After a successful 18-month
long campaign in the German Cameroons in West Africa the Nigeria
Regiment was selected for operational duty in German East Africa
(GEA) and the soldiers were asked to volunteer for this overseas
service. Four battalions were formed, each of four companies
with each company having 104 men. The companies were
numbered from 1 to 16 and the battalions from 1 to 4. A brigade
headquarters was formed under Brigadier-General F.H.G. Cunliffe CB
CMG. A battery of four 2.95-inch quick firing, breech loading
mountain guns was an integral part of the brigade. In total the
Brigade consisted of 2,402 Nigerian rank and file, 125 British
officers, 70 British non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 812 machine
gun and battery gun carriers. New Short Lee Enfield rifles were
issued on embarkation and the men learned how to use these during the
two weeks of sailing round southern Africa. The Nigerian
Brigade disembarked at Dar Es Salaam, GEA, on the 12th and
13th of December 1916.
During early 1917 the
Nigerians fought in the actions around the Mgeta and Rufiji Rivers
and then, as the outstanding German commander General Paul von
Lettow-Vorbeck was squeezed into south eastern GEA, the Nigerian
Brigade less the 3rd Battalion was moved to Kilwa,
arriving there by sea in late August. By now the Brigade had
been reinforced by drafts of infantrymen from Nigeria, Nigerian
Pioneer and Signals Sections, more carriers from Nigeria and Sierra
Leone, a rifle company from Gambia, plus the West African Field
Ambulance and the 300th Field Ambulance. The Brigade
was issued with Lewis Guns (light machine guns), Stokes Mortars and
hand grenades, and specialists in these weapons were trained.
Above: Nigerian infantry on the move in German East Africa
After a week of training in
the open countryside around Kilwa the Brigade marched off to the
front – a march that was to last three months because of the fluid
nature of battle in the East African bush. The German
Schutztruppe, in contact with British columns to the north, was
withdrawing southwards and the British command hoped that the
Nigerians could block the enemy route. On 22nd
September the 1st and 2nd battalions of the
Nigeria Regiment reached a hamlet named Bweho-Chini and after driving
off an enemy picquet started digging-in.
Bweho-Chini was an
important track junction, and different routes through the thick bush
To open a new window showing a map of the battle click HERE
Regiment was commanded by Brevet-Major and Temporary
Lieutenant-Colonel G.L. Uniacke. Gerald Lawrence Uniacke, Royal
Lancaster Regiment, (Special Reserve, Reserve of Officers), was no
stranger to fighting in Africa. He had served in the South
Africa War earning the Queen’s Medal with five clasps, in the 1903
Kano-Sotoko Campaign in northern Nigeria, in three minor operations
also in northern Nigeria between 1907 and 1908, and in the Cameroons
campaign where he was Mentioned in Despatches (31 May 1916). He
had retired as a soldier and taken up government service in Nigeria
but he returned to the colours on the outbreak of war.
Regiment (1NR) dug in around the north of the village and 2nd
Nigeria Regiment (2NR) around the south (the initial 2NR company
positions are marked as Nos 5 to 8 Co. on the sketch map). 2NR
had an extended front and could not cover all the ground on the south
side. The men of both battalions ate breakfast and were then
ordered to form up to move out to attack an enemy position nearby,
and they waited until noon ready to move.
Right: A German Askari Bugler
A baggage party was
sent out on the southern Bweho-Carti road to dump the two battalions’
baggage with 4NR prior to the attack (it appears that all the
2.95-inch mountain guns were located with 4NR and so were not in
action at Bweho-Chini). This baggage party soon returned to
Bweho-Chini accompanied by one German white and three enemy Askari
prisoners along with 40 loads of ammunition that these four men had
been escorting when the NR baggage party bumped into them. (See
the citation for a Military Medal to Sergeant Mafinde Shewa, 2NR,
later in this article.) Six of these ammunition loads were .303
(the British rifle calibre) and the Nigerians were to make good use
of them before the day was over.
A Nigerian picquet on the
Bweho Ju track to the south brought in another German white prisoner,
and scrutiny of the documents he was carrying showed that Bweho-Chini
was on the main enemy withdrawal route. The Brigade Commander,
who was now at Bweho-Chini with his headquarters, cancelled his
attack plan and ordered 1NR and 2NR to return to their defensive
positions and improve them. But time had been lost in waiting
for an attack that never happened and most trenches were only dug
deep enough to conceal a man in the prone firing position.
