“THE NEED TO STRIKE GREAT BLOWS ONLY QUITE EXCEPTIONAL”
THE BATTLE OF JASSIN, 18 -19 January 1915
By Dennis L. Bishop and Holger Dobold
The military culmination of the Age of Imperialism occurred in German East Africa colony between 1914 and 1918. The first act of this tragedy was the British amphibious defeat at Tanga in November 1914. This battle assured the prominence of Oberstleutnant Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck as the recognized authority in the German colony. The affair at a former small German town occupied by three companies of Indian troops would force the British Colonial Office and War Office to reconsider their positions regarding commitment of Colonial and British troops to this theater.
Jassin (also known in German sources as Jassini) was a small village in an unhealthy area that became a large swamp after rainfalls on the German side of the border between Deutches Ost Afrika and British East Africa. The town was surrounded by matted growths of agave, but to the North the Jego Plain offered more stable ground for maneuvers. The Jego Plain connected Jassin to Mombasa fifty miles to the north. Jassin was important during peace-time for its palm oil, sugar, and the sisal plantations administrated by the “Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft. There was a sisal factory located approximately 1000 yards north of the town connected to the town of Moa by a trolley rail that extended to the Southwest along the coast according to British accounts. The German accounts place a road completed by the end of 1914 that connected Tanga to the settlement of Mwumoni near Jassin.
The actions around the town of Jassin before January 1915 are confusing. During the Battle of Tanga, only the 15. Feldkompagnie (F. K.), under Oberleutnant d. R. Weise, and the 400 strong Arab Volunteer Corps Arabische Korps), under Oberleutnant d.Sw. Hengstenberg, guarded the border near Jassin. On 30 October 1914 the Germans record that the British moved troops toward Jassin, but the British troops retreated after clashing with sixty Arab volunteers under Vizefeldwebel (Sergeant) Eggers and a fortuitously arriving flanking movement by an officer patrol commanded by Leutnant d. R. Hanow. It was noted by the Germans that the British troops were repulsed by the “wild shooting” of the Arabs, rather than any organized military resistance. The British did not record this action, but it is possible that this was part of the battles that were fought between 5 October and 5 November 1914 in this area. The British concentrated approximately 27 British officers, 200 British other ranks, 2000 Indian troops of all ranks, and 400 followers at Gazi under Major G. M. P. Hawthorn, 1/K.A.R. (King’s African Rifles), and only sent patrols toward the border. The British acknowledged that after the Germans retreated from the area that it remained “quiet”, except for occasional patrol encounters. The “First Battle of Jassin” was probably only a skirmish between patrols.
As no major threat was identified in this sector by the Germans, the 15. F. K. moved to Tanga where it arrived during the night of 4/5 November too late to play an important role in the battle. The 15. F. K. returned to Jassin on 11 November 1914. It was replaced by the 4. Schuetzentruppekompagnie (20 European sailors and 30 askari recruits). The 4. Sch. K. was moved to Moa on the coast, after a reported naval bombardment, to repel an expected amphibious invasion.
The Arabische Korps retreated southward from Jassin. It is not clear whether this unit was forced to retreat by British pressure or whether it was simply ordered back as the German officers lacked confidence in the reliability of the unit. When the Arab Corps retreated, Jassin was left unoccupied. The British officers were quick to exploit this situation.
Captain T. O. Fitzgerald (K.A.R.) moved two companies of the 3/K.A.R. Battalion and one company from the 101st (Indian) Grenadiers toward Jassin on 25 December. The German patrols reported this movement and in the ensuing skirmishes the British reported two other ranks killed and three other ranks wounded. The British also reported that the Germans lost one officer killed and six other ranks killed in occupying Jassin in the “Second Battle of Jassin.”
Meanwhile, British General Tighe established a base at Goa and encamped the bulk of his border defense force on the North bank of the Umba River. He deployed two companies of the 2/Jammu & Kashmir Battalion and one company of the 3/K.A.R. under Colonel Raghbir Singh at Jassin.
The 15. F.K. and 4 Sch. K. were back in the Jassin area by 12 January 1915 when the British reported another attack that was repulsed by two companies of the 2nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles and a company of the 3/K.A.R. from the Umba Camp. Two more companies from the Jind half battalion and a section of the 28th R.A. were sent to reinforce the garrison at the town. This proved too much for the German force, and it withdrew towards Duga. The “Third Battle of Jassin” resulted in five British other ranks wounded, but the Germans lost four askari killed and 20 Europeans and askari wounded or missing. The British reported another attack on 16 January by an estimated three German companies, but due to the lack of information concerning this attack and the German dispositions at this time, this can be discounted as probably nothing more than patrols colliding.
