Colonial settlers, askaris and Masai scouts. Ambush and battle among wild animals as dangerous as the enemy itself. Colonial neighbours in British & German East Africa fought their war far from the Western front across country familiar today as the great game reserves. The East African Mounted Rifles were six squadrons amalgamated from hastily formed volunteer units such as Bowkers Horse and the Legion of Frontiersmen. Encounters with enraged lions, horses camouflaged as zebras, a brief period as marines all form part of this most unusual account of a most unusual campaign.
“Mounted Infantry fighting their first engagement on board ship! But there we lay down in a packed mass on the upper deck and opened fire. There was little cover, and hatchways and bollards were much in demand. Some took advantage of a little pile of cases, until they discovered they contained shells, and moved hurriedly elsewhere.
“We had an ancient machine gun aboard, and it was rapidly in action under the hands of an ex-sergeant of marines. We also had a small Hotchkiss, and one of our lieutenants, ex-R.F.A., jumped to it and put in some fancy shooting. In fact, he scored a direct hit on the skipper of the German machine gun, completely silencing skipper and gun.
“Then from the reeds inshore ran a small steamer spitting pom-pom shells. A pom-pom ashore soon got our range, and scored a pretty hit with a shell that went through our awning and burst on the funnel, sending a shower of wood splinters over us.
“In spite of several shots like that, on the packed deck, nobody was hurt until one man got a shell splinter through the back of his helmet, through his spine pad and shirt, where it stopped and nestled snugly against his singlet. He was thrown into such convulsions, trying to get that hot splinter out, that several people were badly kicked.
“Another—the only casualty reported—had a neat centre parting cut in his scalp with a rifle bullet, but plenty of people had been grazed or had bullet holes through their clothing, and there were shell fragments and shrapnel bullets about the decks.
“We suffered mainly from fright. Over the water the pom-pom sounded like heavy stuff to our unaccustomed ears. We were firmly convinced that any shot on the water line would sink us, and that meant a 700 yards swim, plus crocodiles. When our own gun was first fired we nearly expired with shock, and turned to each other with ‘where did that one go to’ expressions on our faces.At four o’clock in the morning a party, thirty strong, rode out to the scene of the ambush. During the morning one of the missing men walked into camp. His mule had been shot under him, but he had managed to get clear away. Meanwhile the relief party, moving cautiously for fear of a further ambush, at length reached the scene of the affair.
There we found one of our men, Trooper John Dawson, lying dead, and two others severely wounded. One of them, Trooper L. Poyer, had been found by the Germans, who had attended to his wounds as well as they were able, and done all they could for him in the circumstances. The poor fellow had been shot through both legs. The Germans had offered to mount him on a mule, and carry him with them to their nearest camp, which was Longido, but such a ride was out of the question. So they left him under the shelter of a bush, having dressed his wounds and given him food and water—but they took away his rifle.
Our other wounded man, Trooper P. Ducrotoy, was lying not far off, where he had fallen when he and his mule were shot, so hidden in the long grass that the Germans had not found him.
What the feelings of those two men must have been through the interminable hours of that African night can only be imagined. The Seki water-hole, as has previously been mentioned, was notorious for the number of lions which haunted it. During that long night these two men, completely helpless, lay listening to the devil’s chorus of growls and crunching of bones, as the lions devoured the dead mules within a few yards of where they were lying. Surely never was such a night of horror!
It is worth setting on record that when our men found Poyer lying there after his night in hell, his only remark, as he gratefully lit a cigarette, was, “I don’t know when I have spent a worse night”.