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The Gambia was the smallest and northernmost of Britain’s West African colonies. It was surrounded on three sides by French Senegal, with a small outlet onto the Atlantic at the mouth of the Gambia River. Its relatively secure strategic position meant that the war had little direct impact on The Gambia, but troops raised in the colony served in the major African campaigns in the Cameroons and German East Africa.
The troops of the West African Frontier Force were immediately placed on active service after the declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914 (CO 460/10). The outbreak of war immediately raised questions about the strength of the colony’s defences. There was a major scare in the capital, Bathurst, when reports were received that an enemy cruiser was entering the river. In fact the vessel was HMS Highflyer, but the panic was indicative of the atmosphere in Bathurst.
These concerns were aired by F A Van der Meulen, the Judge of the Supreme Court in The Gambia, in a letter to Edward Cameron, the Governor. Van der Meulen recommended that in the event of an attack Bathurst should be surrendered to the Germans and an indemnity paid to stop the town being destroyed. Cameron forwarded the correspondence to the Colonial Office, who immediately rejected the suggestion and instructed that Van der Meulen be sanctioned. By the end of 1914 it became clear that the colony was unlikely to be attacked and the tensions declined (CO 87/197, CO 87/198).
The most direct impact of the war on the colony came when a naval wireless telegraph station was established at Cape Saint Mary. This was part of a chain that allowed the Admiralty to communicate with vessels in the Atlantic (CO 87/200).
The Gambia was badly affected economically by the disruption of trade resulting from the war. Ground nuts were the colony’s main export, and before the war 59% went to France and 24% to Germany. Both of these markets collapsed, and ground nut prices fell by 50%. This brought serious hardship in the first years of the war. By 1917, however, exports and prices had recovered, with Britain taking the vast majority of The Gambia’s ground nut crop (CO 460/11).
The Gambia Company
Troops raised in The Gambia had formed a single company within the West African Frontier Force since the inception of the West African Frontier Force in 1900. This force was mobilised on the outbreak of war and in February 1915 embarked to take part in operations to capture the German colony of The Cameroons.
The force landed at Duala on 17 February 1915 and was engaged in low-level fighting against the Germans. They fought a major battle near Mbila on 3 May and suffered heavy casualties. The force continued to be deployed in small scale operations until the remaining German forces retreated into the neutral Spanish colony of Muni (WO 95/5347). The operations in the German colony of The Cameroons were officially declared to be complete on 31 March 1916 (CO 460/11).
Following the success in The Cameroons, British attention turned to German East Africa. The Gambia Company asked to be transferred to the new campaign and embarked in April 1917. Having arrived at Dar es Salaam, the company soon began operations supporting the rest of the West African Frontier Force and the King’s African Rifles. They took part in a major battle near Nyangao on the 16 October 1917, and the War Diary noted that ‘the behaviour of the men throughout the action left nothing to be desired’. This came at a price, with 15 officers and men killed in this action, and between 16 – 18 October 50% of the Company were killed or wounded. One of those killed was Company Sergeant Major Ebrimah Jallow, who was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery (CO 460/11; WO 95/5388).
Captain R Law
Officer Commanding, The Gambia Company
Company Sergeant Major