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Arab Rifles & Nyasaland Askari fight off a German advance on Mombasa - 22 September 1914

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

In late September 1914, 300 German Askari under the command of Captain von Boemken marched up the coast from Tanga on a reconnaissance mission to discover the extent of the British defences protecting Mombasa.

Gazi beach

On 22nd September the Germans attacked a newly-built fort at Majoreni that was defended by Lieutenant A.J.B. Wavell, a local plantation owner, and the 60 Arab soldiers that he had recruited from estates along the coast. Wavell’s soldiers, the Arab Company of the King’s African Rifles, fought well and repulsed the enemy attack. But Wavell was seriously wounded during the fighting and the decision was made to move all the British troops in the area north to Gazi where Indian and Nyasaland (Malawi) Askari were being positioned, some of them landing from boats onto Gazi beach. The Germans were joined by Major Baumstark.

The Nyasaland Askari, under the command of Major G.M.P. Hawthorn, were from 1st King’s African Rifles and they had been serving along the British East African (Kenyan) north-eastern border before the war began. This was an arrangement that had been made between the governments of British East Africa and Nyasaland.

At dawn on 7th October Gazi was attacked from the south-west by a German force under Baumstark, about 300 strong, which drove in the British outposts on the Kikoneni track. The fighting was ferocious.

The British Official History on pages 47-8 comments:

Fighting went on in the plantations and bush outside the village during most of the morning. Towards noon a counter-attack by the 1st King’s African Rifles checked the enemy, but eventually Hawthorn fell back on the main defences. A second counter-attack, launched by the same unit early in the afternoon, broke up the attack, and by 1600 hours the Germans were in retreat.

The success of the second British counter-attack was due to the bravery and leadership of No. 245 Colour Sergeant Sumani, 1st King’s African Rifles. When all four British officers with the KAR had been wounded, Sumani rallied his Askari and with great determination led a bayonet charge on the German attackers. An Indian Army unit, the Jind Infantry, followed Sumani into the attack. The charge was so ferocious that the enemy recoiled and started a withdrawal to the German East African (Tanzanian) border.

Colour Sergeant Sumani was awarded an African Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) with the citation:

For leading his Company in a charge after all his officers had been shot down, and drawing off the enemy at the action at Gazi on 7th October 1914.

Arthur John Byng Wavell was promoted to Captain and awarded a Military Cross. He recovered from his wounds and returned to command his Arab Company, but he was later killed in action in a German ambush along the coast south of Mombasa.

Outside Fort Jesus in Mombasa a monument commemorates the gallantry of the Arab Company, later named the Arab Rifles, who fought bravely to defend Mombasa from German aggression in 1914 and 1915.

The Memorial commemorating the bravery off the Arab Rifles outside Fort Jesus, Mombasa.
The Memorial commemorating the bravery off the Arab Rifles outside Fort Jesus, Mombasa.

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