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GERMAN KAMERUN 6th – 16th October 1914:

and the operational deployment of the West African Regiment

Introduction

On the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Allies quickly moved against German possessions in West Africa.  Togoland was seized (see: http://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/300143.html ) and the large colony of Kamerun was attacked.  In Kamerun initial British attacks across the Nigerian border were repulsed by the Germans, but an amphibious assault on Douala seized that port on 27th September 1914.  The allied commander, Brigadier General Sir C.M. Dobell CMG, DSO, then ordered two columns to move north and attack Susa and Yabasi (sometimes spelt as Jabassi.)  Yabasi lay 50 miles (80 kilometres) up the Wuri River which was navigable.  The Royal Navy was tasked with transporting the column to Yabasi.

To open a Map in a seperate window go HERE

Above: The West African Regiment on Parade.

The Yabasi Column Commander was Brevet Colonel E.H. Gorges DSO, the Commandant of the West African Regiment.  Colonel Gorges force consisted of a land party under Lieutenant Colonel E. Vaughan (Manchester Regiment and West African Regiment) who commanded:  

2 sections of mountain artillery, one section each coming from the Sierra Leone Battery and the Gold Coast Battery, West African Frontier Force (WAFF).
6 companies plus 2 machine guns from the West African Regiment
2 companies from the 1st Nigeria Regiment, WAFF.
Half of the Pioneer Company of the Gold Coast Regiment, WAFF.
Telephone and medical detachments and 688 porters.  
Support from the Royal Navy, under Commander the Honourable B.T.C.O. Freeman-Mitford, was a flotilla comprised of:
Mole a dredger armed with a 6-inch gun.
Dreadnought a lighter also mounting a 6-inch gun.
Balbus a steam tug that towed the Dreadnought and carried three 1-pounder guns.
The picquet boat from HMS Cumberland, armed with one 3-pounder gun and a machine gun.
The steam launches Sokoto, Crocodile and Alligator, each armed with one machine gun.
One 12-pounder gun and detachment for employment on land.
(The 6-inch guns and crews came from HMS Challenger at Douala).

The West African Regiment (WAR)

Freetown in Sierra Leone was one of the Royal Navy’s most important harbours and bases, and it needed an effective garrison.  White troops sent there were decimated by fever and had to be replaced by battalions of the West India Regiment from the Caribbean.  Internal unrest in Sierra Leone caused the British to raise a local infantry regiment in the colony in 1896 titled the West African Regiment.  

The WAR was an Imperial unit; that meant that its cost was born by the British War Office and not by colonial revenues raised in Sierra Leone.  The regiment’s primary role was to defend the colony’s capital Freetown, but it was also available for operations anywhere in the world.  The regiment raised twelve companies of infantrymen from tribes in the Sierra Leone interior.  The unit strength was: 60 British seconded officers, 25 British seconded Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and 1,500 African rank and file.  The regimental march was Rule Britannia.   

In the early days the regiment was dressed in a blue single-breasted tunic with five gilt buttons and standing collar, knee-length baggy blue breeches, a low red fez for headdress and a brown belt with two pouches.  Boots and gaiters were not issued or used.  The soldiers were armed with the .303-inch Lee Metford magazine rifle.  

By 1914 the soldiers were wearing a khaki flannel smock and calf-length breeches, but the men still fought in bare feet.  The rifle in use was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield, and two machine guns had been issued to the regiment.  In Kamerun the red fez was replaced by a green Kilmarnock hat and the belt and pouches were replaced with M08 web equipment.   

In pre-war days the WAR had deployed five companies into the interior of Sierra Leone, and had stationed the regimental headquarters and seven companies at Wilberforce, outside Freetown.  The West African Regiment should not be confused with the Sierra Leone Battalion of the West African Frontier Force, which was a colonially-funded, directed and administered unit.

The approach up the Wuri River

The journey up-river started on 7th October and was enlivened by canoe-loads of villagers trying to cling on to the vessels to get a free ride.  Some of the canoe men climbed aboard the Royal Navy craft to search for removable objects, and they had to be ejected.  As the long snake of vessels, led by the flagship Mole, passed Bosida the ‘King’ (head chief) of the region came aboard for a visit.  He had been hiding in the bush for three days as the withdrawing Germans were hanging anyone in authority who was thought to favour the Allies.  

