Maurice Buckley- Victoria Cross recipient

Back in November 2015 I made a blog entry about Frederick Whirlpool, the Victoria Cross winner who ended up leading a hermit-like existence in the Hawkesbury. Here is the story of another Victoria Cross recipient, and the unusual way that he was awarded the highest honour in the British armed forces.

Maurice Buckley was born in Melbourne on the 13th of April 1891, and joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment the week before Christmas 1914, and was sent to Egypt.

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Maurice Buckley’s enlistment form.

 

Like so many of his comrades, Buckley contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. Venereal disease was a huge problem for Australian troops based in Egypt. With the troops not actually fighting, they spent each day training in camps outside of Cairo, and when off duty they frequented the many brothels in the city as well. By February 1916, almost 6,000 men had been infected, and more than 1,000 of them were shipped back home to Australia.

Buckley ended up at the Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, located 40 kilometres outside of Melbourne in November 1915.  The facility at Langwarrin had originally been a training camp for Boer War soldiers, and at the start of the Great War was recommissioned as an internment camp for German and Turkish civilians. But with the dramatic emergence of venereal disease amongst enlisted men, the facility became a ‘pox camp’.

The camp was located well away from the township of Langwarrin, and conditions for the patients who went there were terrible – the men were herded behind barbed-wire enclosures, and slept in tents with rubber sheets and blankets for bedding. There was a shortage of water, which impacted on treatment and hygiene. In October 1915 there was a mass break-out involving 50 patients who had been refused leave to visit the township. The patients overpowered the camp guards, and caught the train to Melbourne, where they were subsequently arrested by police.

 

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Entrance to Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, circa 1915.

 

After five months in Langwarrin, Buckley had had enough, and in March 1916, he escaped from the camp, never to return.  His Army papers were stamped ‘deserter’ and he was struck off the army roll. Buckley returned to his family’s house in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Malvern, to explain to his family why he was no longer serving in the Army.

With Military Police looking for her son, Agnes Buckley suggested that Maurice re-enlist, but under another name. So Maurice travelled to Sydney and re-enlisted as Private Gerald Sexton. Sexton was his mother’s maiden name, and Gerald was the name of his brother who had died in an army camp almost a year earlier of meningitis.

 

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Maurice Buckley – awarded the Victoria Cross under the alias Gerald Sexton.

Sexton was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the 4th Division, embarking shortly after for Plymouth in England and then France. Sexton was promoted to Sergeant, and on the 8th of August 1918, earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery in the action around Morcourt Valley.

Sexton received his Victoria Cross for bravery during action near Le Verguier on the 8th of August 1918. Here is the official citation, as reprinted in the “London Gazette” of the 13th of December 1918:

“No. 6594 Sjt. Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn., A.I.F.

For most conspicuous bravery during the attack near Le Verguier, north-west of St. Quentin, on the 18th September, 1918. During the whole period of the advance, which was very seriously opposed, Sjt. Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns; rushing enemy posts, and performing great feats of bravery and endurance without faltering or for a moment taking cover. When the advance had passed the ridge at La Verguier, Sjt. Sexton’s attention was ‘ directed to a party of the enemy manning a bank, and to a field gun causing casualties and holding up a company. Without hesitation, calling to his section to follow, he rushed down the bank and killed the gunners of the field gun. Regardless of machine-gun fire, he returned to the bank, and after firing down some dugouts induced about thirty of the enemy to surrender. When the advance was continued from the first to the second objective the company was again held up by machine guns on the flanks. Supported by another platoon, he disposed of the enemy guns, displaying boldness which inspired all. Later, he again showed the most conspicuous initiative in the capture of hostile posts and machine guns, and rendered invaluable support to his company digging in.”

At the end of 1918 the commanding officer at the Langwarrin camp notified the authorities of Sexton’s real identity. When Sexton received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he did so under his real name of Maurice Buckley. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army. Buckley, a strong Catholic, was openly aligned to the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and marched with Mannix in St Partick’s Day parades. Buckley established a strong friendship with infamous Melbourne identity John Wren, who business empire was built on SP bookmaking, sly grog and prostitution. Wren gave Buckley financial support to help set up a road-contracting business.

