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Rhodesians ambushed in the Tsavo Valley - 8 May 1915

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

Lone Hill near Namaga

On the 15th March 1915 the all-volunteer 2nd Rhodesia Regiment disembarked at Mombasa after starting its journey in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, nine days earlier. The Regiment was put on a train to Kajiado and then the men marched to the Namanga area to take over positions held by the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashires. To add to the two machine guns held by the Regiment, two more were taken over from the Loyal North Lancs on Lone Hill, six miles from Namanga.

The Rhodesians were interested to see that telegraph poles were 30 feet high so that giraffe could pass under the lines, and that the poles were surrounded at the base by thorn to stop rhino from rubbing against them.

Local inhabitants bathe at Mzima Springs

On 16th April the British and Indian postions in the Bissel - Namanga area were withdrawn and two of the Rhodesian companies moved to Voi whilst a third occupied Maktau and the fourth moved up the Tsavo Valley to Mzima Springs. The intended British tactics were that the Maktau and Mzima companies would intercept German railway-demolition patrols moving eastwards from Taveta.

As the Rhodesian boots were worn out the men were marching barefoot. The Kashmir Rifles at Tsavo donated their own boots & 200 yards of pugaree cloth was purchased to wrap around the remaining bare feet. (New boots, helmets & new short rifles arrived later.) 400 porters accompanied 'C' Company to Mzima..

Rhodesia Hill above Mzima Springs became the main camp

In May the Rhodesians learned how efficient a Schutztruppe ambush could be. The 130th Baluchis had used a hill, six miles north of Mzima and named "Signal Hill", as an Observation and heliograph Signal Post, sending relief parties from Mzima out at the same time and by the same route each day.

The Schutztruppe (the local German army), who had its own camps in the densely-vegetated Tsavo Valley, observed this, and on 8th May ambushed the Rhodesian troops approaching Signal Hill.

Four men were killed and one other, Otto Faber, who spoke German, was evacuated westwards to a Schutztruppe camp at Rombo (north of Ziwani) where he died of his wounds. He would have been buried in the bush. The ammunition in use by the Rhodesians at that time was unreliable and misfires were common. Several misfired cartridges were discovered alongside the Rhodesian dead.

(The cause of this defective ammunition was probably that it was a batch that had been thrown into a river when a German patrol approached a British outpost much further west. Later the boxes of ammunition were recovered from the river and carried to Mzima, and on the way the hot African sun dried everything out and the ammunition appeared good - but it wasn't!)

Rhodesia Bridge, built by the Rhodesians in 1915 - and doubtless improved several times since then

The Rhodesians were jolted and set out to develop tactics to match the Schutztruppe's. In the thick bush troops could only advance in single file along game tracks, and a column of 200 rifles with 60 porters would stretch for a mile in length. On one occasion a large Rhodesian column later discovered that a similar-sized German column had been just 150 yards away going in the opposite direction. Neither column knew of the other's existence.

The Rhodesians also discovered that the Schutztruppe placed watchers in trees on the approaches to their camps. If a British patrol appeared the watchers would fire rifles, alerting the German commander who could practise "active defence" and plan an ambush on ground of his own choosing as the British patrol came nearer.

Looking south from Crater Fort - a Kenyan National Park Ranger keeps watch for dangerous game

'D' Company 2nd Rhodesia Regiment was moved up from Tsavo to Crater Fort, eight miles southeast of Mzima on the Tsavo River, and the Rhodesian Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonell A.E. Capell, was appointed Commander of the Tsavo - Mzima Line.

The Regiment was losing men quickly to the ravages of the climate and terrain - common ailments were: repeated malaria, enteric fever, veldt-sores, colds, rheumatism & dysentry. By mid-June 25% of the Rhodesians were in hospital.

Lieutenant Colonel Capell abandoned Signal Hill and also moved the camp at Mzima to the more healthy "Rhodesia Hill" rising above the Springs.

He ordered that patrols should be either over 100 men strong with machine guns, or else be composed of three men or less. The small patrols, consisting of one Rhodesian and two African Scouts, avoided contact and concentrated on reconnaissance. The large patrols went out to fight.

These patrol tactics, similar to the Schutztruppe's own, reduced the British casualty rate, brought good information into Regimental HQ, and inspired confidence amongst the Rhodesian troops that they could match the Germans in bush-craft and operational efficiency. Soon the Germans abandoned the Tsavo Valley as an approach route to the Uganda Railway.

The last words have to be Lieutenant Colonel Capell's:

Inside Crater Fort. As it was on top of a hill the "water fatigue party" who went down to the Tsavo River each day (with African porters) to bring up a supply of water were fit men
"This bush work is very trying for troops; rifles must be kept loaded, those of the flank and advance guards with safety-catches off. It is continual stopping and catching in thorns, listening to and for sounds; momentarily expecting the crack of rifles at short ranges; for hours hardly speaking in more than the lowest whisper; the continual anxiety that someone may be losing touch; all these combine to make the most nervy and wearying class of fighting imaginable. No one who has not seen the bush of the Tsavo Valley can understand it."

A plaque commemorating Otto Faber and his brother Walter, both casualties of the war but in different theatres, at the entrance to the English Church, Funchal, Madeira, Portugal.

Places of Commemoration

Signaller E.M. Wells and Privates W.A. Nelson, G.C. Potts, and C.S. Townsend, all killed in action on 08 May 1915, are buried at Voi, Kenya.

Lance Corporal Otto Faber who died of wounds at Rombo on or after 08 May 1915 is commemorated on the Nairobi British & Indian Memorial, Kenya.

Private W. Blamey escaped from the German ambush on 08 May but went into shock, sank into a state of lethargy and died of fever on 20 June 1915. He is buried at Voi.

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