The Frontiersmen’s Lorry

Indian Army Ox Carts. Source: Imperial War Museum

Indian Army Ox Carts. Source: Imperial War Museum

Topic October/November 2016. A tale of the First War in East Africa and the frustrations of bureaucracy.

By the time the 25th battalion Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) arrived in East Africa in 1915, the actions of the Indian Army Staff officers given charge of the campaign against the Germans probably left a lot to be desired. The war in Europe needed all the troops Britain could find, so what was considered a sideshow in Africa was delegated to the Indian Army. As far as the officers whose command was of desks in the War Office in London this had advantages. Their own departmental budgets have always been more important to bureaucracy than overall costs, so this delegation was good as far as both the War Office and the Foreign Office were concerned. According to the blinkered racism of the time, the Indian troops had brown skins and would be quite at home in the African climate. Little thought was given to their dietary requirements. Their first task on landing was to capture Tanga. This proved one of the most embarrassing debâcles of the early war years and one which shocked the establishment in Britain and East Africa. The story of that failure is covered in many books, most notably Edward Paice’s Tip and Run.¹ The War Office took over the running of the war in that part of the world, immediately receiving requests for British troops to be sent out. The best Indian Army units and most of the British Army battalions based in India had been sent to the Western Front. The Indian Troops who went to East Africa where the war was considered to be a side-show were not all of the best. Only one British battalion, the 2nd battalion of the Loyal North Lancs was sent to Africa. Before they left England as the one British unit the War Office would send, the Frontiersmen were aware of Tanga. In his account of the Frontiersmen’s exploits in East Africa serialised in the Frontiersman magazines in the early 1920s, ‘Adjutant’ made his own sharp comments:

The Indian Expeditionary Force had landed at Tanga without first bombarding it and wiping it out. Gossip said that the officials of the new Government-that-was-to-be had not the heart to destroy such comfortable quarters as they could see through their telescopes…

Soon after that an Indian garrison at Jasin, on the British East African border, had to surrender, and were taken away into captivity – to degradation, forced labour, starvation, disease and death.²

Map East Africa, 1915.  Source: Ordnance Survey

Map East Africa, 1915. Source: Ordnance Survey

There is strong evidence that ‘Adjutant’ was in fact Captain (later Major) George Douglas Hazzledine, who wrote under a nom-de-plume so that he could criticise the attitude and behaviour to the Frontiersmen of the Staff officers. Francis Brett Young, a medical officer with the Rhodesians who wrote an account of the capture of Tanga later in the war, Marching on Tanga, was so frustrated because he was not allowed to tell the whole truth that he later wrote a fiction book Jim Redlake, in which he put into the mouths of the characters his disgust at the behaviour of the Indian Army Staff back at Nairobi.

Our own mistakes were small things in our eyes compared with the mistakes we thought those in authority over us made over us. We took some of the world’s most famous big-game hunters in our battalion, but they were not used as scouts…We had Colonial engineers and experts of all kinds among our officers, but they were not used, except unwillingly, as when they pointed out that it was impracticable to cut a road with picks and shovels along the face of a rock slope at Turiani.³

Motor Lorries Bringing up Troops. Source: “Times History of the War”.

Motor Lorries Bringing up Troops, “Times History of the War”.

There were many other examples quoted. There was a need for men who could speak Swahili, not a common skill in the Indian Army although there are some similarities between Swahili and Hindi. The Frontiersmen had a number of men who were fluent in the local language, but they were seldom used, and then only in a very subordinate position with native carriers. The Staff would not listen to Driscoll and only called on him to save the day when things became desperate. Many times Driscoll and his Frontiersmen saved matters in an action.

One example of Staff pigheadedness may sound amusing to us a hundred years on, but at the time it was frustrating and infuriating. That is the story of the Frontiersmen’s lorry. One of the officers Driscoll insisted on taking with him in the first draft was W. Northrup Macmillan. Driscoll had to bend the rules somewhat to get him accepted by the War Office. For a start he was sixty-four inches around the waist, which was an enormous size in those days when men were generally far smaller than today. The other problem was that, although he had lived for years in East Africa, he was by birth an American. His advantage was that, being immensely rich, he was keen to give much financial support to the British cause. That advantage outweighed any problems as far as the War Office was concerned. In their early days in East Africa the Frontiersmen were based at Kajiado and also served an area between there and the Besil River (see map). Some of the men called the camp on the Besil River “Bissel” and it had other translations, being nowadays known as Ilbisil. Transport was a great problem. The Indian Army had shipped over …

hundreds and hundreds of single-shafted two wheel carts with which India fondly hoped to follow up and supply her army of conquest…but what earthly use were they in the strains and stress and hurry and bustle of war in the Tropics?…If one of the two oxen fell sick or died or would not pull, the other was also put out of action and could only go round and round on one wheel, if at all. With the ox-whallah sitting, barelegged, at the roots of the shaft, the carts were no doubt excellent for a slow walk from the rice fields along the sunlit road in Ceylon; but for war – Hapana. (hapana is Swahili for an emphatic NO.) The designers of our little invasion out there had little imagination and less knowledge of countries other than their own..⁴

For the Frontiersmen, possible help was forthcoming. Knowing the country well, Macmillan considered that it was an area for lorries, not oxen. Much to their delight he gave them a three-ton lorry, calling it a loan. This single lorry increased their mobility beyond measure.