Buckley died after a horse-riding accident in January 1921, aged just 29. At his funeral, his casket was carried by ten other Victoria Cross winners. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery, and fittingly was laid to rest alongside his brother – whose name he had borrowed to restore his reputation.

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Buckley family grave at Brighton Cemetery.

As far as I know, Buckley is the only soldier to have earned a Victoria Cross while serving under an assumed name/alias.
Russell Robinson’s book  “Khaki Crims & Desperadoes” (Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2014) was the main source for this entry, along with various Australian and international military history sites.

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Poperinghe execution cells and shooting post

One of the lesser-known facts of the First World War was that 320 men of the British and Imperial Forces  were executed between August 1914 and November 1918 – 308 for military offences such as desertion and cowardice, and 12 for murder. No Australians serving with the AIF never met this fate, although two Australians who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were executed.

One of the major places where these executions were carried out was in the small Belgian town of Poperinghe, located seven miles due west of Ypres. 70 executions – 50 British and 20 French were executed in the area.

During the First World War Poperinghe was the centre of a large concentration of troops, and there were many camps in the countryside around it. There was generally at least one Division billeted in the town, and it was described in a very early battlefield guide as “a [wartime] centre for recreation, for shopping and for rest”. The population before the War was about 12,000, but in 1917 there were as many as 250,000 soldiers billeted in the area. The imposing Town Hall, built in 1911, can be found on the main square. It was used as a Divisional Headquarters during the War.

Within the town hall are execution cells where some of the British soldiers condemned to execution during the Great War were kept awaiting their fate – to be shot at dawn. There were originally four cells, which were used by the police here before the war. Two of these small rooms have been restored; one with a simple pallisade bed and a lavatory bucket.

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Exterior view of Poperinghe execution cell.

Although the exact number of men shot here at the Town Hall is unknown, there is firm evidence for five. There are photographs of some of those executed on the wall, part of an artwork located here. The two small rooms have small barred windows and are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.

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Interior of Poperinghe execution cell.

The cells have brick floors, and many people have left wreaths here. On the walls are graffiti, scratched into the surface, much of which dates back to the Great War. The cells were used to hold many men who were taken into custody for a number of reasons, such as drunkeness, as well as to hold some of those awaiting execution.

In the courtyard outside stands a very grim reminder of the Great War – the post to which at least one soldier was tied before he was executed.  The execution post stands next to a large silvered panel on which a few words from a Kipling poem (The Coward) are inscribed – including the words ‘blindfold and alone’.

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Poperinghe execution post.

The executions of British soldiers during the Great War is a subject on which emotions run high. There are many viewpoints; often today the men are seen as those who simply could not cope with the horrors of warfare and were victims. However amongst those executed were murderers, and also some who had deserted many times and been given many previous chances. It is also true that some of those executed were men who deserved another chance, or who perhaps should not have been at war at all. But it is easy to judge this by the standards of our own times and forget that this was a time when the country was quite literally fighting for its future, and even in peacetime at that period the laws and punishments seem harsh to us today.

The nearby Poperinghe New British Military Cemetery has the graves of 18 executed soldiers – more than any of the many other British military cemeteries that are located along the site of the Western Front.

The book “Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front – 1916-1918” by John Laffin, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 196 was used as the source for this blog post.

The battle of Lake Tanganyika

An earlier post in this blog featured the short military campaign in the German protectorate of Togoland, which marked the first surrender of German troops in WW1, during the same month in which the war started. The war in Africa featured one of the more unusual actions seen during WW1 – the only naval battle fought on a lake, rather than on the open sea.

The lake in question is Lake Tanganyika, which at 12,700 square miles, is the second largest lake in Africa, after Lake Victoria. Its 4,700 foot depth makes it the deepest lake in Africa, and the second deepest in the world, after Lake Baikal in Russia. At the time of the war, Lake Tanganyika was flanked on the eastern coast by German East Africa, and on the western coast by Belgian Congo, with a sliver of land on the southwest corner touching Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

The Germans had two gunboats on the lake, the 100-ton Hedwig von Wissman and the 45-ton Kingani. A third ship, the 800-ton Graf von Gotzen, was under construction, and would be launched in June of 1915.

On the 22nd of August the Hedwig von Wissman attacked the unarmed Belgian steamer Alexandre del Commune, which was then beached by her crew. The Germans then sent a landing party, which exploded charges in her hold, turning here into an unusable wreck.

