The Battle of Bukoba

bukobaIn defence of the Frontiersmen –
did they behave as badly after the victory as portrayed in most books?

Although the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) arrived in East Africa in May, for the first month or so they were only engaged in patrols, minor skirmishes and training. They were led from beginning to end by Lt-Col D.P. Driscoll, who began as a Lt.-Col and ended as one, although during the war in East Africa no fewer than 137 generals fought against the one German General Von-Lettow Vorbeck. Many of these generals in 1914 were junior to Driscoll but were still promoted over him.

There was much excitement when they heard they were to take part in the attack on Bukoba, but disappointment for some when they learned that not all four companies were to be going. They were to capture the town on the western shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza and destroy the wireless installation. Although the attack was a success, there was to be discontentment for the Frontiersmen and it would not be listed as a Royal Fusiliers Battle Honours. Bukoba Day is now commemorated as close as possible to June 22nd at the Royal Fusiliers Memorial at Holborn in London. This goes some way to righting an injustice done to the battalion. Here are some of the comments of those who took part and also their accounts passed to others:

In June, 400 of us were selected to join contingents from the Loyal North Lancs. and Indian troops to form a raiding party to attack the town of Bukoba, situated on the far shore of Lake Victoria. After two days of spasmodic fighting, the enemy retired, we destroyed the wireless station and thoroughly ‘looted’ this well laid out small town. The round trip occupied 10 days. I thoroughly enjoyed the first days of fighting as there was plenty of good rock cover when advancing, but on the second day when crossing open ground under pretty heavy machine gun fire and sniper fire, I was scared stiff.1

bukoba2It was well documented by those British who served in the campaign that the Germans always fired high, otherwise many more of our men would have been killed. The British were trained to aim low, as even if you did not kill your enemy a bad leg wound would take him out of action.

Sailed from Kisumu on ‘Usoga’ for Bukoba. Very crowded, 400 Frontiersmen, Indians, 200 native porters, oxen and mules. We were a very smelly combination. It was impossible to lie down and we were just laid on top of each other between decks. The heat was terrific. 2

It was thought to effect a night landing and make a surprise attack on the town, and plans were all prepared for this. In this connection three privates were voluntarily selected for a novel undertaking: it was arranged that an Australian bushman, a Canadian from the Yukon, and self (I was then a private) were to go ahead at landing and try to overpower, and kill if necessary, a certain sentry whose post was known to our command. But all plans were changed in the end, for, about midnight, when our lightless phantom ships were drawing in to Bukoba, wakeful watchers on a high island that lay out in the bay before the town, detected our approach in the light of the half-moon, and five great rockets shot in warning into the sky.3

Buchanan’s book disagrees a little from his diary. “Thursday 10th told to be Chief Scout and receive stripes; posted in Orders June 16th paid Lance Corporal.” Morahan was the Australian bushman and Hart was the Canadian from Dawson City in the Yukon.4 Yukon Territory’s Dawson Troop of the Legion of Frontiersmen was formed around October 1912 and was led by Legion Lieut. Hart, who later made his way from Dawson to England and enlisted with the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) as a private. He was offered a commission but declined. Later in the war he was invalided home, and it appears evident that he died only a few years later in British Columbia. 5


In the 1930’s, the Rev. Harry Leigh-Pink, who has featured on the Topic page, interviewed many of the survivors of the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers who were still serving in the Frontiersmen and noted their accounts of the action. 6

At 4 a.m. while it was still dark, the troops were again alerted, and stood to arms on the crowded decks in battle kit… Colonel Driscoll, quietly standing on deck with his officers in the dawn light, gave his orders: ‘Get your men into the rowboats as quickly and quietly as you can. Once ashore, go fast through the bush and get up the cliff. Don’t waste any time. ‘A’ Company first. Boats away.’…
Corporal Jenner of A Company had his thoughts – maybe he wondered what it felt like to hear the zip of rifle bullets past his head; if so, he was to know it before many hours had passed.
Budler of the Fusiliers, a South African, had his thoughts, and so had Ramazani, Selous’ native servant; both had scouting experience and would need it before the bugles sounded recall.

According to F N McMillan, Budler was a doctor who gave this up to enlist as a private soldier in the Frontiersmen. When months later in the campaign Selous was killed, his servant Ramazani was so enraged that he would not rest until he had killed the man who had shot his master. Eventually he was certain he had done so.

What was passing through the minds of men like the Frontiersmen’s Adjutant, Captain White? (Major White, for that was his substantive rank, only held the position of adjutant for a short time) – like Sergeant-Major Bottomley of ‘C’ Company, slowly turning the large signet-ring on the finger of his right hand, and his commanding officer, Major Leitch? Like Private Mucklow, Selous’ batman – was it of his native county Worcestershire, glorious in the month of June?

Major Leitch was a Canadian. Both Bottomley and Mucklow were to be killed in action at Bukoba. We can only puzzle who told Leigh-Pink about Bottomley’s signet ring.

