Lieut. Wilbur Dartnell V.C.

This article by Kevin Patience is very welcome, as it extends the site's sphere of interest beyond the Western Front and recounts an incident which took place in East Africa.  Kevin is the author of numerous articles and six books on the Military and Transport history of East Africa,  including "Konigsberg - A German East African Raider," the story of the exploits and destruction of this elusive cruiser in the backwaters of an East African river in 1915. I am very pleased that he should consider Hellfire Corner to be a suitable place for his work to appear on the Internet.

[Image] A hundred miles inland from the port of Mombasa on the East African coast, lies the township of Voi where, in a small Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery, stands a headstone engraved with a Victoria Cross. This is the grave of Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell, killed in action near Maktau on 3 September 1915 with seven others during a routine mounted patrol. The story behind his award dates back to the 1880s when both Germany and Great Britain were key players in the regions politics. Each was determined to take the upper hand in an area then ruled by the Sultan of Zanzibar. The political wrangling was eventually settled by the Treaty of Berlin signed between the two powers in July 1890. This saw the Sultan's East African territory carved up into British and German East Africa and Uganda, leaving the him with the 'Ten Mile Coastal Strip' running from the Somali border in the north to Mozambique in the south. The two colonies of British and German East Africa now shared a common border running from Lake Victoria around the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean.

The first settlers arrived from their respective countries in the 1890s, and in the years that followed the two colonies flourished with the British constructing the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, and the Germans with their line from Tanga to Moshi at the foot of Kilimanjaro. The region's capitals were based in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam respectively.

Following the outbreak of the Great War on 4 August 1914, many of the British settler farmers rode into Nairobi anxious to take on the 'Hun' next door, but with a lack of military control at the time, formed their own bands of mounted troops with names such as Bowkers Horse and set off to patrol the railway, lifeline of the country.

The Germans meanwhile under the leadership of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had established a first class fighting force of Africans led by a few European Officers and N.C.O.s. and on 15 August captured the border town of Taveta. The Uganda Railway was less than sixty miles away, and it was not long before the line became the subject of guerrilla attacks by mounted Schutztruppe patrols. Despite counter patrols, armoured trains and whitewashing the stone ballast, the Germans succeeded in attacking the railway at least fifty times, derailing trains and destroying many bridges.

German Askari

The enemy placed mines under the track to be detonated by the weight of an engine and to combat this a disposable wagon was placed in front, but the Germans countered this by using delayed action mines. Additional wagons were added until the situation became ludicrous when there were more wagons in front than behind.

HM Armoured Train "Simba"

Derailed Armoured Train

The British then painted miles of track ballast with whitewash and oil to indicate any disturbance but the Germans quickly responded by bringing their own paint or oil to cover their handiwork. Many years later during a survey of the area, the remains of a German camp was discovered in the bush less than a mile from the railway. To deal with this dangerous situation which would otherwise quickly cripple the country, large numbers of Allied and Indian troops were hurriedly brought in to help patrol the line. One such battalion was the 25th Royal Fusiliers (City of London) which arrived at Mombasa on 6 May 1915, and included in its number 2nd Lt. Wilbur Dartnell. He was born in Collingwood, a suburb of Melbourne, the son of Henry and Rose Dartnell, on 6 April 1885 and christened William Thomas. Educated in Melbourne, he became an actor, and was only fifteen when he enlisted in the 5th Contingent of the Victorian Mounted Rifles in February 1901. He served with the unit in South Africa from March 1901 until it returned to Australia a year later. On 15 April 1907 he married Elizabeth Edith Smyth at Queen Street, Melbourne, and they settled at Fitzroy. In 1912 or 1913 he returned to South Africa and was in East London when war broke out working for the Standard Printing Company where he frequently contributed articles to their Saturday newspaper, the Weekly Standard. Soon after the declaration of war Dartnell covened a meeting of Australians living in East London who were willing to serve on active service. As chairman of the meeting he placed his name at the head of the list and cabled the British War Office offering their services. He left for Britain on 23 September and on 12 February 1915, using the name Wilbur Taylor Dartnell, joined the 25th (Service) Battalion (Frontiersmen), the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) as a temporary lieutenant. Initially stationed at Swaythling near Southampton he made trips to Belgium in charge of drafts of Artillery horses.

In April 1915 Dartnell embarked with the Fusiliers for British East Africa and arrived in Mombasa on 6 May. They were initially detailed to patrol the Uganda Railway and later after a brief work up period in Nairobi, the battalion saw action with the capture of the German port of Bukoba on Lake Victoria on 22 June. The troops sailed aboard Uganda Railway lake steamers Usoga and Nyanza that had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy. Dartnell retrieved the imperial ensign from the local 'Bukoba' was later granted to the Fusiliers and the ensign is preserved to this day.

