Updated: Feb 11, 2022
In early March 1916 General Smuts, commanding British troops in East Africa, ordered an attack from British East Africa (Kenya) into German East Africa (Tanzania). Lying on the axis of advance from Taveta was a long ridgeline with a nek, or saddle, towards the southern end. This feature was named Latema-Reata Nek, and it had to be captured from the German defenders because the military railway line, now running from Voi to Taveta, had to cross the Nek in order to reach the Moshi area.
The 1st East African Brigade was chosen to mount the attack. The Brigade contained three infantry battalions: the 130th Baluchis, Indian Army, the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, and the 3rd (Kenya) King's African Rifles (3 KAR). Reata was a hill with two summits that lay to the south of the Nek, whilst Latema was the long ridgeline running northwards. 3 KAR, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel B.R. Graham, was tasked with capturing the Nek and Reata to the south, and a section of Latema to the north. Concurrently mounted South African troops were to move around Latema to the north and advance towards Moshi.
The Mounted Infantry Company was to secure the southern flank; 130th Baluchis was to attack on 3 KAR's right; Belfield's Scouts was to secure the northern flank; and 2nd Rhodesia Regiment was in reserve. At 1130 hours on 11th March 1916 the KAR Askari and the Baluchis advanced on the hills that they had to seize. 3 KAR advanced with 'B' and 'G' Companies in the firing line and 'A' and 'D' Companies in reserve.
The attacking troops were first fired upon when they came to within 900 metres of the hills and Nek. They advanced using bush as cover from view until they were 350 metres from the foot of the hills, where the bush ended. Here the attack stalled as effective German fire from Pom Poms (quick-firing light guns) and machine guns near the Nek stopped British movement.
Artillery Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) advanced with the leading battalions through the bush that covered the approach to the objectives, No 8 Field Battery supporting 3 KAR and No 6 Field Battery supporting 130th Baluchis. No 134 Howitzer Battery fired at targets on both Reata and Latema.
But the well-concealed enemy machine gun positions were never properly observed and engaged by the British FOOs, and throughout the battle the British troops suffered casualties from their own artillery shrapnel fire dropping short. Signallers laid telephone lines behind the FOOs. The Indian Volunteer Maxim Gun Company supported the Baluchis on the right flank.
At 1500 hours the Askari and Baluchis were ordered by Brigade HQ to hold the ground they had taken. The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment was sent forward and all three battalions were ordered to attack again at 1800 hours. To quote from the 3rd KAR War History:
"Colonel Graham ordered a general advance on Latema Ridge. Bayonets were fixed and the advance made at the double. Owing to the steepness of the ridge and thickness of the bush, the advance was broken up into small parties, some of which succeeded in reaching the summit of the ridge. During this advance Colonel Graham was killed leading his men up the steep slopes of the ridge."
Several officers and Askari were also killed alongside Colonel Graham. At this point a German counter-attack was delivered from Reata which drove the southernmost 3 KAR company 900 metres backwards. Meanwhile the Baluchis repulsed a counter-attack on the right flank. On the right of the British attack other British troops reached the summit of Latema Ridge but most were pushed back by a German counter-attack at 2000 hours.
Due to shortage of ammunition and confusion in the darkness, most of the British troops fell back, 3 KAR having lost 4 officers and 11 men killed, 8 men missing and 61 wounded. However isolated groups of 3 KAR Askari and other British soldiers stood their ground on the ridgeline, and a long and desperate night began for these brave men.
One of those men was No. 2802 Lance Corporal Jamaali, 3rd King's African Rifles, who was awarded a KAR Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:
At REATA NEK on night of 11/12th March 1916. For distinguished conduct in action, as although wounded in the face and arm, he refused to be relieved of his rifle and ammunition, and continued to use his rifle on such support as he could obtain.
At dawn British patrols discovered that the Germans were withdrawing towards Moshi, and 3 KAR occupied its objectives either side of the Nek. The dead were quickly buried where they fell.
In his book From Playgrounds to Battlefields, Major Piet van der Byle wrote about the burial of Lieutenant Colonel B.R. Graham, 3 KAR, at Latema-Reata Nek:
. . . a very fine British officer commanding a KAR battalion was killed whilst bravely leading his men. In that climate he had to be buried within a few hours. At the funeral it was heartbreaking to see the brave, alert and vital man of a few hours before, rolled in a blanket and with earth thrown on his defenceless body. The “Last Post” always gives me a bit of a lump in my throat – I have heard it so often over a friend in the veld – but to hear the dead Colonel’s Askari buglers sound it was more moving than usual. These Askari put their very souls into the notes and blew it almost as a dirge, which ended on a slowly dying, quivering note fading away into silence.
If ever deep sentiment and lament was conveyed by music it was in that bugle call. Never – even in the Abbey (Westminster) or at the (London) Cenotaph on November 11 – have I experienced anything like it. It lifted the rather sordid performance – the earth thrown on that blanket-wrapped shell of a man, hardly yet cold – into something beautiful and spiritual.