The First Brit to Die

Askari Troops, Ghana

The First Brit to Die

World War 1 brings images of poppies in Flanders Field, vast swaths of European Plains where millions of Allies and Central Powers Troops fought over inches of ground covered in trenches and barbed wire.  This was true for most of the latter part of the war.  Once the troops were dug in, there was little movement, and tens of thousands of brave men on both sides would trade their lives for inches of blasted ground.  In total, the United Kingdom fielded almost 9 million troops, of which over 900,000 were killed – an 11% death rate.  The UK total casualties, dead, wounded, prisoners, and missing were a staggering 3.2 million, which yields a total casualty rate of approximately 36%.    If you participated in WWI on the UK side, you had a one in three chance of becoming a casualty.  8.5 million troops died in that war total, from both sides, the vast majority from the Allies.

Stalin famously said – The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.  Stalin’s Bolsheviks took part in dismantling the Russian Empire during WWI, first demanding a separate peace with the Central Powers to undermine the Allied cause, then pushing deserting Russian soldiers back into the trenches after Germany proved an unreliable friend to the Soviet cause.  This back-and-forth prolonged WWI far past the point where it should have stopped, and added millions of dead to European war cemeteries.

Western European Cemeteries from the Great War
Cemeteries from the Great War, small and large, are a constant in the western European landscape.

But the first British Officer to die wasn’t killed in the trenches of Europe, but rather in the jungles of Africa – and his successful attack lead to the British defense of the Falkland Islands off Argentina.  Lieutenant George Masterman Thompson, 1st Battalion, Royal Scots, assigned to the Gold Coast Regiment was killed on 22 August 1914 during the Battle of Chra, Togoland, assaulting German positions defending the Kamina Funkstation (Wireless Transmitter) which was the only link between German High Command, German colonies in South America, and the German Navy.  Kamina was particularly critical because it could have been used to coordinate German Naval attacks in Allied shipping in the Atlantic.  British High Command decided it had to be taken out of commission as quickly as possible after the start of hostilities.

British Lieutenant George Masterman Thompson
British Lieutenant George Masterman Thompson, the first British casualty of World War I

German Togoland was a small colony of 1 million inhabitants in West Africa, sandwiched between British-controlled Gold Coast on its West and French Dahomey on the North and East.  The German military presence was small, consisting of paramilitaries and reservists to total about 1,000 troops.  British troops, totaling just over 1,500 in the entire Gold Coast, and French forces, also pitifully few in number compared to the local population, attacked on 6 August 1914, after giving the German troops time to surrender.  Rather than surrender, the Germans withdrew from Lome, the capital on the coast, into the interior to defend Kamina and protect the German High Command Communications transmitter, which was working overtime relaying orders to German units overseas – 229 messages were passed during those critical first days.

The Kamina transmitter - Togoland
The Kamina transmitter in Togoland

The British and French made their way inland after capture Lome with no resistance from the Germans.  Several small engagements were fought until the main Allied force met the main German force on the banks of the River Chra on 22 August 1914.  By the time the Allies arrived, the German force was well dug in, with trenches and machine gun in rough terrain, making it difficult for Allied infantry to move quickly to attack.  

The Germans unquestionably won the first day’s battle.  The British and French attempted to flank, but the German defense, which had been centered around Chra Village, repulsed them with machine-gun fire at long range, and small arms up close.  The Allied attack had started in the mid-morning, and by the late afternoon, the 450 Allied troops who attacked the 460 Germans had suffered 75 casualties, including Lieutenant Thompson, who had died leading a charge against the German front line.  The Germans had suffered 13 dead.   

Hans Georg Van Doring
Hans Georg Van Doring, Vice Governor of Togoland.

Incredibly, during the night, despite the successful German defense, German Commander Hans Georg Van Doring ordered his troops to withdraw.  On 23 August 1914, a British attack ran into empty trenches.  Unsure of what happened and whether the Germans were flanking, British Commander Fredrick Bryant cautiously ordered his men to advance slowly.  Over the next 2 nights, the British and French heard explosions from Kamina.  When they arrived at the site of the Wireless transmitter the next morning, they found everything destroyed, and Doring with 200 remaining German troops ready to surrender.  The others had deserted.  The Battle for Togoland was won, and the colony was split between the British and French governments after WWI ended.

Newspaper article announcing terms for surrender

The more important effect of the success of the Allied Togoland campaign was the total loss of German Colonial possessions in Asia and South America.  The lack of communications also led to the loss of all German East Asia Squadron, all German overseas warship ports, and eventually most German warships outside the North Atlantic in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.  The German Naval Admiral in command in those area was Maximillian von Spee.  Spee was a brilliant Naval Officer, and had caused havoc while he could for Allied shipping.  However, he was lured to the Falklands by a fake communication signal which was supposedly sent by German High Command, but actually by British Naval Intelligence Division.  Spee had no way to check the authenticity of the fake message because the Kamina Transmitter had been destroyed due partly to the brave actions of Lieutenant Thompson in Togoland.

Maximilian Von Spee
Maximilian Von Spee


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