Oberstletnant Lettow-Vorbeck stated in his memoirs that his main objective in attacking Jassin was to lure British troops from various camps into a trap by attacking the outpost at Jassin. He issued orders to patrols to observe the main roads and paths leading into the combat area. He chose Jassin as the best possible set-piece battle zone for its logistic advantages. The best troops of the Schutztruppe could be rapidly moved from the Kilimanjaro area to the coast on the Usambara Railroad. This had been a deciding factor in the Battle of Tanga and would play a major role in the coming battle as the askari could be transported from the Kilimanjaro area quickly to Tanga and could march overland using the road. Another advantage would be that porters could be recruited from local plantations which would alleviate transporting them from other areas. This meant that only the 162 strong Feldkompagnien and the machineguns, and elite machinegun porters, would be all that would have to be transported. After a successful battle, the askari could be transported by rail back to their original positions.
The initial December 1914 British plans were created by Major-General Wapshare to alleviate the refugee problem that had been created by the German raids along the border. By the end of November it was estimated that there were more than 5000 refugees sheltered and fed by the British Colonial Office. To stabilize this situation, General Wapshare deloyed a force of 1800 soldiers, with six machineguns, under Brigadier General Tighe into the Umba area that included Jassin. This included a half battalion (two double companies) of the 101st Grenadiers, a half battalion of the Jind Imperial Service Infantry, the 2/Jammu and Kashmir Battalion, “B” and “D” Companies of the 3rd K.A.R., Wavell’s Arab Company, the Scouts Company composed of mixed Indians and Arabs, two machinegun sections, and the 28th R.A. Mountain Battery. Evidently the 2/Jammu and Kashmir Battalion had been refitted with a machinegun section to replace the machineguns abandoned earlier at Tanga.
These troops were deployed by 27 December in advanced posts on the south bank of the Umba River with the largest concentrations at Jassin, Samanya, and Bwago Macho. General Tighe placed three companies at Jassin, four companies at Samanya, and four companies of the 101st Grenadiers, Wavell’s Arab Company, and a machinegun section at Bwago Macho. Lieutenant Jone’s Scout Company patrolled the upper Mwena. The main force was camped at Umba Camp as a “fire brigade” that could move rapidly to reinforce any of the posts should these be attacked and hopefully decide the action.
German Troop Movements Prior To The Battle
Oberstleutnant von Lettow-Vorbeck began moving troops by rail on 16 January 1915 from the Kilimanjaro area. Once these troops arrived at Tanga, which had been fortified with trenches and earthworks in December and the harbor had been mined, all but one Feldkompagnie was immediately moved north toward Jassin. These troops arrived at the Totohowu (Mtotohovu) Plantation, about 11 kilometers south of Jassin, on 17 January. The Germans managed to concentrate 244 Europeans, 1350 askari, approximately 400 Arab volunteers, 23 machineguns, and four field guns within a few kilometers of the town without being observed.
German Plan of Attack
Major Keppler was ordered to oblique the right flank of Jassin with the 11. and 4. Feldkompagnien. Hauptmann Adler was to oblique the left flank of Jassin with the 15. and 17. Feldkompagnien. Hauptmann Otto was ordered to attack the town defenses frontally using the 9. Feldkompanie and Arabische Korps along the main road. The reserve, consisting of Command section, 7. Schuetzenkompanie (102 Europeans under the command of Hauptmann Demuth), the “Battaillon Schultz”, consisting of the 1., 6, and 13. Feldkompagnien, two C73 fieldguns under Hauptmann a. D. Hering, and one 4.7cm rapid fire gun and one revolver gun under Leutnant d. L. Fromme, was located behind the Abteilung Otto.
British Plan of Defense
Colonel Raghbir Singh (2/Jammu and Kashmir Rifle Battalion) had two British officers, Captain G. J. G. Hanson and Captain J. Turner, one company of the 101st Grenadiers (138 sepoys), two companies of the 2/Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (144 sepoys), a K.A.R. machinegun (9 askari), and a signaler section (6 sepoys) in the town. There were also 40 sepoys of the 2/Jammu and Kashmir Rifles defending the sisal factory. The garrison in the town had been provided with additional food and water. However, the climate had affected all of the British troops in the Umba area by this time. The “B” Company of the 1/K.A.R. arrived at the Umba Camp under Captain Gifford as General Wapshare began attempting to replace the 3 KAR companies with four “fresh” companies from the 1/K.A.R.. Sick and demoralized, the garrison could only offer a token defense against any attack.
