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Zanzibar and the Great War
On   the   eve   of   the   First   World   War,   Zanzibar   Town   stood   near   the   top   of   African   Cities.   In   1914   its infrastructure   including   harbor   facilities,   communication   networks   and   housing   resources,   were clearly   aspiring   to   make   it   a   modern   city.   In   terms   of   human   resources   its   people   were   known   for their   industry,   diversity   and   sophistication,   the   city   was   sometimes   referred   to   as   "the   Paris   of Africa."   The   government   operated   on   a   dual-rule   model   with   the   Sultan   administering   some   facets   of trade,   civil   order   and   Islamic   laws;   while   the   British   controlled   the   most   important   city   services, the    military,    and    tax    collection.    In    the    two    decades    since    the    1896    shortest    war    Britain’s connection   to   Zanzibar   had   been   secured   and   expanded   into   a   working,   if   uneven   partnership.   As war   clouds   began   to   gather   in   Europe   that   solemn   November,   the   Islands   and   especially   the   Stone Town environs were solidly in the British camp. Word   of   the   declaration   of   War   between   Germany   and   Great   Britain   was   flashed   to   Zanzibar almost   instantly   via   the   underwater   telegraph   cable   that   had   been   laid   to   Stone   Town   from   Aden in   1900.   When   the   Zanzibari   and   British   leadership   meet   to   review   the   situation,   they   found   their prospects   grim.   The   leaders   first   lamented   the   almost   complete   lack   of   mainland   coastal   defenses save for the ancient Fort at Mombasa. Then the British military report noted: "Even    more    anxious    was    the    situation    in    Zanzibar    for    that    Island    with    no    fixed defenses   lay   within   20   miles   of   the   German   coast   ....   a   wealthy   seaport   ....   Zanzibar was an obvious objective for the enemy." The Land Forces: Young   men   from   the   Zanzibar   area   were   first   enrolled   in   by   the   British   army   into   a   single regiment   named   the   East   African   Rifles.    In   1902   this   unit   was   reorganized   as   the   3rd Battalion  of the newly created Kings African Rifles. The   original   compliment   for   3rd   Battalion   called   for   900   men;   “300   Punjabis,   100 Sudanese,   300   Swahilis   and   a   ‘mixed   force’   of   200   men.”    It   is   from   among   the   last   two categories that the Zanzibari men would have been recruited. Just   a   small   detachment   of   the   3rd   battalion   was   on   Zanzibar   that   August,   about   115   men.   The bulk of the unit was posted on the mainland, and far to the north. The   only   other   troops   in   Zanzibar,   when   the   war   started   were the Sultan's Palace guard. Perhaps   the   only   positive   note   was   the   readiness   of   the   local   police   constabulary   in   Zanzibar.   It was   thought   that   these   well   trained   men   might   serve   as   non-commissioned   officers   in   a   locally recruited civil defense force. For   the   their   immediate   needs   however,   the   British   looked   to   the   Indian   Army   to   supply   men   for the   defense   of   East   Africa.   They   also   looked   to   the   Royal   Navy   to   block   any   invasion   threat   to Zanzibar. Both of these plans were to be sorely tested in the coming fight. On   the   German   side,   the   local   land   forces   were   more   ready   for   war.   The German   equivalent   of   the   KAR   was   the   Schutztruppe.    Established   in 1889   this   force   had   25   years   of   experience   fighting   on   home   ground. They    gained    battle    experienced    during    numerous    coastal    uprising, including   the   Abushiri   Rebellion,   1888-1890,   the   HeHe   War,   1891-1898, and    the    Maji-Maji    Revolt,    1905-1907.    However    they    lacked    the    and ammunition   and   material   needed   to   fight   a   protracted   war.   Without   re- supply they seemed unlikely to last long. Besides   the   direct   military   threat   there   was   also   a   concern   on   Zanzibar about   political   unrest.   Most   Zanzibaris   had   no   love   for   the   Germans,   due partly   to   the   many   abuses   and   the   occasional   sacrileges   reported   by   their coastal-mainland    cousins.    Still,    there    was    a    minority    who    might    be spurred   to   action   if   the   war   went   well   for   the   Germans.   The   same   British report   noted   this   threat,   "...a   further   risk   lay   in   the   fact   that   Sayyid   Khaled,   deposed   from the   sultanate   ...   