The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough


Illimitable Bush, Big Game, Insidious Sand, and Other Things

Windhill and Idle Lads in Football

No. 3

We again print extracts from letters received from Pte. W. Watmough, of Thackley, who is in East Africa with the Frontiersmen’s Battalion of the 25th Royal Fusiliers.  We shall be obliged if readers of the EXPRESS who are acquainted with families who have members with the Frontiersmen in East Africa will kindly inform them that these extracts are appearing in our paper.

Private Watmough says.- Subsequent to writing my last letter and up to our arrival at Capetown the chief event, I think, was a reduced version of Fred Karno’s Revue “The Mumming Birds,” with a real stage, footlights, costumes and scenery, devised from the naturally limited property at the disposal of the promoters. More than one of the artistes were pros. – some had actually been with Karno – and the show was a huge success.  Ralph Smith, of Undercliffe, was one of the prime movers in the affair, and conducted the orchestra, whose instruments consisted of dixie lids, mouth organs, tin whistles, combs, concertinas, etc.

In the early hours of August 8th, while the men were in their hammocks, the “Suffolk” entered Table Bay.  It was daylight before she passed into the harbour of Capetown.  All on board were up early in order to see the coast of Africa at sunrise.  The lights of the shore were visible, and the lighthouse blinked us welcome.

As dawn broke with its Eastern suddenness and gorgeousness, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and the surrounding hills, become sharply outlined against the sky. The light improving, and the boat drawing nearer to the beach, we stood on deck simply awed by the beauty of Capetown and its harbours nestling beneath the mountains.  The sun was shining full upon the town which stretches along the coast from Lions Head toward the West, Table Mountain, bare rock at its summit, its base flat topped and standing, I believe, over 4,500 feet above sea level, is one of the wonders of the world!  It certainly makes the approach to the capital of Cape Colony picturesque to a degree and far superior to anything I have ever seen in England.

Hospitality of Capetown.

As the "Suffolk” headed for the harbour a steamer passed us on its way to Japan, and aquatic birds innumerable flew and screamed around the vessel.  These were common gulls, black-backed gulls, albatross, petrels, divers, Cape pigeons, etc.  The harbour was alive with shipping.  Directly alongside us was an immense Australian being coaled by natives – huge fellows compared with the blacks we saw at Dakar.  Although it is winter in Africa the weather at Capetown was superior to that of our own summer, and the people were wearing what we in England should describe as summer clothing.

Immediately we had landed, copies of the “Cape Times,” cigarettes, matches, etc. were brought on board and distributed free.  At noon we marched ashore. Passing through the docks gave me an impression of dirtiness and untidiness.  Things did not seem up to the standard of the great English ports.  But as I only saw a section of the docks, it is possible that my opinion is an unjust one.  The remainder of the city was exceedingly clean and attractive.

From the docks we marched into Adderley Street, the principal shopping thoroughfare.  The crowds cheered and waves to us as we went along – as they did all along the route, in fact.  Our reception made one thrill with the pride of being in khaki and a British soldier.  The girls of which Capetown can boast were particularly demonstrative.  They rushed to the windows and on to the verandahs throwing cigarettes and notes of good cheer.  Black boys ran at the side of the line of troops, selling oranges, crayfish, chocolates, cigarettes, silver leaves, post cards, etc.

Delightful Place To Live In.

From the busy parts of the city we proceeded to the Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain, and marched up Government Avenue.  In the Gardens, amongst other superb buildings were the residence of the Governor and the Union Houses of Parliament, both of classic architecture.  Following a halt in the Gardens we passed into the residential quarter where there are many magnificent residences – the homes of wealthy South Africans – and so back to the ship, from which we had been absent about two hours.

Capetown appears to be a delightful place in which to live.  Its houses and other buildings – that is in the modern parts of the city – are somewhat similar to those of England, though each, even the shops, possesses a stoop.  Bungalows are popular.  The business and shopping streets are attractive.  In many cases they are bordered with trees.  Hottentots and other natives, in European dress, are to be seen everywhere.  The hansom cab is still in vogue, and motor cars (mostly American) are not numerous.

The horses reminded me of the Yankee trotter.  Mules were more plentiful than horses, and I saw several teams of four drawing heavy drays.  Their drivers were natives, wearing smocks and Cape hats (slouch).

We sailed at 5 p.m., passing Seapoint, a popular seaside resort, Botany Bay, and Twelve Peaks, known as the Twelve Apostles.  We hugged the coast after leaving Capetown.  During the day we saw in the distance the grey hills of the South coast and at night the lights along the shore.  This, of course, made the voyage more interesting than when we saw nothing but sea, sea, sea, for days on end.  I have, by the way, met Frank Powell Phillips whom you may remember on the “Daily Mail,” “Answers” and other London papers.  There are two Idle boys here with the Frontiersmen – Wood and Button.  They are cheerful, popular lads.

The Garden City of Natal.

My last letter was posted from Durban.  This will be sent from our port of destination.  Then our “big jump” will have been concluded satisfactorily, and we shall enter upon a new stage of army life.

We had a perfect voyage from Capetown.  We passed the grey and apparently rugged barren hills of the South coast and later the mountainous shores of Natal. The country between the towns from the distant view we had of it, seemed to be devoid of humanity, and we could see neither man nor animal, though here and there the smoke of some fire in the scrub curled up above the horizon.