The Fourth Battle of Jassin
At 5:00 a.m. the Schutztruppe companies began moving forward and were surprised at the number of British posts that were unoccupied. Major Keppler made progress on the right flank by crossing some undefended streams and reached a British “boma” (a village and plantation that had been converted into a fortified parameter with earthworks and trenches) by 5:15 a.m. when the Abteilung came under an intense fire. About the same time Abteilung Adler and Abteilung Otto began coming under fire.
Abteilung Keppler came under machinegun fire and suffered heavy losses among the Europeans. Four of the five Europeans operating machineguns were killed. More importantly, Major Keppler was killed, and Hauptmann Stemmernann of the 11. F. K. took command of the Abteilung.
Hauptmann Adler divided his Abteilung into two parts with two Zuege of the 17. F. K. positioned to the Northwest of Jassin and Leutnant Baldamus’ Zug was assigned the task of intercepting expected British reinforcements from Semanja (Ulma Camp). Adler and the 15. F. K. attacked the British positions on the left flank and managed to occupy the main factory and some buildings by 9:00 a.m. as the Indian sepoys retreated into the buildings of the town. However, the German askari of the 15. F. K. were unable to move forward against the Indian sepoys in the buildings.
Meanwhile, Abteilung Otto had suffered some severe losses. According to Farwell, the Arabishe Korps, that was to lead the attack, bolted upon being fired upon. The 9. F. K. was then reinforced from the Reserve by the 13. F.K.. In the opening moments of the battle, the 9. F. K. lost two Europeans killed and five Europeans wounded. The elite 13. F.K. lost three officers in ten minutes. Oberleutnant Spalding was killed, Leutnant Langen was severely wounded, and Leutnant Oppen was wounded, but was able to rejoin the battle. The fire from the British positions was so intense that medical officer Dr. Penschke was severely wounded attempting to aid his fallen comrades.
Even the German command section suffered casualties. Senior staff officer Hauptmann von Hammerstein was killed and Oberstleutnant v. Lettow-Vorbeck was wounded. Lettow-Vorbeck received a slight wound to his arm and another bullet penetrated his hat without causing harm.
When the Germans began their attacks, Colonel Singh ordered that the SOS rockets fired to alert the Umba Camp. Fortuitously, at the moment that the Germans attacked, a daily detachment from the 101st Grenadiers arrived. Lieutenant Colonel P. H. Cunningham, temporarily in command of the Umba Camp, immediately dispatched three K.A.R. companies (B/1 K.A.R. under Captain G. J. Gifford, B/3 K.A.R. and D/3 K.A.R. under Captain T. O. Fitzgerald) to the Suba River north of Jassin. These companies were stalled by the fire from the 17. F. K. that had deployed in a low brush covered ridge overlooking the river to prevent reinforcements from arriving from the British camp at Semanja. The 17. F. K. was a good choice as the former polizei had acquitted themselves well in defensive positions at Tanga and had two Maxim machineguns.
In spite of the unusually high officer casualties incurred, and the continuous volume of fire from the British positions during the first four hours of battle, the 11., 4., 6., 13. F. K.s, and the 7. Sch. K. encircled Jassin with only 100 meters separating the opposing sides. About 10:00 a.m. shots were heard from an observation post of the Arabische Korps located northwest of the town. The 17. F. K. were sent in that direction to rejoin Leutnant Baldamus’ detachment to face this new threat.
It is probable that this was the first reinforcements sent from the Ulma Camp. Captain G. J. Gifford (1/K.A.R.) arrived with B/1 K.A.R., B/3 K.A.R., and D/3 K.A.R. companies about this time. Captain Gifford immediately directed the two 3/K.A.R. companies under Captain T. O. FitzGerald to attack across the Suba River while Gifford attempted to reach the 40 besieged sepoys of the 2nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles in the Sisal Factory.
Meanwhile, Hauptmann Adler was reinforced by three machineguns from the 15. F. K. and placed these machineguns on the right flank of the German positions. Adler placed his own machinegun section on the left flank. The British askaris of the 3/K.A.R. attempted a bayonet charge that successfully gained a bridgehead on the south bank of the river, but were forced to retreat after two hours of hard fighting. Ironically, when he was not able to reach the Sisal Factory, Captain Gifford ordered a general retreat to reorganize his companies and to send for reinforcements. He did not know that the Germans were almost out of ammunition.
