The South African Military History Society

Feb 2007

Book ID 929

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The South African Military History Society Newsletter, Feb 2007
Extract Date: 1916

The King's Shilling - 1916- East Africa

Mr. Cowley was thanked by Flip for an informative and interesting lecture and the next speaker was then introduced. This was Mr. Hamilton Wende, a free-lance writer and TV presenter for the SABC, BBC and National Geographic. The subject of his lecture was "The King's Shilling - 1916- East Africa".

While working on a shoot in East Africa, Mr Wende's interest in the campaign in East Africa during World War Ihad been piqued by local oral histories and tales handed down by that campaign. A chance remark about South Africans"running away" at the Battle of Salaita resulted in him then researching this battle and ultimately writing a novel with the battle as it's theme. During the German East African Campaign in World War I, the German Commander,General von Lettow-Vorbeck, led the British a merry dance the length and breadth of German East Africa and successfully tied up large numbers of British and Empire troops. The campaign gave rise to a high death toll in terms of disease and starvation among both the troops and the local population, but not in terms of battle casualties. At Salaita, for instance, the toll was about 200 killed in action.

The South African troops taking part were raw and inexperienced and were under the control of officers and

NCOs who, in some cases, had fought on opposite sides in the Boer War only a decade previously. These troops were engaged in following up the enemy and were stopped on 11 February 1916 at Salaita Hill, a surprisingly smallhill but which was well fortified. The General in charge decided, against the advice of his staff, to launch the 5th, 6th and 7th Transvaal Regiments against this hill in a frontal attack supported by the Baluchi Regiment. So confident of success was he that he even laid on a champagne breakfast for himself in celebration of his expected victory. The South African and Indian troops advanced en masse against the hill and were promptly subjected to a massive defensive effort by artillery and machine gun fire. Although supported by two armoured cars, these provedineffectual and withdrew when they ran out of ammunition. The German forces, in the main Black Askaris, thenlaunched a bayonet counter attack and the South African troops broke and ran in panic, leaving their machine guns behind. The Baluchies, who were a more battle hardened regiment and had seen service on the Western Front and Indian Frontier, rallied and repelled the charge, in the process recovering the South African machine guns which they derisively delivered to the South African camp that evening.

This was the largest defeat of white British troops by Blacks since Isandlwana and, as such, was promptly covered up by the British and South African authorities. War histories play down the event and when questions were asked in the South African House of Parliament they were politely fielded and ignored.

Using a Power Point presentation, Hamilton then showed his audience the battlefield as it is today, with the trenches, rock machine gun sangars and even a sniper's nest in a hollowed out baobab tree. The battle and its aftermathproved the inspiration for a book thatMr. Wende decided to write and which he has entitled "The King's Shilling". Hamilton told us about the research he had done and particularly the fact that 33 British soldiers were unaccounted for after the battle. Had they kept running? This made him think of the meaning of courage in a battlefield scenario and gave rise to the theme of his book, which is defeat and how to overcome it, a theme still relevant today.

Mr. Wende was thanked by John Parkinson for a most interesting and well-presented lecture and who also presented him with a Society tie as a token of its thanks. Flip then adjourned the meeting for tea.

Extract ID: 5218