years   earlier,   was   living   in   (German   controlled)   Dar-es-Salaam   and could claim many sympathizers in Zanzibar." Opening Acts near Zanzibar: One of the first acts of this first global conflict occurred in Zanzibar. Upon   receiving   the   war   alert   on   August   4th   1914   a   Port   Official   on   duty   at   the   Zanzibar   Harbor ordered   the   Zanzibar   police   there   to   seize   the   German   registered   Sea   Tug   "Helmuth"   which   was anchored   near   the   German   embassy.   This   ship   was   the   only   German   vessel   then   in   Zanzibari waters.   The   seizure   of   the   Helmuth   effectively   cut   off   the   only   escape   route   for   a   number   of German   nationals   living   in   the   city.   Most   of   these   civilians   were   interned   for   a   time   and   then repatriated safely. In   these   first   days   of   the   war   there   was   a   great   zeal   to   take   the   fight   to   the   enemy   wherever   he could   be   reached.   On   August   8th,   while   Europe   still   mobilized,   the   very   first   naval   action   of   World War 1 occurred when the H.M.S. Astrae raided the Dar es Salaam Harbor. The   Astrae   destroyed   the   wireless   station   with   shell fire   and   then   sent   boarding   parties   onto   two   anchored German   merchant   vessels,   scuttling   them   both.   The Germans,   fearing   that   the   British   might   seize   and   use the   Harbor,   then   themselves   sank   an   additional   ship (The S.S. Konig) in order to plug the harbor entrance.
World War One on the East African Coast
Photo from the Zanzibar Archives Photo by P. de Lord n33 The emblem is in the form of the Number 3, in the Arabic Language.
The   next   fortnight   was   spent   by   both   sides   in   organizing   and   building   up   their   defenses.   The Germans   in   Dar   es   Salaam   continued   to   worry   about   a   British   attempt   to   seize   that   city   while   the British worried about possible attacks on Zanzibar and/or Mombasa. It   was   during   this   time   when   both   sides   made   efforts   to   recruit   local   coastal   residents   and   form volunteer   militia   units.   The   four   units   most   affiliated   with   Zanzibar   and   the   Mrema   Coast   were: *The   Zanzibar   Rifles,   *The   Mafia   Riles,   *Wavell’s   Arabs   and   *The   Arab   Corps.   Three   of   these units   fought   for   the   British   side.   only   one,   “The   Arab   Corps”   supported   the   Germans.   The   Arab Corps   was   raised   in   Dar   es   Salaam   with   the   help   of   the   ex-Sultan   of   Zanzibar   Kaylid   bin Barghash.   These   were   all   infantry   units   and   all   would   take   part   in   the   fight   but   first   a   naval   battle   in Zanzibar Harbor would grab the world’s attention.  
British war-ship.
The sinking of the HMS Pegasus
After   H.M.S.   Astrae   shelled   Dar   es   Salaam   she   moved   south,   away   from   Zanzibar.   That   left   her sister   ship,   the   H.M.S.   Pegasus,   as   the   only   war-ship   in   Zanzibar   waters.   The   Pegasus   too   was eager   to   take   the   fight   to   the   enemy,   on   Aug.   17   she   raided   the   German   held   port   of   Tanga, (and   disabled   the   German   merchant   ship   Markgraf).   On   August   26th   she   raided   the   mainland town of Bagamoyo.  The   ship   then   retired   to   a   defensive   posting   in   the   Zanzibar   harbor.   After   3   weeks   of   waiting   the captain   decided   it   was   a   good   time   to   clean-out   her   coal   fired   engines.   With   her   engines   off-line she   was   presented   a   sitting   target   for   the   best   warship   in   East   Africa   at   the   time,   the   S.   M. Konigsberg. That   German   light-cruiser   came   rushing   through   the   “French   Pass”   approach   to   Zanzibar   City   on the   morning   of   Sept.   20.   1914.   She   opened   fire   with   guns   that   were   more   accurate   and   had   a longer   range   than   anything   the   British   had.   In   less   than   10   minutes   the   stationary   Pegasus   was a    burning    wreck.    The    British    captain    (Commander    John    Ingles)    struck    his    flag,    indicating surrender. The   Konigsberg   reversed   course,   began   laying   mines   near   the   harbor   (mines   which   proved   to   be imitations)   and   then   sailed   away,   without   making   any   attempt   to   seize   of   shell   the   defenseless city.   She   did   however,   fire   on   the   ex-German   tug   Helmuth,   to   which   the   British   had   added   a small cannon and renamed the H.M.S. Helmuth. The tug was damaged but was later repaired.        
