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The 29th Punjabis at Tsavo, 6th September 1914

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Captain J.A. Pottinger, 30th Punjabis attached to 29th Punjabis, and Naik Gul Mohammed and Subedar Sher Baz (posthumous award), both serving in 29th Punjabis.

The 29th Punjabis arrived at Mombasa on 1st September 1914 as part of Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) ‘C’ that was quickly sent from India to prevent enemy attacks from German East Africa (GEA, now Tanzania) against the Uganda Railway. Before the arrival of IEF ‘C’ the defence of the Railway had been the responsibility of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) companies in BEA, and hastily raised local units.

The Punjabis were quickly deployed into the Tsavo Valley which ran from west of Voi up to the border with German East Africa (now Tanzania). The valley was covered in a dense bush of thorn-trees and the only routes in it were game trails made by animals. But the valley was an attractive route eastwards for German raiding parties because of the abundant water supply in the river bed. On 1st September a German group of 200 Askari and four machine guns four machine guns moved down the Valley towards Voi and the railway, intent on causing damage.

Tsavo River Railway Bridge
The Tsavo River Railway Bridge in 2013

It has to be said that at this stage of the campaign the Punjabis had no concept of local tactical conditions and considerations, but Indian Army officers took control of operations because of their seniority. This often dismayed the KAR officers and Askari who understood the reality and savagery of close-contact bush warfare. In the thick bush the Germans managed to locate themselves on the Voi side of the Punjabis in the Valley, and realising this the German commander closed up behind the Indian sepoys.

As the Punjabis left a low ridge the Germans occupied it and took the Punjabi rearguard by surprise with rifle fire. A brief fire fight started and a group of 4th (Uganda) KAR under Lieutenant G.C.O. Oldfield joined in. German machine guns came into action and Guy Oldfield was soon killed whilst eight of his Askari were wounded. It is quite probable that these 4th KAR Askari held the line whilst the Punjabis regrouped.

Naik (Corporal) Gul Mohamed brought up reinforcements to support the rearguard, and he, Subadar (Captain) Sher Baz, Captain Pottinger and a few sepoys charged an enemy machine gun. Gul Mohammed was twice wounded and Sher Baz attempted to recover him, but Sher Baz was himself severely wounded whilst in this act and he died soon afterwards. When trying to deploy in the thick bush many sepoys became totally disorientated and lost. Pottinger, assisted and doubtless guided by a 1st KAR party under Lieutenant C.G. Phillips, enfiladed the German right flank, forcing the Germans to abandon the ridge. The German commander then withdrew having completed one of his tasks. A British follow-up was considered to be impractical at that moment, especially as the Punjabi machine guns were elsewhere in BEA, and the British troops withdrew to Voi. Seven sepoys had been killed and eight wounded.

John Pottinger was awarded a Military Cross (the citation cannot be located), and two years later he was awarded a second one for gallantry displayed in the fighting along the Rufiji River in GEA.

Indian order of Merit
Indian order of Merit

4050 Naik Gul Muhammad and Subadar Sher Baz (posthumous award) both received the prestigious Indian Order of Merit. Gul’s citation read:

For the conspicuous resourcefulness and pluck displayed by him during the action at Tsavo River, British East Africa, on the 6th September 1914, in bringing up reinforcements, in the course of which he was twice wounded.

Sher Baz’s read:

For conspicuous courage and gallantry during the action at Tsavo River, British East Africa, in attempting, though wounded himself, to drag under cover Naik Gul Muhammad of the same regiment who was severely wounded. During this brave attempt to save a comrade, Subadar Sher Baz lost his own life.

The dead sepoys and Lieutenant Oldfield were buried in the Tsavo Valley. Both Sher Baz and Guy Oldfield are commemorated on the Nairobi British and Indian Memorial in Nairobi South Cemetery.

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