Later we sighted Port Elizabeth, one of Africa’s most important stations.  Two days afterwards, with the rising of the sun, we headed for the harbour of Durban, the Garden City of Natal.  The approach reminded me forcibly of the approach to Douglas (I.O.M.), though it is not so pretty, and compared with Capetown, the bay is not nearly so impressive.  Yet I understand the city itself is, indeed, magnificent.  As at Douglas, there stands to the South of the bay a high head, covered with trees and smaller luxuriant vegetation.  On this head the lighthouse is erected.  Under the hill is the estuary of a creek on which the docks are constructed. This creek is notorious as the home of sharks.  The docks are on a much more extensive scale than those of Capetown, and the port is obviously more important as an exporting depot.  Of course I could tell you a great deal more about Durban and Capetown had we stayed there longer and had more opportunities for sight-seeing.  Naturally, the War Office does not send us out here on a holiday.

When the “Suffolk,” which had become like an old friend to all of us, was close in upon the harbour bar, a white and exceedingly pretty steam tug came out to meet it.  When within hailing distance she “dropped the pilot” who was rowed by two native oarsmen.  The dexterity with which the blacks handled their slender craft was only further evidence to me of their superiority over white men at such work as this.

After we had entered the docks and had been made fast, commenced the big business of transferring the men and equipment to an old Union Castle Liner, the “Comrie Castle.”  It was a busy morning!  Scores of blacks packed the kit bags on to small lorries, and rushed them away to the new boat.  The natives do not work like Englishmen.  They run.  They rush.  They tear about madly.  Sometimes they shout.  Sometimes they laugh.  Sometimes they sing.  They are never still.  And they look up to the white as though he were a god.

When we had time to give an eye to the docks we saw the warehouses and offices of great firms, and Government buildings.  We saw a line of rickshaws with native pullers, some of them very fantastically attired.  We saw white men in small numbers seeing that the blacks worked while they themselves did not!  As at Capetown, we saw big drays drawn by mules – this time, teams of eight handled by their native drivers as though they were but pairs.

By noon we were ready for disembarking.  The troops were formed up on the docks, the object of the curious scrutiny of townspeople, and local military officers.  A short march, an hour’s hot wait beneath a great shed like a Dutch barn, and we boarded the “Comrie.”  A part of a battalion of regulars – returning from a rest camp – were already on the boat.

Bonny and Generous Colonial Girls.

During the hot afternoon which followed, the wives and daughters of residents and visitors lined the quayside.  The troops similarly lined the portboard of the boat.  Upholding the high reputation which Durban has earned for the welcome which it extends to visiting troops, these people – mostly bonny girls, which compare most favourably with anything we produce in England – loadened the troops with gifts.  They threw oranges (thousands of them), chocolates, cigarettes, cakes, buns, tobacco, matches, etc.  Some of these girls who were so kindly demonstrative were, we were told, the daughters of wealthy Durbanites.  They had their black servants with them.  These “turbaned gentlemen” handed the oranges out of sacks to their mistresses, whom they treated with the utmost respect.

Subsequently we glided down the creek and out to sea.  So long as their voices could be heard by those on the quay, the men cheered and cheered those who had treated them so generously.  I have not, so far, seen much of the towns and people of Africa, but what I have seen has proved to me conclusively that it is a glorious country, with a climate more delightful than anyone remaining in England could imagine, and inhabited by charming people.  In fact, a lot of our fellows have already decided to stay out here.  I think the possibilities of the place are enormous.  I only hope East Africa pleases us half as well.

Now that our long sea trip is almost at an end, we can look back upon the voyage as an interesting and enjoyable one.  We have had few discomforts and plenty of pleasure.  We have seen things which we never should have seen otherwise.  And we have come through safely at a period when, of course, the seas are dangerous.  It seems a long time since we left England.  This is, I think, because the days on a troopship are so very similar.  It grows a little monotonous sometimes, and then something occurs which cheers us all up again.  It may be the landing at some port; the sight of a steamer Europe bound; a view of land; a concert or a lecture.

Bradford and other local Fellows.

Life on the “Comrie Castle” is not quite so pleasant as it was on the “Suffolk,” which is now on her way to Australia.  But it is more than tolerable.  I have told you before that it has been hot.  It has never been so hot as it is now.  Although we are wearing khaki drills, pith helmets, and shorts, perspiration pours out of us as we sit on deck.  The sea and the weather both continue that remarkably good behaviour which has characterised them throughout the trip, and the boat does not seem to have a roll in her.  We are only three days from port as I write.  We shall be glad when we get there.  We shall then be able to have a good run and stretch our limbs properly which we have hardly been able to do since we left England close on six weeks ago.

It may surprise you to know that we do not feel 9,000 miles away from home.  I cannot imagine that little Thackley is so very very far from here.  It seems a few miles distant only when one thinks about home affairs.  The reason for this may be there are so many Bradford and other local fellows here, and that when we discuss matters at night in our hammocks – and it is then that one’s mind seems to dwell upon one’s family and one’s interests in England – each knows the places in Yorkshire that are named, and each is sympathetic to the incidents described.

Billie and I still keep fit.  Both of us are longing for news from England.  We expect to get that news as soon as we land.  Remember us to all who know us.  If you see our old Frontiersmen officers, Lieut. Landfear and Sergt.-Major Gillyat, tell them that we often speak of them and others, and live over again some of the happy gatherings we had at the Legion’s headquarters, the “Belle Vue.”

I might mention that we are forming a club – The Swahili Club – to bind the fellows together – or those that are left of them – after the war.  It will begin to work as soon as the war is over.

(To be Continued).

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 20th October, 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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