The   shock   of   this   loss   sent   a   shiver   through   the   British   Military.   Such   a   loss so   early   in   the   war   was   seen   as   bad   for   moral   and   therefore   efforts   were made to suppress and alter the news of the battle. The   ship   was   initially   described   as   ‘disabled’   rather   than   sunk.   And   even though    the    captain    admitted    to    intentionally    surrendering    the    ship    a fantastic   story   of   a   lone   sailor   defiantly   holding   aloft   a   battered   flag   until   he too was struck down, was circulated in hopes of generating patriotic fever. In   reality   38   seaman   on   the   Pegasus   and   one   on   the   Helmuth   died   that morning.   Many   others   were   wounded.   The   dead   were   buried   on   a   small   isle in Zanzibar Harbor, That isle is still known today as Grave Island.  
War Propaganda The tree in the background, right, still is growing there today. 2017
The Arab Rifles  and  The Arab Corps in battle. Even before all the British burials could be complete the Germans struck again. The   next   day,   Sept.   21,   1914   some   500   troops,   with   6   machine-guns,   marched   north   from   Tanga, out   of   German   East   Africa,   along   the   coast   and   into   British   East   Africa,   arriving   just   south   of Mombasa, at a town named Jasin. The   dire   threat   this   move   posed   to   Mombasa   cannot   be   exaggerated.   Mombasa   was   then   held   only by   a   few   KAR   soldiers,   the   police   and   some   British   civilian   volunteers,   including   some   retired   naval officers   who   reportedly   set   up   a   gun   position   in   the   old   Fort   Mombasa,   using   a   modified   signal cannon.   However,   Mombasa   did   have   one   unique   force,   one   raised   by   a   local   Sisal   farmer   named Arthur Wavell. Wavell   named   this   unit   the   Arab   Rifles,   but   many   others   referred   to   it   as   simply   as   Wavell’s   Arabs . He   had   recruited   200   Muslim   men   from   the   city,   and   pledged   to   train   and   equip   them   himself.   Arabic and   Swahili   young   men   joined   willingly,   eager   to   serve   with   a   commander   who   showed   great respect   and   understanding   of   Islamic   practices.   His   interest   in   Islam   began   shortly   after   his   arrival   in Mombasa in 1905. That interest grew and eventually he undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1908.        
Retired British Officer, in Arabic clothing.
When   word   reached   Wavell   that   the   Germans   were   on   the   march   he   and   his   men   were   encamped near   the   border,   at   a   town   named   Majoreni.   There   the   he   and   the   Arab   Rifles   had   already   been   in action.   On   August   30th,   they   had   attacked   and   driven   the   German   frontier   guards   out   of   Jasin town.   Since   then   they   had   worked   to   improve   the   defenses   around   Majoreni.   Now   the   Germans had reoccupied Jasin and were clearly preparing to attack. The   battle   of   Majoreni   started   on   September   22,   1914.   The   Germans   deployed   in   two   columns,   one column   crossed   the   Mwena   river   and   pushed   on   to   Majoreni   where   they   encountered   the   mini-fort that   Wavell’s   men   had   thrown   together   in   record   time.   There   the   Germans   faltered,   they   hammered all   day   in   vain   at   the   British   redoubt   with   their   heavy   machine   guns.   Mines   hampered   any   German attempts   to   maneuver   and   they   took   casualties   from   the   well   aimed   rifles   of   Wavell’s   men.   As   night fell the Germans retreated, back south across the Mwena river. The   Arab   Rifles   had   held-out   courageously   and   they   suffered   two   men   killed   and   seven   wounded. Among   the   wounded   was   Captain   Wavell,   he   received   a   severe   arm   wound.   Moreover   they   lacked the   ammunition   to   continue   any   further   all-day   battles.   Therefore   the   Arab   Rifles   fell   back   the   next day,   further   north   toward   the   town   of   Gazi.   Their   rear   guard   was   active,   slowing   and   harassing   the Germans who were on the march again, north toward Mombasa.      
