H. C. (Herbert Charles) O'Neill.

The Royal fusiliers in the great war online

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On May 15th Major Villiers-Stuart, who had been in
command of the battalion since August 1st, 1916, was
appointed to command the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I.
He was succeeded by Lieut. -Colonel E. M. Baker, who had
charge of the operations against the Ferdie outpost sector.
The spring campaigning season was almost at an end. The
growing number of malaria cases proved that the troops
must be moved to the hills if they were to be retained as
effective soldiers ; but the enemy were in a position to
hamper the withdrawal, and accordingly, in order to mis-
lead the Bulgars, an attack was made against the trench
system guarding the approach to Spatovo, the sentinel
of the Rupel Pass. The battalion were assembled at
6.15 p.m. on the night of the 15th. In ten minutes' time
the bombardment began, and five minutes later the
Fusiliers advanced, No. 4 Company being on the right and
No. 3 on the left. Under cover of the barrage, the men
reached the enemy wire, passed through where it had been
cut in the preliminary bombardment, and occupied the
front trenches with little opposition. No. 4 Company


captured five men and one machine gun. In half an
hour the troops had secured these successes, reorganised
and resumed their advance. Further trenches were
secured, and more prisoners ; and at 7.20, covering parties
having been put out 150 yards in front of the advanced
positions, wiring and consolidation began. Two small
attacks were made on these trenches at 9.45 p.m. and
midnight, but they were broken up by Lewis-gun and rifle
fire. Two hours later a more determined counter-attack,
supported by artillery, machine guns and a trench mortar,
was made upon the right. The Bulgars on this occasion
fought their way to the wire, but were then driven off
by Lewis-gun and rifle fire, leaving nine dead. In the
morning the enemy guns were found to be registering on
the new British positions, and at 3 p.m. in the afternoon
officer patrols made reconnaissances of the ground in front
of the new line. The next group of trenches was found
to be evacuated. From the beginning of these operations
57 unwounded men and 2 wounded prisoners had been
captured, as against a total battalion casualty list of 40.
Captain J. E. French and Lieutenant R. L. G. May and
2 other officers were wounded, and 3 other ranks
were killed.

On May 17th another strong patrol was sent forward.
A bombing encounter followed, and the Fusiliers retired
in face of superior numbers, having lost 4 other ranks
killed and 18 wounded. The new positions were now
finally consolidated ; and on May 26th the battalion were
relieved, and marched back to Orljak, west of the Struma.
On June 8th they relieved the 5th Connaught Rangers on
the Elisan-Dolap fine, south and slightly east of Barakli-
Djuma, and were employed on dismantling the outpost
line. This was actually evacuated on the 13th, and the
battalion marched to Tureka. The malaria cases increased
during the next few months, and in September they had
reached the heavy total of 159.

During October the troops were moved once more to the
lower ground from which they had been withdrawn in


May. The battalion crossed the Struma and occupied
Yenikoi on the 13th, and on the 21st Tupolova. But in
this case the Fusiliers had to fall back in front of superior
forces. This village lies near the Salonika-Constantinople
railway, and on the 26th a patrol reached Kalendra, south-
east of Tupolova. On November 1st Captain Woolfe led
a patrol into Kalendra again, and on this occasion encoun-
tered a strong Bulgar party. The Fusiliers had to retire
after a brisk exchange, in which they lost one killed.
Three days later an observation post at the Belica brook,
which runs for some distance west of, and roughly parallel
to, the railway, was cut off. Seven men were lost in this
mishap ; but one, though wounded, made his way back
to the line through another brigade. A third raid was
made on Kalendra on December 5th. This time the
village was found to be unoccupied ; but a Bulgar patrol
was encountered as the Fusiliers were leaving, and two
prisoners (wounded) were taken. These local raids were
the order of the day of many months yet, before the
troops were ready for major operations.

A memorable event in the new year was the inspection
of the battalion by the King of Greece on February 9th,
1918. On May nth Lieutenant F. Parker and Lieutenant
A. F. Balding, with a patrol of 30 other ranks, went out to
Cakli station to intercept a Bulgar patrol. The station
was found to be occupied by between 40 and 50 Bulgars.
In the fighting which ensued Lieutenant Parker was
wounded, and two scouts were cut off. On his return to
the line Lieutenant Balding had his party made up to
50 strong, and a search was made for the missing scouts,
but without success.

