Captain Charles Walter Barton DSO, 1KAR, was one of the heroes of the fight at Karonga, northern Nyasaland in September 1914. He engaged the withdrawing enemy party north of the town and was wounded, but he remained in command until success was assured before handing over his responsibilities. Three and a half years later a very similar situation unfolded again.
Fortunately the Public Records Office in London holds two documents written by Lt Col Barton that allow us to understand the difficulties he had to contend with both when he created a new King’s African Rifles (KAR) battalion in Nyasaland in 1917 and when he commanded the new battalion during its first engagements in Portuguese East Africa (PEA) in 1918.
Right: Captain Charles Walter Barton DSO
A new battalion.
In February 1917 Major Barton was tasked with raising and training a third battalion at Zomba for the 1st King’s African Rifles. The new unit was designated 3rd/1st King’s African Rifles (3/1KAR) and a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel was authorized. However Lt Col Barton was given minimal support and resources as the 1st and 2nd Battalions of 1KAR were committed on operations and could not provide a cadre of experienced officers and non commissioned officers (NCOs) for the third battalion. Also it took until 26 March 1917 before recruits for 1KAR received as much pay as the men in 2KAR which was operating out of British East Africa (BEA); this disparity in pay had led to plenty of recruits volunteering for 2KAR but hardly any showing interest in serving in 1KAR.
Twenty two British officers were appointed to the new battalion but only ten were immediately available. The remaining twelve were mostly employed out in the field in Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and adjacent areas of German East Africa (GEA) and PEA on recruiting duties. An immediate source of recruits was at hand in Zomba where 66 German Askari prisoners of war volunteered for KAR service. The drilling of these men started on 18 February under the supervision of new officers sent out from England and a couple of African NCOs lent by the 1KAR Depot. Forty four of these former enemy soldiers were finally accepted, and they were issued with .450 Martini-Henry rifles as stocks of new rifles had not yet arrived from England. In mid-March 50 Wabena recruits from GEA arrived and 46 more ex-German Askari were accepted after a probationary period.
April saw the arrival of more Wabena recruits and then instructions came from BEA that all 1KAR recruiting was to be conducted centrally under Lieutenant Colonel Soames, 2KAR. This led to the 2KAR recruiters handing over to Lt Col Barton Yao, Anyanja, Anguru and Angoni recruits. By 1st May 3/1KAR had 800 recruits in training formed into four rifle companies – “A” Company composed of Yao and brethren tribes, “B” Company containing recruits from GEA and ex-prisoners of war, “C” Company composed of Angoni, and “D” Company containing Yao and Anguru. New rifles arrived at the end of April allowing the correct preliminary musketry training to commence.
Left: 1KAR ready to move
The instructional staff, now numbering one British Regimental Sergeant Major newly arrived from England, three Lance-Corporals appointed by Major Barton and 7 other NCOs lent by the Depot, was swamped by the numbers of recruits it had to handle, and many of the drills were conducted by recently-arrived British officers. A realistic training opportunity occurred in May when a German raiding party that had entered PEA crossed over into Nyasaland and captured Lieutenant Frank Herndon Blackie at Kaliwata. Lt Blackie, a 3/1KAR officer, was on recruiting duty under the direction of Lt Col Soames. “A” Company 3/1KAR was deployed on border patrols in case the Germans crossed again. At this time Dr. G. Prentice from the Scotch Mission was attached to the battalion as Medical Officer, and a British Army infantry NCO from BEA was posted in to be the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. An African RSM and two Sergeants also arrived from the Depot. In June the formation of a fourth 1KAR battalion was ordered (4/1KAR) and Lt Col Barton had to move from Zomba. He split his battalion between tented camps at Limbe and Blantyre.
In a progress report submitted in July 1917 Lt Col Barton outlined several difficulties that the battalion faced. The pressure of other duties left no time for officer language-training which could in any case not be standardised across the companies as the GEA and the Yao recruits could use Swahili but the other recruits could not. Webbing equipment and entrenching tools had not arrived thus delaying certain aspects of training, particularly bayonet fixing and unfixing and the digging of defensive positions. The necessity to be operationally ready because of the presence of German troops in PEA had led to squad, platoon, company and battalion drill training being compressed, and to musketry training being modified to ensure that the recruits were speedily taught how to load, aim and fire in a few weeks compared to the 18-month training period that pre-war KAR recruits enjoyed. Despite these problems the battalion had maintained what standards it could, and well over 100 recruits had been relegated to the Depot because of their failure to maintain satisfactory progress. The battalion second-in-command (2IC), Major Galbraith, had arrived from 2KAR in June, and his current experience of bush warfare was now being utilized to instruct the officers in how to train their men in battlefield skills. The major weakness in the battalion’s structure was the shortage of qualified and experienced NCOs and Lt Col Barton had to rapidly identify, develop and appoint them from amongst the most suitable recruits. Eventually over 20 white NCOs were sent out from England to join the battalion. The first fights with the enemy.