To make sure that there was no chance of the British attempting to control the lake, the Germans towed away and sank the Cecil Rhodes, and old steamer lying without engines on a beach at Kasakalawe Bay on the southern end of the lake. Nearby was the wreck of the Good News, which had been used on the lake from the mid-1880’s, until it was abandoned. For good measure the Germans shot up the rusty hull, turning it into total scrap.

The stage is set for the first of several unusual characters to make their mark on the battle for the lake. The first one is an Englishman, John R Lee, who was a big game hunter and prospector. Lee was in the lake region when the war started, and having gained the trust and respect of the local tribes, discovered that the Ba-HoloHolo tribe in Belgian Congo had German sympathies, which could have a major impact on who controlled the lake. Lee realised that something needs to be done, and returned to England, where he met with Henry Jackson, the first Sea Lord, in April 1915, to outline his solution.
Lee’s solution was for the British to have their own gunboat on the lake. Getting such a boat from England to Lake Tanganyika would require a long and complicated transport route:

England to Cape Town by ship – 6,100 miles

Cape Town to Elizabethville (Lumbashi) by rail – 1,800 miles

Elizabethville to Fungurume by rail – 142 miles

Fungurume to Sankisia by oxen, African porters and traction engines – 120 miles

Sankisia to Bukama by rail – 15 miles

Bukama to Kabalo by the Lualaba River

Kabalo to Lukuga (Kalemie) by rail – 175 miles

The overland route of Mimi and Toutou
The overland route of Mimi and Toutou

Surprisingly the Admiralty agreed with Lee’s plan, and suggested that two motorboats be sent instead of one. Lee went to look for suitable vessels, and came across two launches that had been built for the Greek Army, but had been commandeered by the Royal Navy before they could be delivered. They were forty foot long, built of mahogany and were powered by a 100 hp engine, which gave them a top speed of nineteen knots.

While Lee was the “brains” of the operation, convention required that a regular naval officer be the official commander. Finding such an officer was a problem, as nearly every serving officer was already at sea. Our second unsual character now enters the story. When a potential candidate at the Intelligence Division declined, an officer at a nearby desk, Geoffrey B Spicer-Simson, volunteered his services, which were accepted. Spicer-Simson’s career had taken a bad turn when a gunboat under his command was torpodoed in broad daylight at Ramsgate, while Spicer-Simson was ashore “entertaining” a lady at a hotel. He was consigned to a desk job, until Lee’s mission came before him. Spicer-Simson had previous experience in Africa, and spoke French, which would be a great help in cooperation with the Belgian authorities. As commander, Spicer-Simson wanted to name the boats “Dog” and “Cat”, but was overruled by the Admiralty. Instead he named them “Mimi” and “Toutou”, which stood for “meeow” and “bow-wow”.

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Eventually the expedition was ready for departure, and left England on the 15th of June 1915 on the “Llanstephan Castle”, a passenger liner bound for South Africa. Lee was already in Africa, making the plans for the ardous overland transport of the two boats. To assist him, Spicer-Simson had appointed to the expedition Sub-Lieutenant Douglas Edward Hope, who had served with local police forces in Africa, as well as taking part in the Boer War. Hope did not “assist” Lee at all – instead upon reaching Elizabethville he sent a flurry of telegrams stating that Lee and his assistant (Frank Magee) had been picked up drunk by the Belgian police, disclosing the purpose of the expedition, and insulting the Belgian authorities. Unaware of this, Lee had cabled Spicer-Simson in mid-July to say that he had found a practicable route, and had improved it to make the transport of the boats easier, through blowing up boulders and building up firewood dumps for the traction engines. Spicer-Simson responded not by thanking Lee, but stating that Hope should be promoted to Lieutenant and replace Lee as the advance party, effectively sacking Lee from his job.

When Lee and Magee came out of the bush and reported to Spicer-Simson at Elizabethville on the 26th of July, Spicer-Simson informed Lee of the charges raised by Hope against him, and ordered him back to Cape Town to await further orders from the Admiralty, while promoting Magee to the position of Warrant Officer.

