The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough


Letter from Private Willie Watmough

We have received the following letter from Pte. Willie Watmough (son of Mr. J. E. Watmough, of Fairfield, Idle), regarding his experiences on a troop ship during his voyage from this country to Africa.

In the course of his letter, Pte. Watmough says:-

The troop train brought us directly alongside our transport, berthed at one of England’s great naval bases.  The ship was packed with soldiers and sailors Eastward bound, and of all branches of the service.  A couple of hours later we took to our hammocks.  We did not sail that night, but at 6 a.m. next morning our transport left her moorings.  Clad only in shirts and trousers, we rushed on deck to secure a last glimpse of old England.  At the same time, out of their docks on either side of the harbour there quietly glided the two destroyers which were to form our escort.  With these iron greyhounds leading us, our ship headed for the open sea, leaving in its wake numerous cruisers, submarines, and torpedo craft, not a few of which showed signs of batterings received in the naval engagements of this war.

Remove from the port of our departure these implements of modern warfare, its great naval barracks, and a fairer seaport you would not find on England’s coastline.  The hills in the background, the green woods that fringe the bay in the middle distance, the blue sky, the gorgeous sun, and the still blue waters that we sailed in – what a sight!  There was not a man on board our boat who was not thrilled to his innermost being as the shores of the homeland gradually became submerged in the soft early morning mist which mantled the beach on that to us never-to-be-forgotten dawn.

Since that hour the sea has been more like a millpond than an ocean.  Even in a bay noted for its towering rage, we encountered little more than a swell.  The ship from the start has kept a steady course, with only sufficient movement to make the weakest stomachs turn.  None of our party has been off-colour, though some chaps have been pretty bad.

On our first night at sea I and others of Platoon 2 were put on watch – two hours on duty and four hours off – which necessitates sleeping on deck.  So on deck I slung my hammock, and slept with only the sky as a roof.  It was novel and interesting.  There was the most beautiful moon I have ever seen, and the weather was gloriously warm.  Now and again there appeared on the horizon the lights of some passing “neutral”, and less frequently the flash of a lighthouse on the coast of France.  So enjoyable was that night outside that ever since an increasing number of men have “slept above”.  A hammock, by the way, makes a comfortable rest when you get into it, but it takes a darned lot of getting into!  On our first night it was a pantomime.  Some chaps fell out as quickly as they got in, and a few never did get settled, but slept on the floor!  On the Sunday we sighted a well-known cape, and since then we have not seen land.

The sea is of a deep and transparent blue.  The weather is becoming hotter and hotter.  We are not allowed to go on deck unless we wear some head covering, and we are all gradually casting our underclothing.  Already we have little clothing left.  Of twilight there is none.  Darkness comes on as rapidly as though a giant curtain were instantly drawn across the Heavens.  Yesterday a parraquet flew on to the boat, and porpoises and flying fish are a common sight.

The transport we are on is not a large boat.  She appears to be an old cargo steamer commandeered by the Government at the outbreak of war, and converted into a troopship.  She is splendidly equipped for the purpose, and carries every convenience for the troops aboard her – washhouses, latrines, seawater showers, baths, hospital, library, sleeping accommodation, canteens, etc.  No intoxicating liquor is sold, but as to food, a man need not want for anything!  I refer now to the food sold in addition to the ordinary rations.  The men sleep on the lower deck in one great room.  The hammocks are slung to a kind of second roof, or rafters.  Above these rafters kit is stored.  Below the hammocks (which are packed away during the day) there are dining tables.  To each dining table there are 14 men, a man sitting exactly underneath where he sleeps, unless, of course, he spends the night outside, as our party does.

Each man is allowed one big, thick blanket, and this is quite enough covering – too much sometimes – so high is the “mercury”.  One day is almost exactly similar to another.  We arise about 5 a.m. – the best hour of the day, when the air is like cream and the sun rising over the horizon is a sight for the gods!  Before breakfast we roll up hammocks, bathe, wash, dress, and shave.  Breakfast at 7 consists of porridge, bread, jam, coffee, and occasionally meat.  At 11 there is Grand Round, when the captain of the ship – who is in supreme command on board – and the military officers inspect the mess tables and the men.  Dinner at 12 is the best meal of the day, the usual menu being soup, roast meat, potatoes, and green vegetables, and now and again pudding.  At 3 there is usually – not always – another parade for inspection of rifles or something similar, and some time during the day each platoon does Swedish drill for half an hour.  Tea at 5 comprises tea, bread, and butter, jam and fruit.  We have to go to our hammocks at 9 p.m.

