Updated: Jan 16, 2022
Lake Magadi lies in Kenya’s Rift Valley around 100 kilometres (65 miles) southwest of Nairobi. The lake contains valuable deposits of soda that have been commercially exploited for the last 100 years. In 1914 the contractor Paulings, working for the Magadi Soda Company, was constructing a branch line from the Uganda Railway to the lake, and 160 new wagons and engines had arrived in anticipation of hauling the soda from Magadi to Kilindini Port at Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast.
A settlement for the European workers, complete with hospital & railway station, had been constructed at Kajiado to the east of the lake on higher and healthier ground. The border with German East Africa lay about 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the south of the lake and the Germans had a camp on Longido Mountain 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the border.
On the outbreak of war the British East Africa Protectorate authorities requisitioned all the Magadi Soda Company rolling stock and engines, plus Pauling’s coal stores, for the Uganda Railway. This allowed the Uganda Railway to cope with the heavy military demands for rail traffic between Kilindini Port and Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Paulings was obliged to cease work and discharge its 3,000 African workers.
As Kajiado lay on one of the four predicted German invasion routes into British East Africa (the other three were along the Lake Victoria shore to Kisumu, down the Tsavo River to Voi, and along the Indian Ocean coast to Mombasa) it was imperative that a British military force patrol the area between Kajiado and the German East African border. On August 6th 1914 the Nairobi military authorities ordered the raising of the Magadi Defence Force from white members of the Magadi and Kajiado communities. Mr. Guy Symonds, the General Manager of the Magadi Soda Company, was nominated to be the Commanding Officer.
Unloading military stores at Magadi Lake
One early member, Captain Frank Wilson CMG DSO, commented:
“We came into being at the outbreak of war – a small and mixed party gathered together haphazard. Of the original eight one was a railway guard, one a chemist, one an accountant, another a builder, with farmers and big game hunters making up the number. The force was mounted on mules and armed with every kind of rifle except the service .303.”
The force was employed on reconnaissance duties, initially surveying the rough road leading to the German border and then observing the German camp on Longido Mountain. Captain Wilson rather modestly wrote:
“The country through which the road was to be found was reported to be a waterless and impassable desert from Bissil onwards. Dangers from Germans, tsetse fly and the desert soon dwindled, but camping and moving at night provided all the spice and excitement that was wanted. The country swarmed with game of every description; lion, rhino and elephant abounded. Large fires had to be kept up all night to keep the lions from attacking the mules and stampeding them. The dangers from wild animals were more guarded against than possible surprise from the enemy.
A sixty mile walk from Manga River to Kajiado, caused by a stampede of the mules by an inquisitive hippo, helped to keep the patrol in hard condition.
Having found the road the next job was to reconnoitre Longido where the Germans were believed to have a camp. This was generally done by setting out at dusk from Manga and riding through the bush to some secluded spot at the base of the mountain. An ascent on foot in the darkness would then be made to some spot commanding the Hun camp, and a pleasant and restful day could then be spent in the forest watching our adversaries at their daily routine, while the patrol endeavoured to get some idea of their strength and dispositions.”
Whilst engaged in this specialist reconnaissance work, for which the members of the Magadi Defence Force seem to have displayed special aptitude, there were no confrontations with the enemy and no casualties were taken. However also operating in this area was the East African Mounted Rifles which was a much stronger British unit of mounted white volunteers, and sometimes Magadi Defence Force members would accompany the East African Mounted Rifles on patrols.
On 25th September 1914 Masai Scouts reported a party of Germans (10 Feldkompagnie under Major Theodor Tafel accompanied by a white mounted troop under Lieutenant D. Niemayer) moving north into British East Africa so ‘C’ Squadron East African Mounted Rifles, accompanied by some members of the Magadi Defence Force, saddled up and searched for and found the enemy spoor. After several kilometres of riding in open order a group of enemy Askari was observed cooking a meal. The British dismounted, left a few men to look after the mounts, and engaged the enemy with 26 riflemen. However this initiated a major confrontation as over 200 armed German troops were out of sight in a nearby dry water course.
The Germans immediately attacked using a machine gun on either flank to support bayonet rushes. The British were outnumbered and out-gunned and fought a withdrawal to their mounts, quickly riding away with four men wounded and eight missing. After the action the Germans abandoned their mission and withdrew to Longido having lost around 14 men killed and 20 others wounded. One of the wounded was Captain Tafel. During the following morning the East African Mounted Rifles re-visited the site of the action and recovered their eight missing men, all of whom had been killed during the fighting or shortly afterwards and hastily buried. Magadi Defence Force casualties were J.D. Burgess killed and J.C. Burgess wounded. (The death of J.D. Burgess does not appear to have been officially commemorated.)
In mid-November 1914 the British military authorities decided that the Magadi Defence Force should disband and that the men be incorporated into the East African Mounted Rifles as the Scout Troop of that unit. It is not known how many men served in the Magadi Defence Force, but a search of Medal Index Cards displays over 20 names. The Magadi Defence Force enjoyed only a short life but it was operationally successful and displayed the ingenuity and determination that was characteristic of many British units hastily formed in Africa on the outbreak of war.