Above: Portuguese East Africa, the area in which Barton's Battalion operated
In December 1917 the German Schutztruppe was inside PEA and judged to be capable of invading Nyasaland. A column commanded by Colonel G.M.P. Hawthorne consisting of three 1KAR battalions – the first, second and third – was deployed to Namweras on the PEA border, east of Fort Johnston. From there Colonel Hawthorne dispatched his battalions on missions into PEA.
On 27th March 1918 Colonel Hawthorne deployed Lt Col Barton’s Headquarters and the half of “A” Company that was with him into PEA. 3/1KAR’s mission was to establish a Line of Comunications from Namweras towards Mahua. The following day the Lugenda River was crossed and a rendezvous made with “B” Company which was already in PEA. Lt Col Barton now had with him 14 officers, 21 British NCOs, 291 Askari, 6 Maxim and 2 Lewis Guns, 27 Scouts and 850 carriers transporting rations and reserve ammunition. The ground, mostly uninhabited, was extremely wet and swampy and it created problems for the carriers. “C” Company and half of “A” Company were acting as a bridging party ahead of the main column and a rendezvous was made with them on 2nd April at a newly constructed bridge over the swollen Mbekesi river, which was 80 yards wide and 25 feet deep.
Above: 1KAR River Crossing
On the following day the bridging party under Captains Jardine and Charlesworth went ahead whilst “B” Company strengthened the bridge to safeguard the carriers and their loads. A consignment of 4 Maxim and 3 Lewis guns sent out from England caught up with the battalion here. On 5th April the battalion concentrated again at Mahua where a firm base was made. Villagers were in the area and reported an enemy food depot 20 miles ahead at Koriwa on the Nanungu road. “C” Company with two Maxims was ordered to attack the enemy depot and they were deploying for this mission when the carriers saw men approaching. These were a party of 3 Germans and 28 Askari, with a Maxim, of No 2 Feldkompagnie based at Koriwa. The enemy was not aware that British troops were in the area.
The leading platoon of “C” Company opened fire but the Askari were excited and the officers inexperienced, resulting in wild firing which was reciprocated by the enemy Askari who had been taken by surprise. The “C” Company Sergeant Major, Mafumbo, shot a German but the enemy broke contact and evacuated his casualties leaving a gun shield, box of spare parts and 2,000 Maxim rounds behind. Three men of “C” Company – a scout, a Lewis gun porter and a carrier had been wounded, none of them dangerously. Captured enemy carriers divulged that the Germans had eight companies at Nanungu which was only two marches away, so “C” Company withdrew five miles to a commanding ridge beside the Marikwa River.
Left: A Schutztruppe machine gun team
After a 3/1KAR patrol had identified an enemy post at Koriwa “B” and “C” Companies with 6 Maxims and a Stokes Gun (an early type of trench mortar) left Marikwa on 11th April to attack the post. At Koriwa “C” Company extended into a Firing Line with skirmishers ahead whilst “B” Company formed the reserve to the rear. However the enemy aggressively advanced and “C” Company took up fire positions on a low rise whilst “B” Company deployed a platoon behind each flank to secure the line. British inexperience now showed when the Maxim officer, Captain Smith, went forward with two Maxims and a Lewis Gun in an attempt to outflank the Germans. In the bush Smith lost contact with “C” Company and mistook the enemy troops for KAR Askari. He and his party and the guns were captured by the Germans.
The Schutztruppe advance now seriously threatened the British right flank and a fighting withdrawal was ordered which was executed in a disciplined manner although the wounded could not be evacuated because of the intensity of the enemy fire. “B” and “C” Companies withdrew to Marikwa and counted the cost of the engagement. Lt Blackie (who had been released from captivity to return to the battalion), Sergeant Wheatley and four Askari had been killed. Lts Michaelson and Macartney, RSM Budd, Sgts Mack and Young and 18 Askari and 2 Maxim porters had been wounded. Missing and taken as prisoners of war were Captain Smith and Sergeants Granger and Newstead. All ranks in the battalion now appreciated the intensity of bush warfare and the fighting abilities of their Schutztruppe opponents. Corporal Isa of the Maxim Gun Detachment and Private Leiton of “C” Company later received Military Medals for brave conduct in this action.