Left: The Wuri River at Yabasi

As Nsake Fort was reached, 10 miles (16 kilometres) south of Yabasi, the flotilla came under enemy rifle fire.  Machine gun and 3-pounder fire sprayed and bombarded the fort in reply.  A company of WAR disembarked and seized the fort which was found to be empty.  Local villagers advised that the enemy had quickly withdrawn up-river to Yabasi.

Deployment into action at Yabasi

The German defenders of Yabasi were the 1st (Depot) Company of the Schutztruppe supported by local policemen and local Europeans.  Knowing that the British flotilla was on its way towards them they had planned a sound defence, and they wanted to fight.  

Yabasi came into the flotilla’s sight at 0800 hours on 7th October, and shortly afterwards the effects of the hot tropical sun began to be felt by the entire British column.  The Mole and the Dreadnought bombarded Yabasi town whilst the troops disembarked on the west side of the river.  The east side was thought to be too swampy and no British troops landed there.  This was a big mistake.  

Colonel Gorges ordered Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan to advance with a main body of 4 companies and the machine gun section WAR, the Gold Coast pioneers and the Gold Coast mountain artillery.  The remaining sub-units and the naval 12-pounder gun were held in reserve.  

At this time the flotilla noticed enemy movement on the east bank.  A message was despatched to Colonel Gorges but it either did not arrive or was ignored.  Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan was now ordered to seize a mound south of the town whilst Captain E. S. Brand (Royal Fusiliers and WAR) led a left-flanking attack (see sketch map).  The mound was evacuated by the enemy and the British occupied it.  

Suddenly enemy machine gunners on both sides of the river opened fire on the flotilla and on the British troops on the mound.  Enemy rounds hit the gun mountings on the vessels, forcing Commander Freeman-Mitford to withdraw his flotilla down-river out of range.  This denied Colonel Gorges the naval gun fire support that he had been counting on.  The tug Balbus had disobeyed orders and pushed her way too far upstream, and as she withdrew she ran aground on an island and had to be abandoned.  The navy was now pre-occupied with emptying Balbus of her guns and other loose items.  Things were going badly wrong.

Disaster on the British left flank

Colonel Gorges ordered the naval 12-pounder to be dragged onto the mound by the naval gun detachment and some accompanying Royal Marines.  He then went to inspect his left flank attack, as it appeared to be experiencing difficulties.   

The troops on the left flank were in disarray.  They had advanced through a swamp to a river which could only be crossed by one bridge.  German machine gunners had a clear field of fire from Yabasi and were knocking down anyone approaching the bridge.  Captain Brand was dead along with Staff Sergeant (Armourer) Frederick C. Wade (Royal Army Ordnance Corps and WAR) and Colour Sergeant Hector McGuirk (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and WAR).  Lieutenant R.D. Bennett (Middlesex Regiment), the WAR Machine Gun Officer, was severely wounded.  Twelve African soldiers had also been killed and 19 others wounded; many of these casualties were WAR machine gunners.  On the river five British sailors had been wounded.

Left: Captain Ernest Stanley Brand

The companies on the left flank were now either thrashing around in tall elephant grass or were unwilling to face the German machine guns.  Tactical unity had been lost.  A company of the 1st Nigeria Regiment was ordered to mount another flanking attack with the intention of going further to the west and getting onto ground beyond the bridge.  But direction was lost in the thick, swampy bush and the Nigerians emerged behind the WAR instead of in front and to the left.  

Colonel Gorges now turned to what he perceived to be his trump card, the naval detachment on the mound; here he found the men prostrated with exhaustion.  Having no real idea of the physical demands made by bush warfare, the naval detachment had thought that it could haul the 12-pounder gun and ammunition without the assistance of local porters.  To compound this situation the detachment had been ordered into action wearing heavy marching order.  The result was that although the 12-pounder was on the mound, the gunners were too exhausted to man it efficiently and the marines were too exhausted to fight forward.  

As dusk was now approaching a British retirement was ordered.  The men re-embarked and the flotilla, less Balbus, sailed back down-river to Nsake for the night.  It then returned to Douala.