In the fight the Germans floated a tremendous Red Cross over their big gun, but this dodge didn’t act, and we captured it. One of our officers is an old game hunter, and knows all the country around like a book. He is a wonderful old gentleman and must bear a charmed life. I won’t mention his name, [obviously Selous] but I might say that some of Rider Haggard’s tales are woven around him. It was a complete win for us at Bukoba. We cleared them out in two days and there wasn’t a soul left when we entered. The Germans had kindly left the tables laid for dinner in most of the big houses and the stores etc being handy, you may guess that some hungry boys had quite a happy time. 7

bukoba4The story of the Battle of Bukoba is covered in “One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen” 8, but we need to explain a little more of why no gallantry awards were made to the Frontiersmen and why no Battle Honour was awarded. Yorkshireman Reg Froggatt wrote that, “Lord Kitchener sent a message of congratulation after the big success at Bukoba…” Froggatt was in fact referring to the famous Lord Kitchener’s brother, Colonel Kitchener, who was one of the limited number of senior officers to hold a high a opinion of the Frontiersmen and support them throughout the campaign. Most senior officers were Indian Army officers and they held the Indian Army view of discipline and behaviour. They were somewhat horrified that the War Office had chosen to send this battalion of independent-thinking “toughs” rather than a regular unit. The fact that no regular unit could be spared and that the Frontiersmen had a high number of soldiers and officers who were well used to irregular warfare carried no weight with Indian Army officers whose ideas of the correct way to run a war were learned in the confined atmosphere of India. To the Staff officers, especially those in the comfort of Nairobi, there was no difference between the native carriers and the rough, tough, Frontiersmen. As an example, when they were at Moshi, a Staff officer: from evil mind or blatant ignorance, set one hundred of us hyking bags of rice from a shed on the north side of a square to a shed on the south side of it. At the same time, some local native carriers were heaving rice sacks from a shed on the east side to one on the west, the columns stumbling over each in the in the middle. In the end the sergeant in charge of the Frontiersmen marched his nearly mutinous men back to speak to the adjutant, who contacted Colonel Kitchener. Not for the first or last time, the Colonel had to come to their assistance and berate a Staff officer for his treatment of the Frontiersmen. 9

At the end of the battle, the British Troops were told to destroy the wireless station. This had been the main object of the engagement. They were also told to make sure that nothing of value was left for the Germans to return to after they had left. The borderline between destruction, while utilising what the Germans had left behind, and looting is a narrow one. This would have especially applied to men who had been used to campaigns where they had to live off the land. In addition the Germans had enjoyed luxuries that the Frontiersmen could have only dreamed about as Froggatt said in the first quotation above. After they had returned to base at Mgadi, they were addressed by General “Mickey” Tighe who gave them congratulations on a job well done. However he followed this up with a broadside saying he was disgusted that they had “looted” Bukoba. Therefore recommendations for decorations would not be passed through for approval.10 It is known that Lt. Wilbur Dartnell had been recommended for the D.S.O. and one of his men for the D.C.M. In recent years most books on the subject of the War in East Africa have repeated Meinertzhagen’s comment “…the Fusiliers were looting hard”, his claim that Driscoll had requested that the Frontiersmen be allowed to loot the town, and other serious criticisms of the Battalion’s action. 11 It is to be hoped that future authors will study Brian Garfield’s “The Meinertzhagen Mystery”. Garfield calls Meinertzhagen “ a colossal fraud” and totally debunks many of Meinertzhagen’s claims. Meinertzhagen claimed to have been at Bukoba, but from Garfield’s book this seems unlikely, as Meinertzhagen spent most of his time in East Africa behind a desk in Nairobi. There have therefore to be grave doubts about the veracity of Meinertzhagen’s claims to have actually been present and to have witnessed the alleged looting and other actions. It would also have been totally foreign to Driscoll’s character to request that they be allowed to loot. Driscoll was a God-fearing Catholic and strictly tee-total. He strongly disapproved of drunkenness. His one known weakness was a fondness for the ladies – and ladies were always attracted to him! His second-in-command, Major White was a strict disciplinarian soldier of the old school and would not have tolerated any bad behaviour he witnessed. Cherry Kearton tells a story of Driscoll’s strict abstinence on the first night at Bukoba. Fires had been lighted and tea brewed. Lieut. “Baby” Reid passed a cup of tea to Kearton with a whispered comment that he had “put a little drop” in it. Reid and Kearton were aghast that the cups and become mixed and Driscoll had taken Kearton’s “improved” tea. Fortunately, Driscoll swallowed his almost at a gulp and Kearton hoped that the Colonel had put the taste down to the water they were using.

…The Colonel’s personal abstinence had developed into a rabid doctrine so that he was continually filled with anxiety lest the men in his charge should suffer from drunkenness. When at last, on the following day, Bukoba was captured and we had entered the town, his first orders to me were to go into every bungalow and smash every bottle of alcohol…
At the same time I took on a private commission of my own to prohibit looting…a little later I met a colonel (who certainly ought to have known better) proudly carrying off the door-plate of the Governor’s house. 12

Here is evidence that it cannot have been the Frontiersmen alone who indulged in a little looting for we have a very senior officer of another unit at Bukoba indulging. Kearton continued:

…in this respect we are no different from the generality of mankind: someone else’s property becomes no one’s property when the someone else isn’t there, and finding is keeping.”