Eventually the expedition reached Fungurume, at the end of the railway, at the beginning of August, followed by the traction engines in mid-August. These were large vehicles with big wheels and a canopy that covered the driver and the engine, as well as having a trailer to carry the wood required for the boiler.
The first engine nearly collapsed the first of 150-odd bridges that needed to be built to cross rivers and other waterflows, and then one engine tumbled down an embankment, and had to be righted. Thirty miles from Fungurume, the specially constructed trailers hauling “Mimi” and “Toutou” collapsed. The wood trailers of the engines were modified to take the boats, but the delays meant that the rainy season was approaching, with the possibility of the expedition sinking into the mud.

TractionEngine

The expedition got started again in early September, and with the added assistance of eight pairs of oxen, six miles were travelled. By this stage the expedition had added Lieutenant Arthur Dudley, who was appointed as executive officer to Spicer-Simson, and who would play a key role in the battle on the lake.

Eventually on the 28th of September, the expedition reached Sankisia, and then travelled on a narrow-gauge railway to Bukama, on the east bank of the Lualaba river. Spicer-Simson was informed that the steamer that was going to transport them down the river had not arrived, due to the river being at its lowest level in six years. It was decided to float the boats down the river to Musanga. Empty petrol tins were added to the underside of each boat to increase buoyancy, and on the 6th of October they started downstream, pulled by barges rowed and pulled by Africans.

The boats safely reached Musanga, and boarded a steamer, which reached Kabalo on the 22nd of October, ready for the final rail trip to Lake Tanganyika.

At this point Lieutenant Hope joined the expedition, but his stay was brief. He disregarded orders, and Spicer-Simson discharged him accusing him of drunkenness and insulting Belgians – the same charges that Hope had levelled against Lee and Magee! The expedition eventually reached Lukuga, which proved that Lee’s original plan was sound. As well as actually reaching Lukuga, the other achievement was the lack of sickness and even deaths of expedition members, due mainly to the excellent work of Dr HM Hanschell, the expedition’s surgeon. The boats were hidden until they were ready to be launched.

Spicer-Simson was one grade higher in rank than the senior Belgian officer at Lukuga, Commandant (Major) Stinghlamber, and this lead to a dispute as to who was in charge. Spicer-Simson once gain trotted out his stories, but what really drew attention to himself was when the started wearing a skirt in his hut. It was a not a sarong or a klit, but a proper skirt, which Spicer-Simson had made by his wife. He also rolled up his sleeves, which along with the skirt showed off the elaborate tattoos covering his arms and legs. The Belgians disparagingly referred to him as “Le commandat a la jupe” – “The commander in the skirt”.

By this stage the Germans were of the existence of the two boats, and made several reconnaisance trips with the “Hedwig von Wissmann and “Kingani” to find out the details of the boats. Lieutenant Rosenthal, captain of the “Kingani”, swam ashore and discovered the boats, but was then captured when he realised that the “Kingani” had travelled back home. This would have been an ideal opportunity to find out about the strength and plans of the German forces, but due to the dispute between Spicer-Simson and Stinghlamber, Rosenthal was released by the Belgians before Spicer-Simson could question him.

By late December “Toutou” and “Mimi” were slid out of their hiding places and prepared – 3-pounder guns were fitted, petrol tanks were filled and the engines tested. On Christmas Day a test run for both boats was done, and the guns were fired. The tests were done just in the nick of time, for at 7.15 am on the 26th of December, Belgian lookouts reported that an enemy vessel was twenty miles away on the lake and approaching. Instead of immediately going to sea, Spicer-Simson decided to hold the Sunday church service, and only at the end of the service did he order the boats to be manned and launched. Spicer-Simson commanded the “Mimi” while Dudley commanded the “Toutou”. Everyone, British, Belgians and Africans alike, watched anxiously as the two boats went out for the battle of Lake Tanganyika.

The enemy vessel approaching was the “Kingani”, and it continued to move sedately along the coast, unaware that there were two ships intent on sinking her. Spicer-Simson placed “Mimi” to block the retreat of “Kingani” to her home base at Kigoma on the eastern side of the lake, and ordered Dudley to attack on the port side, while he attacked from the starboard side.

