Topic April/May 2017. There is no doubt that over the years many a military unit has considered itself badly treated and poorly supplied by their bases and headquarters. Many had cause for complaint about the way they were treated by Staff officers. We have covered some of the Frontiersmen’s complaints when they were serving in East Africa as 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). A couple of examples of their complaints and frustrations based on the writings of those who served can be found at:
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s other examples appeared written by various men in “The Frontiersman” and other Legion of Frontiersmen magazines. Lt.Col. D.P. Driscoll gave an interview to journalist and author Max Pemberton for a newspaper (issue not yet traced). Driscoll’s comments were measured and, although critical, not controversial. An extraordinarily powerful two-part article, highly critical of the way the Frontiersmen were treated, has just come to light in a May 1919 London evening newspaper “The Globe”. We make no excuses for featuring much of this article. This was written by T.A. Macdonald, about whom little is known other than he had spent some time in Turkey and after “The Globe” failed he went on to be a regular writer for another London evening newspaper “The Evening Standard”. Earlier in the same month, Macdonald had written a highly critical article about the way the whole campaign in East Africa was carried out:
…Like many another British war in Africa, the East Africa campaign was from start to finish a long, pathetic, and hopeless concatenation of blunders which neither the suppressio veri tactics of the late and unlamented Press Bureau, nor the indiscriminate showering of decorations and honours on South African and Indian Staff officers can camouflage into a piece of history apparently creditable to those responsible for the conduct of the campaign… ¹
The criticism carried on in similar vein over many paragraphs. Macdonald concluded that it would be hopeless to expect an independent and unbiased enquiry into the fiasco.
It seems highly likely that a number of men who had served with the 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in East Africa came forward to tell Macdonald of their experiences so that Macdonald then wrote a two-part article on 13th and 14th May in an even more critical tone, producing damning evidence of the incompetence of most of the Staff officers and of the disgraceful way the Frontiersmen’s battalion had been treated.
…To make clear the nonchalant attitude taken up by the War Office towards the struggle in East Africa, and to draw attention to the other great factor in our failure, namely, the bungling methods and petty jealousies of many of those who were on the spot and responsible for the actual conduct of the campaign, I cannot do better than recount in brief form some of the experiences undergone by one of the two Imperial battalions which served… ²
Macdonald told how the War Office “dillied and dallied” before finally asking Driscoll to form the 25th Battalion. He went on to write about the poor billets the men were given in London and the virtually useless rifles with which they were issued:
Rifles and equipment were issued to them only two days before they sailed, and I doubt if such rifles have ever been handed to men going on service before. Nearly all of them were obsolete and marked “D.P.” (drill purposes) and all were in lamentable condition. Some of them fell to pieces in the men’s hands when they were drilling, and others were so worn that a .303 bullet could be dropped down the barrels from muzzle to breech… ²
This story is confirmed by articles in Frontiersmen magazines. In March 1925 Capt. Sutton Jones wrote that “On leaving England we were armed with forty-five Martini-Henries which were so old that some of them were practically smooth bores but on reaching Malta we got the service rifle issued to us through the kind offices of the military commander there.” Driscoll’s contacts from his South African days came in useful. At a 1931 Frontiersmen dinner Major Hazzledine commented that “…the battalion obtained the right up-to-date rifles at Malta. That was one advantage of having a commanding officer who knew what was necessary and got it.” The military commander of the arsenal at Malta had served with Driscoll in South Africa.
The War Office had emphasised that it was important to get the battalion to East Africa and into action. When they arrived, for some strange reason and in spite of the entreaties of Col. Driscoll, they were split in two, with some being sent to Kajiado and the rest sent to Nairobi, allegedly on a musketry course.
The men who went to Nairobi were kept there for many weeks before they ever fired a round on the range, although in the meantime all the men at headquarters at Kajiado had been through a full course on a range which they had built for themselves and had incidentally participated in the one great success of the campaign at Bukoba; further, the camp at Nairobi appears to have been regarded as a happy hunting ground by any Staff officer who wanted to purloin a Fusilier for employment as his clerk or his servant or for some other similar work. Many of these men never saw the battalion again.
The next experience the Fusiliers underwent was at Maktau, to which they were moved in August 1915. Here, despite the fact that there were hundreds of natives in camp, [employed as labourers and bearers] the men were made, again in direct opposition to the wishes of their colonel, to work some eight hours a day at digging trenches… ²
The arrival of General Smuts did improve matters for a while, as did their posting for a period to General Sheppard’s brigade. Macdonald seems to have received a letter from at least one of the officers of the Frontiersmen:
Here…they found themselves for the first time under a staff which treated them fairly and, furthermore, was well disposed to all of them, from the colonel downwards. Under General Sheppard they did splendid work, both on the march to Moschi and at the taking of Kahé, but unfortunately they were not allowed to remain very long with him.
