“Originally, Andrew Kerr decided he wanted to conduct some gentle research into his family history and to record a distinguished tradition of over 200 years of military service by six generations of Kerrs of Abbotrule in India. The author extended the family record of military service to a seventh generation when he served in the 1970s in the 17th/21st Lancers albeit not in India.
But the seeds for this book were planted when he was reading papers left by his grandfather, Alec Kerr. The author remembered his grandfather as a quietly spoken, reserved man who had not discussed his wartime experiences. His papers set the author off on an unexpected but wonderful voyage of discovery that focused on the involvement of the Kashmir Rifles in the campaign in East Africa from November 1914 through to April 1917.
This journey has taken Andrew Kerr far beyond his family papers into the diaries, letters and photographs of the other British officers attached to the Kashmir Rifles. He has succeeded in building up a vivid picture of the campaign from a battalion perspective. One of the strengths of this book lies in the quality and variety of contemporary photographs he has been able to find. These add real substance to the words and bring the story to life. Although there are plenty of accounts of battles and skirmishes, including where Alec Kerr was awarded the MC, that is not really what the book is about.
This is an account of a protracted campaign fought against an elusive but well organised enemy in the most unimaginably awful conditions. The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was not only better prepared for the harsh environment but had the advantage of using local askaris who were more accustomed to the conditions. The soldiers of the Kashmir Rifles, undoubtedly skilled and courageous soldiers, were not suited to the damp malarial conditions. Exhausting marches in pursuit of von Lettow-Vorbeck, poor administration, high attrition of horses and pack animals to tsetse fly and a lack of food and medical supplies took a much greater toll on the Indian soldiers than battles with the enemy. Nevertheless, the famed fighting spirit remained and it is a testament to the regiment that even when being evacuated from theatre in 1917 there was a last minute attempt to retain them ‘because they fight‘. From the author’s analysis he concludes that out of an initial strength of over 1000 men there were only 20 left in a fully fit state at the end of the campaign, an appalling casualty rate over the two and a half years of the campaign.
At the time the, Kashmir was a princely state and the Maharaja retained his own Army at his own expense. It was officered by Indian officers with just a small number of British officers as advisers. The Kashmir Rifles are now incorporated into the Indian Army as part of the Jammu and Kashmir (JAK) Rifles. The JAK Rifles are enthusiastic supporters of this effort to fill a gap in their Regimental History, and even invited the author to visit a battalion on peacekeeping duties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The book lacks the professional polish of a Keegan, Holmes, or Strachan but that misses the point. What it lacks in polish it gains in passion and enthusiasm that comes from having a personal link with a participant, which brings a quality of its own. While not a general account of the campaign in East Africa it will appeal to those who already have a broad knowledge of the subject. However, it is very successful in bringing to life the battalion perspective, the sensitivities of the role of the attached British officers and the appalling conditions under which this whole campaign was waged. It also provides an interesting perspective on the relationship of the Armies of the princely states with the British Indian Army and should appeal to those with an interest in the history of the Indian Army.”