In the summer of 1926 No.4 Company of the 3rd King’s African Rifles (3 KAR) was stationed at Wajir and Mandera in Kenya’s Northern Frontier Province. The company commander sent out regular patrols to monitor security activities along the border with Italian territory. Jubaland had been ceded over from Kenya to Italy on 29th June 1925, purportedly as a reward for Italy joining the Allies in the Great War, and was recognised as the Italian colony of Trans-Juba. The colony had its own Governor and postage stamps. On 30th June 1926 Trans-Juba was incorporated into the neighbouring colony of Italian Somaliland.
The settlements and wells of El Wak straddled the indistinct border between Kenya and Italian Somaliland. In August 1926 an incident occurred that was a prelude to the much more serious fighting that would take place at El Wak during the Second World War.
During August a section of nine Somali men from No. 16 Platoon of No. 4 Company 3 KAR was despatched from Mandera to Wajir via El Wak, a 14-day journey. The section commander was No. 18620 Lance Corporal Waldemarian, and he would have had mules or camels with him.
Lance Corporal Waldemarian and his men reached the El Wak wells on the British side of the border on the morning of 23rd August and made camp there. Gurreh tribesmen at the wells informed the Lance Corporal that five Italian Askari had been in the area for some days and had seized a goat from the Gurrehs. Shortly afterwards five armed Italian Askari appeared, having with them one prisoner and two old Fusil Gras-1874 rifles.
The Italian troops had come from their camp across the border where a post containing a sergeant, a corporal and 30 Irregulars was located. The Italian Resident at Serenli had ordered that two Italian Somalis be arrested, and the five Askari stated that they had followed these men into British territory where they had seized one man and the two Fusil Gras rifles. The intention of the Italian Askari, who were from the Marehan tribe, appeared to be that after relaxing in the Gurreh manyatta (temporary pastoralist shelter) and eating the goat they would return to their base with the prisoner and the two seized rifles.
Lance Corporal Waldemarian demanded that the Italian troops hand over the prisoner, who was a British subject, and the two Fusil Gras rifles. The Marehan irregulars refused to comply, and when Lance Corporal Waldemarian threatened the use of force his adversaries rapidly withdrew to cover 60 metres away and opened fire on the KAR Askari.
Lance Corporal Waldemarian’s section was ordered into extended line, adopted fire positions and returned fire. Two Italian Askari were killed, one was wounded and ran away without his rifle, a fourth was taken prisoner, and the fifth got away with his rifle. The KAR section seized 4 Italian rifles, 3 cartridge belts each holding 42 rounds, the two old Fusil Gras rifles and the prisoner. The section then proceeded to Wajir and reported the incident.
The Marehan irregulars later exacted retribution on the Gurreh by seizing four men, 63 head of cattle and 8 camels which were all taken to Serenli. The Italian authorities were approached by the British and assurances were made that there should be no difficulty about the returning of the four men and the stock to British territory.
Pieces of paper were now urgently despatched from 3 KAR to the Senior Commissioner, Northern Frontier Province Wajir then to Government House Nairobi and then onwards to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London.
The official line taken, rather supportively expressed, was that ‘no blame can be attached to the King’s African Rifles concerned for their action in this matter’, and a mild protest was made to the Royal Italian Government. The fate of the four seized Gurreh and their stock was not recorded.
Hongera Lance Corporal Waldemarian!
Details were extracted from National archives folder CO 533/672 and from the book Letters from the Horn of Africa 1923-1942 by Sandy Curle.