Today, 11 Nov 20, is the anniversary of Armistice Day, the day World War 1 ended, more than a century ago, in 1918. Many countries around the world also commemorate this day as the Remembrance Day. India was involved in a significant way in the war but Indian participation has not been given adequate recognition in the annals of history. While there have been some welcome recent initiatives, especially in the years marking the centenary of the Great War, there has been a tendency to either overlook our role or be diffident about it, in part because many people feel it was done for a foreign Flag and, therefore, not worthy of attention. In fact, sadly, many Indian scholars and intellectuals actually look down upon this effort. This neglect or disdain has, therefore, resulted in near obliteration of this chapter from our memory, even though it has happened relatively recently.
While the debates about actions taken ‘at the behest of Colonial power’ are endless, India saw 1.5 million soldiers being involved in the war and give an excellent account of themselves on the front-lines. 74000 Indian soldiers lost their lives and many more were injured. Therefore, it should be possible to venerate and respect that part of the war while negotiating the dialogue about the ‘foreign cause’. In this regard, Indian Navy’s approach may be instructive. Let us take the case of a little-known event of World War I in East Africa, involving Indians. It, in some ways, also connects to our present.
On 28th July 2017, while on an official visit to Tanzania, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba presented a chart of the port of Tanga (in northern Tanzania), to Hon’ble Kassim Majaliwa, the Prime Minister of that country. This chart (as maps in the maritime world are called) was the result of an extensive hydrographic survey undertaken by an Indian Survey Ship, demonstrating not only our prowess in hydrography (the equivalent of surveying on land but hydro ships do much more) but also the contribution of Indian Navy to our international cooperation engagements.
Indians, by and large, are either uninterested or unaware of East Africa, despite both geographical proximity and historical antiquity playing an important role in our centuries long association. While the knowledge of our participation in the WW I is scant, that of the East African theatre is even less known. Not many may be aware, but Tanga has a war historical connection with India. This tale relates to that.
Within months of war breaking out in Europe, it spread to Africa where the belligerents had colonial interests. British Admiralty was eyeing Tanga, the busiest port in the East African coast under German control. (Do recollect that Tanzania or more specifically Tanganyika then was a German colony). The idea was simple. By taking over Tanga, Britain could not only block German trade in/to Africa but could also further target the Usambara railway line, thus hitting at the heart of German possessions in Africa. This would enable British control of whole of East Africa. In order to do this, an amphibious assault was planned on Tanga. To be fair to the British, the Germans had already moved across the border and seized Taveta in Aug 1914. Also, the greater German strategic goal was a sound one – to keep a bulk of British troops occupied in defending their colonies so as to reduce their numbers in the European theatre.
While the Royal Navy provided the ships for this assault on Tanga, the manpower or the Army troops were predominantly from the Indian Army. The 8000 strong Indian Expeditionary Force B led by Maj Gen Arthur Aitken, consisted of the 27th Bangalore Brigade (which comprised 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry, the 98th Infantry, the 101st Grenadiers, 28th Mountain Battery RA, the 25th and 26th Companies Faridkot Sappers and Miners and 61st KGO Pioneers) and the Imperial Service Brigade (which comprised 13th Rajputs, the Gurkhas of the 2nd Kashmiri Rifles, a half battalion of 3rd Kashmir Rifles and half battalion of 3rd Gwalior Rifles). After the assault, the Force was to link up with Expeditionary Force B which was already pushing forward to Moshi (at the foothills of Kilimanjaro). Force B consisted of 29th Punjabis, Imperial Service Battalions made from the states of Bharatpur, Kapurthala, Jind and Rampur and the 1st battery of Calcutta Volunteers.
The assault was launched on 02 Nov 1914 but turned out to be a big failure. While total surprise could not be achieved as a local truce agreement to not attack each other’s ports had to be called off and announced to the Germans, the British were facing a light opposition consisting of only one company of East African askaris (security guards). However, in the the slow and lumbering advance of the operation, in part due to being deceived about the harbour being mined, the British controlled troops failed to progress, allowing the opposition under Lt Col Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (let’s call him Col LV for short) to recoup, bolster his strength with the addition of six more companies and put up stiff resistance. The entire Battle reads like a tragicomedy. You can Google for details, but suffice it to say here it was actually a case of both sides committing blunders galore with the British excelling at it. The battle of Tanga is also often called the ‘Battle of Bees’, since in another tragicomic incident, several huge beehives were disturbed by both sides in the battle and they in turn descended on the troops in a swarm injuring and hurting many. Many British stories talk of this as a fiendish German ploy but the truth was more prosaic. The agitated bees added to the X factor in the war.
