. Lieutenant Colonel: The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery. (Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1957).

Hart’s Annual Army List for 1915.

Head, Richard and McClenaghan, Tony: The Maharajas’ Paltans. A History of the Indian State Forces (1888-1948). (Manohar, New Delhi 2013).

Hordern, Lieutenant Colonel Charles: History of the Great War. Military Operations East Africa, Volume I, August 1914-September 1916. (Naval & Military Press reprint.)

Draft of the unpublished Volume II of Military Operations East Africa. (The UK National Archives reference: CAB 40 series).

Kempton, Chris: Duty & Fidelity. The Indian Army August 1914 – 1921. Part II.  (The Military Press, Milton Keynes 2009).

Kempton, Chris. The Regiments & Corps of the H.E.I.C. & Indian Armies. Volunteer Forces.  (The Military Press, Dunstable 2012).

Lucas, Sir Charles: The Empire at War. (Oxford University Press 1921).

Pradhan, S.D.: Indian Army in East Africa. (National Book Organisation, New Delhi 1991).

Paice, Edward: Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 2007).

Sandes, Lieutenant Colonel E.W.C.: The Indian Sappers and Miners. (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham 1948).

bottom of page