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African Odyssey that ended at Mwele Mdogo - 13 January 1916

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

The eventful life and death of Major Herbert Augustine Carter VC

Major Herbert Augustine Carter VC
Major Herbert Augustine Carter VC

British East Africa in January 1916

On 9th January 1916 the 40th Pathans (Indian Army) disembarked at Mombasa, British East Africa (now Kenya). The Regiment had started the Great War as part of the Hong Kong garrison and then had served in France from April to December 1915. Immediately upon landing at Mombasa No 1 Double Company under Major H.A. Carter VC, 101st Grenadiers attached to 40th Pathans, marched to the relief of a post to the south named Mwele Mdogo. The British unit The Arab Rifles had just been badly ambushed in the vicinity by enemy troops who had crossed the border from German East Africa (now Tanzania).

Herbert Carter's miniature medals.

On the 13th January Major Carter was found dead and was first buried at Mwele Mdogo. Subsequently his remains were exhumed, placed in a coffin and shipped to England, arriving at the Great Western Docks, Plymouth on 5th May 1916. The coffin was escorted to the Military Hospital at Stoke Damerel by a guard of 250 all ranks found by one of the Plymouth Garrison battalions. It was subsequently conveyed by train to St Erth, Cornwall where it was re-buried. A memorial, donated by his widow, was unveiled on 2nd August 1916. The choice of the 14th Century Parish Church of St. Erth was made because Herbert Carter had spent most of his childhood in that Parish, his father having been vicar for many years.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records state that the body is located in the graveyard of Saint Erth Church and offers the following comment:

Died from the effects of exhaustion after effecting the relief of Mwele Mdogo, Kenya; while suffering from fever he made a forced march of two days under intense heat to reach the fort in time. Son of the late Rev. Conway R. D. Carter and Mrs. Conway Carter, of St. Erth; husband of Helen Lilian Wilmot Carter, of Mena House, St. Erth. Born at Exeter.

In the North Aisle of Saint Petroc’s Church, Bodmin, Cornwall, a memorial is inscribed:

In memory of Major H A Carter VC of 101st Grenadiers, Indian Army, and in honour of the comrades of the DCLI with whom he first saw service, this memorial is dedicated by his wife, Helen Carter. He successfully led a column of Koth Pathans in a forced march of two days in great heat to the relief of Mwele Nogo in British East Africa, sacrificing his life in his devotion to duty, Jan 13 1916.

Map of Mwele Mdogo
Map showing the location of Mwele Mdogo west of Gazi

A bronze memorial to Herbert Carter by the Australian sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal RA was commissioned by Mrs Helen Carter and is displayed in York Minster. Mrs Carter was a daughter of a former Canon of York Minster. This memorial depicts the figure of a soldier in tropical uniform being led forward on his march by an angel, which given the perceived circumstances of the death implies the power of spiritual will over a physically exhausted body.

The military career of Herbert Carter

Herbert was commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on 15th May 1897 and posted to the 1st Battalion in Rawalpindi, India. He earned the clasps PUNJAB FRONTIER 1997-98 and TIRAH 1897-98 to the India Medal. During the Tirah Campaign he had a horse shot under him at Barkai in March 1898. He transferred to the Indian Army that year and was gazetted to the 101st Grenadiers.

In 1903 Herbert was serving in Somaliland as an officer in No 6 Company Indian Mounted Infantry during the Fourth Expedition against the “Mad Mullah”, Muhammed bin Abdullah, and his Dervish insurgents. On 19th December 1903 a British mounted force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel P.A. Kenna VC DSO, 21st Lancers, advanced to Jidballi. The force comprised:

· British Mounted Infantry – 93 men

· Indian Mounted Infantry – 97 men.

· Bikaner Camel Corps – 50 men

· Somali Tribal Horse – 200 men

and in support were:

· 1st Bn The Hampshire Regiment – 100 men

· 27th Punjabis – 150 men

· 1 Maxim gun.