Around 1230 hours two
companies of 1NR were ordered to patrol eastwards on the Mawerenye
track to reconnoitre the Schutztruppe units now believed to be
assembling there. Soon after the departure of these two
companies a British aeroplane flew over Brigade Headquarters and
dropped a message. At the same time the two companies came
under heavy fire from an enemy party that was advancing westwards
towards them. The Germans were heading towards Bweho-Chini with
over 1,000 men, 100 of them being European, and over 20 machine guns
(Schutztruppe machine gunners were white, Askari being used as the
supporting crews). The German commander was Captain Koehl and
his force consisted of four Field Companies of Askari (Nos 10,14,17 &
21) and four smaller sub-units mainly composed of Europeans (Nos 3 &
6 Schutzenkompagnien and Geschutzen Batzner & Haberkorn).
Above: German Askari prepare to attack
Koehl ordered an envelopment
of the two Nigerian companies facing him, thinking that these
companies were the only British troops in the area. The
Nigerians fixed bayonets and repulsed the initial German assaults but
were quickly outnumbered as more German Askari appeared on the
British flanks. The two companies fought a desperate retirement
back into the perimeter. Because the Brigade Commander was
present, and using a rifle himself, he was able to personally endorse
many citations for gallant actions, and battle scenes can be followed
through citations that led to awards.
Mallam Duchi, 1NR:Displayed great gallantry
at Bweho-Chini on 22nd September 1917 in
using his machine gun, which he continued to use under very heavy
fire until it was put out of action and he himself was wounded.
He then brought back his gun by himself and so saved it from being
Momo Sokota, 1NR:Displayed great gallantry
at Bweho-Chini on 22nd September 1917 when
in charge of stretcher bearers. He was specially mentioned by
the Senior Medical Officer for the way he conducted stretchers up to
the firing line across a fire-swept area and dressed his wounded
comrades under heavy fire.
Lieutenant H.S.V. Raby, 1NR:At Bweho Chini on 22nd
September 1917 his conduct was most fearless under very heavy fire
and his control over his section was most marked. When out in
the open he showed utter disregard of the enemy fire and kept his men
steady by his personal example. When back in the trench he
repeatedly left his cover in order to put either a Lewis or machine
gun in order.
Lieutenant J.J. Hart, 1NR:Most gallant conduct
under most heavy fire at Bweho-Chini on 22nd
September 1917, when he bandaged a shattered leg of a brother officer
and later carried him back to cover, thereby narrowly escaping
capture himself. Afterwards he greatly helped to steady and
rally his section by his fine example under a very heavy cross fire.
Sergeant J.H. Watkins, 1NR:Showed at all times
marked ability in leading his Company scouts. At Bweho-Chini on
the 22nd September 191, when in charge of
the scouts, he held the enemy’s screen for three hours, enabling
his Company to engage the enemy on their whole front and break up
their attack when they attempted to deliver a charge.
Captain Koehl now ordered
troops to move round the north of Bweho-Chini and attack all sections
of the Nigerian position, and Gerald Uniacke’s 2NR came under very
heavy pressure as German machine guns came up to within 60 yards of
the perimeter. No 8 Company came under attack first and because
there were no adjacent troops on its left flank Gerald Uniacke
ordered No 5 Company, his reserve, to move half the company to the
position marked “C” and send the other half with one machine gun
and one Lewis Gun to the position marked “B”. Lieutenant G.
Studley was in command of the second half, and in true army fashion,
having just dug-in at position “B” he was then ordered by Brigade
Headquarters to move nearer to position “D”. (The West
African Frontier Force Regimental History comments on the poor
planning by Brigade Headquarters both in not having trenches dug
properly and in allowing doubt to exist about who actually controlled
2NRs’ reserve company.) Studley was in the thick of the
fighting for the remainder of the action.
Once the Nigerians were
surrounded their inadequate trenches caused problems as the following citation
Distinguished Conduct Medal to Company Sergeant Major
Momadu Kukawa, 2NR,: Gallantry and coolness at
Bweho-Chini on 22nd September 1917. At
retirement his trench was exposed to heavy reverse fire as well as
frontal fire. During this critical time he kept his men in
hand. Further, he continuously visited two picquets under heavy
(CSM Momadu Kukawa had
already been cited for a DCM for gallantry in action in January 1917,
and so he ended the war with a DCM and Bar.)
As the afternoon wore on
Koehl’s men, with company buglers sounding the rally and the
charge, furiously probed for a weak spot in the Nigerian perimeter
that could be penetrated.
At around 1530 hours Sergeant
Mafindi Shewa, 2NR, saw an enemy group under two Europeans
examining his perimeter.
The citation for his Military Medal
Displayed the greatest
gallantry at Bweho-Chini on 22nd September
1917 when in command of 16 men he rushed an enemy post and captured a
European and 29 boxes of ammunition. Again, later in the day,
when his company was heavily attacked and in danger of having a flank
turned, he charged and drove them back with his section. He, by
himself, chased a German officer through the bush for 300 yards and
bayoneted him, notwithstanding the fact that the enemy were all round
in strength. He then killed a German Askari after he had been
seriously wounded himself.
Above: Nigerien Machinegun in German East Africa
Thirty minutes later a
serious German attack came in from the south and Lieutenant G.
