“A ‘bloody tale’, best ignored”: The East African Campaign 1914-1918

This is a guest blogpost by Richard Sneyd, whose father Robin Sneyd served with the Faridkot Sappers and Miners, recalling the Campaign in East Africa during the First World War.

The Campaign in East Africa during the First World War was of a totally different kind to those on the Western Front, fought over immense distances without roads, over unexplored and unmapped areas, in deadly swamps and on remote mountains, in a tropical climate where malaria was rife. One of the more extraordinary aspects of this extraordinary campaign was the number of different ethnicities and cultures that were involved.  Sikhs, Punjabis, Arabs, West Indians, Nigerians, Rhodesians and South Africans (both black and white), Sudanese, and members of many East African tribes fought side by side in the Allies’ comparatively small army.  The contribution and suffering of these people, few of whom were defending their own land, has been explored by historians such as Hugh Strachan, Anne Sansom and Ross Anderson, but the Campaign is sometimes overlooked in popular memory of the First World War.

Faridkot Sappers
Official photograph of the Faridkot Sappers, accompanied by a man with a bicycle. Image reproduced courtesy of Richard Sneyd.

The War Office in London in August 1914, pre-occupied with sending the British Expeditionary Force to France, initially passed the responsibility for providing troops for any East African campaign to the India Office and through them to the Indian Army. General Barrow of the India Office in London assumed general control of Indian Expeditionary Force B.  Against advice, the General changed the objective of this Expeditionary Force from just destroying the ports at Dar-es- Salaam and Tanga to bringing the whole of German East Africa under British Authority.

The General had greatly overestimated the capabilities of the Indian Army and the newly formed Imperial Service Corps from the Princely States.  Neither Force had been trained for large scale expeditionary warfare outside India and were woefully short of machine guns and other equipment.  Their role had been to control local uprisings.  The Generals were inexperienced in commanding Indian troops outside India.

Early in 1914 Colonel Paul von Lettow –Vorbeck had been appointed Commander in Chief in German East Africa.(GEA)  In August 1918 von Lettow had a small garrison known as the Schutztruppe of  2,600 German nationals  and 2,472 African soldiers (Askaris) in 14 companies. His Askaris were loyal, well disciplined, well trained and well paid. In August 1914 the German Government and the Governor of GEA, Dr Heinrich von Schnee (although not Colonel Paul von Lettow) supported neutrality. Their offer to negotiate passed through the United States but did not reach the British until late September by which time it was too late to negotiate.

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck realised that German East Africa would only be a sideshow with little support from Berlin so his policy was to try and avoid confrontation, keeping ahead of the Allied Forces leading them into the remote and disease ridden country where disease and malnutrition would kill and tie down many Allied troops, keeping them away from the Western Front and other battle fronts. This policy succeeded in that it maintained a campaign without putting too much of a demand on Germany for additional resources. Military action killed and maimed far fewer troops and porters than were lost to disease and malnutrition.  German East Africa became a battleground imposed on the local population who were largely unaware of this remote quarrel between the Europeans. However, it was a strategic failure in the sense that it never diverted much in the way of British men and material from the Western Front itself.

The terrain and climate of East Africa made this campaign very different to the experience of the Western Front. The deadly tsetse fly prevented the use of draft animals or mounted infantry. Motor cars and lorries were often found to be practically useless, owing to the lack of roads and the heavy rainfall. Local porters were regarded as the best available means of transporting supplies and ammunition along the supply lines of communication which were sometimes up to three hundred miles long.

Hundreds of thousands of porters were employed and requisitioned by both sides. Their absence removed a vital part of the village work force, crops failed to be sown and harvested.  The villagers’ crops and herds were further depleted by the Germans who lived off the country and operated a scorched earth policy. The Allies had to sometimes live off the land, their food supplies were further depleted by the Germans leaving behind German civilians, the sick and wounded, trusting that the Allies would look after them.

The Faridkot Sappers crossing the Rufiji River at Kiperio, 1917. Image reproduced courtesy of Richard Sneyd.
The Faridkot Sappers crossing the Rufiji River at Kiperio, 1917. Image reproduced courtesy of Richard Sneyd.

After decisively defeating Indian Expeditionary Force (B) at the Battle of Tanga in November 1914 Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck spent until early 1916 sending patrols into British East Africa as far as the Uganda Railway. In January 1918 the South African Lieutenant General Jan Smuts, who had fought the British in the Boer War, was appointed as Commander in Chief in East Africa and briefed to take his Forces on to the offensive by invading German East Africa.  In March, Smuts led the invasion into the Moshi area of northern German East Africa. Smuts’ move prompted Colonel von Lettow to start his retreat through German East Africa, Portuguese East Africa, back into German East Africa, finally surrendering at Abercorn in Northern Rhodesia to General Edwards at 12 noon on 25th November 1918.

Portrait of Lieutenant Robin Sneyd M.C. Image reproduced courtesy of Richard Sneyd.
Portrait of Lieutenant Robin Sneyd M.C. Image reproduced courtesy of Richard Sneyd.

