Updated: Feb 11
During the initial months of the Great War Uganda and British East Africa (BEA) both formed Police Service Battalions and so quickly produced more combat troops. Whilst the Ugandan Police Battalion was immediately deployed to counter the military threat along the German East Africa-Uganda border, BEA had to also counter security problems in the northern regions of Turkanaland, in Jubaland and along the Abyssinian border.
Normally the King’s African Rifles (KAR) was deployed on northern frontier security duties. However, until Indian Army troops arrived, the KAR was needed to counter German Schutztruppe (local army) demolition patrols that were targeting the Uganda Railway line and infiltrating across the border from Lake Victoria down to Mombasa.
The BEA Police selected 400 Askari for the Police Service Battalion plus twelve European officers and two Warrant Officers. The Commanding Officer was Brevet Major W.F.S. Edwards, DSO (Distinguished Service Order), Inspector General of the East Africa and Uganda Police.
The Battalion went under canvas in the Nairobi Police Depot and commenced training on 1st December 1914. Four companies, each of around 75 Askari, were formed.
Major Edwards worked his men hard hoping to be deployed against the German threat, but on 11th January 1915 he was ordered to move his Battalion north to deal with Turkana raiders. 3,000 porters were used to carry stores and equipment into the operational area near Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana). The Turkana were herdsmen who, along with their tribal neighbours, raided cattle in a never-ending cycle of raid and counter-raid. Turkana warriors rarely fought in formation, but ferociously picked off enemy stragglers or covertly tunneled under enemy thorn-tree cattle enclosures, called zaribas, to make surprise attacks on sentries. Turkana weapons were double-ended “sword spears” about 6 feet long, and for close-combat the warriors used circular wrist-knives for disemboweling and curved finger-knives for eye-gouging.
Firepower proved decisive, and in a series of small engagements during which Sudanese troops assisted from the north and Ugandan police joined in from the west, the BEA Police Service Battalion subdued the Turkana raiders, capturing over 150,000 head of cattle, camels, donkeys, goats and sheep. Much of this stock was returned during the negotiations that followed the end of the fighting.
The Battalion returned to Nairobi to rest and refit in June 1915, the East Africa General Service Medal with Bar “East Africa 1915” being awarded to all ranks who had served in Turkanaland. Major Edwards was Mentioned in Despatches and promoted to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel.
Three Askari were awarded the African Distinguished Conduct Medal for Turkanaland operations in 1915, and their citations (London Gazette 4 May 1917) give an indication of their operational duties:
1888 Corporal Hamisi Mohonza
– “For coolness and gallantry in extracting with the loss of but one man, a reconnoitering patrol when completely surrounded by 200 to 300 of the enemy, and in spite of a determined attack.”
1941 Sergeant Mohamed Ahmed
– “For gallant conduct when he succeeded, while in charge of a party of 6 men, in capturing large quantities of stock in spite of repeated and determined efforts of large numbers of the enemy to recover the same.”
3444 3/Constable Ndone Nzamba –
“For conspicuous gallantry during an enemy attack. Though severely wounded he took the place of his Section Commander who was wounded and continued to direct the fire of the section until the retirement of the enemy.”
In early August 1915 the Battalion moved into southern Uganda and northwestern GEA to take over positions on the Kagera River Line, Lt Col Edwards becoming Officer Commanding this sector. Here the BEA Police Askari frequently swam or silently canoed across the Kagera to raid Schutztruppe posts or burn down vegetation that provided cover for enemy patrols. Lieutenant Colonel Edwards was now appointed Inspector General of Lines of Communication in East Africa, with the rank of Brigadier General, and he was posted from Uganda to BEA. Captain W. Rigby became CO of the Battalion and was promoted to Major.
March 1916 saw the East Africa Police Service Battalion move from the Kagera River up through BEA to Northern Frontier Province where the Aulihan section of the Somalis was a threat. The Aulihan had over-run the Jubaland Armed Constabulary post at Serenli, killing 65 Askari and the British Post Commander, Lieutenant F. Elliot. The Aulihan had seized all the arms and ammunition in the post including a Maxim (machine) gun.
The Battalion made a 450 mile march from the Thika railhead near Nairobi into the operational area and re-occupied Wajir Fort, which the District Commissioner had been ordered to evacuate after the Serenli disaster. On this march locally-hired camels were used to transport supplies.
Patrols went out searching for the Aulihan and their stock but were unsuccessful as the Somalis crossed the Abyssinian border whenever they felt threatened. In September 1916 the Battalion was ordered to leave one company at Wajir and to return to Nairobi, where it was disbanded at the end of the year, most of the Askari being returned to police duties. “D” Company, which had remained at Wajir was incorporated into a new KAR battalion, 5th KAR, that had been re-formed on 1st June 1916 for service in Jubaland and along BEA’s Abyssinian border.
In 1918 Brigadier Edwards commanded a column in Portuguese East Africa named “EDFORCE”. He was hot on General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s trail in October and he finally accepted the Schutztruppe surrender at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia on 18 November 1918. After receiving General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s sword Brigadier Edwards returned it as a gesture of respect.
Major Rigby was Mentioned in Despatches and received a DSO. He then went to Europe to command a Service Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry until the Armistice.
Geoffrey Le Blanc Smith
Another interesting officer in the East Africa Police Service Battalion was Geoffrey Le Blanc Smith. As a Trooper in the East African Mounted Rifles he gained a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) (“For gallant conduct on 3rd November, 1914, during the engagement at Longido (East Africa), when he assisted to carry a wounded comrade into cover, whilst subjected to a very severe close range rifle fire.”) during the abortive Tanga diversionary attack. (See the article titled The Fighting at Longido on 3rd November 1914).
Commissioned and appointed Adjutant and Quartermaster in the East Africa Police Service Battalion Geoffrey received a Military Cross (MC) for the Turkana operation. He stayed on the Kagera Line as a staff officer when the Battalion went to Wajir and was recommended for a DSO, but this was reduced to a bar (second award of the MC) to his MC. He returned to Turkana as Supplies and Transport Officer attached to the KAR during the Northern Turkana Expedition 1918, for which he received a promotion to Brevet Major and the clasp “East Africa 1918” to his East Africa General Service Medal.
The East Africa Police Service Battalion was a hasty war-time creation, as many other local units were, but it served its purpose and pulled its weight operationally. The decision to raise it was justified by its operational performance.