A desperate little battle occurred during the hour lull in the main action. The Germans had concentrated large volumes of fire at the Sisal Factory that had been answered with great spirit from the 2nd Kashmir Rifles defenders. However, by 11:00 a.m. the sepoys had fired their last rounds. Without thought of surrender, Subadar Mardan Ali organized a bayonet and kukris charge into the German lines. This seemingly suicidal charge succeeded as the Gurkhas scattered into the bush, and eventually 29 out of the original 40 men in the garrison reached the Ulma camp.
Upon receiving Captain Gifford’s report and request for reinforcements, Lieutenant Colonel Cuningham sent the A/1 K.A.R., C/1 K.A.R. companies, two (single) companies of Jind infantry, and a section of the 28 Mountain Artillery R. A. into the battle. The 28th R.A. section fought a sharp engagement entering the field when the Germans attempted an ambush with machineguns and a bayonet charge to capture the guns. The 28th fired 40 rounds of shrapnel in five minutes at 300 yards silencing the machineguns and dispersing the German attack. After the reinforcements arrived, Captain Gifford placed the two
1/ K.A.R. companies on the British Right Flank, the Jind infantry companies in the center, and the two 3/K.A.R. companies on the British Left Flank.
On the opposite side the 17. F. K. had been reinforced by troops of the 6., 9., and
13. F. K.s while the 7. Sch. K. had been moved into reserve having suffered heavy losses. The Germans were convinced that they were about to be attacked by eight Indian companies, but were comforted that the terrain of dense vegetation and confusion of battle appeared to force the artillery support to be suspended.
About noon Brigadier General Tighe, who had arrived on the field, ordered the British attack launched, with the Jind companies firing three preliminary volleys, before charging across the river. As the British companies reached the southern shore of the river a murderous cross-fire devastated the Jind companies. Major General Natha Singh, commanding officer of the Jind half battalion, was wounded with the only British officer attached, Captain MacBrayne. Out of 120 sepoys who began the assault, 36 sepoys were killed and 21 sepoys were wounded. The shocked survivors fled back across the river to safety. Meanwhile, the 1/K.A.R. companies were brought to a halt before crossing the river. Only the 3/K.A.R. companies managed to cross the river and hold their ground. Upon seeing the Jind companies flee, General Tighe ordered the 3/K.A.R. to retreat back across the river.
Undaunted by the failure of the British attack, General Tighe intended to attack once again on the next morning. He brought in his patrols and requested that General Wapshare release two companies of the 101st Grenadiers from Mombasa and for naval cooperation in the form of artillery. He believed that the Jassin garrison could hold out for a week with the supplies stock-piled in the town, if the ammunition did not give out.
Unfortunately, the ammunition (300 rounds per man) was almost expended by nightfall. Also, the single machinegun had become unserviceable. To make matters worse, Colonel Raghbir Singh had been killed defending the British perimeter in the town. As the British defenders watched for the next German attack, they could not know that the Germans had also run out of ammunition. However, it was then that Hauptmann Frome’s guns came into action. Out of ammunition, the commanding officer dead, the town being shelled at close range, and the garrison demoralized are all factors that Captain Hanson (commanding the town) considered as he debated whether to remain or attempt a breakout toward camp Ulma. He chose to stay until relieved; believing that the successful defense of the town was vital to General Tighe’s plan of operations.
19 JANUARY: THE END
At 5:00 a.m., Leutnant Frome began shelling the town again from the Northeast. The British in the town noted that this bombardment was was “resumed with intensity.” The British sepoys were exhausted by this time adding to the other complications. Always “plucky”, the Gurkhas of the 2nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles gathered together their few remaining rounds and at 5:40 a.m. attempted to break out of the siege by attacking in the direction of the Frome Batterie. The attempt failed with the loss of 12 killed and 13 wounded. The 101st companies were to follow the break out, and lost 6 killed and 4 wounded in the attempt.
Between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., Captain Hanson decided that the situation was hopeless for the British garrison with no relief force in sight, and decided to save as many men as he could by surrendering. He ordered that a white flag be raised and sent a messenger in the direction of the 15. Feldkompagnie positions with the offer to cease resistance who was received by Oberleutnant Kempler.
Once the surrender negotiations had been completed, British Captains Hanson and Turner had an audience with Oberstleutnant von Lettow-Vorbeck who congratulated them on their defense of the town, returned their swords, and released them on parole with the promise that they would never serve again during the war. The Germans also recorded that they took 300 Indian and 100 Black soldiers as prisoners. However, the official British account was 276 prisoners including two British officers, 132 sepoys of the 101st Grenadiers (including four wounded), 131 Gurkhas of the 2nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (including 14 wounded), eight askari of the K.A.R. machinegun crew, and five sepoy of the 31st (Indian) Signal Company.