My father, Robin Sneyd, was a civil engineer and member of the Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to the Faridkot Sappers and Miners as a Special Services Officer. The Faridkots were an Indian unit of about 150 men raised and paid for by the Raja of Faridkot a princely State in the Punjab.  They were commanded by an Indian Lieutenant Colonel. The ethnic composition of the Faridkots was about 93% Jut Sikh with the remainder being Punjabi Muslims.  European Special Services Officers of the rank of Major and below were attached to the Faridkots to give technical advice and liaise with others. The Faridkot Sappers and Miners were out in East Africa, longer than any other unit, working through the rainy seasons, repairing and maintaining roads and bridges.

Robin Sneyd left an extensive collection of notes, diaries and letters relating to his experiences in East Africa. I have compiled these records into a detailed account of the whole period of the Campaign, following the story of the Faridkot Sappers and Miners. The full text can be downloaded from The Great War in Africa Association website. I hope that my father’s story will raise the profile of this important element of First World War history and play a part in ensuring that those of all nationalities who were involved in the East Africa Campaign are acknowledged during the centenary commemorations.


Title quote: Edward Paice, ‘How The Great War Razed East Africa’, 4 August 2015, http://www.africaresearchinstitute.org/publications/how-the-great-war-razed-east-africa/

Derby Well Dressing Trail 2016

FullSizeRender (3)Visit Derby’s Well Dressing Trail portraying how Derby Green Spaces were used during First World War.
The Centre is very proud to support a project that examines the home front in Derby during the First World War. led by Derby’s Spiral Arts and Professor Paul Elliott, the project involves working with a group of local residents, interested in the history of Derby, a PHD student and two undergraduates from the University of Derby that are researching Derby’s archives to uncover information about parks and green spaces during First World War. The research information will be used to create ideas for well dressings which will then be on display for the people of Derby.

From Monday 20 June to Friday 25 June, five schools, a youth group, and an over 50s group will all work with Spiral Arts to produce a number of well dressings for exhibition in Derby’s first public park, the Derby Arboretum and extending into the city centre around the Cathedral Quarter.
This intricate art is unique to Derbyshire. Traditionally well dressing frames are soaked in the local river before being packed with clay. A design is marked out onto the clay and then each section is carefully covered with individual flower petals, leaves, seeds, coffee beans, feathers and stones to complete the design.

close up Hardwick Primary Sch (427x640)The trail will be launched at 11am on Saturday 25 June in the Orangery at Derby Arboretum Park and the well dressings will be on display until Sunday 3 July. There will be some well dressings displayed in the Arboretum Park and also well dressings displayed around the city’s Cathedral Quarter – QUAD, Deda, Derby Central Library, Derby Local Studies Library, Derby Cathedral and Derby Tourist Information Centre.

The research will also be used to create a textile banner exhibition in August at the Derby Arboretum Summer Celebration.


Workshops: The First World War and the Middle East

2016 sees the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret agreement by which the Entente powers, chiefly Britain and France, organised their intentions for the Middle East once the Ottoman Empire fell.

It was a significant moment in international relations and the development of the postwar system and is of particular interest at the moment, not just because of the centenary, but also the huge ramifications that it has had on the present day, in the Middle East and beyond.

The Centre intends to use the moment of the centenary to explore and discuss Sykes-Picot, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the long term impact of the First World War on a region that isn’t always associated with that conflict in the wider public imagination.

Persian man posing for a photograph. Note a truck with British troops in the background. The Service of the 9th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Persian Campaign, 1918. IWM Q 73032
Persian man posing for a photograph. Note a truck with British troops in the background. The Service of the 9th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Persian Campaign, 1918. IWM Q 73032

The Centre’s first public activities will take place in York on the 26th April. There are three linked events taking place, you can book for all three, or for each one individually.

The morning workshop will draw on the King’s Book of York Heroes and local research current, recent and future, focusing on the Middle East. The afternoon will lead on from this to more general discussions of World War One and the Middle East, including Yorkshire’s involvement and implications for today. Famous Yorkies such as Sir Mark Sykes, Gertrude Bell, and even Lawrence of Arabia and Bridlington will attend. ISIS will no doubt be mentioned!

There will be exhibitions throughout the day, along with lots of sources familiar and unfamiliar. We hope the day will generate enthusiasm and interest to follow up these ideas so it has a lasting legacy.

Details are still being confirmed, and may well be changed. Draft programmes are below.


9am: set up exhibits

9.30-10.30:  Coffee & Registration: Network and view exhibits

10.30-12.30 (with break):  Introduction: Themes of today and of the BABITME conference

  • The King’s Book of York Heroes.
    • What is it?
    • What has been done with it so far? Research from Fulford, Bishopthorpe, Copmanthorpe
    • What remains to be done? Digitisaton? A digital database? Linking with other data sources?

