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Pathans of the 17th Cavalry Indian Army - Two acts of Bravery & Determination - 6 February 1916

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Namanga, on the border with German East Africa (GEA - Tanzania)

At the end of 1914 British East Africa (Kenya) had been reinforced by Indian Expeditionary Forces “B” and “C”. These forces contained infantry, field and mountain artillery, pioneers, a machine gun company, and railway companies. In January 1915 Major General R. Wapshare, who had taken over command of the theatre from Major General A.E. Aitken, requested a cavalry squadron for use in the area south of Nairobi. This area, from Arusha and Longido mountain in German East Africa up to Kajiado in British East Africa, was a possible German invasion route (see sketch map below). The area was also free from tsetse fly.

The 17th Cavalry was tasked and formed a composite Pathan squadron of 120 men chosen equally from ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons. Major R.C. Barry-Smith commanded and Captain V.C. Duberly and Second Lieutenant B.J.P Mawdsley were Squadron Officers. The Indian Officers in the squadron were: Resaldars Usman Khan and Sajid Gul, and Jemadars Wazir Khan and Wazir Mohamad. The squadron arrived at Mombasa on 4 February 1915 with all its horses and 66 mules. Effective mucking out and fitness exercises on the ship had prevented sickness amongst the mounts. The horses were slung off into lighters and then slung ashore. That afternoon the squadron entrained for Kajiado. Shortly afterwards a two-gun machine gun section was sent from the regiment to join the squadron.

The 17th Cavalry East Africa Squadron on parade

For the first five months the squadron operated out of Kajiado and Bissil, sometimes patrolling alongside the East African Mounted Rifles who rode mules, apart from the Scouts Section who had horses. Sometimes the immediate danger was from big game, and squadron members twice had to fire to halt charging rhinoceros. In this area the British had to use especially tall posts to carry signal cables so that giraffe could pass underneath without breaking the cables.

The country around Kajiado - suitable for cavalry patrols and unchanged since 1915

In early 1916 the Squadron prepared for the invasion of GEA by moving south of the border to perform reconnaissance patrols. On 5 February Captain Duberly accompanied by Lieutenant Mawdsley and 48 men, plus two Europeans from the Intelligence Department and their Masai scouts, patrolled to the southeast towards Engare Nairobi which lies west of Kilimanjaro Mountain. The mission was to establish if there were any advanced German posts on the route.

A German field company and a European mounted unit, altogether totalling about 200 men, were at Ngasserai, 30 miles along the route, but they remained concealed and observed the British cavalry approaching. On 6 February, coming across the Nanjuki stream, Captain Duberly gave orders to dismount, unsaddle and feed and water horses.

The Germans made a concealed approach through long grass and charged the unsuspecting cavalrymen. Captain Duberly and Lieutenant Mawdesley both wore pith helmets and so were quickly recognised as officers and killed along with Dafadar Said Gul; three others were wounded. Jemadar Wazir Khan took charge and brought the patrol out of action skilfully despite the long grass which obscured vision; he was later awarded the Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class. Both parties then withdrew.

Wazir Khan's citation read:

"On February 6th, 1916, a squadron of the 17th Cavalry under Captain V.C. Duberly, was sent out from Longido West to Engare Nanjuki. The position was strongly held. The advanced party was heavily engaged, and Captain Duberly went forward with reinforcerments to its assistance, leaving Jemadar Wazir Khan in charge of the main body. The enemy succeeded in driving in the advanced party, and a general action ensued. Jemadar Wazir Khan, with about 30 rifles, came into action on the right flank. As the patrol was in danger of being surrounded, a retirement commenced from the left flank, to which the Jemadar's party was forced to conform, after having tried to get touch with Captain Duberly.

It was found later that Captain Duberly was a casualty.

Jemadar Wazir Khan slowly retired to the horses, about a mile away, fighting the whole time. He then took a patrol of ten men and two spare horses back to the scene of the fight to see if he could get into touch with Captain Duberly, or find any wounded, but he again came under fire and failed to do so. Being the Senior Officer left, he tried twice to get into communication with Longido by means of heliograph, once at 3.30 pm and again at 5 pm, but did not succeed. He then brought the patrol safely out of action, reaching camp at 10.15 pm."

Lieutenant Mawdsley had been mortally wounded in the fighting and he died of wounds soon after being captured; his body was recovered and buried at Kajiado. Captain Duberly's body was never recovered.

The lonely cemetery at Kajiado where Lieutenant Barton James Platt Mawdsley, 17th Indian Cavalry, and 25 others are buried

Another member of the patrol, No. 1980 Sowar Khan Sahib, 17th Cavalry, was also recommended for an Indian Order of Merit but Higher Authority downgraded the award to an Indian Distinguished Service Medal. His citation tells his remarkable story:

"About 12.30 pm on the 6th February 1916, a party consisting of Captain V.C. Duberly, Lieutenant B.J.P. Mawdsley, and 5 rank and file of the 17th Cavalry, at Nanjuki, were attacked by about 150 Askaris with white officers. Of the above Captain Duberley was severely wounded and taken prisoner, Lieutenant Mawdsley is missing, and of the rank and file 2 were wounded and another is missing.
Sowar Khan Sahib arrived at Longido South on the 12th February, 6 days after the action at Nanjuki. He was found that day by a patrol of the 29th Punjabis by the water. He had with him his rifle, bandolier, 78 rounds of ammunition, and a lance. He was wounded thro' the calf of the right leg.
The only sustenance he had during the 6 days was a little sugar which was in his haversack. He probably got an occasional drink of rainwater, but it is known that there is a belt of country some miles in depth where no rain has fallen, and through which he passed. The distance covered (on foot) was about 26 miles - or about 5 miles per day."

The 17th Cavalry panel on the British & Indian Memorial, Nairobi

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