The order was given to destroy the wireless station as well as all arms and ammunition and everything that could be of use to the Germans on their return. The Frontiersmen were never on decent rations and due to Staff incompetence there were no rations for them on their first night. When they went out to execute their orders they were amazed to discover how well the Germans lived and what luxuries they had available to them in the way of food and fine wine. Even Kearton was staggered to see how many bottles of costly wine he had to destroy. Some of the Frontiersmen came across a store packed with bottle of whisky and beer. There is no way these tough and hardy men, many used to living off the land in the South African War, would have destroyed all this without sampling the wares. This was only a small party of Frontiersmen as in his account of the Battle, Selous wrote that “I saw no drunkenness among our men.” They blew up the bank and then some of them raided the German Governor’s house. Some men dragged a wagon they had loaded with valuable elephant ivory and animal skins to the landing stage, but were ordered to abandon this and embark on the ship immediately. In the Governor’s house they found and took medals and jewelled Orders belonging to the Governor, also a sword set with precious stones in the handle that had been presented to him by the Kaiser. Some of the experienced and wily old irregular soldiers contrived to hide some of the skins and the Governor’s sword, Orders, and medals and get away with them. How they managed to spirit a be-jewelled sword away without being discovered is a mystery, but old soldiers always made sure that officers only knew what they wanted them to. Later: The German Governor made complaint about the looting and asked for the return of his sword, medals and Orders. The medals and Orders were returned, but the sword could not be traced.13

It is unfair that the Frontiersmen’s interpretation of their, possibly too loose, orders has led to such criticisms over the years. For the recent repetitions of those criticisms we have to blame the old liar Meinertzhagen (plus recent authors who have not checked further). The question that has to be raised is why the Staff officers were so furious. Probably as Indian Army Staff officers they had no experience of dealing with the ways of the irregulars in South Africa. Possibly, even, the fact that the very valuable jewelled sword some senior officer had fancied for himself as a trophy of war could not be traced rankled deeply? Was that the key to their fury? One would guess that some specialist Frontiersmen skills were put to work dismantling the sword and selling the jewels. There is no way that the whole sword could have been smuggled out to South Africa or back to England.

There is no doubt that they fought well and bravely, so a “Bukoba Day” has been set aside each June to commemorate the gallantry and remember the Frontiersmen who lost their lives that day by laying a wreath at the Royal Fusiliers Memorial at Holborn, London. 14


1 “Grandpa’s War”, the memoirs of Charles Shaw. © S.J. Shaw 2007
2 Private papers of Charles Turner; IWM: 7754 74/155/1
3 Capt. Angus Buchanan, M.C. Three Years of War in East Africa [John Murray, 1919] 20-21
4 Diary of Angus Buchanan, IWM 4429 82/25/1
5 Information from Canadian historian B.W. “Will” Shandro, also see “The Frontiersman” War Number 1918, p.26
6 Harry Leigh-Pink, The Battle of Bukoba, The Canadian Frontiersman, March/April 1965
7 Interview with L/Cpl Reg Froggatt, unidentified Yorkshire newspaper cutting (1916 or1917)
8 For an account of the Battle of Bukoba from the Frontiersmen’s viewpoint, see: Geoffrey A Pocock One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen, [Phillimore 2004] 81-84. Although it repeats Meinertzhagen’s and other somewhat harsh accusations against the Frontiersmen, the website contains an excellent account of the Battle of Bukoba and is recommended viewing.
9 From the reminiscences of “Adjutant”, believed to be either Charles Wise Hollis or George Douglas Hazzledine.
10 See: the memoirs of Percival Edward Pedersen, reprinted in: Bruce Fuller, They Chose Adventure, [Fenreach Trust, New Zealand, 2010]
11 Colonel R. Meinertzhagen Army Diary 1899-1926, [Oliver & Boyd 1960] 136. For the true story of this larger than life fraud and liar, see: Brian Garfield The Meinertzhagen Mystery: the life and legend of a colossal fraud, [Potomac Books, 2007]
12 Cherry Keatron Adventures with Animals and Men [Longmans, Green & Co. 1935] 218-219.
13 The memoirs of Frederick Turner Elliott © Roger M. Kearin 1990
14 Killed 22nd June 1915: Sgt. T. Brain, Pte. P Ashworth, Pte. G Griffith. Killed 23rd June 1915: CSM. J.W. Bottomley, Pte. W.H. Dimmock, Pte. F. Mucklow. Mucklow was Driscoll’s officer’s servant, or batman and was killed alongside Driscoll. According to Selous he incautiously stood up. Died of wounds received on 22nd and 23rd June: L/Cpl. A. Rumsey, Pte. A. Wandless

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.