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Marched over by men of the The Royal Lancaster Regiment

Compiled by Major Harry Fecitt MBE TD


The Turkana tribe inhabited (and still do inhabit) the arid and desolate northern border region of British East Africa (now Kenya) west of Lake Rudolph. The Turkanas were a very warlike tribe, constantly fighting their neighbours in order to acquire livestock to replace their own losses caused by drought. The tribe was one of the last in the region to be "subdued" by colonial authorities.

The Turkanas fought with their traditional weapons ? long spears, narrow shields and vicious wrist-knives (circles of metal sharpened on the outer edge and worn around the wrist) that were used to disembowel opponents. They lived in a hot climate and had little use for clothing.

Turkana tactics were based around a traditional tribal saying that success in war is based not on power but on knowledge. Also they wished to avoid heavy casualties as the tribe did not have reserves of manpower. Thus the Turkanas would not mount a mass charge but preferred to blend into their landscape, appearing suddenly and fleetingly to spear enemy sentries or stragglers or run off cattle. These skilful and fearless fighters fiercely resisted any foreign penetration into their territory but they lacked central and effective military leadership.

Abyssinian gun-runners traded with the tribesmen, offering firearms for ivory. The Abyssinians also encouraged the Turkana to resist the growing authority of the British colonial government. Sometimes Abyssinian troops or irregulars would cross the border to fight alongside the Turkana. However the tribe never really trusted the Abyssinians, and the firearms were poorly and ineffectively handled due to a failure to comprehend the weapons' capabilities.

In 1910 the police in eastern Uganda were responsible for maintaining law and order in Karamoja, a tribal area just west of Turkanaland, but were short of men and so could not go to investigate reports of fighting between the Karamojong and Turkana tribes. 4th King's African Rifles (4 KAR), the Uganda battalion, was tasked with escorting a Political Officer into Karamoja, helping him determine the facts, and disarming and punishing recalcitrants as the Political Officer decided. This expedition became known as the Turkana Mission 1910-11. Although hardly any fighting took place this mission is a good example of the type of policing action that colonial military units were involved in at that time.

Lieutenant Edward Gerald Mytton Thorneycroft, Royal Lancaster Regiment, was one of the three KAR officers on the mission, which also contained a Doctor, 103 African Askari and a Maxim gun detachment. Because the route from north-eastern Uganda into Turkanaland was not proven the mission, starting out on 21st November 1910, crossed Lake Victoria from Uganda in a steamer to Kisumu in British East Africa, then took a train to Nakuru and then commenced marching north.

The main problems were logistic ones. Ox-waggons were hired at Nakuru and over 450 porters were also required to carry supplies for the mission. On arrival at Lake Baringo the ox-waggons went home as the owners would not risk them going any further north. The Assistant Distict Commissioner at Baringo arranged for the hire of over 100 donkeys to replace the ox-waggons and the Askari were detailed to improvise panniers for the donkey loads using old sacking, as the bags of food had to be protected from the dense thorn trees that lay ahead. Meanwhile Edward Thorneycroft and his fellow officers went out shooting game to provide ration-meat and also skins for sandals.

A difficult fly-belt (terrain dominated by tsetse-fly where horses and game cannot survive, but where donkeys sometimes can) lay ahead and the mission used the porters to cross it. But the porters were collapsing with dysentery and the mission was glad to reach the Kerio River where tribesmen offered bullocks and sheep for sale. The mission then pushed on to the Turkwell River through herds of elephant and rhino that on one occasion stampeded the donkey column, and finally reached Turkwell Boma.

Here on 4th February 1911 Edward Thorneycroft took over command of the military personnel in the mission. His Askari escorted the Political Officer around the region to talk to the tribes and impose fines of livestock if raiding had occurred. The prevailing attitude of the various tribesmen was not to argue but just to say that raiding was part of their way of life. In one judgement the Political Officer decided that the Turkana had been raided against by the Karamoja. The Karamoja were reluctant to accept their fine and so Lt Thorneycroft and his men pursued the fleeing Karamoja herds, overtook them and captured 800 head, 200 of which were handed back to a delighted Turkana delegation to compensate for Turkana losses.

After a month or so of these duties the mission was terminated and Edward Thorneycroft marched back to Bombo, Uganda with his men, having covered 780 miles on foot. In September 1911 Edward Thorneycroft was promoted to Captain and appointed Adjutant of 4KAR. He was killed in action three years later whilst fighting a German incursion into British East Africa.

Raiding continued in and around Turkanaland whilst the Governors of Uganda and British East Africa debated who should be responsible for this area. A large military expedition was planned for 1914 but the Great War intervened. 4 KAR was fully committed on the southern border with German East Africa and British Sudanese forces moved into northern Uganda to temporarily assume responsibility for security. Lawlessness increased over the next four years as British garrisons in the area remained under-manned and resulted in a large security operation mounted from both Sudan and British East Africa from April to June 1918. This became known as the Turkana Patrol.

But this failed to suppress raiding as the Abyssinian gun-runners maintained their activities, and the area where Sudan, Abyssinia and British East Africa met provided easy escape routes for fleeing raiders. Even today the tribes in this remote region (where the killings took place in the book and film "The Constant Gardner") raid each other's herds and sometimes violate and kill each other's women and children - and now they have the use of automatic weapons because the gun-runners still thrive.

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