Nakoti - Lieutenant Colonel Barton’s Battle.
The remainder of April was spent in patrolling to locate enemy positions and in frequent skirmishes with enemy parties seeking food. Transport difficulties overtook the supply situation as by this stage of the war good carriers were hard to find, and the Askari were often put onto half rations. A British NCO in 3/1KAR was court-martialled in the field for “cowardly behaviour in the face of the enemy on 16th April 1918 and spreading alarming reports on 17th April 1918”. Lt Col Barton was maintaining his battalion’s standards.
The local commander in PEA, Brigadier General Edwards, received intelligence reports that the Germans were concentrated at Nanungu and so he made a plan aimed at trapping and destroying the enemy. Troops based on Port Amelia were to attack from from the east and Colonel Hawthorn’s troops were to attack from Mahua in the west. Emphasis was placed on speed and aggression. A column under Lt Col Barton’s command was formed at Mahua consisting of three companies of 3/1KAR and two companies of 2/1 KAR under Lt Col Alexander Harcourt Griffiths DSO, another Karonga hero, who was designated as second-in-command of the column. The Regimental Historian, Lt Col H. Moyse-Bartlett, condenses the initial two engagements of the column into one sentence: “This column fought two actions against an enemy force west of Nanungu, inflicting very heavy casualties”. For Lt Col Barton and his column the fighting on these days was far more intense and costly than this sentence suggests.
Above: A Schutztruppe Askari company on parade
With messages from Colonel Hawthorn ordering “energetic offensive action” spurring the column on it advanced to contact the enemy. On 5th May the column Advance Guard, “A” Company 2/1KAR, entered Nakoti village and exchanged fire with Schutztruppe Askari. As the column swung around the village an enemy detachment attacked and broke through the Rear Guard, “C” Company 3/1KAR, capturing two Maxims. Lt Col Griffiths as OC Main Body ordered “C” Company 2/1KAR to charge and clear the ground of enemy. This tactic was successful, the enemy was dispersed and the two guns recovered. “C” Company 3/1KAR joined in the pursuit. The country was thick woodland and the Germans had opened fire at close range. Lt Jurgenson, seven Askari and one carrier were killed, and four British officers and 32 Askari and Maxim porters were wounded or missing. As the day was ending Lt Col Barton ordered the column to dig a defensive position. The ground was thick bush with a few maize fields on the perimeter. In accordance with battalion operating procedures the bush within the lines of trenches was not cut or disturbed.
After dawn on 6th May “A” Company 2/1KAR moved out to reconnoitre supported by “C” Company 3/1KAR. Just then “B” Company 3/1KAR which had been detached elsewhere marched up the Mahua road and entered the defensive position. After advancing a mile and a half “A” Company 2/1KAR made contact with an enemy patrol and drove it back 500 yards into a Schutztruppe base camp. The British Askari started burning the enemy huts but the Germans had positioned six Maxims on a ridge overlooking the camp. The German machine gunners opened fire on “A” Company to support a counter attack, and five out of the six British officers and NCOs in the company were hit. The company quickly withdrew to the column defensive position accompanied by “C” Company 3/1KAR. The enemy followed up immediately and cut off and captured a 3/1KAR Maxim and a Lewis Gun. The two KAR companies had taken 49 casualties killed and wounded.
The newly-arrived “B” Company 3/1KAR had occupied the front-facing trenches previously occupied by “A” Company 2/1KAR and so were in a good position to repel the Schutztruppe counter-attackers. The Germans aggressively and noisily continued their advance up both the sides of the column’s defensive position, and the sound of this movement so un-nerved the carriers that about 500 of them bolted to the rear taking the column’s reserve ammunition with them. At around 1230 hours as Lt Col Barton and his Adjutant observed these events they were hit by a burst of enemy Maxim fire. Captain C.P.M. Granville, the Adjutant, fell dead, shot in the chest and head. Lt Col Barton received a bullet sideways into his mouth which scraped along the top jaw knocking the teeth out. He recovered and resumed command but needed Lt Col Griffiths alongside him to write and disseminate his orders.