The Ensign Today

Shortly afterwards the battalion moved to Voi in preparation for the allied advance towards German East Africa and on 25 July Dartnell received his promotion to Lt. Two companies were despatched by rail to Maktau, a camp in the lee of the Taita Hills, thirty-five miles from Voi, railhead of the military railway under construction toward Taveta.

Taita Hills

Camp Maktau

A railway had seemed the best solution when it was found that the dry bushland rapidly became a muddy morass during the monsoon rains that immobilised vehicles, pack animals and men, and brought the mosquitoes out in force. Construction commenced in February 1915 under the direction of the Royal Engineers and by 23 June had reached Maktau. Every drop of drinking water had to be railed in from the wells at Voi and later piped from the hills at Bura. Despite stringent precautions casualties from water and food poisoning were high. It was said that for every man who died in action at least five died of Blackwater Fever, enteritis or malaria. On a hill overlooking Maktau a defensive postion known as Signal Hill was built ringed by dry stone walls with a commanding view over the bush towards Taveta and the border.

The Germans had meanwhile advanced further into British territory from Taveta and established a second outpost at Mbuyuni. Here they dug hundreds of yards of trenches and defences. They were now less than a day's ride from Maktau. The area commander Brigadier-General Malleson while out on a reconnaissance near Mbuyuni was attacked by a German patrol and only escaped through the devotion to duty of his escort of 130th Baluchis. One of whom Subadar Ghulam Haidar who covered the retreat of Malleson's car, fell while attacking the oncoming Germans and was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross. As the railhead advanced towards Taveta, German mounted Mounted patrol patrols harassed the railway gangs and derailed a number  of trains. To combat these raids armed mounted patrols consisting of officers and men of the Fusiliers and troops of the 130th Baluchis ranged the area around the railhead. Additional troops of the 2/Loyal N. Lancashire and 3rd Kings African Rifles were drafted in and under Malleson's command mounted a combined attack on Mbuyuni on 14 July. It was not a success and the force returned to Maktau that evening which had now become a major base with an airfield operating Caudron GIII aircraft.

On 2 September intelligence received at the camp indicated a German patrol was due to pass to the north of Maktau on its return to Mbuyuni. The following morning a mounted patrol under Captain Woodruffe consisting of four officers and sixty three men formed into four groups each led by an officer and headed out at a canter.

No. 1 Troop. 2 Lt. Packer and men of the L.N Lancs.

No. 2 Troop. 2 Lt. Ryan and men of the L.N Lancs.

No. 3 Troop. Lt. Dartnell and men of the Royal Fusiliers.

Lt. Wildman, and 50 men of the 130th Baluchis, following in support.

A Mounted Patrol

An hour later the three troops halted at a hill and took up positions on a slight slope in the bush facing east with the mules under cover. Two hours later around midday about two hundred of the enemy were spotted by the piquets at fifty yards. They opened fire at the enemy, who came within ten yards of them before they fell back to the firing line. The following extract from a report on the action makes interesting reading.

We were suffering a large proportion of casualties both among the men and mules and No. 3 Troop was ordered to bring their right flank forward, as they were apparently not engaged, this caused them to bunch towards the centre, bayonets were fixed and Captain Woodruffe was hit about this time, and our casualties were also increasing. Captain Woodruffe ordered the retirement and we got away as many wounded and rifles as possible. I saw Lt. Dartnell. lying wounded in the leg below the knee, he asked to be left behind. We mounted and rode away with as many wounded as could ride, the remaining casualties had to be abandoned. In my opinion if we had remained any longer, we should have been surrounded, as when we were mounting, the enemy was within 25 yards.


Lt. Dartnell Royal Fusiliers
15126 Sgt. Phillips Royal Fusiliers
12822 Pte. Henderson Royal Fusiliers
10314 Pte. Bristow L.N. Lancs
8032 Pte. Cooper L.N. Lancs
9222 Pte. Ward L.N. Lancs
9952 Pte. Acton L.N. Lancs
10070 Pte Brockbank L.N. Lancs


Capt. Woodruffe, R.Sussex Regt, attd. L.N.Lancs
9808 Pte. Anderson, L.N. Lancs.
5161 Sgt. Wakeford, L.N. Lancs
8617 L/Cpl. Jones L.N. Lancs
9817 Pte. Cowell L. N. Lancs.
9721 Pte. Heaton L.N. Lancs
9459 L/Cpl. Hughes L.N. Lancs
13740 Pte. Wood Royal Fusiliers.


10060 Pte. Bradley.
9177 L/Cpl. Goddard.
13475 L/Cpl. Robinson

In the meantime the patrol under Lt. Wildman, some distance away heard the sound of firing and headed in that direction and an hour later found eight bodies, four of whom had been killed at close range. Dartnell had refused to be evacuated insisting on staying behind in the belief that as an officer he could parley for their lives but they had been overrun and shot in cold blood and their bodies stripped of clothing and equipment. A second larger column of men and stretchers under Major Robinson arrived later that afternoon and collected the bodies and returned to Maktau that evening. In his report he stated they had all been shot or bayoneted at close range, after being either dead or wounded. The following day the funeral of the eight men was held in the small cemetery outside the camp.

