Just a minor skirmish

skirmish1… but with major repercussions.

During the campaign in East Africa there were believed to be at least eighteen Brigadiers. In many cases these only commanded a few hundred men. Lt.-Col. D.P. Driscoll began and finished the campaign as a Lieut.-Colonel. It has been suggested that he was at one stage offered a Brigade, but turned it down, as the appointment would have entailed leaving his beloved Frontiersmen. His officers, who probably had not heard about this, were very upset that he received no promotion, whereas men who had been much junior to him at the start of the War were turning up as Brigadiers or higher. The story of one minor skirmish shows just how good Driscoll was and how, not for the only time, senior officers made bad mistakes. The story of the action on Magali ridge warrants hardly a mention in books on the war in East Africa, but it stands as a great example. For the story we are indebted to an account of the adventures of the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) by “Adjutant”. There has to be some uncertainty as to who wrote under this pseudonym. The first adjutant was Major George Hazzledine, but his experience was in demand and, when fit, he spent some time on attachment. The Army List lists none of the officers as adjutant after the first year, but Lieut. Charles Wise Hollis regularly claimed after the war that he had been the battalion’s adjutant. Whichever of the two officers it was, his account of events was so blunt and critical of Staff officers that no publisher was prepared to accept his work for publication, as John Murray were with Capt. Angus Buchanan’s Three Years of War in East Africa. The case is similar to that of Francis Brett Young. He was unable to say what he wished in his Marching on Tanga, so he told the truth with fictionalised characters in the eye-opening Jim Redlake.

At the beginning of September 1916 the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division with the Fusiliers in reserve were pursuing Germans through the beautiful Uluguru mountains. For once they were in a cultivated area rich in crops and pasture, but needless to say rations were very short as they had moved too quickly for supplies. According to the official history of the campaign, the Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) were down to around 100 fit men excluding the four machine gun detachments. The Frontiersmen said they were around 200. Their signaller overheard a conversation that a certain ridge, the Magali ridge, must be occupied as the Germans were certain to be on it. There were no fresh troops available, but the Fusiliers had “done nothing for three weeks”. The explosion of indignation from the signaller woke sergeant and officer. Needless to say no rations followed them and after a day’s march they had to manage with a “much-wasted trek-ox killed”. “A few small things were gathered from the neighbourhood, such as sugar-cane stalks to chew at, a few paw-paws…and wild tomatoes, a chicken or two; and one great find, a grey-marked goat from the hills. “ (Buchanan) On September 4th they were at Lussengwe, where General Hannyngton had his H.Q. “just at a bend of the road, which for everything we could see as we halted each side of it might have been a bit of old England…[it] looked like our familiar roadside cottage patches.” (Adjutant). They waited for three hours while Driscoll went off with the General until orders came that they were to follow and occupy Magali Ridge. “…I found the Colonel patiently waiting as man after man came down at a distance of six or eight feet from the next, indicating how gingerly they had stepped across the obstacle…we passed on to find the next stretch of the road was the best we had seen yet. Brick red, but as hard and smooth as a London street, it had a deep V-shaped ditch each side which, with the cuttings, some of them twelve feet high, were as neat and regular as if they had been carved out by the sweep of a huge giant chisel…at that date it was a beautiful highway.” (Adjutant). This amazing road, cut by the Germans, had been previously unknown to the attacking troops. The Frontiersmen embarked on a five-mile drag up steep hill-sides on narrow native footpaths. There were a number of knolls rising separately out of the scrub and the trees. Magali was on their left. Driscoll sent the scouts ahead under Captain Ryan and the men followed in fighting sections, always covered by another until he was satisfied that they were in hidden positions and well-protected.

skirmish2“Nosing carefully through the wood, through a tangle of creepers, we saw 5,000 yards away, straight in front of us to the west, a little south of west of us, the hog-back and big conical hill and corkscrew roadway exactly as shown on the Cashmiri sketch…Through glasses we saw a solid body of about 100 men marching down the corkscrew, first the top, then the second curve, and then the lower and longest stretch of it. As we watched, a white man on a mule galloped down to them and waved his arm and they hurriedly turned into the wood and were lost…Colonel Driscoll reported to the General he had just left that the enemy’s main position was on the hog-back which was covered by a wood of tall trees.” (Adjutant). They looked down on the road and saw an Indian signal section coming along it until it was suddenly shelled by a German howitzer. Driscoll then sent out a patrol under an officer. This did not return until after dark but reported that “…the other side of the ridge was almost a cliff and thickly wooded with no trace of paths anywhere down it, that about 1,000 yards away two isolated conical hills, absolute cones lightly wooded, stood out from the forest, and that on one of them a man had been seen watching the road and the shelling with a telescope. On this the Colonel sent an urgent request to the General for a mountain gun and we turned in.” (Adjutant). Soon after daybreak two mountain guns arrived. The young officer in charge asked the adjutant to show him the observation post they had discovered, as his instructions were to open fire at once. The adjutant told him that Colonel Driscoll was giving the orders and suggested breakfast first. The gunnery officer was keen to speak to the Colonel, but he was not yet available. When the young officer did speak to Driscoll, he asked where he was to place his guns. Driscoll said he had not yet decided and pointed out that the gunners had been marching and climbing all night and were tired. “Let them make their food and eat and sleep. Try and get a little sleep yourself. We shall expect you to lunch at one o’clock.” The officer was surprised, but Driscoll was a man whose orders you did not question. After lunch Driscoll positioned the guns with great care, one pointed at the conical hill where the observer had been seen and the other at the hogs-back. When the work was completed to Driscoll’s satisfaction, instead of an order to open fire, Driscoll invited the young man to tea at four. Driscoll was more talkative than usual and seemed to have quite a spark about him. At half past four Driscoll gave the order to open fire at the observer’s hill and at the same time the three machine guns of the battalion, also carefully placed at widely separated points on their ridge, fired off one belt of ammunition each. Seven shells were landed accurately on top of the observer’s hill. Some of the machine-gunners reported seeing the observer run hell-for-leather down the hill with his shirt flapping loose behind him. Driscoll then walked through the trees to the second gun aimed at the hogs-back where Driscoll was certain the German headquarters was placed. The first three shells were off target but the fourth burst right on top of the trees covering the German HQ. Driscoll was delighted and told the gunners to continue. Before they could do so, a signaller came rushing over with a message from the General to say that he was afraid that they were shelling the Gold Coast Regiment who were attacking from a different direction.