Casualties on both sides had been heavy. The British incompletely recorded two Indian officers killed, 74 Indian other ranks killed, three British officers, three Indian officers, and 39 Indian other ranks wounded. The K.A.R. casualties were listed as one British officer and ten askari wounded in the 1/K.A.R., while the 3/K.A.R. lost 15 askari killed, and one British officer and 38 askari wounded. The K.A.R. companies were also stated to have lost three askari prisoners and one askari missing. The best German account of casualties was provided by Governor Schnee. He listed the German killed in action as seven European officers, 18 European NCO’s and other ranks, 53 askari, six elite machinegun porters, and two servants. He also listed the wounded as 15 European officers wounded (two died of their wounds later), 23 European NCO’s and other ranks, and many askaris. Arning provides the number of wounded askari as 162 men.
Too late in the day the H.M. S. Weymouth arrived to provide General Tighe’s request for naval support. The relief force that Captain Hanson despaired of receiving was on the way from Mombasa reinforced with a detachment of the 2/Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The needed combined arms force arrived with nothing to do.
Meanwhile, the victorious German forces were exhausted, low on ammunition, and faced a superior fresh force. Lettow decided against persecuting his advantage through the swampy terrain. He withdrew his main force from the area to Mtotohovu to recover from the battle, leaving only the 15. and 17. F.K.s at Jassin. The H.M.S. Weymouth shelled the town on 20 January, but had no effect. There was a skirmish between the 13. F.K. in front of the British camp at Semanja, but the front became eerily quite as German patrols from 6 February found various British camps and fortified blockhouses vacant.
The reason for this can be found in Major General Wapshare’s strongly worded telegram to Brigadier General Tighe following General Wapshare’s personal visit to the Umba valley following the Jassin debacle:
You are entirely mistaken to suppose that offensive operations are necessary. The
experience of Jasin shows you are not well informed of the strength of the enemy . . .
you should concentrate your forces and give up risky expedition . . . in East Africa,
where we cannot reinforce you sufficiently to be sure of success.
General Tighe complied with the order. He evacuated the entire border area of the Umba Valley. The H.M.S. Weymouth remained on station until 31 January to intercept any German offensives, but none materialized. Both sides had beaten each other into a stalemate.
The Fourth Battle of Jassin was a pivotal moment in the Victorian/Edwardian eras of Imperialism in Africa. Unlike previous battles, this battle was the first fought between Black troops officered by opposing Europeans. It was also unique because it also included troops from a British colony far from Africa.
All of the British plans for a successful campaign to capture the German colony begun in December 1914 had resulted in the British forces being thrown back from the border with significant losses. Oberstleutnant Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan to seduce more British reinforcements into the theater would be more than successful, but it would be some time before the British could gather enough troops to threaten the Kilimanjaro area and Tanga again.
The cost of the victory had been an expensive one for the Germans. It may be considered to have been too expensive, and Oberstleutnant Lettow-Vorbeck admitted that he was concerned at that time. He had lost nine professional officers killed in one action. These men could not be replaced, and Lettow admitted that the loss of Hauptmann Alexander von Hammerstein “tore a gap in the ranks of our staff which was hard to fill.” The Schutztruppe had also expended almost 200, 000 rounds of small arms ammunition and an unaccounted for number of artillery rounds.
Lettow lamented about the battle:
It showed that such heavy losses as we had suffered could only be borne in exceptional
cases. I could at most fight three more actions of this nature. The need to strike great
blows only quite exceptionally, and to restrict myself principally to guerrilla warfare
was evidently imperative.”
Both the British and German commands learned lessons from this battle in a new form of colonial warfare that would effect East Africa for over forty years.
Arning, Wilhelm. Vier Jahre Weltkrieg In Deutch-Afrika, Janecke, Hannover, 1920.
Deppe, Ludweg. Mit Lettow-Vorbeck Durch Afrika, Scherl, Berlin, 1921.
Farwell, Byron. The Great War In Africa 1914-1918, Norton & Co. New York, 1986.
Hordern, Charles. Military Operations East Africa, Vol. I, The Battery Press,
Iliffe, John. A Modern History of Tanganyika, Cambridge University Press,
Lettow-Vorbeck, Paul von. Meine Erinnerungen Auf Afrika, Koehler, Leipzig, 1920.
Miller, Charles. Battle For The Bundu: The First World War In Africa, Purnell Book
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Mosley, Leonard. Duel For Kilimanjaro, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, 1964
Schnee, Heinrich. Deutsch-Ostafrika in Weltkrieg. Wie wir lebten und kampften,
Quelle & Meyer, Liepzig, 1919.
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