Left: 1KAR MG training in the field
It appears that the German commander, von Lettow-Vorbeck, appeared on the scene at this time and seeing that Lt Col Barton intended to fight where he stood the German 2IC Major Kraut was ordered to use five Field Companies to envelop the British column’s position, smother it with machine gun fire and seek an entry point for an assault. The Germans probed for the remainder of the daylight hours but the bush was so thick that contacts between the opposing forces were mostly at a range of a few feet. Because of Lt Col Barton’s concealment tactics when the trenches were dug the Germans could never identify the British trench lay-out. On several occasions KAR Maxim teams inflicted heavy casualties on groups of enemy who blundered right onto the British gun positions. The British Stokes mortars commanded by Lt McIvor were particularly useful in destroying advancing groups of the enemy. On one occasion Captain Borthwick MC observed that an enemy Maxim Gun only 50 yards away had a stoppage problem and was jammed. He ran forward to shoot the German gunner and disperse the gun team whilst two of his Askari carried the gun inside the British perimeter. The KAR Askari stood firm around the perimeter, but despite all orders and entreaties from officers and NCOs rifle ammunition was expended as soon as it was brought forward and distributed. By dusk the last KAR ammunition box had been opened. Meanwhile there was no sign of the British forces that should have been attacking from the east. This was unfortunate to put it mildly, as a strong simultaneous British attack from the east would have ensured the destruction of the bulk of the German forces in PEA.
As darkness descended the British commanders were contemplating how they could withstand another German attack the next day without a re-supply of ammunition. Then an enemy prisoner, Major Kraut’s orderly, was brought in carrying a message from von Lettow-Vorbeck ordering all German troops to break contact and withdraw. The Germans had suffered too many casualties and their own ammunition stocks were running low. At 2300 hours the KAR column also silently withdrew but without being able to evacuate the non-walking wounded, due to the absence of the carriers. The column Medical Officer Lieutenant Cobb, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), stayed behind to tend the wounded.
Above: 1KAR Ammunition porters
KAR casualties at Nakoti were: 7 officers, 1 British NCO and 51 Askari killed and 11 officers, 3 British NCOs and 122 Askari wounded. The German historian of the East African campaign lists German casualties as: 6 Europeans, 24 Askari and 4 Carriers killed and 11 Europeans, 67 Askari and 28 Carriers wounded. The German units involved had all lost an average of 27% of their fighting strength. At this stage of the war the Schutztruppe did not wish to experience this rate of attrition. The KAR column marched until dawn and halted at Mahiwa village near Nkao. Here Lt Col Barton was declared medically unfit and evacuated. Captain Dillon took over command of 3/1KAR and Lt Col Griffiths, who had in effect been commanding for the previous 18 hours, took over command of the column. On the same day, the 6th May, a delayed letter arrived at Namweras for Colonel Hawthorn from Brigadier General Edwards calling-off the planned joint attack on Nanungu. General van Deventer’s General Headquarters wanted the operation to be delayed by one week. Awards of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) announced in the London Gazette dated 15th October 1918.
Lt Col C.W. Barton – Bar to the Distinguished Service Order. For conspicuous gallantry in leading his column and bold offensive against the enemy, whereby after a desperate fight at close quarters the enemy were beaten off with heavy casualties. In this action this officer was severely wounded for the third time in this campaign. His courage and coolness in action have always been a splendid example to the young native soldier.
Lt Col A.H. Griffiths – Bar to the Distinguished Service Order. For most gallant and able leadership of his column. By his bold and prompt action when interposing his small force between the enemy rearguard and the main body he inflicted very heavy losses to the enemy in personnel and material.
Captain E.K. Borthwick MC – Award of the Distinguished Service Order. For most conspicuous gallantry in action. When an enemy maxim had been brought into action at 40 yards range he seized the opportunity of a temporary stoppage of the gun, went out alone, shot the NCO in charge, drove off the team, and captured the gun. Earlier in the day he had most gallantly assisted in an attack on the enemy’s camp, and most skillfully covered the retirement when the enemy counter-attacked in superior numbers. He showed courage, leadership and determination of a high order.
Temporary Captain W.G. Cobb, RAMC – Award of the Distinguished Service Order. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in action. For six hours, in the middle of a desperate fight at close quarters, he maintained his dressing station and attended the many wounded. Enemy’s fire was coming from three directions, and the only cover was two ant-heaps. He frequently went forward to the firing line and brought in wounded at great personal risk. He undoubtedly saved many lives by his perseverance and determination, all the wounded being safely evacuated under the greatest difficulties.
(An account of the further operations of Lt Col Griffith’s column will be offered at a later date.)
SOURCES: CAB 45/22 3/1KAR Progress Report January to July 1917. CAB 45/58 3/1KAR CO’s Diaries March to May 1918. CAB 45/66 Letter from Lt F.H. Blackie describing his capture. 1KAR Unit History during the conquest of German East Africa. The King’s African Rifles by Lt Col H. Moyse-Bartlett. Die Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell. The Cross of Sacrifice Volume I. War Services 1922. Official History, Military Operations, East Africa August 1914 to September 1916. (This article has been published in The Society of Malawi Journal.)