For three days, the battle went on with 1000 in the German defence force, the Schutztruppe (largely colonial volunteers and native African soldiers, with very few German troops) and 8000 in the invading British Indian force. Fortunes fluctuated and in fact on the night of 04 Nov, when German forces briefly withdrew west to consolidate, Tanga was for the taking but Aitken did not press home the advantage. Determinedly, the smaller German force held its ground. Ultimately, the British, after incurring several losses, disarray in troops and staring failure, decided to call off the assault and evacuate the troops. On 5th Nov 1914, the evacuation was finally complete but the end result was messy. The casualty count, almost all Indian, was close to1000 with 360 troops dead, close to 500 injured and another 150 reported missing. The distraught and disarrayed troops in many cases fled leaving behind their equipment, arms and ammunition. In contrast, the Schutztruppe had 71 dead and 76 wounded.
Tanga, in many ways, was a disaster and there is no harm in saying so. In fact, British war history records it as one of their worst defeats. Tanga does not resonate of bravery like the other great episodes of WW 1 or 2 like Ypres or Flanders. It was not heroic like Haifa, not even a courageous defeat after a fierce fight like Gallipoli. There was none of the romanticism that was to be associated (later in WW 2) with Dunkirk. This was simply ignominious.
British writing makes it out that the Indian troops were unprepared and ill-trained. Perhaps there is a point there, but this was no fault of the Indians. Those that had been trained and equipped had already been sent to the European and Mediterranean theatres. Tanga was hurriedly conceived and launched with the residual troops in India forming a new expeditionary force. Major Roger Sibley, a British Army officer and writer brings out in his book on the East Africa campaign “the names of the Brigades were misleading as both brigades had been recruited from the length and breadth of India; both men and officers were strangers to each other and even more so to their new Commanders”.
Further, as we all know, in war, especially combat, it is the leadership that is mainly instrumental in the ultimate outcome. And the British leadership was, arguably, poor. Be it Aitken himself who was relieved of Command after this campaign or Navy Capt Francis Caulfield, the Captain of HMS Fox, the Royal Navy flagship, they showed lack of understanding of terrain and inadequate temperament. Several aspects stand out for poor planning – the journey to Mombasa and then Tanga on the ships done in a hurry, inadequate training, scanty intelligence, non-use of naval ships for gunfire support and Aitken’s disregard of the advice of his Staff Officers and the Commanders in Kenya who had a better knowledge of the local conditions. In contrast, Col LV proved to be a great leader. In fact, he remained the only German campaign Commander who was undefeated in the War and is considered a heroic figure in Africa. In fact, after the failed attempt at Tanga, the British attempted to attack Tanzania through Kenya from land, targeting the railway lines at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, once again involving several Indian troops, but Col LV could not be overcome.
Many commentators have echoed the description of WW1 as given in the book ‘In Flanders Fields’ where author Leon Wolff says “The First World War was undoubtedly the most horrible war ever fought, the most senseless, the most unimaginative in its strategy and for the men who found themselves in the trenches, the most hopeless”. This applies even more to Africa where, arguably, no great strategic purposes were served, save, possibly, the ‘prestige’ of the Colonial powers. In a book on ‘Command Failure in War – Psychology and Leadership’, the authors Robert Pois and Philip Langer, both Professors at University of Colorado-Boulder, have devoted a full chapter to the British Military in World War 1. Significantly, even they focus on Europe and ignore Africa completely. However, in their overall assessment of British Strategy they bring out that “with a few notable exceptions, the British war effort between 1914 and 1918 was characterised by a seemingly perverse commitment to stale, unimaginative tactics that were responsible for slaughters that would only be equalled only by those on the Eastern Front in WW2”.
