• Harry Fecitt

The Loyal North Lancashires at Tanga, 2nd-5th November 1914

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

In the early months of the Great War Britain decided to send Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ (IEF ‘B’) across the Indian Ocean to deliver a knock-out blow to the enemy forces in German East Africa (GEA), now Tanzania. The assumption was that British Indian Army troops were more than a match for the German Askari that defended GEA. In the event the reverse occurred and after two days of fighting the British ignominiously withdrew, leaving masses of weapons, ammunitions and stores behind in GEA, plus many soldiers dead or taken prisoner.

The Attack on Tanga

This defeat need not have happened as at the end of the first day of combat the German troops had withdrawn, and Tanga town could have been easily occupied and defended by IEF ‘B’. But a succession of incompetent decisions by British Naval and Army officers had led to the demoralisation of some infantry battalions and of support troops and porters working on the beaches; this greatly influenced senior British officers who lost belief in victory. The British superiority in naval firepower was never used effectively, but the German superiority in the number and effectiveness of their machine guns was decisive. The Germans also had a commander who knew how to fight a battle.


The British defeat was concealed from the public and the blame was placed on the shoulders of the Indian Army sepoys involved in the battle. That was an unfair criticism. Some men ran away but many stood and fought and took the battle to the Germans.

A World War I photograph of Tanga showing the semi-circular railway cutting, the white railway workshop at the top centre, and the town on the right. The British attacked from the left.

The 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

The Battalion, a unit in the British Army, was serving in India when war was declared and it was chosen to be part of IEF ‘B’ (the composition of IEF 'B' is shown at the end of the article). The North Lancs, as they were known, made an unopposed landing at Tanga along with six other battalions and two half battalions from the Indian Army and forces supplied by the Indian Princely States. An Indian Mountain Battery was left on board its ship to fire from the deck.


The local German force, named the Schutztruppe, had the equivalent of a battalion and a half in the Tanga area, but many more German Askari were quickly sent down the Usambara Railway line from Moshi once the British landing started. British commanders greatly under-estimated the ability of the Schutztruppe and its formidable strength and ability in machine gunnery.


After an attack by two Indian units failed on 3rd November a much larger attack was mounted on 4th November and the North Lancs were placed in the centre of the British line. The British line advanced under a very hot sun through rubber and sisal plantations, but the Germans had not been idle and stay-behind snipers engaged the line causing troops in the rear to fire upon their own comrades further forward. By 1400 hours many men had consumed the water they were carrying and were thirsty. Gaps were opening in the line as the sepoys on the right inclined towards the harbour shore; in turn the North Lancs inclined right, the sepoys on their left began to straggle and the battalion on the left, the Grenadiers, became isolated. This battalion was advancing directly towards a German strongpoint as the concrete railway workshops ahead of them housed several machine guns.

The Tanga Railway Workshops today

On reaching the railway cutting the defensive fire increased heavily, and whilst sepoys from Kashmir along with the North Lancs engaged the enemy and skirmished forward, the battalion on the North Lancs’ left broke and ran to the rear. The North Lancs’ machine guns were well handled and suppressed the fire of the German machine guns. Lieutenant Colonel C.E.A. Jourdain, commanding the North Lancs, requested that the a reserve infantry battalion move forward to support him, but the sepoys of that battalion refused to advance although some men of the draft from their linked battalion (which had supplied reinforcements) showed courage and advanced to the cutting where most of them were killed. On the left the Grenadiers moved well but were receiving heavy fire and were totally unsupported.


At this point in the battle rifle and machine gun fire broke open a number of African wooden bee-hives suspended from trees and the bees violently attacked both sides, rendering some men unconscious with the ferocity of their stings. Nevertheless the North Lancs, the Kashmiris (who wrapped puggarees round their heads as an anti-bee measure) and many Rajputs crossed the cutting and entered the eastern side of the town where heavy house-to-house fighting ensued.


In the thick scrub on the left flank the Grenadiers came up against four enemy Field Companies and despite charging valiantly the battalion could not progress. By then half of the forward Grenadier companies and all the British officers in them were casualties. When a German counter-attack was mounted the surviving Grenadiers were compelled to fight an independent withdrawal action.


The railway cutting where many withdrawing North Lancs soldiers were killed

The mountain battery did not have forward observation officers accompanying the infantry, nor did the Royal Navy. General Aitken had not wanted the naval guns to fire onto Tanga town as he required the buildings to be left intact for his use, but at around 1600 hours he changed his mind. But both the mountain and the naval gunners could only fire blindly towards the sounds of the actions and their fire sometimes hit the positions of their own infantry.