These   delays   allowed   the   British   time   to   rush   reinforcements   to   the   area.   Troops   from   India   had finally   reached   Mombasa.   The   29th   Punjab   battalion   immediately   rushed   2   company’s   south,   they were   soon   joined   by   2   KAR   company’s,   and   finally   Wavell’s   battered   Arab   Rifles   linked   up   to   formed a defensive perimeter near Gazi, only 22 miles from Mombasa. The   Germans   attacked   Gazi   on   October   7th,   1914.   Four   Schutztruppe   company’s   and   the   small Arab   Corps,   (coastal   Arabs   allied   with   the   Germans)   launched   the   assault   through   low   bush   country and   across   plantation   fields.   The   battle   raged   all   morning,   with   the   Germans   continuing   to   advance in   the   face   of   heavy   fire.   Then,   just   before   noon   the   KAR   men   counterattacked.   The   Germans   beat off that counterattack but their own advance had halted.  While   the   Germans   paused   to   reorganize   the   British   withdrew   to   more   prepared   defensive   positions and   refreshed   themselves   briefly.   Soon   the   Germans   renewed   their   advance.   But      again   the   KAR men   and   the   Arab   Rifles   sprang   up   and   charged   forward   in   counterattack.   This   time   the   German advance   collapsed   completely.   By   late   afternoon   the   Germans   were   in   full   retreat.   They   never   again were able to pose a serious threat to Mombasa. The   men   of   the   Arab   Corps,   fighting   with   the   Germans,   suffered   a   number   of   casualties   in   this action   and   they   complained   bitterly   about   their   equipment.   They   were   armed   with   obsolete   rifles that   were   slow   and   fired   black   powder,   that   gave   away   their   positions.   Wavell’s   Arabs   were   armed with modern rifles that fired smokeless powder. Many   said   that   Wavell   and   his   Arab   Rifles   had   saved   Mombasa.   Wavell   was   promoted   to   Major   and a   public   garden   in   the   city   was   named   in   his   honor.   After   spending   some   weeks   in   hospital   Wavell rejoined   his   men,   who   were   still   defending   the   border   just   south   of   Mombasa.   It   was   there,   later   in the war, that Major Wavell was killed in a German ambush. The   Arab   Rifles   converted   to   a   Reserve   KAR   company   after   Wavell’s   death.   As   for   the   Arab   Corps on   the   other   side,   they   disbanded   after   their   defeat   at   Gazi.   After   Gazi   recruiting   adequate replacements for that unit proved impossible.  
Also known as Wavell's Arabs
The Zanzibar Rifles and Mafia Rifles: On   Zanzibar    the   struggle   for   Mombasa   was   followed   with   keen   interest.   The   importance   of   a ‘Home   Guard’   had   been   made   clear   to   all   in   that   fall   of   1914.   Authorities   on   Zanzibar   had   already started   to   mobilize   all   available   manpower.   The   Police   were   militarized   and   ex-soldiers   were called   back   into   the   ranks.   In   March   27,   1915   Captain   G.   C.   Denton   of   the   Indian   Army   was appointed   commander   of   ‘all   troops   in   the   Zanzibar   Protectorate’.   These   troops   were   called   the Zanzibar   Town   Guard ”   A   month   later   Captain   Denton   changed   his   commands   name   to   the Zanzibar Volunteer Defense Force .”  Eight   months   later,   on   Dec.   7th   1915,   Denton   was   reassigned   and   Mr.   Robert   Withycomb   was given   command   of   the   ZVDF    and   commissioned   Lieutenant.   In   Feb   2016,   the   ZVDF   was   officially amalgamated   with   a   company   of   “Zanzibar   Civil   Native   Police”   and   thereby   grew   to   a   total   of   four platoons   (and   a   band).   The   platoon   commanders   appointed   that   February   were   “Temporary Second   Lieutenant’s”      B.   C.   Johnson,   S.   River-Smith,   S.   P.   Bland   and   Lt.   Commander   Allen Milbourn Clark. (RN retired).   The   last   man,   Allen   Clark,   is   an   enigmatic   figure   in   Zanzibar   history.   He   took   up   X   different assignments for Zanzibar during the war      MORE TO COME. Website still under construction. Fall 2018