The second British attack on Yabasi

General Dobell ordered an immediate second assault on Yabasi.  The WAR was rested and Colonel Gorges was given another column consisting of:

The Nigerian Mountain Artillery Battery (less one section) WAFF.
One section from the Gold Coast Mountain Artillery Battery WAFF.
1st Battalion The Nigeria Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel J.B. Cockburn (Royal Welch Fusiliers and Nigeria Regiment, WAFF).
A Composite Battalion consisting of 2 companies of the Sierra Leone Battalion WAFF and 2 companies of the Gold Coast Regiment WAFF, under Lieutenant Colonel R.A. de B. Rose (Worcester Regiment and Gold Coast Regiment, WAFF).
A detachment from the Pioneer Company of the Gold Coast Regiment, WAFF.
Telephone and Medical detachments and 450 porters.  
The naval flotilla, again under Commander Mitford, was similar to the previous one but this time 100 porters accompanied the 12-pounder gun.  

On 13th October the Composite Battalion was landed on both banks of the river at Nsake and advanced.  Officers’ patrols located the enemy near Yabasi also on both banks of the river, as before.  The following morning 1st Nigeria Regiment (less one company), one section of Gold Coast Pioneers, the Nigerian mountain gunners and the naval 12-pounder detachment were landed on the west side of the river south of Yabasi. Lieutenant Colonel Cockburn was tasked with getting behind and to the north of Yabasi by making a wide left flanking approach.  The remainder of the column was held afloat by Colonel Gorges so that he could reinforce either bank of the river.


By 1300 hours the British troops on both banks were in contact with the enemy who was fighting a withdrawing action.  The flotilla provided fire support and by 1500 hours Yabasi was encircled. One hour later the British held all the enemy trenches.  Ten enemy prisoners were taken by 1st Nigeria Regiment.  The British had lost 2 men wounded and one British NCO who died from the effects of the sun.   

On the 15th October British patrols ascertained that the Germans were retreating towards Nyamtam, and there was some inconclusive skirmishing.  The flotilla successfully salved the Balbus, although it had to be sent to Nigeria for a refit.  The 1st Bn The Nigeria Regiment was left to garrison the Yabasi area and the remainder of the column returned to Douala.  The British dead from the first attack were buried in Douala Cemetery.

Conclusion

At Yabasi the British troops learned to respect German machine gunnery.  Experience acquired the hard way during the failed first attack helped the second attack to succeed.

The West African Regiment continued operating in Kamerun and was a useful unit.  After the conquest of the territory the WAR provided garrison troops for Kamerun, Togo and Gambia, and internal security troops for northern Nigeria.  During the Great War 7 British officers and Non Commissioned Officers were killed in action and 4 others were wounded or injured; 27 African soldiers were killed, 17 died of disease and 41 were wounded. 

Colonel Gorges was appointed to be a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).  Two officers in the WAR were awarded Military Crosses.  Five British officers and eight Sierra Leonian soldiers were Mentioned in Despatches.  Being Imperial troops the soldiers in the WAR were unfortunately not eligible to receive the African Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) which was awarded to WAFF soldiers, and none were considered for the Imperial DCM.



Battle honours awarded to the regiment were: Sierra Leone 1897-98; Ashanti 1900; Cameroons 1914-16; and Duala.   In 1928 the regiment was disbanded as a cost-cutting measure.  At the time of disbandment the Prince of Wales was the Colonel-in-Chief.  This was sad end to a colonial Imperial unit that had served Britain well.

SOURCES:

The Great War in West Africa by Brigadier General E. Howard Gorges CB, CBE, DSO.
Official History. Military Operations Togoland and the Cameroons by Brigadier General F.J. Moberly CB, CSI, DSO.
The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force by Colonel A. Haywood CMG, CBE, DSO and Brigadier F.A.S. Clarke DSO.
The Naval Review 1915.
Imperial Sunset.  Frontier Soldiering in the 20th Century by James Lunt.
Colonial Armies. Africa 1850 to 1918 by Peter Abbott.
The Empire at War by Sir Charles Lucas KCB, KCMG.

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