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British East Africa,  12th September 1914

On the outbreak of the Great War the energetic military commander in German East Africa (GEA), Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, wasted little time in attacking both Nyasaland and British East Africa (BEA).  Four natural invasion routes were available from German territory into BEA and Schutztruppe troops used all of them.  On the Indian Ocean coast a push on Mombasa was repulsed by the British at Gazi, whilst further to the north-west fierce fighting too place in the thick bush of the Tsavo River Valley.  The more arid route to Kajiado and Nairobi from GEA, via Namanga, was used by mounted German raiding parties who clashed with detachments of the Magadi Defence Force and the East Africa Mounted Rifles.  Also an advance towards Kisumu, the British railhead of the Uganda Railway, was made along the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria.

Captain Wilhelm Bock von Wulfingen, the German commander of 14 Field Company in Mwanza, was reinforced with 7 Field Company from Bukoba and tasked with advancing towards Kisumu to destroy viaducts on the Uganda Railway.   Captain von Wulfingen assembled a force consisting of 52 Germans, 266 Askari, 101 Ruga-Ruga from the Wagaya tribe that inhabits the south eastern shores of Lake Victoria, 3 machine guns and one 3.7 centimetre field gun.  Facing them across the border was the British garrison in Kisumu consisting of the 90 Askaris of ‘G’ Company, 4th King’s African Rifles (4KAR), 100 British East African policemen and 130 Volunteers who had been enlisted in the Kisumu Town Guard.  At Kisii was a District Commissioner with a small police detachment.  

The German commander marched across the British East African border and occupied the undefended port of Karungu on 9th September leaving a small garrison there.  On Lake Victoria the German armed tug Muansa accompanying him to support the advance.  The Germans now moved on towards Kisii and the news of this caused the District Commissioner and his policemen to withdraw towards Kendu, using prisoners from the Kisii gaol to carry a considerable amount of tax revenue coins with them.  This British withdrawal was unfortunate as the local Gussi people had been roughly handled by King’s African Rifles punitive expeditions in 1905 and 1908 and a popular local belief predicted that the white men would soon leave the Kissi district.

Above: German Askari firing blackpowder weapons

The British response to the German occupation of Kisii was to send as many troops as possible from Uganda across Lake Victoria to Kisumu and then on to Kendu, the nearest port to Kisii.  Captain Edward Gerald Mytton Thorneycroft, the Adjutant of 4KAR, was placed in command and his force consisted of ‘G’ Company 4KAR which was already at Kisumu, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies 4KAR from Masaka in Uganda, and 50 British East African police from Kisumu.  The KAR carried two machine guns with them. Lieutenant William John Townsend Shorthose commanded ‘G’ Company which was recruited from the Baganda tribe, Lieutenant Edward Lionel Musson commanded ‘C’ Company and Lieutenant Harry Arthur Lilley commanded ‘D’ Company.  ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies were composed mainly of Sudanese Askari.  The armed vessel Kavirondo provided protection for ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies as they moved across the lake.

Captain Thorneycroft occupied a ridge of high ground overlooking Kisii town on the morning of 12th September and observed the enemy force parading and preparing to march towards Kisumu.  However the Germans were soon alerted by local Africans that the British were occupying the ridgeline and a determined enemy attack was mounted.  The British ridgeline had three summits and ‘G’ Company with one machine gun was on the left, ‘C’ Company was in the centre and ‘D’ Company with the other machine gun was on the right.  The police were held in reserve. 

Above: The hill on the British left seen from Kisii.  The Germans attacked from the right of the picture

As the German Askari opened fire it was apparent that they were using black powder ammunition in their rifles as a cloud of smoke identified each shot fired, often causing the firer to have to stand up to fire his next shot over the smoke.  Similarly the enemy 3.7 centimetre gun drew attention to itself with smoke as it fired each round.  The 4KAR Askari fired volleys back into the smoke, hitting many enemy riflemen and gunners.  A column of German troops led by their Europeans marched towards the British left flank.  Lieutenant Shorthose was firing the machine gun on this flank and he hit several Germans.  This caused the column to disperse into skirmishing order and continue the attack in small groups.  The enemy seized a small feature below the British left flank and the British East African police counter-attacked.  After fierce fighting the enemy assault was halted. 