This was the last engagement of the 3rd Battalion in the
Balkans. The unhealthy season was approaching again,
and the advanced outpost line was being dismantled once
more preparatory to a withdrawal to the higher ground.
On June 1st the withdrawal to the summer positions was
carried out. But by this time the Germans had seriously
weakened our army in France by the March-April often-


sive, and the British battalions abroad were, as far as
possible, being quietly sent to France. The 3rd Battalion
were soon under orders. On July 3rd they embarked on
the French transport Timgrad for Taranto, which they
reached on the following day. At 6.30 p.m. of the same
day they entrained for Sergueux, France, travelling by the
east coast route, Bari, Foggia, and so on along the Riviera
to Cannes. There on July 8th they bathed in the sea,
and entraining later in the day, reached Sergueux at
6.30 p.m. on the 9th. They had been absent almost three
years in a theatre where the worst enemy was disease.



The 25th Royal Fusiliers arrived at Mombasa, in British
East Africa, on May 6th, 1915, and went at once to the
military post, Kajiado, on the Uganda railway. Half of
the battalion then went to Nairobi, the capital of the
colony, for two months' training ; and the other half, split
up into small bodies, was dotted about as outposts. Their
work was the protection of the railway line from raiding
parties, and up to the end of the year it never ceased to be

Bukoba. — On June 19th this part of the battalion was
assembled and moved to the Victoria Nyanza in pre-
paration for a raid on Bukoba, on the south-western shores.
The boundary between British and German East Africa
cut the lake into two parts ; and Bukoba, lying within
German territory, was the centre of all the raiding activity
on the Uganda frontier. With ample stores and a power-
ful wireless installation, it was an important base of
German activity. About 400 strong, the detachment of
the 25th Battalion detrained at Kisumu, the terminus of
the Uganda railway, and on the 22nd sailed across the
lake with the rest of the small force. At sundown on the
second day Bukoba was sighted, and a night attack was
planned. Three Fusiliers were to have overpowered a
sentry at the landing place. But when at midnight the
ships drew in, a sudden burst of rockets showed that all
hope of a surprise was out of the question, and the ships
drew off and waited for the dawn.

The main attack was made from the north ; and the
troops landing there found themselves faced with the task
of climbing a steep, cliff-like incline. It was fortunate


that no opposition was attempted at this point. But a
vigorous resistance was encountered when the battalion
attempted to cross the rocky ground, at the southern foot
of the hill, towards Bukoba. The black powder used by
the Germans made the smoke-puffs clearly defined, and
outlined their position. But it was late afternoon before
it could be cleared, and then the weary men summoned
their last resources of energy and charged up the opposite
slope, from which the town was commanded. The sudden
darkness gave the enemy a respite, and at the same time
added a further burden to the troops, who slept as they
could without food.

During the final advance on the following day a heavy
thunderstorm imposed another pause on the operations ;
and when the battle was resumed it was a body of men
soaked to the skin, and with rifles out of action through the
downpour and the mud, who broke down the last resistance
and entered Bukoba. The wireless installation was blown
up, ammunition and stores destroyed ; and at sundown
on the 24th the men re-embarked and returned to Kisumu.
It was one of the few incidents which were wholly satis-
factory during the campaign.

Patrols. — The patrol work was nervous and respon-
sible. The Germans were full of initiative, and did not
hesitate to take risks where the objective seemed to
justify it ; and in these vast spaces a small force might
move for days without notice. In August, 1915, the
battalion had their headquarters at Voi, in the eastern
part of British East Africa, about fifty-five miles north of
the frontier. Two companies lay at Maktau, to the west,
much nearer the frontier ; and about half a company were
operating along the coast. A small body of mounted
infantry had been got together at Maktau, and about 50
of the battalion were lent to them. On September 3rd
a party of the unit marched into an ambush, the inevitable
accompaniment of warfare in such a country, and the
Germans closed in on the little band. Lieutenant Wilbur
Dartnell, of the 25th Battalion, was wounded in the leg,


and was being carried away when he noticed the serious-
ness of the situation. The badly wounded could not all
be removed ; and, knowing that the black troops mur-
dered the wounded, he insisted on being left in the hope
of saving the others. He was twice asked to leave, and
at length directly ordered that the men should abandon
him. When he was last seen the Germans were within
twenty-five yards of his post. He fought to the end in
defence of his fellows, and WctS awarded a well-merited post-
humous V. C . He had only 1 with the mounted infantry
two days, and it was but tw iys before the enemy party
was itself ambushed and left 31 dead on the field.

