The Battle of Lugalo, 17 August 1891

The Battle of Lugalu 0700 HRS 17th August 1891
Original Image from Google Earth

There are several widely differing accounts of what happened in this battle, which is perhaps inevitable in view of the fact that none of the Germans who were heavily engaged survived to tell their story. Lieutenant Prince and the 8th Company were left to hold the ford over the River Ruaha while Zelewski pressed on towards Kalenga, which was about 15 miles further on. The Germans had already shown their hostile intentions by firing on a group of Hehe – who according to one story were part of a peace mission from Mkwawa – and burning some huts at the village of Image. Towards the top of the Kitonga gorge, where dense bush on both sides of the trail provided cover for an ambush, an army of 3,000 warriors under the command of Mkwawa’s brother Mpangile was lying in wait. At dawn on 17 August the Germans set out in a long column through an area of dense bush, with Zelewski at the head riding on a donkey and Lieutenant Tettenborn’s company bringing up the rear. Some accounts suggest that Zelewski was totally unprepared for any opposition, but as he had already deliberately provoked the Hehe such carelessness is inexplicable. There appear to have been no scouts deployed, the artillery and the Maxim guns were being carried dismantled on pack animals, and some of the askaris had not even loaded their rifles. Just before 7.00 am they halted to allow stragglers to catch up, then moved on again, advancing towards a hill covered with large rocks and thick vegetation.

Then a single shot was fired. It is not clear who fired it – some Hehe witnesses said that Zelewski took a snap-shot at a bird – but it seems to have either deliberately or accidentally triggered the Hehe ambush. (Another Hehe version says that the signal was supposed to be for their leader to imitate the cry of a bird, but a real bird call caused them to attack prematurely.) Some German accounts speak of a volley of musketry, but it seems better to rely on the recollections of the Hehe themselves, who were the only survivors in this sector of the battlefield. In 1907 a veteran of the battle stated that ‘the Hehe shot one gun; they all moved quickly and fought with spears’ (Redmayne). Tettenborn and Reichard also imply that only one shot was heard from the Hehe side (quoted in Redmayne). Then the warriors charged out of the bush, only thirty paces from the head of the German column. It appears that the leading companies were overwhelmed almost at once, and probably from several directions, because Hehe veterans said that Zelewski was speared in the back as he fired at another group of attackers. His killer was a boy of sixteen, who received three cows from Mkwawa as a reward. But because the ambush had been launched sooner than intended, those at the rear of the German column were able to organize some resistance.

According to one account the medical officer, Dr Richard Buschow, and a handful of askaris got one of the Maxims into action and fought off their assailants from the shelter of a hut until nightfall, when they made their escape. But this appears to be an example of colonial myth-making. In reality Buschow was killed in the ambush, and his name is listed among the fallen ‘heroes’ of the battle on the Lugalo Memorial which still stands on the site. Tettenborn, commanding the rearguard, retired to a small hill and formed a defensive position there, which was not seriously threatened. He waited for two days to collect any survivors, then retreated to Mpwapwa, leaving the dead unburied. (Peter Rutkowski, on the basis of the differences between Tettenborn’s version and others, has suggested in an unpublished account that Tettenborn was not an eyewitness of the battle at all; either his company had been detached before the ambush, or he retreated as soon as the fighting started and later invented a story to justify himself. However, contemporary sources contain no criticism of Tettenborn, and it is quite possible that his own account, which attributes his survival to the premature triggering of the Hehe ambush, is correct.)

According to Rochus Schmidt, the bodies left on the battlefield included ten Europeans (Zelewski, three other officers and six German NCOs), 250 askaris and around 100 porters. Assuming that the three leading companies averaged ninety men each, this would imply that they were virtually annihilated. Many of the wounded had crawled into nearby cover to hide, only to be burnt to death when the victorious Hehe set fire to the grass. All the artillery was also lost, including the Maxims, which the Hehe later set up at Kalenga. Schmidt remarks that the dead men were among the best and most experienced in the whole Schutztruppe; in fact they made up almost a fifth of the force’s total manpower at that time. Only one lieutenant from the forward companies, though wounded, managed to escape and rejoin Tettenborn. The latter claimed that the Hehe lost around 700 men, but this is unlikely in view of the fact that few of the askaris can have had time to fire more than one shot. Tom Prince’s estimate (Iliffe) was more realistic: he believed that about sixty of the enemy had been killed on the battlefield, and perhaps another 200 died of their wounds later. If Dr Buschow really did get the Maxim into action this may have been the cause of most of the Hehe casualties, but he was obviously too late to affect the outcome of the main battle. The shortage of accurate information about the course of the fight has subsequently led to confusion even about the fate of the main protagonists. An account published after the First World War in the British Handbook of Tanganyika (ed. Moffett) states incorrectly that Zelewski survived, even though his name heads the list of dead on the German memorial.Tettenborn even listed Mkwawa himself among the dead. In fact Mkwawa was almost certainly not present, although one of his leading commanders, Ngosingosi, was killed at Lugalo.

This defeat temporarily threw the Germans onto the defensive throughout their East African territories. The remaining Schutztruppe units were too weak to mount another expedition, so all that could be done was to deploy 150 men to protect the loyal population of the neighbourhood from Hehe raids, and enlist the Holy Ghost missionaries to act as intermediaries in opening peace negotiations with Mkwawa. No agreement was reached, and in October 1892 a Hehe army destroyed a trading caravan at Mukondoa and attacked the fort at Mpwapwa. In the following year they ravaged the lands of a chief called Mudgalula who had cooperated with the Germans. However, Mkwawa seems to have deliberately avoided contact with German-led forces, no doubt aware that his victory at Lugalo was due partly to Zelewski’s mistakes, and was unlikely to be repeated if he met riflemen on equal terms in the open. The Hehe king’s main strategy was to develop his base at Kalenga into an impregnable stronghold in preparation for the inevitable counter-attack.