Captain Thorneycroft then advanced with a party into Kisii town but he was soon surprised by a German patrol and shot dead.  The British right flank now felt the pressure of an enemy assault and both British officers there, Lieutenants Musson and Grey, were wounded.  An African officer of 4KAR whose name sadly has not been recorded was killed along with 6 Askari and policemen.  Twelve other Askari and policemen were wounded. 

During the fighting 1771 Sergeant Miydiyo of 4KAR acted with commendable gallantry and later he received a Distinguished Conduct Medal. 

His citation read: For doing very good work and displaying great bravery when at close quarters with the enemy, although twice wounded at the action at Kisii.  

As dusk fell Lieutenant Lilley, now the British commander, concentrated his men in the centre of their ridge and fired volleys at the enemy, hoping to encourage them in the belief that a British attack was starting.  The British were now nearly out of ammunition and Lieutenant Lilley withdrew his men towards Kendu port.   But the enemy was in disarray having lost 9 Germans and 33 Askari killed and 9 Germans and 38 Askari wounded or missing.  Many porters and Ruga-Ruga had disappeared back towards German territory.  Captain von Wulfingen, himself wounded, decided to abandon his demolition mission.  He left the wounded that he could not carry and quickly withdrew his survivors back directly towards the border and then across the Mara River in GEA.  The local inhabitants of Kisii, believing that their prophecy had been fulfilled descended on the empty government bungalows and abandoned Indian shops and looted them.

Meanwhile the 4KAR Reserve Company and a detachment of Uganda Police, commanded by Lieutenant Harold Senhouse Pinder, had landed at Kendu from Uganda and were marching towards Kisii.  Upon meeting Lieutenant Lilley’s force a halt was made for the night and ammunition carried by the Reserve Company and Uganda Police was redistributed.  The following day, 13th September, the British re-occupied a thoroughly looted Kisii and found 5 wounded Germans and 16 wounded enemy Askari lying on the ground, along with abandoned rifles, revolvers and baggage.  A military garrison occupied Kisii and the authorities took stern measures to discipline the looters and to re-establish the British East Africa government’s authority.  

Brigadier General J.M. Stewart’s headquarters in Nairobi assumed that the withdrawing Germans would make for Karungu port.  ‘B’ and ‘E’ Squadrons of the East African Mounted Rifles, a newly-raised local white Volunteer unit, were transported without their mounts by rail from the Magadi region south of Nairobi to Kisumu.  There they sailed on HMS Winifred for Karungu, arriving shortly after noon on the 15th September.  The German garrison was flying a national flag and the Winifred was immediately fired upon.  This was a baptism of fire for the Volunteers who lay on the deck and returned fire. The German Muansa then appeared from the reeds along the lake shore using her 3.7 centimetre revolver gun to and fire at and hit the Winifred.  The Winifred withdrew to meet up with the Kavirondo.  When the two British vessels returned to Karungu later they found that the German garrison had returned to German East Africa on the Muansa.  Karungu was then garrisoned by the British.  

Captain Thorneycroft’s solitary grave lies in Kisii on the site of the old Boma that is now a social club.  After being visited and photographed by the writer the very weathered headstone is being replaced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).  The graves of the Germans who died at Kisii are in the CWGC cemetery at Kisumu.  The burial places of the dead Askari of both sides are regrettably not known.  

SOURCES:  
The King’s African Rifles
by Lieutenant-Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.  
Official History Of The War.  Military Operations East Africa August 1914 – September 1916
by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hordern.  
Sport and Adventure in Africa by Captain W.T. Shorthose.  
Die Operationen in Ostafrik
a by Ludwig Boell  
Magadi.  The Story of the Magadi Soda Company by M.F. Hill.  
The Story of the East African Mounted Rifles
by C.J. Wilson.    

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