“The gunner officer had another surprise added to his day of amazements. Driscoll put his glasses in their case, and without another word, without moving a wrinkle of his war-lined face, walked back to the hole in the scrub we had hacked for his blankets, lay down, put his reading spectacles on, and picked up the ancient copy of the ‘Windsor Magazine’ he must have already read from cover to cover three times.” (Adjutant).

skirmish3From their vantage point, the Frontiersmen could only watch and listen as the Gold Coast Regiment slowly attacked the German HQ, which was on what the Gold Coast Regt. knew as Kikirunga Hill. At least the shelling of the observation hill had blinded the enemy howitzer, although a few more rounds from the mountain gun would certainly have landed on the enemy HQ. The wisdom of Driscoll waiting until late afternoon was that, had he driven the observer from his post earlier, there would have been time for the Germans to establish a new observation post. Captain “Jack” Butler, VC, DSO, who had won both distinctions when serving with the Gold Coast Regt in the Cameroons, was sent forward with the pioneer company to reconnoitre. Butler had gone forward to check on an advanced picket he had placed, and there a number of them were wounded by machine gun fire, Butler’s wounds proving fatal. Eventually, with the aid of the King’s African Rifles, the enemy stronghold was taken and the Germans, as they did so regularly in the campaign, retired and melted away into the bush. The Gold Coast Regt suffered 42 casualties, including Capt Butler. The loss of the charismatic Butler was felt as badly by the Gold Coast Regt as the loss of Selous later on was to be felt by the Frontiersmen.

“ A few months later the Colonel met the General who had given him the order to cease fire on Magali Ridge and took the opportunity of explaining what his idea was, namely, to blind the directing Staff as well by driving it from the hog-back away from its organised contact with the valley, enabling the whole [British] force to cross the valley before dark and push on as it did two days later. The Colonel said amongst other things that he knew the enemy must withdraw from the valley when they lost the support of the gun and the direction of the Staff. He explained that there was no tenable position between Magali and the Summit, that is to say no position that could be made tenable quickly against the mountain guns, that the Uluguru [German] force might have been rushed at Buko-Buko [sic] where they had just built mat and grass barracks for a long stay or routed down the Summit Pass, or if they got down that smothered at Tulo, all rivers being fordable, before von Lettow got his smothering companies up the Kissaki…The General gaped and said “Why didn’t you push on? You would have got the CB!” Our dear old Colonel looked at this General who had been but a Major in the Indian Army in France in 1914 so calmly suggesting that he ought to have marched his 280 [sic] rifles and 3 machine guns into a tropical Balaclava without orders and said, “I had no rations.”” (Adjutant).

A final quotation from “Adjutant” early on in his account of the Frontiersmen is well worth emphasising; “Finally, we had in command of us Colonel Driscoll, a fighting genius, of world-wide fame; but they did not want his opinion on anything. As a Lieutenant-Colonel he left London in April 1915, and as a Lieutenant-Colonel he was demobilised after the Armistice…At Magali he tried to do the right thing, and they stopped him. If he had been allowed to do it there, just for half an hour, there might have been no Mgeta River line, no Rufigi death and fever, no Lindi disease, no Mhiwa slaughter, and no everlasting shame of Von Lettow roaming at will for a year in Portuguese East and Rhodesia. They would not listen to him, they seemed almost to despise him. They would not even try to use him.” (Adjutant)

Reading about the decisions of some of those Generals under whom the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) served in East Africa, one is immediately led to think of ‘lions led by donkeys’!


• Unpublished reminiscences “The Frontiersmen Battalion” by “Adjutant”
• “Three Years of War in East Africa” by Capt Angus Buchanan, MC (John Murray, 1919)
• “The Gold Coast Regiment in East Africa Campaign” by Sir Hugh Clifford KCMG (John Murray, 1920)
• “Military Operations East Africa, (Vol 1.) by Lt Col Charles Hordern HMSO p363

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