The Kingani spotted the two English boats and opened fire with its 6-pounder gun at “Mimi”, but luckily for the English boat it missed. Eventually the two English boats were able to get within 2,000 yards of Kingani and started to return fire. However, the close range allowed the crew of the Kingani to rake the English ships with rifle and machine gun fire. By continually zigzagging, the “Mimi” and “Toutou” were able to put off the fire, while they continued to fire at the “Kingani”.

The fight was soon ended, as the Kingani’s foredeck exploded in flames from a direct hit, and a white flag was waved. The skipper of the Mimi, an ex-Army lance corporal who had never been to see before, headed straight towards the Kingani and rammed it amidships. Spicer-Simson was sent sprawling across the deck, while the Belgian officers watching on land couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

With her bow badly damaged, Mimi returned to shore, and was beached. While Mimi fled the scene, Dudley had come alongside the Kingani in the Toutou, taken off two survivors, put a prize crew aboard and ordered a petty officer to try and get the Kingani back to shore. This was difficult, due to the Kingani listing after having a hole blown in the port side of the hull. What made it even more difficult, was that there was blood and various body parts from the three Germans who had been killed in the engagement – the Captain and two sailors – spread around the ship. The petty officer beached the ship, and then promptly fainted.

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Eleven crew members of the Kingani – three Germans and eight Africans survived, and were assembled on shore after the Kingani was beached. They had heard of the English plan to transport the boats overland, but thought that it would be impossible to achieve. The German dead were given a military funeral, while the eleven who survived were marched away to a Belgian prison.

Spicer-Simson took as booty the ring of the dead captain, while a couple of his crew members took blood from the captain, and stored it in small bottles, along with pieces of the captain’s finger as well.

Spicer-Simson was promoted to substantive commander, while Dudley was promoted to full lieutenant. Spicer-Simson had already made quite an impact on the local Africans, due to his tattoos and behaviour, and his role in the battle turned him into a deity, with many Africans kneeling, clapping their hands or throwing themselves on the ground when he went by. He was given the name “Bwana Chifunga-tumbo”- “Lord-Belly Cloth”

A short time after the battle, the Kingani was re-floated, patched up and put in running order. A 12-pounder gun was mounted on the bow, while a 3-pounder was mounted on the stern, and the ship was renamed the “Fifi”, becoming the first German warship to serve as a Royal Navy ship.

This would be the highlight of Spicer-Simson’s service in Africa. He returned to England and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, but when the Admiralty learned how he failed to destroy boats at Bismarckburg in Northern Rhodesia, allowing German forces to escape, his operational career was at an end. In a great irony, he returned to the same desk job he was doing before he went to Africa. While Spicer-Simson bathed in the public spotlight, no recognition or awards were given to John R Lee, the originator of the expedition.

1914 Togoland campaign

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 5 August 1914, but it was not until seven o’clock on the morning of 22nd August that Corporal Ernest Thomas of ‘C’ Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, riding with a mounted patrol near the village of Casteau, Belgium, fired the British Expeditionary Force’s first shot of the war. Soon after on the same day Captain Charles B Hornby of the same regiment plunged his sabre into the breast of a German uhlan. Today a bronze plaque in English and French memorializes these actions. Contrary to popular belief, however, Corporal Thomas’s was not the first British bullet fired in anger in the war. That shot had been fired at least a week earlier a few miles north of Lomé in remote Togoland, a country larger than Ireland but unknown to most Britons. It was fired by an unidentified black African wearing a British uniform. No memorial marks the spot.

Togoland (somewhat larger than present day Togo) was then a German protectorate in West Africa sandwiched uncomfortably between the British colony of Gold Coast (Ghana) and the French colony of Dahomey (Benin). Its thirty-two miles of seaboard on the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea formed part of what was often called the Slave Coast, for Togoland lay in that area which supplied most of the slaves sent to the New World between 1560 and 1860. Although only 130 miles wide on average, it extended nearly 400 miles from the Gulf of Guinea to the plains of southern Gourma. In 1914 it had perhaps a million inhabitants.

1914 map of Togoland
1914 map of Togoland

The region was acquired by Germany in 1844, although its hinterland was largely unexplored and its frontiers were not fixed until 1899. In less than forty years the Germans managed to build a model little colony with a stable government and a reasonably prosperous economy. Agriculture-primarily the growing of yams, maize and cotton-was fostered and a handful of efficient government officials exhibited a more careful consideration for the well-being of the inhabitants than was shown by Europeans in most African colonies. By 1914 it had become the only German colony that was financially independent from the Fatherland.