The report of his bravery in the face of certain death led to the award of the Victoria Cross published in the London Gazette on 23 December 1915. His citation reads:

'For the most conspicuous bravery near Maktau (East Africa) on 3rd September 1915. During a mounted infantry engagement, the enemy got within a few yards of our men and it was found impossible to get the more severely wounded away. Lt. Dartnell who was himself wounded in the leg, seeing the situation and knowing the enemy's black troops murdered the wounded, insisted on staying behind in the hope of being able to save the lives of other wounded men. He gave his life in a gallant attempt to save others.'

He was survived by his wife and daughter. The Victoria Cross was presented to Dartnell's widow Elizabeth by Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, Governor-General of Australia, at a private ceremony in Government House, Melbourne, on 7 October 1916.

After the war the remains of Dartnell and the seven casualties and others killed in the Maktau area were exhumed by the Army Graves Service, the fore runner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and reburied in the military cemetery at Voi where their graves can be seen today.

During the 1980s I was resident in Mombasa and began an in-depth investigation of the Kenya battlefields and one of the first to be visited was Maktau, now a thriving township. The hill with its observation post behind the town was readily accessible. A rough track cut in 1915 was still usable and enabled one to drive within a stone's throw of the defences. Low stone walls with the outlying emplacements encircled the hilltop with superb views over the surrounding plains towards Mount Kilimanjaro and the Taita hills. A search in the wash away areas on the hillside brought to light a number of rusty tin cans one of which was stamped Q.M.P.Co. (Queensland Meat Packing Co.) that had originally contained Australian corned beef. Standing on the hilltop I surveyed the scene below and tried to put myself in the situation of seventy years previously. The railhead construction camp had been directly below and Dartnell's route would have been to my right. On an old map was some high ground marked as Fusilier Hill, this was where Dartnell had reportedly lost his life.

Fusilier Hill

Driving through the main gate into Tsavo West game park one headed north along the dirt road for the hill which was difficult to spot due to the dense bush. Being off the road it was a good hike through the thorn scrub and since this was the game park it was policy to have the services of an armed ranger. Elephants and buffalo are not known for their hospitality. It was a difficult task under the blazing sun to hack a way up the slope. A small rocky overhang seemed a likely refuge and here lying in the dust was a brass cartridge case and button. More cartridges came to light but little else. Was this Dartnell's last stand? Regrettably we shall never know for certain.

In a small fenced compound near Maktau railway station lies the small Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in which stands a stone memorial commemorating the Indian troops who died in the East African campaign and a few who are buried here. The railway which had been so costly to build was abandoned after the war on the grounds of economy, but in the 1920s was restored and enabled goods and passengers to journey from Nairobi to Tanga and latterly Dar es Salaam. In recent years with the decline in trade between the two countries by rail, the link between Taveta and Moshi has fallen into disuse and the line fom Voi to Taveta is only used occasionally.

Maktau Indian Cemetery

Away to the west stands the towering snow-capped bulk of Kilimanjaro and nearby is Salaita Hill, scene of a shattering allied defeat on 12 February 1916, when Lettow-Vorbeck's troops held the hilltop against a much greater allied force and then quietly evacuated the area before the next attack. Salaita had been originally known as Mbuyuni but is said to have been renamed after the Swahili interpretation of the word slaughter. Around the hill today can still be seen the remains of the German trenches and defensive walls and on the outskirts of Taveta stands a watch tower on a small hill. Nearby is Taveta War Cemetery where many of Salaita's casualties were buried together with a solitary South African Air Force pilot killed when Taveta military cemetery when his aircraft crashed on takeoff. By late 1915 Mbuyuni had become a major base with an airstrip for BE2c and Caudron aircraft operated by the R.N.A.S. and South African Air Force on reconnaissance patrols over the hills around Kilimanjaro. Today, little remains to show that the tide of war once raged over this area other than a large quantity of broken beer and wine bottles, barbed wire and bits of scrap metal.

In 1956 Dartnell's widow Elizabeth attended the Victoria Cross centenary celebrations in London. Dartnell is commemorated in the Victoria Cross Park in Campbell a suburb of Canberra and also the Victoria Cross Memorial in Queen Victoria Building, Sydney. The memorial consists of a carved wooden honour board set in a glass case with the names of 95 Australians awarded the Victoria Cross. Inside is a painting by G. W. Thomas of Queen Victoria presenting the first Victoria Crosses in London's Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 and a model of a Russian 64 pdr. cannon, captured at Sebastopol in 1854.

In 1983 Dartnell's Victoria Cross group came up for sale in Sydney and were bought by a private buyer who later presented them to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

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Copyright © Kevin Patience, December, 1998,  February, 2006.

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