12.30: Lunch (free if booked). Network and view exhibits


1.30-5.30 (with breaks): Several themes such as the following

  • Middle East and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1900-1920
  • What happened? Different perspectives (Ottoman, German, Russian, French)
  • Sykes-Picot (16 May 1916)
  • Yorkshire links with the Middle East
  • The East Riding Yeomanry in Egypt and Palestine
  • Gertrude Bell, Mark Sykes, Wass Reader (a Hull soldier writes home)
  • Possible future research.
  • Yorkshire Quakers, pacifism, and the Middle East
  • Presentations from the Rowntree Society (York)
  • Contribution from Cyril Pearce (world-renowned expert on the history of pacifism – see below)
  • Prospects and sources for future research
Sykes Picot Agreement Map
Sykes Picot Agreement Map

The evening lecture (7.30) relates to pacifism in World War One and is hosted by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (details here). The speaker, Cyril Pearce, is world-renowned. Workshop attendees will be entitled to attend this lecture without charge.

All events are in central York. Morning and afternoon workshops are at Clements Hall, just 800 yards from York Railway station – turn right as you come out of the station, curve left and go over the bridge, cross in front of Micklegate Bar, then walk 200 yards along Nunnery Lane, turn right along Dale Street, and Clements Hall is at the end on your left. If you are parking, park in Nunnery Lane car park (fees apply).The evening event is in the Yorkshire Museum (see details below).

The entire day links with the themes of the “Borders and Beyond in the Middle East” (BABITME) conference in York in mid-June (details here). Those attending on 26 April will be entitled to free and reduced-fee tickets to BABITME (normal price £100).

We hope that you will decide to stay for the entire day on April 26th, but booking will be possible for each session separately.


Event: Pat Barker in Conversation

320x320.fitandcropAs part of UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature, award-winning British writer Pat Barker will be appearing at Nottingham Playhouse on Wednesday 15 June. 

Barker is one of the leading novelists of the First World War. She was awarded the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road (1995), the final novel in her much acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy.

Noon Day, the third novel in her Life Class trilogy, which spans the First and Second World Wars, was published in 2015 and she is working on a new novel.

Pat Barker is renowned for her imaginative exploration of war and has regenerated interest in historical figures including the army psychiatrist W.H.R Rivers and artist-surgeon Dr Henry Tonks, as well as war artists in both world wars. As we mark the centenary of the First World War, Barker’s writing has particular and contemporary resonance.

Barker’s novels have been adapted for the stage and filmed in the US and the UK. They are studied in schools and enjoyed by readers across the generations.

Pat Barker will be in conversation with Sharon Monteith, Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, who has followed Barker’s work since the 1980s and written about it since the 1990s. She published Pat Barker (Northcote House and the British Council, 2002), the first critical study of the writer, and co-edited Critical Perspectives on Pat Barker (2005).

For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Nottingham Playhouse website

Winston Churchill: Size 46

Winston Churchill: Size 46

Churchill visiting the Enfield Lock Munitions Works, 1915
Churchill the politician visiting the Enfield Lock Munitions Works, 1915

Winston Churchill is indelibly associated with the Second World War, and with good reason. As Prime Minister of Britain from 1940-45, he took a leading role in the conflict. However, he also had significant role in the First World War and one that is rather less celebrated.

In 1914 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and took part in the debates and arguments that concerned British involvement. He was also a staunch advocate of the development of the tank, then still referred to as ‘landships’. However, he is perhaps better known (or more notorious) for his masterminding of the failed Dardanelles campaign and the Gallipoli landings, which were tragic disasters for the Allied cause.

Seeking to make amends for his failures, Churchill left the government and took a commission in the Army, serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front. He remained there until 1916 and, after winning the trust of new Prime Minister David Lloyd George, he returned to government, initially as Minister of Munitions.

After the war he was appointed Secretary of State for Air and War and attended peace talks in Paris in 1919 at which he warned of the dangers of Bolshevism. His opposition to the Soviet system remained with him even after he was forced to make common cause with the Soviet Union in the defeat of Hitler.

Churchill with the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916
Churchill the soldier with the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916

Artist Joy Pitts, whose work we covered in an earlier blog post, has started work on a piece to commemorate Churchill. The work, currently titled ‘Size 46’ will focus on Churchill’s very particular style.

The project has been made possible through collaboration with his preferred outfitters. Churchill was certainly a man of style, choosing Henry Poole & Co, the most famous Savile Row tailor to measure, cut, fit and sew his bespoke three-piece suits.
Turnbull & Asser of Jermyn Street were also favoured by Churchill, pattern cutting and crafting his shirts and spot silk bow ties. Later referring to Churchill simply as size 46 and designing his famous ‘siren suit’.
Our vision of Churchill today would certainly not be complete without the addition of a Homburg hat, first ordered by Churchill from Lock & Co Hatters at No. 6 St. James’s Street, London in 1911. Now the oldest hat shop in the world.

The artwork in progress
The artwork in progress

Henry Poole & Co, Turnbull & Asser and Lock & Co Hatters are proud to have been of service to Churchill and are delighted to supply their bespoke labels for inclusion in his portrait. The result will be a contemporary image of Britain’s greatest war leader, portrayed through dress and reflecting on quality couture craftsmanship.
Once assembled using thousands of dressmaker pins the portrait will be exhibited in London in 2016

For more details and to see the work develop, please follow Joy’s blog