At Jidballi Kenna came up against en encampment of around 2,000 Dervishes, mostly armed with rifles and including 200 horsemen. After three hours of desultory fighting Kenna withdrew his men, but then a dramatic incident occurred when Herbert Carter rode back to rescue an Indian soldier. For this action Herbert received a Distinguished Service Order, but subsequently this was cancelled and a Victoria Cross was awarded with the citation:

During a reconnaissance near Jidballi, on the 19th December 1903, when two Sections of the Poona Mounted Infantry and the Tribal Horse were retiring before a force of Dervishes which outnumbered them by thirty to one, Lieutenant Carter rode back alone, a distance of four hundred yards, to the assistance of Private Jai Singh, who had lost his horse, and was closely pursued by a large number of the enemy, and, taking the Sepoy up behind him, brought him safely away. When Lieutenant Carter reached Private Jai Singh, the Sections were several hundred yards off.

View from Mwele Mdogo
The view from Mwele Mdogo looking towards the German East African (Tanzanian) border

Lieutenant Colonel Kenna later described this incident as “the finest and most brilliant individual act of valour performed in the Somali campaign”. (Subadar Bhairo Gujar was also awarded the Indian Order of Merit on this occasion.)

Herbert obviously had Africa in his blood as he returned to Somaliland for the 1908-10 campaign where he served with the Indian Army contingent attached to the 6th King’s African Rifles, receiving a Mention in Despatches. He gained the clasp SOMALILAND 1908-10 to add to the clasps SOMALILAND 1902-04 and JIDBALLI that he already possessed on his Africa General Service Medal.

In 1911 Herbert was in Sudan serving as a Bimbashi (Major) in the Egyptian Army but unfortunately no records survive to elaborate on this attachment. It appears that he was posted back to the 101st Grenadiers during 1913 and in May 1914 he was promoted to Major.

On the outbreak of the Great War Herbert was in England on leave and he was attached to the British Army, serving first in the 10th (Service) Battalion the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and then in the 16th (Service) Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. He obviously obtained his release from the Durham Light Infantry and an attachment to the 40th Pathans.

Last Post

Looking from the west at the inner defence line at Mwele Mdogo

We must return to Mwele Mdogo to conclude the story of this gallant and perhaps disturbed officer. Major R.S. Waters OBE wrote in his regimental history of the 40th Pathans:

At Mwele Mdogo, shortly after arrival there, a tragedy took place. Major H.A. Carter, V.C. (101st Grenadiers attached to the Regiment), was found shot through the head outside his tent at dawn, clad in pyjamas and gumboots, by 2nd Lieut. Thornton, who, though he had heard some slight noise during the night, had sleepily put it down to some routine cause.

No further details were recorded, nor have the results of an enquiry ever been published.

Remains of the World War I defensive ditch that ran around Mwele Mdogo

A sad footnote - Trooper Noel Conway Carter DCM, South African Horse

The names of a few close relatives are inscribed on Herbert Carter’s granite cross headstone in Saint Erth Church graveyard. One of them is of another soldier, No. 1549 Trooper Noel Conway Carter DCM, who also died in Africa during the Great War. Noel served in the 2nd South African Horse in German East Africa and the citation for his Distinguished Conduct Medal reads: For conspicuous gallantry. He went out twice under heavy fire to take water to a wounded scout, and to try to remove him into safety from his exposed position. The cause of Noel’s death on 21st February 1917 is not known but he is buried in Johannesburg (Brixton) Cemetery, South Africa.

Local villagers have recovered this metal container from the old Mwele Mdogo fort. It was probably worn by a member of the Carrier Corps to carry his personal documents, and it would be attached round his neck by a bead chain.


  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission records.

  • The 40th Pathans in the Great War (an anonymous compilation).

  • History of the 5th Battalion (Pathans) 14th Punjab Regiment, formerly 40th Pathans by Major R.S. Waters OBE.

  • Official History. Military Operations East Africa August 1914 – September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.

  • Official History of the Operations in Somaliland 1901-04 published by the General Staff, War Office.

  • Soldiers of the Nile. A Biographical History of the British Officers of the Egyptian Army 1882-1925 by Henry Keown-Boyd.

  • The King’s African Rifles by Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.

  • Archives of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Museum.

  • London Gazette dated 9th December 1904.

An edited version of this article has appeared in a recent edition of Durbar, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society ( ).

(Herbert Carter’s medals are held in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Museum, Bodmin, England. Gratitude is expressed to Museum Researcher Hugo White for the information that he contributed towards this article, and to the Curator, Major Trevor Stipling, for permitting a photograph of the miniature medals to be displayed.)

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