Instead they were placed in another formation where, thanks to the obstructiveness and indifference displayed by its staff, they underwent what was probably the most trying time ever suffered by troops in East Africa. Space does not permit of my giving a series of specific examples of the treatment meted out to them, although such examples abound. ²
Macdonald goes on to describe how the Frontiersmen, after a long forced march, were ordered by Staff officers to remain in the heat of the sun for a brief rest and forbidden to seek shade under bushes or to go bush clearing for native troops. Flour was issued at the end of the day instead of biscuit, but they were forbidden to light fires to cook. Plain flour washed down with water is not the most palatable of meals, especially after a long march. As a reward for turning the German flank at Lukigura and taking German guns by the point of the bayonet, they were rewarded with a double rum ration – the first they had seen for two months, although rum was supposed to be issued each week. Eventually the survivors of the battalion were sent to South Africa to recuperate. Their next posting was to Lindi:
On landing at Lindi they found absolutely no preparations had been made for their reception. Though they, on previous occasions, had been required to pitch camps for Indian troops, none had been pitched for them, and at first sanitary arrangements were conspicuous by their absence, rations were short, and there was hardly a field dressing obtainable in their camp. This, it should be noted, was at a port; the condition of affairs further up country can better be imagined than described…
Thrown into action time and again against superior numbers, before who native troops had hopelessly failed, they covered themselves with honour, but at the same time suffered appalling casualties. In the end, the few who were still on their feet were gathered together and shipped off to England – in the depth of winter. ²
In another article in the newspaper Macdonald was also highly critical of the way the surviving Frontiersmen were treated on their return to England. He reported also that an armoured car brigade that arrived at Grantham Lincolnshire from Mesopotamia were forced to spend a bitterly cold night without blankets and a number later died of pneumonia, but considered that the treatment of the Frontiersmen was possibly the worst:
Orders were given to disembark at 11 a.m., but it was after 6 p.m. when the battalion got ashore. Late at night, after a long train journey, they found themselves in Barnes [south of London].
Although ample notice had been given of their arrival, nothing whatever had been done for their reception. After waiting two hours on the roadside, the men, many of them shaking with ague or semi-delirious with fever, were marched into empty houses without rations and without fuel. Early next morning they found some teashops, and there they arranged for themselves the best substitute for the welcome which had been denied them. Later in the day some rations arrived, but still no wood or coal to cook them with. In the end fuel was issued, and so were profound apologies; but the colonel merely remarked that his battalion was well used to such treatment, and a little more or less of it didn’t matter much. ³
The shameful treatment Macdonald reported was surely worse than many soldiers had to endure? Probably the fact that this treatment received such coverage by an independent journalist in a London newspaper yet again did not endear the Frontiersmen to the War Office. The Frontiersmen were always considered an irritation and, even though they had a number of highly-placed supporters ⁴, it was only in desperation that Driscoll was instructed to form the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and lead them into action. As we saw in: www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/supporting-the-authorities/ the Dominions and the Colonial Office found the Frontiersmen a useful auxiliary as they did not have enough men to maintain the law in the large areas they usually had to administer. These Frontiersmen were well-trained men who cost the authorities little or nothing and who continued to train with enthusiasm. They were also extremely loyal to the King and to what between the wars was still the Empire. Time and again they proved their value. We will cover further aspects of this in future Topic pages.
The Colonial Office were expected to refer any matter that might come under a military heading to the War Office. We can and will be giving examples of the War Office instructing that the Legion of Frontiersmen were unofficial, not approved, and not to be supported or encouraged.
The War Office had long memories and articles such as Macdonald’s publicly criticising in the strongest terms the way the Frontiersmen had been treated in East Africa were not going to improve their opinion of the Frontiersmen. The War Office was convinced that they were a body independent of thought and action and unwilling to tread an official line. To Frontiersmen, this attitude was grossly unfair, but an outsider might consider that, among the regular army officers at the War Office steeped in a far different culture, it was to some extent understandable.
As with many such stories there is often a counter-story and in a 1948 article Frontiersman Percival Pedersen, himself an ex-25th Royal Fusilier, stated that just days before embarking for Bukoba “on 19th June we were issued with 4 day’s field rations, an extra 100 rounds of ammo and new mark VI S.M.L.E. rifles”. The mark of rifle is incorrect but this statement about new rifles is clearly at odds with what Sutton-Jones and Hazzledine recalled, however additional research by Steve Eeles, owner of “The Old and Bold” website (http://www.25throyalfusiliers.co.uk/), suggests that Pedersen’s statement was perhaps closer to the truth.
Despite Sutton-Page and Hazzledine’s recollections, a telegram from the G.O.C. Forces to the Chief of the General Staff, India dated 8th May 1915, four days after the 25th Royal Fusiliers arrived in East Africa, recorded that “The 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers have very second-rate long rifles. I have better long rifles in hand; but consider that the British Troops should be the best armed of all. I have already re-armed the Rhodesians with short rifles. I am taking 830 short rifles from the 61st Pioneers; and, to make up the balance, propose to take their short rifles from the Gwaliors”.
That this happened is further evidenced in the war diary of the 61st Pioneers on May 20th 1915 when it is recorded that “Orders received to hand in Short M.L.E Rifles to Ordinance for arming 25th Fusiliers, temporary measure to receive long rifle M.L.E Mark 1”
¹ “The Globe” 6th May 1919, T. A. Macdonald writing on East Africa
² “The Globe” 13th and 14th May 1919, Macdonald writing about the 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers in East Africa
³ “The Globe” 29th March 1919, Macdonald writing about the problems and poor treatment of some troops returning to Britain.
⁴ Notably Lord Cardross who in September 1914 wrote several times to the Colonial Office urging them to use the services and skills of Driscoll and the Frontiersmen. (T.N.A. CO537/28/212)
WO 95/5290-1_1 East Africa GHQ War Diary May 1915
WO 95/5344-4 61st King George’s Own Pioneers War Diary May 1915
Pedersen recollections in The Frontiersman, February 1948.
For exceptional details of the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in East Africa we highly recommend viewing the excellent website http://www.25throyalfusiliers.co.uk/
Another website well worth studying is that of the Great War in Africa Association http://www.gweaa.com
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.