Advance to Kahe. — So the year wore on to the close.
The Fusiliers covered the extension of the line from
Maktau towards the German frontier, and kept the area
of their activity in a reasonable state of security. Troops
arrived from South Africa in January, 1916, and on
March 5th 450 officers and men of the battalion joined
General Stewart's column, which was to move round the
west of Kilimanjaro, while van Deventer marched to
meet it at the German town oi Moschi. After a long and
wearisome march, fortunately little molested by the
enemy, the troops arrived in the rear of the German
positions and marched into Moschi, which had already
been taken. After three days' rest the battalion moved
southward to take part in the operations against Kahe.
About 5 p.m. on March 2, h a brisk engagement deve-
loped. After a hot and trying march the men were having
a bathe near Store when suddenly shots were opened on
them. One of them bolted as he was, and encountering
the general and the colonel in a condition which hardly
made for dignity, was forced to give a report of the situa-
tion. The firing suddenly died down, but three hours
later the enemy advanced in force. Twenty times they
charged and almost forced their way into the entrenched
line, but at length they were beaten off with heavy loss.

On the following day another action was fought a few
miles away at the Soko Nassai River. The enemy were


entrenched at the defile where the river joins the Defu ;
and the Germans fought not only gallantly, but skilfully.
The machine guns were excellently placed and well served,
and the battle ranged from early morning to nightfall.
The Germans moved off under cover of darkness. Van
Deventer, who had taken Moschi, had now captured
Kahe station, and nothing remained for the enemy but

To Handeni. — After a short rest the Fusiliers again
moved ahead, marching southward to the east of the
Pangani River, while other columns marched along the
railway line, and so cleared the richest, healthiest, and
most populous part of the German colony. The route
of the battalion literally involved " hacking through."
The bush was so thick that small parties had to be sent
ahead to clear away. Progress under such conditions
was neither rapid nor pleasant but, as speed was necessary
for the success of General Smuts' plan, the battalion
frequently trekked all night. They became so weary at
times that they marched like automata, practically
asleep. A sudden halt had much the same effect as the
checking of an express train. Food began to be short,
owing to transport difficulties. The fearful monotony
of it sank into insignificance.

On the last day of May, 1916, they reached Buiko,
where the Pangani runs south some miles towards Han-
deni, after a trek of 145 miles in thirteen days. The main
body of the enemy had passed through the village, and
on June 9th the British column started once more. They
now left the railway which the Pangani meets at Buiko,
and marched south for the Central railway. On the 15th
they left the river and followed the trolley line. The
following day they were at Gitu, to the north-west, and
on the 17th arrived at Ssangeni, west of Handeni, on the
great caravan road.

Kwa Direma. — On June 22nd the column started south
once more. Smuts' plan aimed at cutting off the enemy,
as had been done in South- West Africa, by the operation


of a number of swiftly moving columns. The alternative
to envelopment was withdrawal, but the consummate
skill with which the German commander put off his retire-
ment to the last possible moment and compelled the British
to suffer every disadvantage of operating in such a country
dragged on the campaign to the end of the war. The Ger-
mans were first to be denied the use of the Central railway,

Sketch Map of German East Africa.

The faint dotted line shows the route of the 25th Royal
Fusiliers to the Rufigi.

and the Fusiliers formed part of one of the columns
destined to cut this artery. On the 24th, after a practi-
cally continuous march of over twenty-four hours, they
went into battle at Kwa Direma, on the Lukigura. They
attacked at 4.30 p.m.

