The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough


Local Frontiersmen on a Troopship

The following are extracts from a letter from Pte. W. Watmough who is now in German East Africa with the Frontiersmen’s Battalion of the 25th Royal Fusiliers.  Prior to joining the colours Private Watmough was acting-editor of the weekly paper “Pigeons”, managing-director of the Fanciers’ Newspaper and General Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd., Idle and Shipley – proprietors of the EXPRESS – and assistant-manager of the business.

As so many men from this district joined the Frontiersmen and went out with the British East African Expeditionary Force on the same transport as Private Watmough, we think that what is said in regard to their doings on board will be of interest to readers of the EXPRESS – particularly the men’s relatives and friends.

Private Watmough writes:- My last letter was posted at our first port of call after leaving England – a French town on the African coast.  We were told on the day previous that we should touch land the following morning and were advised to get our mails ready.  Those who were up at daybreak next morning witnessed the strange sight of several hundred porpoises, covering probably a quarter of a mile of water, moving along like a battalion of soldiers.  The heat had become much greater and the colour of the water had changed from blue to slate.  Gulls and other birds flew toward the ship, the flying fish became more active, and several sharks were seen ploughing their way through the sea.

The appearance of land was announced by the cheers of the men on board.  As we drew closer it took the shape of a range of hills.  The sun shining like a ball of silver from behind, made the little corner of the Continent that we were all eagerly gazing at, into a silver-grey silhouette.  The sea and sky seemed silvery too. My first impression of Africa, in fact, was one of a silver landscape.  As we sailed closer to the coast, this silver-grey silhouette developed into what appeared to be a barren land or a part of the mainland consisting of rock and sand and occasional palm and other trees.  On the highest point of this range of hills there stands some monument or pillar like a sentinel peering out toward the North Atlantic.

As we steamed slowly south, Cape de Verdi came within our vision, and immediately to the south we saw the wreck of the Elder-Dempster Liner, “Duke of Clarence”, which came to grief on January 24th, 1914.  The crew, the story goes, went ashore and have never been seen or heard of since.  But I should doubt the accuracy of this statement.  Just beyond the derelict there is the Cape de Verdi lighthouse and the reef to which it is the “danger post”.


Following the coast line signs of civilization began to appear.  The silver-grey was transformed into yellow, green, red, and white – the yellow of the sand, the green of the tropical foliage, the red and white of the Government and other buildings.  Once in the bay of our port of call, Singalese boys came out to meet us in canoes.  Each canoe is made from the trunk of a large tree, hollowed into the desired shape.  These small boats are paddled by the natives who stand erect as the canoe proceeds.  The vessels ride on the crest of the waves like an aquatic bird, and when in the trough, they appear to be almost submerged.  We anchored some distance from the harbour, the water around us being a deep green in colour and almost without a ripple.

The town appeared to be quite modern, but in no way so beautiful as our English seaports.  It cannot compare, for instance, with good old Douglas (I.O.M.) when viewed from the sea.  The buildings, some of which are large and massive, are all red roofed and built of white stone.  From the coast – we did not go ashore – we gathered that the trees were European in character, though numerous palms and olives were observable.  These trees are intermixed with the buildings, they border the roads, and cover the hills which form the background to the port.  In the harbour there were scores of boats, naval and mercantile, of many nations, to say nothing of smaller craft.  Large bodies of native troops were standing on the quay, and blacks seemed to be at work all over the town and harbour.  In fact, the place generally was very much alive!  Pinnaces brought the high officials of the station to our boat and took our officers off for a two or three hours jaunt.  These pinnaces were all manned by native crews.

During the whole of that hot July afternoon, natives in their canoes surrounded our transport – the “Suffolk”.  They dived for money with the ability and agility of a seal diving for a herring.  They sold us cigarettes, post cards, and fish.  They argued, they grinned, they talked, and they shouted.  Some wore native dress, some a kind of European rig-out, and some were a grotesque combination of the two.  These chocolate coloured boys are phenomenal swimmers and divers. Many swam out from the shore – probably a quarter of a mile – remained in the water alongside the boat, diving for coins, etc., for one or two hours, and then swam back to the beach again!  And they never showed a trace of fatigue!  The officers who went into the town said the French girls there were very fine, but the port itself was dirty and uninteresting.


We weighed anchor at 4.30 and steamed away, followed by kites in search of offal.  That same evening locusts came on board but only in small numbers.  For several days after leaving the port above referred to the weather was cool, wet, and unsettled.  We were passing through the Doldrums, notorious for their meteorological irregularity.

The deck sports afterwards commenced and were continued for more than a fortnight.  Those consisted of quoits, boxing, tug-of-war, running, pillow fighting (over water on a greasy pole), cock fighting, etc.