Therefore, it could be argued that the dead and injured and missing from India were just as hardy and committed as their brethren elsewhere. It was simply their fate to suffer, as Soldiers often do, the consequences of things beyond their control. The dead in Tanga are a part of the more than 3000 Indian soldiers whose graves lie in various parts of East Africa. As most Indian soldiers were cremated and not buried, their names are mentioned not grave wise, but on long plaques in the many Commonwealth war graveyards that are located in Kenya and Tanzania. An important point that bears mention is that the East African theatre of war was very difficult from the European one. Maj Sibley writes “the campaign was fought mostly in ‘bush country’, which in fact was anything from open parkland to dense forest or thorn scrub. The physical and climatic hazards were arduous enough but coupled with dangers of rhinoceros, elephant, lion and crocodile, Command and Control became formidable tasks. The soldier also had to contend with the constant battle against mosquitoes, tsetse flies, jiggers and ticks, not to mention bilharzias from infected rivers and lakes”.
This military link between India and Africa is often not known or under emphasised in our national narratives. In fact, soldiers from India formed some initial component of the King’s African Rifles (today Kenya African Rifles) from the last decade of the 19th century and were disbanded around 1913, just before the war. As historian Thomas Metcalf in his book ‘Imperial Connections’ puts it “The Indian Army, then, made possible the expansion of the British Empire across territories as widely scattered as Malaya, East Africa and Mesopotamia”. Similarly, it is not known that Kenyan soldiers fought in the North East, in the Burma campaign in World War 2 and many died here. Post-independence, India continued the tradition in a new benign avataar of peacekeeping and many of our troops have played a most distinguished part in Peace Support Operations in Africa. In fact, the first ex NDA officer to be awarded a Param Vir Chakra was Capt GS Salaria, for operations in Congo in early sixties. During my tenure in Kenya, as the Defence Adviser in the Indian High Commission at Nairobi but accredited to East Africa, I tried my best to inform the local Africans, the Indian diaspora and other nationals, especially those from West, about these fascinating historical details.
That brings me to the present. In Oct 17, at the Goa Maritime Conclave eminent strategic affairs scholar Dr C Raja Mohan made the point that British colonial enterprise was undergirded by three important elements – the Royal Navy, the Indian Army and the carefully enmeshed government and administrative structures of envoys, regents, intelligence officials, collectors, police officials. He also rued the fact that a newly independent India looked inward and had neither the appetite nor imagination to view the world as the British did resulting in a loss of strategic space for India post 1947. He also inferred that it is only in the last few decades that we seem to have recovered our mojo as a regional or middle power.
Without getting into these debates on power theories and international relations, it can be clearly said that the Indian Navy has been playing a key role in our international engagements, especially in the past two decades. We are the best manifestation of an India that is looking outward again but we do so by invoking new benign paradigms. Instead of expeditionary operations we believe in foreign cooperation. Respect for each other, mutual partnerships, joint stake-holdership, non-invasive frameworks are the buzz words that characterise our initiatives, as brought out by Admiral Sunil Lanba in the same conclave. The same point was forcefully stressed just last week by Admiral Karambir Singh, the current CNS, at the NDC seminar, when he described the first line of effort of Indian Navy’s regional strategy as “Collaboration and Cooperation with partners” to be built on pillars such as ‘trust, interoperability and enhanced engagement’ among others.
Therefore, it was entirely appropriate that the site of a battle between colonial antagonists should become the very location of a new cooperative endeavour of a post-colonial world. Indian Navy’s hydrography standards are world class. By assisting the Tanzanian authorities in surveying the port of Tanga we gave a fillip to regional cooperation.
And the date that the Navy Chief presented the chart is significant. 28 July 2017. Do remember, 28 July 1914 was the start of World War 1. 103 years later, to the day, the CNS connected the dots of the history. And 106 years later, on Armistice Day, I hope as an amateur historian, that the Indian Navy’s grand gesture finally puts a closure to the disaster of that day.
We have indeed come a long way from Tanga.
PS – I understand that the Tanga amphibious campaign is studied and has been analysed in detail by the United States Command and Staff Course. Despite the time gap and the somewhat farcical elements of the battle, it continues to be relevant as a case study particularly for Expeditionary forces.
