Historical tales of great military campaigns often celebrate the virtues of some of the greatest leaders this world has ever known –Nelson, Wellington, Napoleon – the list goes on and on. Tales of cunning; of famous manoeuvres; of evaluated risks and psychological tactics.
It is easy to forget, as we marvel at the magnitude of achievement and the Machiavellian shrewdness of the victorious Generals, that there is always a losing side. And it is on that losing side that we oft find the most extreme tales of bravery from the infantry – from the soldiers destined to face a formidable foe. Bravery and courage that stems perhaps from the ineptness of their own Generals – Generals themselves destined to have the words ‘defeated by’ forever etched after their names in the annals of history.
In November of 1914 we find one such example – of celebrated military tactics on one side aided by a level of incompetency on the other; seasoned by the bravery and distinguished conduct of the soldiers who found themselves led by a General destined to be the lesser of his counterpart.
It was the beginning of the war in East Africa – the Battle of Tanga, often referred to as the Battle of the Bees due to the swarms of indigenous bees that proved so hinderous to the British-led forces.
Tanga itself was situated on the coast of what was then German East Africa – a supremely tactical location as the area’s busiest seaport and the headquarters of the crucial Usambara railway that linked the town with the Usambara mountains and Lake Victoria.
The British command ordered General Aitken to capture the German port. On 2 November 1914, HMS Fox landed at Tanga and immediately demanded surrender. It was a tactical ploy that would prove to be a costly mistake. The request was summarily dismissed, and the German Colonel, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was immediately able to reinforce his position.
General Aitken had been reliably informed that the harbour was mined, and so diverted his forces to land some three kilometres further down the coast. The information was, however, utterly wrong, and the harbour was not only unmined but under-defended, as Lettow-Vorbeck had pulled many of his forces back to defend the town.
The next morning, Aitken sent four companies of the 13th Rajputs towards the town. Indicative of the entire campaign, reconnaissance of the area had been somewhat lax, and the companies immediately found themselves under heavy fire. By the afternoon the fighting had become as disorganised as the aforementioned planning, taking on the nature of ‘jungle skirmishes’, not helped in the slightest by the swarms of angry bees that attacked constantly.
Lettow-Verbeck ordered a counter-attack and the British forces were soon left with no option but to retreat. It was a costly defeat – the British casualties numbered 847 (including 360 fatalities). By contrast, the German forces had incurred just 67 deaths.
General Aitken then, through a combination of poor planning, misinformation and bad decisions, doomed himself to have the words ‘defeated by’ forever preceding his name, leaving those under his command to steal the glory.
Lot 2177 in our May Auctions (3 & 4 May 2016) – The Distinguished Conduct Medal for Tanga East Africa Boer War Group to Pte Arnull, along with other medals from the Boer War. Estimate: £1,800-2,200
One of those such men was Private Charles Arnull, who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his role in the ill-conceived attack, proving that when the Generals falter it is left to the common soldier to display the grit, bravery and determination that we normally reserve for the military greats.
Private Arnull’s heroics under the most adverse of circumstances are remembered here with this medal, sold alongside his others from WWI. The conditions that he had to endure in the face of such poor leadership we can only imagine, but summed up eloquently by this quote from a British soldier of the battle: “with (the enemy) firing at our backs and the bees stinging our arses, it was ‘ard.”
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