Updated: Feb 11, 2022
In early May a new British infantry battalion, 1,166 men strong, arrived in British East Africa (Kenya) from the United Kingdom. It was the 25th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), commanded by Colonel D.P. Driscoll DSO. Around half the men had seen previous military service. The Battalion was sent by train to Kajiado to operate in that area, but it had not received any formal training in England and so a British musketry course had to be fired at Nairobi before the untrained men went on operations.
Whilst in the Kajiado area the Battalion organised a mounted section from amongst the men who had previous scouting experience in several locations around the world.
When Cole’s Scouts was disbanded (see the article on Cole’s Scouts) Nairobi HQ decided to form a British Mounted Infantry (MI) Company using 75 men from the Loyal North Lancashires and another 75 men from the 25th Royal Fusiliers. An equal number of suitable officers and non-commissioned officers were included from both battalions. The first officer to command the MI Company was Captain J.S. Woodruffe, Royal Sussex Regiment, attached to the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. He took up his appointment on 28 August 1915. One of the other officers was a Royal Fusilier, Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, an Australian.
Officers were mounted on Somali ponies and the men on mules. Horses & ponies could only be kept alive for a very short time because the country was infested with tsetse fly. But as long as the mules were administered with 10 grains of arsenic every evening they were practically immune from horse-sickness in the Maktau area; also the mules could exist by grazing and they did not need a daily forage ration.
On 3rd September 1915 a strong German patrol attacked a British train and also a foot patrol about five miles east of Maktau. The MI Company was ordered into the field from Maktau to intercept the enemy raiders. An infantry group from the 130th Baluchis marched out on foot in support. Captain Woodruffe chose a position in the bush and his men dismounted and occupied three Troop locations. Then one of the Fusiliers accidentally discharged his rifle, which the enemy doubtless heard and moved towards.
Just after noon the picquets (observers forward of the main position) saw 90 or more enemy approaching. When the enemy was between 10 and 50 yards in front of the picquet line the picquets, following operational procedures, fired and quickly withdrew into the Troop positions. Seeing the direction of advance of the enemy, Captain Woodruffe ordered No 2 Troop into line on the left of No 1 Troop. The Germans were keen to fight and closed with the MI Company, firing furiously and accurately. Both men and mules of the MI Company started receiving wounds, as they were not in trenches but just lying behind clumps of bush.
As No 3 Troop's right flank was not facing the enemy it was not engaging them and so Captain Woodruffe ordered Lieutenant Dartnell to swing the right of his line to the east. This order was misunderstood and as No 3 Troop moved it bunched towards the centre rear of No 1 Troop, offering an attractive target to the enemy Askari.
"Fix Bayonets!" was ordered. Captain Woodruffe received a severe wound in the back. He saw that the situation was deteriorating rapidly and he ordered a retirement before the MI Company was encircled. Private H. Bristow, who had been tending casualties, carried Captain Woodruffe away whilst under heavy fire.
2nd Lieutenant W. Parker took over command and re-organised the Company, getting every recoverable wounded man who could ride onto a mule. He saw that Lieutenant Dartnell was wounded below the knee & prepared to evacuate him but Lieutenant Dartnell requested to be left behind. He stated that he hoped that his presence as an officer would prevent the other wounded men from being killed when the position was overrun.
2nd Lieutenant Parker respected Wilbur Dartnell's wish and left him there, and then brought the MI Company out of action at around 1230 hours; enemy Askari being only 25 yards away as they mounted and rode towards Maktau.
A short time later the marching infantry arrived on the ground where the fight took place. They found eight Mounted Infantry corpses including Wilbur Dartnell’s. All had two or more wounds.
Two German Askari corpses and one other wounded Askari who died soon after, were found at the scene. All the British corpses were fully or partially stripped (European clothing was valuable to the Askari). It appeared as though four of the British wounded had been finished-off.
In late December 1915 a notice was placed in the London Gazette that read:
“His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to Temporary Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, late 25th (Service) Battalion (Frontiersmen), The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment).
DFor 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 to save the lives of the other wounded men.
He gave his own life in the gallant attempt to save others.
A Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to No.10237 Private H. Bristow, 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, with the citation:
“For gallant conduct on 3rd September, 1915, in attending to the wounded during the action to the south of Maktau (East Africa), and subsequently for rescuing an Officer under very heavy fire.”
2nd Lieutenant W. Parker was awarded a Mention in Despatches.
The Area Commander’s Comments
In his report on the action, Brigadier-General Malleson regretted that the Mounted Infantry Company had suffered a reverse so soon after its formation.
He noted that an accidental rifle shot may well have alerted the enemy, as it had advanced in attack formation on the MI Company position.
He made two main criticisms of tactical conduct:
1. The MI Company went ahead too fast, lost touch with its infantry support & never regained contact with that support.
2. The MI Company’s position was in thick bush with a very limited field of fire when it should have been concealed on the edge of an open glade. This allowed the enemy, who attacked with great boldness, to close on the MI Company so quickly that the British firepower was never effective, and British attempts to adjust the position resulted in confusion.
The bodies of three mounted infantrymen were never found on the battlefield. These men were probably taken alive by the enemy and marched back towards German East Africa (Tanzania). Two of them, Lance Corporal Harry Robinson of the Fusiliers and Private Henry Bradley of the Loyal North Lancashires, are thought to have died of their wounds during the journey. They are commemorated on the British and Indian Memorial, Nairobi.
The third man, Corporal S. Goddard, Loyal North Lancashires, is buried at Iringa Cemetery in southern Tanzania. His grave was moved from Mahenge, Tanzania, where he died on 17th June 1916, according to German details recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Committee. He obviously survived the journey to Mahenge, but later died there, presumably from his wounds. His death meant that nobody would ever know what really happened when the enemy overran the Mounted Infantry Company’s position.