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Mzima Column loses men in fierce Engagement - 13 May 1915

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

In the Upper Tsavo Valley

Because of the successful German attack on a bridge on the Uganda Railway on 20 April 1915, which was followed on 27 April by a demolition leading to a 50-man strong German patrol firing on the next train that arrived, causing seven British casualties, Nairobi HQ decided to send out three columns to confront the raiders.

One of the columns was assembled at Mzima and it included a total of 207 men from 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, 3rd King’s African Rifles (KAR) and 130th Baluchis, with 2 machine guns. The column was tasked to march west. Major R. Cashel, 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, commanded.

Sketch map of the area that the Mzima column operated in - around the junctions of the Rivers Rombo and Nolturesh

The Column used donkeys as transport animals in a trial attempt to see if they were more suitable in tsetse-prevalent areas. However the donkeys brayed loudly, struggled against being loaded, often refused to cross rivers except at crossing points on tracks and generally were much less co-operative than mules. The donkeys’ one good point was that they did not run away when under enemy fire, but their handlers did. This left the donkeys quietly grazing and wandering towards the enemy. On 13 May, as Mzima Column was watering on the Tsavo River, at least 300 men of the Schutztruppe (local German army) attacked. After a two-hour engagement during which German machine guns were liberally used, an enemy assault was launched; this was decisively broken by the enfilade fire (from a flank) of the Rhodesian machine guns that had remained silent up to that point in the battle. It was estimated that 15 men of the Schutztruppe had been killed.

Sketch map of the scene of the action. The Germans first attacked from 'A' with their machine guns at 'B', and the final attack came in from 'C'; but it was defeated by the Rhodesian machine guns in the centre of the defence perimeter which fired 2,000 rounds. Each of the riflemen fired an average of 60 rounds each. One section (8 men) of Rhodesians, another of Baluchis, and a third of KAR Askari crossed the river to prevent an enemy attack from that direction.

A modern road crossing the Upper Tsavo River

Both sides then withdrew through the thick bush to their respective camps. Major Cashel was not informed that five men were missing until dusk was falling, and he decided that his duty was to get his column into a secure location before enemy reinforcements arrived, as a well-use enemy track had been discovered to the north of the fighting. He was later supported by his Battalion and Area Commanders for making this decision.

The five missing men had apparently tried to outflank the German machine guns that were being moved through the bush, but the men became separated from the Column and were overrun and killed by German Askari.

The Mzima Column became separated during the night due to a man becoming impaled in a thorn bush; also the Column was charged three times by rhinoceros before a bivouac was made. During one of the rhino charges a KAR Askari was knocked unconscious by the swinging rifle butt of a fleeing comrade.

Some inhabitants of the Upper Tsavo Valley

Mzima Column had stood its ground & repelled an enemy assault but at a cost of 5 men killed & 3 men wounded. When a patrol recovered the British bodies, it was noted that the five men had been repeatedly bayoneted to death, stripped of clothing and equipment, and one man’s legs had been severed below the knees to facilitate the seizure of his boots.

Donkeys were not used at the "sharp end" again, and in fact they were susceptible to tsetse bites. Mzima Column Casualties. Killed in Action: (all are commemorated on the Nairobi British & Indian Memorial) Private J. CHAVE 2nd Rhodesia Regiment Private E. McRAE 2nd Rhodesia Regiment Warrant Officer Class 1 A.R. WADESON East African Intelligence Department Corporal J. CAMERON East African Transport Corps Corporal R.P. ROBERTSON East African Transport Corps Wounded in Action: Sergeant G. ROBERTSON 2nd Rhodesia Regiment (later to become Regimental Sergeant Major) Sepoy SAYEDULLAH 46th Punjabis attached to 130th Baluchis Sepoy DAD RULE 46th Punjabis attached to 130th Baluchis

Panels on the British & Indian Memorial located in Nairobi South Cemetery. Four names of the dead from the Mzima Column can be seen. The fifth name, that of Intelligence Agent A.R. Wadeson, can be seen on the panel displayed in the article about the death of Intelligence Agent F.C. Scott.

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