Cmde Srikant Kesnur is a serving navy officer with interest in contemporary naval history.
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INS TABAR PARTICIPATES IN MARITIME EXERCISE WITH ALGERIAN NAVY
The Ministry of Defence informed on Tuesday that the Indian Navy Ship (INS) Tabar took part in the maiden Maritime Partnership Exercise with the Algerian Navy on 29 August.
INS Tabar participated in the exercise during its ongoing goodwill visit to Europe and Africa. “The landmark exercise held off the Algerian coast and saw the participation of a frontline Algerian Naval Ship (ANS) ‘Ezzadjer’,” said the Ministry of Defence in a statement.
As a part of this exercise, several activities including coordinated manoeuvring, communication procedures and steam past were undertaken between the Indian and Algerian warships.
“The exercise enabled the two navies to understand the concept of operations followed by each other. It also enhanced interoperability and opened the possibility of increasing interaction and collaboration in the future,” the statement added.
Home Ministry appoints Rajwinder Singh Bhatti as Border Security Force ADG
NEW DELHI: Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has appointed Rajwinder Singh Bhatti, a 1990-batch IPS officer, as ADG Border Security Force (BSF) on a deputation basis up to 30 September 2025, his date of superannuation or till further orders.
According to the official statement, “Ministry of Home Affairs appointed Bhatti, a 1990-batch IPS officer, as ADG Border Security Force, on deputation basis, up to 30 September 2025, the date of his superannuation or till further orders.”
The Home Ministry has also written to the Bihar government to relieve him at earliest.
The state government is requested to relieve him immediately to enable him to take up his new assignments at the Centre, as per the official MHA statement. Bhatti, a Bihar cadre officer, is currently posted as Director General, Bihar Military Police, at Patna.
NO SECURITY THREAT AT PANGODE MILITARY STATION, CLARIFIES DEFENCE PRO
Reports carried by a section of the online media related to the security of the Pangode Military station here are ‘’unsubstantiated,” a Defence PRO said on Tuesday. “No security threat at Pangode Military station”, the Defence wing said in a release.
It said the news carried by the online media does not hold credibility due to lack of authentication and supporting evidence and warned that appropriate action would be initiated against any entity that peddles fake news, especially that which jeopardises security.
The office of the Defence PRO, in its official capacity, scrutinised the validation of the contents of the news segment publicised online from varied official agencies who proclaimed that the news is unsubstantiated.
“It is needless to emphasise that publicising such fake news in any media platform is against media ethics and is a serious breach of security”, said the release issued by the Defence wing.
The reports had claimed that the Pangode military station was facing a ‘’security threat’’.
CYCLING EXPEDITION FLAGGED OFF BY ITBP TO MARK ‘AZADI KA AMRIT MAHOTSAV’
SILIGURI: To celebrate the 75th Independence Day anniversary, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commenced a cycle rally from Siliguri on 31 August and it will culminate in Patna on 8 September.
The cycle rally, which is a part of Azadi Ke Amrit Mahotsav, originally, started from Itanagar and culminates in Delhi’s Rajghat on 2 October, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. From Siliguri, as many as 12 ITBP personnel, including officers and jawans, were part of the cycle rally.
Talking about the motive, RPS Raghubangshi, DIG, ITBP-Gangtok told ANI, “The motive of the cycle rally is to connect with the locals and common people.” Meanwhile, in Ladakh, the cycle rally of ITBP personnel started the rally from Sakti village and reached Leh as of 31 August, covering over 236 km in total, tweeted from ITBP’s official Twitter handle. –
FIRE AND FURY CORPS CELEBRATES 22ND RAISING DAY IN LEH
PRO, Defence, Srinagar informed that ‘Fire and Fury Corps’ celebrated its 22nd Raising Day, on Wednesday, in Leh with a solemn Wreath Laying ceremony held at War Memorial.