Given the bellicose nature of the Kaiser’s Imperial Germany, it is curious that Togoland was the only colony on the West Coast of Africa without a standing army. There existed only a paramilitary police force, the Polizeitruppe, which consisted of two regular officers seconded from the German Army, six German Polizeimeisters and 560 African non-commissioned officers and men. Most of this force was scattered about the colony in small posts; it was clearly designed for internal security and police work.

Polizeitruppe training with rifles
Polizeitruppe training with rifles

It is not surprising, therefore, that the governor of this tiny colony, Duke Adolf Friedrich zu Mechlenberg, pressed closely on both side by his country’ s enemies, was not eager for war. He proposed to his hostile neighbours that “in the interests of the natives and to show the unity of culture of the white race,”, they keep the peace in West Africa and let the big boys fight the war in Europe.

In support of this position the German diplomatists called attention to the convention signed by Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany at the Berlin Conference on African Affairs in 1885 in which a “conventional basin of the Congo” was defined as a vast area which included almost all of Central Africa in a wide belt from coast to coast. Provision was made for powers owning territories in this area to proclaim their neutrality in time of war and for all “to refrain from carrying out hostilities in the neutralized territories and from using them as bases for warlike operations”. About one third of Togoland fell within the conventional basin of the Congo, but the British and French found little difficulty in ignoring such an inconvenient agreement.

The Belgians had believed at first that they could keep the Belgian Congo (Zaire) out of the war, but when the Germans began sinking their ships on Lake Tanganyika, they soon saw that their interests would be best served by going along with their European allies, and the Belgian colonial minister declared that a Germany which regarded the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality as a mere chiffon de papier could not blame the Allies for disregarding the international agreement on the neutrality of the Congo basin.

Even before the war British diplomatists had realized that it would not be in the best interests of the British Empire to abide by the promises made concerning African territories and that Britain should regard the neutrality clauses as facultative rather than obligatory. JD Chancellor, secretary of Britain’s Colonial Defence Committee, bluntly declared on the 24th of January 1911: “In a war with France or Germany observance of Articles X and XI of the Berlin Act of 1885 [the neutrality clauses] would be in the interest of France or Germany. Consequently, Britain does not intend to abide by it.”

The Germans, with three of their four African colonies within the conventional basin of the Congo, persisted in their efforts to have the neutral status of their colonies recognised. On the 23rd of August 1914 the German government approached the United States through the American ambassador in Berlin in an effort to induce the Americans to persuade the Allies to live up to their agreements and not to extend hostilities into the African colonies. Initially, the Americans refused to do anything, but finally transmitted the German message without comment. The Allies rejected the plea. By this time blood had been spilt in Togoland. It was time for the diplomatists to retire from the scene.

The French and particularly the British had good reasons for wishing to extend the war to Togoland and the other German possessions. The newly completed wireless station at Kamina (Atakpane) in Togoland was reputed to be one of the most powerful in existence, providing direct communications with Germany and by cable connections to South America. Almost as powerful were other wireless stations at Dar-Es-Salaam in German East Africa, at Windhoek in German South-West Africa, and at Douala in the Cameroons. Each of these, and this was the special concern of the British Admiralty, was capable of communicating with ships in the Atlantic or Indian Oceans-seas in which the Germans had or could have men-of-war, cruising barracuda in a shoal of merchant ships. The British Admiralty very much wanted these wireless stations put out of action.

Temporary Brigadier General CM Dobell, inspector general of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), who was in London when war erupted, sided with the Admiralty. Called on to advise politicians and senior officers, he urged the destruction of the German wireless stations in both Togoland and the Cameroons. Dobell was not the only official away from his post at the crucial moment. The governors of both the Gold Coast and Nigeria were absent, as was the Duke of Mecklenburg on the German side. Throughout the area junior officers and officials were minding the store.

