Updated: Jan 17
When World War I started 1st King's African Rifles (1 KAR) from Nyasaland (Malawi) had four companies serving in detached locations on the British East African (BEA) northern borders. These companies did not return to Nyasaland but fought on in BEA and German East Africa (GEA) for the duration of the war. From these four companies 2nd King's African Rifles was re-formed on 1st April 1916.
The four companies were heavily used as initially there were few other well-trained troops in BEA. In late March 1915 they were chosen to operate against the German position on Salaita Hill east of Taveta.
The Germans had built a strong defensive position on Salaita Hill, seven miles east of Taveta, the BEA border-town below Kilimanjaro that they had captured in the first month of the war. The British Military Headquarters in Mombasa decided to demonstrate against Salaita to draw Schutztruppe reinforcements onto that position and away from Loosoito where other British troops were under pressure. A column was formed at Mbuyuni under command of Major G. Newcombe, 130th Baluch, consisting of a company of Baluch with two machine-guns, “A” Company 1 KAR under Lieutenant J.A. Richmond and 16 cars of the East Africa Motor Transport (EAMT) Company with a 12-pounder gun.
This was the first employment of mechanized first-line transport in the campaign, but the occasion also served as an example of the problems involved in moving guns and ammunition in East Africa when a railway line was not available. The column left at midnight on 28/29 March for its twelve-mile move, and the African rain came down heavily. When Major Newcombe turned north through the bush all the cars got stuck in mud, and had to be manhandled back down the road to Mbuyuni. However the Sepoys and Askari took the weather and the bush in their stride and pressed on.
At 0700 hours Major Newcombe was in position 1100 yards north-east of Salaita Hill with the Baluch on his left and 1 KAR on his right, nearest to Taveta. The machine-guns were in the centre rear.
The British opened fire, the Schutztruppe returned it and also fired three signal rockets that were seen at Taveta. The British firing line now advanced 500 metres. Major Newcombe’s assessment of enemy intentions was that reinforcements would arrive around the southern end of Salaita, and so he dispatched his accompanying Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant La Fontaine, with three 1 KAR Askari in that direction. 1 KAR was responsible for the north end of the hill and Lieutenant Richmond positioned a 20-man patrol 300 to 400 yards to his right to block an enemy approach, and sent a three-man patrol under a Corporal around the rear of the enemy positions.
Major Newcombe was yet to learn how fast African troops can move through the bush, and he was still engaging the enemy on Salaita Hill at 1100 hours when an Askari from the three-man patrol ran back to report a large enemy force, about five companies strong, sweeping around the north of the hill. Lieutenant Richmond immediately faced his men to the right and commenced a fighting withdrawal. But nobody told the machine-guns in the rear, where Lieutenant G.A. Pim, 130th Baluch, was having stoppage trouble due to his guns running out of water and overheating. Lieutenant Pim saw what was happening as the Askari withdrawal came level with him, and he tried to get his guns away, but they were too hot to handle and his porters bolted into the bush. The gun crews escaped apart from one Sepoy who was killed, but they had to leave their guns behind to be seized by the enemy.
The enemy defenders on Salaita Hill now came down to join the Schutztruppe attack and so the Baluch extended the KAR line to the left and the fighting withdrawal continued to Njoro Drift on the Mbuyuni Road. The British troops returned to Mbuyuni having lost three Baluch and three Askari killed, and seven Baluch and three Askari wounded. Four Baluch, one Somali Interpreter, one Zanzibari stretcher-bearer and three WaTeita (the local tribe) porters were also missing.
The dead 1 KAR Askari were No. 7 Corporal Maulana, No. 37 Private Sulima and No. 45 Private Buwando. The wounded were No. 15 Bugler Jamba and No. 63 Private Kambenje of 1 KAR and No. 3184 Private Barbur Almas of 4 KAR.
The following members of 1 KAR were mentioned in reports: Lieutenant J.A. Richmond
“Conducted the retirement of his company with great gallantry and coolness”.
No 3 Colour Sergeant Madi
“Was in charge of the Section on the extreme right. He kept his Section well together, and afterwards formed and commanded a flank guard. He himself shot 2 white men”.
No 40 Corporal Disi
“Stopped behind and took Halmi Hasain, the Somali Interpreter on his back for some way, till he fell off, and had to be left."
No 35 Private Musa
“Stopped behind with Corporal Maulana (killed) till it was evident he was dead."
However two machine guns and 43,500 rounds of reserve ammunition (12,000 belonging to 1 KAR) had been lost, and in the report that followed General M.J. Tighe commented:
This demonstration undoubtedly had the desired effect of drawing off the enemy’s forces near MZIMA and LOOSOITO. Major Newcombe committed an error of judgement in remaining on as long as he did but this would have been obviated had the scouting on his right been more effective. It is a pity that the guns were not either brought away or disabled.”
(At this stage of the campaign the Indian Army was still practising its domestic procedures and dumping reserve ammunition too far forward in the bush.)
One year later history was to repeat itself at Salaita when a large British attack was defeated by German reinforcements from Taveta, alerted by rockets, counter-attacking around the north of the hill. But this time, instead of seasoned British Askari fighting a withdrawal, the white South Africans who received the counter-attack broke and fled.