Lieutenant General PGK Menon, General Officer Commanding, Fire and Fury Corps laid a wreath at the Leh War Memorial on behalf of all ranks of Fire and Fury Corps to honour the brave soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice during various operations in Ladakh. According to Srinagar Defence PRO, the corps was raised on 1 September 1999, in the aftermath of the Kargil War. Since its raising, the Corps has successfully ensured sanctity of both, the Line of Control with Pakistan and Line of Actual Control with China while maintaining eternal vigil at some of the highest battlefields in the world including the Siachen Glacier.
The Corps since its raising has been instrumental in the development of infrastructure in Ladakh for the common use of the Army and civilians, thereby promoting development in Ladakh.
The Corps has stood steadfast with the people of Ladakh in times of natural calamities, providing assistance and support in relief, rescue, and rebuilding of infrastructure.
“On the auspicious occasion of the Raising Day of the Corps, all ranks once again pledged to defend our borders with their blood and reaffirmed their wholehearted support to the people of Ladakh”, the statement read.
FORCE WELL-TRAINED, PREPARED TO DEFEND BORDERS: OUTGOING ITBP DG
The outgoing Director-General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) that primarily guards 3,488 km long India-China borders ranging from Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Jachep La in Arunachal Pradesh, while referring to the safety of the borders stated that the force is well-trained and always prepared to defend our international border in all situations.
Surjeet Singh Deswal, who retired, on Tuesday, as the ITBP DG while speaking to ANI said, “Whether there is an agreement or no agreement. We go by the needs on the border. India is a law-abiding nation. We respect our bilateral agreements. We respect our international conventions and the conduct which should be there between the two countries. We have never violated our bilateral agreements, our promises to our neighbours. We have always respected our neighbours. But we are always prepared to defend our border in all situations.” Responding to a question that there is a policy of no use of firearms on the Indo-China border and if in such a situation, if the Chinese attack the Indian side, what will India do, Deswal said, “Till our bilateral agreements are respected, we will keep on respecting. In case of need, we are prepared for all situations.”
On the India-China disengagement process and friction points between the two countries, he said, “Such border issues across the world take long to settle down. Our efforts in totality are the might of the forces, the diplomatic strength, our economic strength, the total collective forces of the country are on the job and to negotiate. Times are not as important as our claims are. We have to pursue our negotiations so that, at the end of the negotiations, our claims are with us.”
India and China have already disengaged from the banks of Pangong lake after extensive talks and the Gogra Heights and Hot Springs areas are left to be resolved as these friction points were created post-Chinese aggression last year. 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in June last year.
The two countries have been engaged in a military standoff for almost a year but disengaged from the most contentious Pangong lake area last month after extensive talks at both military and political levels.
“I’m retiring after 37 years in the uniform. I served for 27 years in the Haryana state police and 10 years with GoI. For the last three years, I was heading ITBP which is an elite force of the country, looking after the India-China border in very tough topographical, geographical conditions. The force is well-trained for that terrain and is comfortable staying there and complete its mandate of protection of the international border. ITBP soldiers and officers are trained for all kinds of situations,” added Deswal.
Deswal is an Indian Police Service officer. He did his graduation (B.Sc.) from Panipat and LLB from Kurukshetra University. As Superintendent of Police, Deswal served in several important districts of Haryana such as Karnal, Rohtak, Kaithal, Bhiwani and Fatehabad and Commandant 5th Battalion of H.A.P, Madhuban. He joined the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the year 1994 and served as Superintendent of Police till 1998 in the All India Anti Corruption Unit. He was promoted to DIG, Railways and Tech.
As Inspector-General of Police, Deswal held the charge of important ranges like Ambala and Rohtak. He worked as Commissioner of Police of Gurugram, from 2009 to 2011.
Deswal worked as Director-General of State Crime Branch and Haryana Armed Police. He was awarded the Indian Police Medal for meritorious service in 2001 and President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 2012 for dedicated service to the Nation.
Deswal joined Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) in December 2015 and served as Additional Director General (ADG) till October 2017. He served as ADG and Special DG (Operations) in Border Security Force (BSF) for a year. Deswal was appointed DG SSB on 30 September 2018 and appointed DG ITBP on 31 October 2018.
He retired after his three years of service to the force as its Director-General. Deswal handed over the customary baton to senior Indian Police Service (IPS) office Sanjay Arora at the force headquarters.
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