On the Gold Coast, 35-year old Frederick Carkeet Bryant, who had been left in charge of the WAFF, sprang into action. Without waiting for orders, he despatched Captain E Barker, adjutant to the Gold Coast Regiment, under a white flag to Lomé, Togoland’s capital and chief port only fifteen miles from the Gold Coast-Togoland frontier, to demand the surrender of the colony. The Germans asked for time to consider and a 24 hour truce was granted, but when Barker returned for an answer, he found that the police and most of the government officials had fled, leaving behind a minor official, the district commander, to make a curious proposal. He was authorised, he said, to surrender only the colony’s coast as far inland as an imaginary line 120 kilometres north of Lomé. As Kamina and its wireless station were 170 kilometres inland, Bryant regarded this proposal as a risible absurdity.

The energetic Captain Bryant wasted no time in gathering up two companies of the Gold Coast Regiment, some machine guns, a couple of field guns with their crews, and swarm of native carriers, and embarking them on the handiest ships in Accra’s harbour. On the 12th of August he landed at Lomé without opposition.

Members of the Gold Coast Regiment
Members of the Gold Coast Regiment

The French had already invaded Togoland from Dahomey on the 6th of August, seizing Little Popo (Anecho), just across the border on the coast. This was the first occupation of German territory by any Allied army. Bryant’s invasion force numbered only 57 European officers and NCOs, 535 African soldiers and some 200 carriers. The French force was even smaller: 8 Frenchmen and 150 Senegalese tirailleurs (African infantry officered by Frenchmen).

A narrow-gauge railway and a single road had been punched through the dense jungle north of Lomé and up these Bryant swiftly pushed patrols. On the 12th of August contact with the Germans was made by a patrol of the Gold Coast Regiment and shots were fired-the first rifle shots to be fired by a British soldier at Germans on any front in the Great War. On the 18th of August Bryant’s little army was joined by the French invaders from Dahomey. Bryant was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel and put in charge of both the French and British troops in southern Togoland.

On the 22nd of August, the same day that Corporal Thomas fired Britain’s first shot in Europe, Bryant’s Anglo-French force found German police and volunteers entrenched on the north bank of the Chra river just north of Nuatja. There ensued a confused battle; the fighting took place in dense bush and the attacking British and French columns lost contact with each other and failed to dislodge the Germans. Bryant’s troops dug in for the night and plans were made to renew the attack at first light, but dawn found the Germans gone. German losses had been slight, but the Allied force suffered 73 casualties, including 23 killed a loss of 17% of the force engaged.

Map of the Battle of Chra
Map of the Battle of Chra

The hottest fighting had taken place on the left flank of the German line, where the French had managed to work their way to within fifty yards of the German trenches before being forced back. It was in the fighting on this flank that Lieutenant GM Thompson of the Gold Coast Regiment (seconded from the Royal Scots), who had been given command of a company of Senegalese tirailleurs, who found dead. Around him lay thirteen African soldiers who had died in his defence. They were buried in a circle around Thompson’s grave.

On the night of the 24th and the 25th of August the Germans blew up their wireless station at Kamina and on the morning of the 25th a German officer was sent to the British lines to ask for terms.

Remains of German wireless station at Kamina
Remains of German wireless station at Kamina

Bryant informed him that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable. Meanwhile, another British force had invaded Togoland from northern Gold Coast and another French force from Dahomey. Neither encountered serious opposition. The German position was obviously untenable, so on the 26th of August 1914 Major von Döring, the acting German governor, surrendered unconditionally, thus ending the shortest and least bloody of the African campaigns.

It had been a smartly conducted little war from the British viewpoint, and the Admiralty was so pleased with Bryant’s performance that in a rare gesture it sent a letter of appreciation to the Colonial Office. The War Office, equally pleased, promoted him substantive major. The King graciously made him a companion of the order of St Michael and St George and the French awarded him the Legion of Honour. Bryant, one of Britain’s first heroes of the war, took leave in England to bask in his brief glory and to marry Miss Rosamund Hope. Two years later he added a Distinguished Service order to his laurels.

Togoland’s commercial life was only slightly disrupted by the brief campaign and in a few weeks trade was being carried on as smoothly as if there had been no interruption. No one asked the African inhabitants their reaction to the change of rulers; it would have seemed bizarre to have suggested such a thing.

The majority of the information about the Togoland campaign came from Byron Farwell’s excellent book “The Great War in Africa (1914-1918)”, WW Norton & Company, NY, 1989, pp.382, which has excellent coverage of the various battles and campaigns in both West Africa and East Africa.