Utter weariness made them intolerant of opposition ;
and before dark they stormed the position, Major
White leading A and D Companies in a fierce bayonet


charge. Among the captures were a i-inch Krupp gun
and three machine guns. The enemy were posted so as
to command a bridge across the river, and were taken by-
surprise. They had barely time to redirect the guns ; and
Colonel Driscoll, seeing that delay was dangerous, obtained
permission to rush the position. The battle was over in
less than half an hour ; and, despite the hail of bullets
which tore the trees and shrubs to pieces, the battalion
only lost 3 killed and 18 wounded. The Askari, who
fought with such remarkable courage, were unable to
stand the bayonet, and they lost 25 killed and 28 wounded.
Three whites were also killed, and 13 wounded. The
battalion were warmly congratulated by the general, and
their spirit after such a march was indeed wonderful.
Some days were spent at Kwa Direma, where mails were
received, an infrequent occurrence.

On July 7th the battalion moved south to Makindu, on
the edge of the Ngura hills, and rested there for a month.
The rest was very welcome, for this splendid body of men,
who, number for number, could hardly have been sur-
passed for physique in any army, had dwindled from
nearly 1,200 to less than 200. Long marches on rations
which were intolerably monotonous and short, and with
malaria almost invariably lurking ready to seize its
victims, had taken their toll. At Makindu the enemy lay
near, and the Fusiliers were shelled almost immediately
on arrival with guns removed from the Konigsberg. But
for the most part their stay there was restful, and some
six-months-old letters marked a welcome break in the
operations. On August 9th the Fusiliers assisted in
clearing the Ruhungu position, a region of hill and bush
country, of the enemy, who had turned it into a strong-
hold. Lying on the left rear, it threatened the communica-
tions, and the time had come to resume the advance.

To the Railway. — Every bridge had been blown up
on the line of advance, and weary nights were spent in re-
constructing them. The battalion marched by Turiani
and Dakawa, on the Wami River, and then turned east-


ward to cut the railway on the flank of Morogoro. This
was achieved on August 28th, and within a week the
eastern terminus at Dar-es-Salaam had also fallen. Moro-
goro was some 350 miles from the point of departure of
the battalion ; but, though the railway was soon com-
pletely in allied hands, the enemy still remained at large.
They had escaped by an unknown road through the hills,
and the advance had to be continued.

Kissaki. — On August 31st the battalion marched south
once more in the central of the three columns operating in
the Uluguru area. They moved by a " zigzag, well-
engineered road cut out of the steep hillsides in pre-war
days at the expense of gigantic labour." * This was the
unknown road by which the Germans had escaped. The
scenery through which the men were now moving was very
beautiful, but the conditions of the march were even more
trying. On one day no rations at all were received, and
the strain of long marching in blazing sun on insufficient
food provided a heavy ambulance population. Some
days 5, sometimes even 10, per cent, of these hard-bitten
troops collapsed and had to be carried back. At Magali
on September 5th the troops had the satisfaction of de-
stroying the elaborate observation post from which the
naval guns had been directed, and three days later had a
small skirmish at Mwuha. Tulo was found deserted, with
every appearance of disorder. The battalion had a few
days' rest here, and some of the huntsmen filled up the
larder for the moment. But the columns had outmarched
the commissariat, and weary months of delay followed.
On September 30th the Fusiliers moved to Kissaki, on the
Mgeta River, there to remain for about three months.

Behobeho. — Despite the hardship of marching under
such conditions, the battalion were consumed with impa-
tience at the delay, and the only relief was elephant hunt-
ing. At this time the battalion had dwindled to about
60 before reinforcements arrived. Selous, returning on

* " Three Years of War in East Africa," by Captain Angus Buchanan,
M.C., p. 127.

T 2


December 16th from England, where he had been invalided,
brought 150 of these with him. He was sixty-five years
of age at this time, and this return to the front after an
enforced absence through sickness stands out as remark-
able even in a remarkable man. Its effect on the Fusiliers
was very noticeable.