On July 28th the heat returned, and both sky and water recovered their blue.  On this day we crossed the Equator, and the ceremonies attached to this event were begun.  At 6 p.m. a concert was taking place on one of the hatches.  In the middle of the proceedings, through the darkness there was heard a voice hailing the ship.  The “Still” was sounded on the bugle, and there immediately broke through the audience, trotting on to the hatch, Father Neptune and his retinue.  This party were supposed to have come aboard the ship from the sea, but in actuality they were members of the crew – naval men and others who had previously crossed the line.

Neptune’s retinue consisted of Cleopatra, Lady-in-Waiting, Clerk, Barber, Lather Boy, Doctor, Chief of Police, Constable, Bears and Clown.  Their costumes were grotesque and as multi-coloured as the coat of the biblical Joseph.  Neptune wore a tin crown and carried a trident.  He was bewigged and had a long white beard.  His legs were bare, and his coat was an old English one.  His attendants were dressed as befitted their respective offices.  Some were blackened all over.  All had their legs, faces, and heads decorated in some fashion or another, and in various colours.  The whole “turn out” was such as one might expect to see at a carnival in England.  There were about fifteen men in all.


Their presence was welcomed by the “Admiral’s Salute” on the bugle, followed by the reading of the following proclamation by Neptune:-

I, Neptune, King of the Seas, hearing that His Majesty’s Australian troopship “Suffolk” is passing through my most spotless domain, to all whom it may concern, be it known that I, Neptune, the King, learning that you have got on board many people who have not been cleansed according to my unalterable laws, I, therefore, hereby ordain firstly that I, personally, inspect the vessel to-night; and, secondly, all those whom I mark as unclean be taken to-morrow from different parts of the ship, and shall be duly washed and made fit to enter my most cleanly territory.  There is no appeal against my decree, for I am Neptune, King of the Seas, and have with me my professional cleansers, who shall do what seemeth good in their eyes.  Woe to the individual who tries to evade my laws.  Given under my hand and seal this 28th day of July, 1916 – Neptune Rex.”

Neptune and Co. then disappeared and we saw no more of them that night, though they were presumed to have taken command of the boat.

At 2 p.m., on the day following, the troops were drawn up at their respective stations on deck.  Neptune and his “professional cleansers” walked through the ranks and selected the men who had to be cleansed.  Their names were entered in a great book.  Imagine the scene that followed.  The sun rides perpendicularly over a calm and exquisite blue sea.  The troops are standing and sitting around the open-air sea bath, in front of which a platform has been raised for the occasion.  Some of the spectators in their enthusiasm have climbed into the rigging.  Others are seated cross-legged on the booms.

Neptune takes his stand on the raised platform, his officers around him, four or five of them standing in the water with which the bath has been filled.  The first “victim” was dragged before the King, who gives directions as to the treatment that has to be meted out to him.  The doctor takes the man’s temperature with a gigantic thermometer; the lather boy lathers him with paste, using a huge brush for the purpose; and the barber, with a razor two-feet long, proceeds to shave him.  The shaving accomplished, the “victim,” who has been seated on the edge of the bath, meanwhile, is given a vigorous push, and falls backwards into the tank.  Here he is caught, and by strong arms is completely immersed time and again, splashing and spluttering like a dog that is being drowned.

This procedure is repeated until all are “cleansed.”  Some men had stripped for the operations.  Others were tossed into the bath in their clothes, and looked sorry wrecks when they came out.  After his ducking each man is presented with a certificate which reads:-

This is to certify that ….. has been initiated a “Son of The Sea.”  Given at our court holden on board the transport “Suffolk,” the 29th day of July, 1916.  Neptune Rex.

At the close of the ceremony – by previous arrangement, though not in the official programme! – a number of Fusiliers rushed Neptune and his officers, threw them into the tank, and turned the hose on them!  This ceremony is world-old and is impressive in spite of the laughter which it naturally creates.


Here it is the winter season, and at the time of writing, it is a little warmer than it will be now in England.  There are twelve hours daylight and twelve hours darkness, sunrise and sunset being at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. respectively.  Both arrive with lightning suddenness.  At night we can see the Southern Cross in the sky amid a myriad of brilliant stars.

Billie and I are still both fit and well and have had no sea sickness whatever.  We are well, sleep well, and are both enjoying the voyage.  Except for a touch of sunburn caused by an order that the men had to go on deck without boots and stockings – about one-third of the men had it, including myself.  I have ailed nothing.  The sunburn necessitated hospital treatment.  The medical staff are fine.  One of the staff is a fellow named Winter, who was in my form at Woodhouse Grove School, Apperley Bridge.  We were both astonished to meet each other in this part of the World.


First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 22nd September, 1916.


The following text contains words which are now considered offensive in the description of ethnic origin.  I in no way advocate the use of these words to describe ethnicity but as attitudes in 1914/1918 were completely different to those of the present day and in order to retain the historical accuracy and flow of the text I have transcribed the item as printed at the time.

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