During each day certain men are told off for various duties – deck sweeping, guards, police duties, etc.  Spare time – and there is any amount of it – is filled up in letter writing, reading, sleeping, playing games, boxing, and so on, to say nothing of smoking, eating and drinking.

We wear slippers instead of boots, no puttees, and do not, thank goodness, clean buttons.  Generally we have a lazy, peaceful time, and the relaxation is welcome indeed after the months of hard training we underwent at Hounslow.  There is none of the discipline associated with training camps in England, and so long as we behave ourselves the officers treat us well.

I have not a single complaint to make, and mine is not an isolated opinion; it is the general one.  The life is rough and hard, but as you know, I have always fancied it.  I have long wanted travel of this sort, but I never expected to do it as a soldier.  Still, soldiering is no trouble to me.  I try to take it in the right spirit, and that is probably why it does not trouble me.  We should see something where we are going to, and if I live to get home again I ought to have enough to write about for the remainder of my life.  According to what Capt. Selous said when he addressed us at Hounslow – after his return from German East Africa, where he has been with the Frontiersmen since the war began, although he is 65 years of age – there is plenty to shoot out there besides Germans, and I only hope that I may get a chance to enjoy a bit of sport as well as help to defeat the enemy.  Capt. Selous is considered to be the most famous big game hunter in the world, and he had a lot of encouraging things to say to the Frontiersmen about German East Africa, a country he knows so well.

William Errol Glanville Watmough

William Errol Glanville Watmough’s birth was registered in Bradford Registration District in December Qtr. 1890 having been born, according to the 1891 census, in Idle in the West Riding of Yorkshire.  The census showing he was then 6 months old.

All three censuses from 1891 through to 1911 show William living with his parents John Edwin and Catherine (Katie) and his Grandmother Ann Victoria Watmough at three different addresses all of which were in Idle.  The 1901 census shows he also had a single sibling, a sister, Marjorie Gladys.

The 1911 census records him as a 20 year old Assistant Newspaper Editor, his father being the Editor, having been in publishing since William was born.  It would appear from the available records that William had had no previous military experience prior to the Great War.

William attested under the Derby Scheme on 1st December 1915 and was mobilized for service as a Private with the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers on 12th April 1916 when he was allotted service number 36061.  He proceeded overseas with a reinforcement draft for the battalion on 14th July 1916 aboard the “Suffolk”, transhipped at Durban on 12th August 1916 onto the Comrie Castle and finally disembarked at Kilindini on the 20th August 1916.

On 27th February 1917 he embarked aboard the “H. T. Professor” bound for South Africa with the battalion where some weeks were spent in Cape Town undertaking rest and recuperation.  On completion William and the battalion returned to East Africa aboard the “H. T. Medic”, disembarking at Lindi on 29th May 1917.

Admitted to Hospital at Mingoyo on 25th August 1917 suffering from malaria, William was transferred to Lindi on 22nd September and Dar-es-Salaam on 23rd September from where he was discharged on 14th October 1917 to be invalided back to South Africa aboard “H.M.H.S. Wandilla”.  He was readmitted to hospital, this time in Wynberg on 16th November, after again suffering another malaria attack.  Discharge followed on 31st December 1917 and he was invalided back to the UK with the rest of the battalion aboard the Durham Castle on 4th January 1918, disembarking at Devonport on 30th January.

He proceeded to the battalion’s camp at Putney where he stayed until being transferred to the 25th (Reserve) Garrison Battalion Rifle Brigade, with service number 55326, at Falmouth on 5th June 1918 and two weeks later, on 17th June he was again transferred, this time to M Company of the Royal Engineers Pigeon Service at Chatham, he was allotted service number 326618.

Six months service with the Royal Engineers’ Carrier Pigeon Service came to an end in early 1919 when William was transferred to Class Z Army Reserve on 27th January 1919, giving his address at time of discharge as Fairfield, Thackley, Bradford.

For his service with the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers he earned the British War and Victory Medals.


British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920

British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920

1891, 1901 & 1911 England Census

England & Wales Birth Records

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 18th August, 1916.

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William Watmough was, over an eight month period, a frequent writer of letters home which were subsequently published as articles in the Shipley Times and Express.  Those articles, detailing his experiences of serving in East Africa, are reproduced here on this website and can be accessed by using the navigation buttons at the bottom of each page to access the next article in the series.