Somewhere in German East – 20th May 1917

Henry sees a bit of action while travelling to his battalion’s destination.

Somewhere in German East – 20th May 1917

My last was by p.c. from Mombasa on 1st May and I have now joined my battalion in the field, or rather my company which has been detached from the main body and is encamped on a water-hole somewhere in the middle of Africa. In company with half-a-dozen other officers destined for their respective units in the field, I left Mombasa on a British India boat. There were also a draft of askaris and about 1000 native porters, to be distributed to different battalions.

We disembarked at the port of Kilwa, which is well down the German coast, on the 5th inst. [May 5th, I think]. The port is just a big inlet the northern shore of which is in our territory, while the Germans still hold the S. shore, and the units and stores were landed by lighters. There were 4 other of our ships there and that same morning, to the surprise and consternation of the local garrison, our shipping was shelled by a gun from a cruiser which they had run aground in one of the rivers to avoid capture and this they had dragged up through the bush to a point opposite Kilwa and had a pot at our ships. They had four hits out of thirty shots and no great damage was done. We hadn’t a gun about the place to return the fire, but a message to Zanzibar where we have a naval base, brought forth a monitor and a couple of small gun boats which arrived on the spot soon after we did. They proceeded to bombard the spot whence came the shots, but of course by this time the Germans had made off with their precious gun into the blue.

The map below shows a timeline for the Africa campaign. Red arrows are British movements, black arrows are German. You can see that the British made continuous gains on German positions. You can also see Kilwa, where Henry landed, on the southern coast. I found a summary of Germany’s objectives and the major battles that occurred on Wikipedia

By Mehmet Berker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

We landed later in the day and camped for the night not far from the landing stage. We were up betimes next morning ready for our march inland. Each one of our little party required 8 porters which made quite a “safari” by itself. This being the rainy season it rained, as it can only in Africa, and the going was heavy. Our first stage was to Kilwa Kiswani [I found this spelled Kisiwani] about 20 miles and still on the coast. We halted at midday for food and rest and let our clothes dry on the bushes in the sun, which had reappeared. We reached K.K. about sundown.

The Germans have been very active in this neighbourhood, as this corner of the country is all that is left to them, and they are trying to reestablish themselves on the coast. This is a sort of base with a hospital and here we were reinforced with a further batch of porters and a few details of my own battalion, who had been in hospital.

Native porters are our only means of transport in these parts and they make regular safaris from the coast along our lines of communication inland with a strong escort. These convoys snaking along through the bush and miles in length are of course very vulnerable and are not infrequently raided by strong enemy patrols and a lot of our valuable stores go west. [I assume he means into German hands.]

There was a road of sorts but the rains had made an awful mess of it and the porters, with their 60 pound loads on their heads, had a very thin time of it. [today we might say had a hard time of it] We had an escort of Pathans (Capt. Bonham-Carter) who formed the advance guard and flankers and I was in charge of the read guard of K.A.R., being the senior man of our lot, and was about half-a-day’s march behind the head of the line! We were three days on the march, bivouacking two nights, which brought us to our camp at Mnasi, where I am at present.

I find it difficult to understand the strategies deployed by the British and German generals in this part of WWI. From the little I’ve read, it seems that the German general von Lettow abandoned formal military tactics in 1916 in favour of guerrilla tactics and fought the remainder of the conflict in that manner. If you’re interested, I discovered a PhD thesis written by Ross Anderson of the University of Glasgow titled World War I in East Africa: 1916 to 1918. Below is a brief paragraph.

Planning for the Dry Season Offensive in 1917

“The halt imposed by the rains also provided an opportunity to formulate the operational plans for the dry season of 1917 which would not begin before late June. The difficulties of trying to advance and sustain operations across the Mgeti and Rufiji rivers had already been amply demonstrated. Fighting at the end of elongated lines of communication in primeval jungle magnified the British weakness in transport while giving few tangible advantages in return. However, by using Kilwa as a base of operations, [where Henry landed] the British could use their maritime supremacy to much better advantage while also shortening the overland supply lines. Movement by ship also made possible the rapid and large scale redeployment of troops, if only along the littoral [a coastal region – I had to look that up!].”


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website



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2 Responses

  1. Fascinating. My grandfather was a sapper and in the reserves so automatically called up in 1914.. he only served in Europe and I have second hand stories via my grandmother and mother. He was killed on November 2nd 1918. Your post highlights one of the theatres of that dreadful conflict I had not explored before.

    1. I’m so pleased you’ve found the letters interesting, Sally. The African campaign is relatively unknown – and I’m finding all sorts of interesting ‘stuff’!

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