Checked by the weakness in the ever-lengthening line
of communications, the column was now immobilised in
December by heavy rains. On January 1st, 1917, the
Fusiliers took part in the attack on the Mgeta position,
which in the end was almost surrounded. About mid-
night on January 2nd the battalion halted below Wiransi,
only to find that their resting-place was an encampment
of fighting ants. It is a striking testimony to the men's
weariness that, after much swearing, they dropped off to
sleep in the midst of their enemies. In this part of the
march the Fusiliers had been sent out to the west of the
main advance, and before dawn on January 4th they
turned eastwards towards Behobeho to cut off fugitives
from the main column. Very few were encountered, and
the battalion marched to a ridge north of the settlement.
The reflection of the sun from the white gravel proved a
terrible experience even for men who had long experience
of tropical suns, and sniping from the adjacent trees
made the position costly. It was while commanding his
company in attack on this occasion that Selous was killed.
He was a striking figure, and his loss was felt. The enemy
were well entrenched, and when Selous fell Lieutenant
Dutch took over the command of the company, and,
though soon riddled with bullets, continued to direct the
attack while being attended to. He was carried back to
Dakawa, and died two days later.

The position was taken. Behobeho was occupied, and
the bank of the Rufigi. But the rains were at hand. The
battalion were marched back to Morogoro, and then went
to the Cape for three months' rest. On May 12th, 1917,
this very welcome break came to an end, and the battalion
left Cape Town en route for Lindi. When the battalion

BATTLE OF ZIWANI, JUNE iith, 1917 277

had left German East Africa, the enemy had been driven
into the unhealthy region south of the Rufigi. They were
now to be driven from the country altogether. In the
strategy of converging columns, which had proved itself
successful, the last phase of the fighting would take place
in the south-eastern part of the colony. Columns were
striking from the Rufigi and from Kilwa, and the Fusiliers
formed part of the Lindi column operating near the Portu-
guese frontier.

Ziwani . — Lindi was reached at the beginning of June, and
on the night of the 10th the battalion, with three machine
guns, were placed in two lighters and towed eight miles
up a creek to the head of the delta by motor launch. " We
landed in a swamp past the enemy's lines and made our
way inland. By 7.30 a.m. we had covered about twelve
miles of ground, and came up behind and against their
main position in dense bush and bush-covered valleys and
ridges ; somewhere inside of all this they had a 4-inch naval
gun with which they used to bombard the town. They
knew we had landed, as shots had been exchanged with
their scouts in the darkness. The path we followed led
into a swamp belt in the valley between us and the enemy,
and from various hidden places on the enemy's ridge
machine guns and rifles opened fire on our advance guard.
We immediately took up a position in the bush with our
main body and called in the advance guard. Meanwhile
they kept up continuous rifle and machine-gun fire, and
we sustained a few casualties, but did not fire a single shot
in return. In about two hours they were all round, and
still our men lay low and silent. About noon they started
a terrific fusillade from all round ; and on one flank three
machine guns and a considerable force crept up within
thirty paces, under cover of the bush, and opened a
terrific fire. Our three machine guns moved at once to
that side, and engaged them at close quarters, twenty-five
to thirty paces, putting one of theirs out of action imme-
diately. For an hour the noise of firing was deafening.
Then, having reinforced the company nearest to the main


attack, we made a bayonet charge through the bush,
which caused them to retire, and we captured the three
machine guns. Two of them proved to be British guns
taken from our people early in the war. Next morning,
finding a better path, we pushed forward, only to find they
had disappeared from their positions, abandoning all their
stores, workshops, etc., and they had removed their big
gun through the valleys by a cleverly constructed and
hidden trolley line. They have vanished from the dis-
trict entirely. During the fight the bees came for us in
swarms and stung us badly. I saw some of the men
running round not caring a penny for the bullets, but try-
ing to beat off the bees." *

In this engagement the battalion lost 20 killed and
wounded, including Captain Robinson. It was his first
battle, and his gallantry and coolness were remarkable.
In the letter already quoted a strange coincidence was
remarked. In the action at Kwa Direma the Royal Fusi-
liers had captured three guns. One, a German gun, lacked
its feed block, and the substitute never acted satisfac-
torily. When the guns captured at Ziwani were being
examined, one of them was found to have the missing
feed block, which had been adapted to a British gun.

Tandamuti. — After this battle it was thought neces-
sary to wait until the column from Kilwa could co-
operate, and the battalion spent the next six weeks at

Online LibraryH. C. (Herbert Charles) O'NeillThe Royal fusiliers in the great war → online text (page 23 of 38)