Once at Kajiado, there was great excitement because of news coming in from the Bissel [sic] Road that some native drivers had mutinied and were looting the convoy and playing merry Harry generally. Orders were issued that the Royal Fusiliers would proceed to the spot about five miles away, with one officer and twenty rifles and so many rounds per man and do any necessary destroying.

Motor Lorries. Source: Imperial War Museum Powell Collection Q15632

Motor Lorries. Source: Imperial War Museum Powell Collection Q15632

On receipt of the order a platoon of the duty company climbed into the lorry and ran out to the place instructed. There they found the natives had also looted some alcohol and were all drunk. The Frontiersmen bundled them into the lorry and delivered them to their HQ “for medical and other necessary attention”. The Frontiersmen were back in camp for their meal, probably before headquarters had time to blot off the five copies of the orders and distribute them as required. That one example should have shown HQ Staff the value of lorries in the campaign, but it was not until Smuts took command that lorries in any number were used.

The Frontiersmen were to lose their prized lorry long before that happened.

First we had a long wrangle with H.Q., where those who were responsible for our equipment and the conduct of the campaign for a long time failed to understand a mere battalion having a lorry. They almost gave the impression that its possession was irregular and might be a military offence under some code they had in the office.

“A battery, yes; a G.H.Q. mess, yes; but a battalion of Sepoys, no; of course we know you are white men, but you are not regulars, you know, and after all you are only a battalion. Where? In what book, red or buff or pink, can you point out a lorry on the establishment of a battalion? Shall we cable Simla about it? Will they be able to give us the reference to your order?”

The casual racism was common for the time, but the insults to the Frontiersmen were unacceptable behaviour. As in so many occasions in the history of the Frontiersmen, that has been the attitude in varying degrees – until they have been needed to dig someone or some official body out of a hole.

At last the General said he didn’t think there would be any objection, and he would take the risk of allowing us to have the lorry with us, unofficially, of course, and without giving us any right to indent for a renewal. So, when the great day of the advance came, we took it with us; and lost it. We lost it because at Bissel [sic], twenty-four miles out, the Supplies discovered that our special authorisation of the lorry said nothing about petrol, and, there being no Army petrol to spare in wartime for private cars, Colonel Driscoll shrugged his shoulders and sent it back to Nairobi with thanks.⁵

Anybody with military experience will be able to quote stories of official rule-book bureaucracy. According to the opinions of the many Frontiersmen who told their stories in the pages of The Frontiersman magazine, the way the Frontiersmen were treated by the Staff officers, many of whose only experience had been in military India and never of the wildernesses of the world and especially Africa, exceeded the bounds of simple stupidity. Even the gentlemanly F.C. Selous in a private letter to W. Northrup McMillan commented that “Many officers detest our Colonel and our Battalion…”⁶ The sacrifices made over the years by Frontiersmen were often discounted, and evidence can be produced that they can sometimes still be discounted today. It is our task to remember those sacrifices and make sure they are not forgotten by studying their first-hand stories.

Finally, the following quote is from Will Shandro’s “Timeline” on our history website http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info and further illustrates the issue of military intolerance, directed in this case at the New Zealand Frontiersmen:

1918 – Compliments to Legion’s character vs military chauvinism. “A doctor recently returned from the Front after much service, expressed this opinion of the Legionnaires: “They are the finest, cleanest, straightest crowd of men I ever met. They never had half the credit they deserved for the work they did.” This was quoted by way of contrast to the opinion of a drawing-room military officer who prior to the war declared the Legion was a crowd of drunken swashbucklers. That officer, by the way, has not yet reach[ed] the Front!” AUCKLAND WEEKLY NEWS, page 51, 14 FEBRUARY 1918.


¹ Edward Paice Tip and Run (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2007)
² “The Frontiersman” magazine August 1922
³ “The Frontiersman” magazine August 1923
⁴ “The Frontiersman” magazine March 1923. The author of this wrote under the nom-de-plume of O.C.A. and made numerous other contributions to the magazine in subsequent years. There can be no definite identification of who was this O.C.A. We have consulted Steve Eeles, whose website: http://www.25throyalfusiliers.co.uk is dedicated entirely to the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in East Africa, and whose website we heartily recommend. He suggests that the letter could most probably have been written by Oscar Lindley, who “was the battalion’s Orderly Room Sergeant, later C.Q.M.S., and who would have been ideally placed to know all the workings of the battalion…” The evidence is circumstantial, but there is no other likely candidate. We are very grateful to Steve Eeles for his help and advice. Please do visit his website.
⁵ “The Frontiersman” magazine March 1923
⁶ W.N. McMillan scrapbooks at the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth & African Studies at Rhodes House.


© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in East Africa Frontiersmen, Frontiersmen, History, Latest Topic, Legion of Frontiersmen, New Zealand, World War I and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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