Colonel Jourdain, the North Lancs Commanding Officer, had not crossed the cutting with his battalion and he remained near to General Aitken, perhaps at the General’s request. By 1700 hours German counter-attacks with fresh troops were being mounted in the town against the North Lancs and Kashmiris, and the North Lancs companies became concerned by the withdrawal of the Grenadiers on their left flank which could be monitored by the sound of the firing. The North Lancs company commanders, apart from one whose company was pinned down in view of the railway workshops, held a council-of-war and decided to withdraw back across the railway cutting. This manoeuvre was made in conjunction with the Kashmiris but the North Lancs lost many men in the railway cutting who were hit by the enemy machine guns in the railway workshops.


A new shortened British defensive line was established east of the cutting and when a German counter-attack was put in from the railway workshops against the North Lancs left flank the steady fire of the North Lancs riflemen, supported by machine guns, defeated the attack. At that point the Royal Navy was requested to heavily shell the town, which it did, causing considerable structural damage, but the Germans had withdrawn to regroup at the western end.


As the sun set the British line was defended on the left and left centre by the North Lancs, the remnants of the Grenadiers and some of the other infantry; on the right and right centre the Kashmiris held firm with groups of Rajputs and Pioneers intermingled amongst them. Many of these men, especially the North Lancs and the Kashmiris, were determined to fight on and had no thought of quitting, however behind them on the beaches were demoralised rabbles of frightened, panicking sepoys, followers (grooms, tradesmen and servants) and porters who had fled the battlefield, and whose fear infected the support troops and beach staff.


The withdrawal from Tanga

The re-embarkation of IEF 'B' from Tanga

General Aitken, held a meeting of his senior British officers who all declared that a withdrawal was the only way out of the situation they were in. After deciding that staying where the Force was on the Ras Kasone headland could not be contemplated because of a lack of water and reinforcements, Aitken ordered an evacuation by sea. Meanwhile the diversionary operation mounted by IEF ‘C’ near Moshi had absolutely no effect on the Tanga landings as the Germans continued to send men down the railway line to Tanga without hindrance.


The North Lancs formed the final cordon around the beach head and then embarked in good order; the Germans had been unaware of what was happening and did not interfere apart from shelling one of the transports that caught fire and left the harbour. The 2nd Loyal North Lancashires had been the backbone of IEF ‘B’ during the Tanga operation and later 10 men of the battalion were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallant acts such as bringing machine guns abandoned by other units back into action, rallying sepoy stragglers and fighting bravely in the town against German counter attacks. The survivors of IEF ‘B’ disembarked at Mombasa and joined the defenders of the Uganda Railway line. The Loyal North Lancs were dispersed around British East Africa, now Kenya, in small garrisons as a military ‘fire brigade’ to deal with sudden emergencies.


Awards of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) made to the Loyal North Lancashires for gallantry at Tanga:

No. 8966 Lance Corporal W. Wylde, 2nd Battalion the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment: For gallant conduct under heavy fire in rallying parties of men on several occasions during the action at Tanga (East Africa) on 04 Nov 14, & thereby checking the enemy’s counter-attack.


No. 10033 Private A. Allan; No. 10073 Private C. Arnull; No. 7035 Private T. Boyle; No. 8541 Private J. Cunningham; No. 9499 Private M. Lawlor; No. 9732 Private J. Ridgeway; No. 9141 Private T. Smith; No. 9877 Lance Corporal W. Taylor; No. 10351 Private R. Woodward; all of the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. For gallant conduct on 04 Nov 1914 during the attack at Tanga (East Africa) & for general good work performed under heavy fire.


Because of the debacle that had occurred British officers were not considered for any awards.

In the Tanga Memorial Cemetery is a Cairn to commemorate the 359 British dead. This cairn was payed for by the units involved in the battle. A further 310 men were wounded and 148 were missing, most of them dead. The North Lancs lost over 100 dead, wounded and taken prisoner (because they were too seriously wounded to be evacuated).


DETAILS OF INDIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE 'B'

IEF ‘B’ was commanded by Major General A.E. Aitken and it comprised Force Headquarters, two infantry brigades and a large number of attached and Line of Communication troops. The ration strength of the Force was 7,972 soldiers plus 2,550 Followers and porters and 343 pack mules. Twelve troopships were needed to transport the Force.


27th (Bangalore) Infantry Brigade (Brigadier General R. Wapshare) contained:

2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (the only British Army unit)

63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry

98th Infantry

101st Grenadiers


The Imperial Service Infantry Brigade (Brigadier General M.J. Tighe) contained:

13th Rajputs (The Shekhawati Regiment)

61st (King George’s Own) Pioneers[1]

2nd Kashmir Rifles

a half battalion of 3rd Kashmir Rifles

a half battalion of 3rd Gwalior Infantry


Attached troops included: 28th Mountain Battery; an Armoured Train gun detachment from the North Western Railway Volunteers; two Sappers & Miners Railway Companies; one company of Faridkot Sappers & Miners; Field Ambulances; and specialist engineer and signal troops.

The 61st KGO Pioneers were on paper part of Attached (Divisional) Troops but they were placed in the Imperial Service Infantry Brigade for operations.

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