Studley and his men were moved yet again to position “D”, near a
prominent big white tree, and ordered to take up firing positions in
The citation for Lieutenant Studley’s Military
Conspicuous gallantry in
the action at Bweho-Chini on the 22nd
September 1917. He defended 30 yards of front in a most exposed
position with a Lewis Gun, and in this way stopped two most
Koehl, having now discovered
the true strength of the Nigerian position, temporarily halted his
attacks but maintained heavy fire from the south against the areas of
the big white tree and the big Ku Ka tree. Using the prominent
trees as aiming marks and then moving their rifle barrels a distance
right or left, as ordered by their NCOs, the German Askari swept
these two locations with effective fire. No 5 Company near the
white tree took 33 casualties and No 6 Company near the Ku Ka tree
took 18 casualties in a 30-minute period.
The Field Dressing Station
north of the Ku Ka tree had been hit by enemy fire, and as dusk fell
the Nigerians improved the cover around it. Whilst the West
African carriers had remained on duty carrying ammunition
replenishments to the rifle platoons, the locally hired carriers had
vanished into the bush, preferring to risk being shot by the Germans
rather than to stay inside the perimeter and carry ammunition and
casualties under fire.
At 2150 hours, using the
light of a young moon, the Germans attacked again determinedly.
British officers claimed to have seen German whites using the sjambok
(rhinoceros hide whip) and rifle butts on the backs of their Askari,
many of whom appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. But
the will to again attack faltered in the Schutztruppe ranks.
The officers and NCOs on the Nigerian perimeter kept their composure,
as these citations for Military Crosses show:
Lieutenant R. Steed, 2NR:At Bweho-Chini on 22nd
September 1917 he rendered most valuable service by his skill in
using a machine gun, which he continued to serve long after he had
been wounded himself.
Captain M.E. Fell, 2NR:Again at Bweho-Chini on
22nd September 1917 showed the greatest
gallantry by his total disregard for personal danger under very heavy
fire. In this action he kept his men absolutely steady by his
example of coolness under fire.
Captain A. Gardner (Bar
to MC), 2NR:Displayed the greatest
gallantry at Bweho-Chini on the 22nd
September 1917. This officer with Captain Fowle MC held the
left flank during repeated and most determined attacks. His
company charged the enemy during the most critical time, and
inflicted heavy loss on them with the bayonet.
Captain C.H. Fowle (Bar
to MC), 2NR:Has at all time displayed
marked coolness and gallantry in action, and has been a most reliable
officer throughout the campaign. At Bweho-Chini on 22nd
September 1917, he commanded his company with the greatest ability,
helping to repulse several most determined attacks. Owing to
his fine personal leadership his men have the greatest confidence in
Five British NCOs from 2NR
and one British sapper signaler from Brigade HQ received
Distinguished Conduct Medals for gallantry displayed at Bweho-Chini.
The NCOs awards were for effective use of Lewis and machine guns when
under very heavy enemy fire.
By midnight Koehl’s men
had paused to collect their wounded and bury their dead, and by dawn
they had withdrawn south to Nahungu. The Nigerians were down to
25 rounds per rifleman. Afterwards 16 enemy European bodies and
87 enemy Askari bodies were found on the battlefield. Later
intelligence reports indicated that the total German casualties were
40 Europeans and over 300 Askari killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The Nigerians had held their ground and had won the day, but at a
price. Ten Europeans and 124 Nigerians had been killed wounded
or were missing. Four of the dead were British officers, two of
whom had been in the two companies of 1NR that moved eastwards out of
the perimeter. They had been wounded, overrun by the enemy and
stripped, mutilated and killed. That can be the way that things
go in Africa.
From now onwards the
Nigerians dug trenches that they could at least kneel in, with a high
parados behind them to stop reverse fire. The battle of
Bweho-Chini is rarely mentioned in history books – two determined
groups of men met in the African bush and the grass was trampled and
stained with blood for a time, but the sun and the rain soon restored
the natural order of things.
Commanding Officer of 2nd Nigeria Regiment, had with his
battalion fought the enemy to a standstill and he was awarded a
Distinguished ServiceOrder with the citation:
Conspicuous gallantry at
Bweho-Chini on 22nd September 1917 when in
command of his Battalion.
He had already been
nominated for a DSO with a citation reading:
Continuous good work
throughout the campaign and skilful leadership since being promoted
to the command of a Battalion.
Gerald ended the war still
in command of 2NR and with a DSO and Bar. He then returned to
government service in Nigeria.
(Please note that the
citations used above were the unit citations and not necessarily
those that appeared in the London Gazette.)
With The Nigerians In
German East Africa by W.D. Downes.
My Reminiscences of East
Africa by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig
The History of The Royal
West African Frontier Force by Haywood & Clarke.
The Forgotten Front by
General van Deventer’s
Despatch dated 21st January 1918.War Services 1922.