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 Private 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.

(Continued from last week).

I am now writing from a big camp in East Africa, which we have reached quite safely.  We arrived at the B.E.A. port the name of which you will guess, on Sunday morning.  We left there on the Monday morning by train, passed through a country which was a revelation to all of us, slept in the train all night, and after 36 hours travelling in the bush reached this camp.  We are some 40 miles from the nearest town, and can see the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro.  We expect to go on from here to the place which is to be occupied by us.  We sleep in tents.  The ground is of red sand which stretches for miles.  Mountains and bush surround us, and the district is famed for its wild animals.  There are both black and white troops here.  When we move it may be for a long trek, so further letters from me may be delayed.

Mountains and Bush everywhere.

When I wrote you last, we fully expected to be moved up country at any hour, but we are still here.  Life is not at all unpleasant.  We arrived at Kilindini on August 20th.  The harbour is one of the finest natural harbours in East Africa.  The town appears to be monopolised by Indian traders, some of whom are wealthy men, with respectable offices, staffs of clerks, etc.  These Indians have completely usurped the native, whom they treat as an inferior in every way. The morning after arrival we went ashore.  We assembled at the side of the railway line, and remained there until well into the afternoon.  There were hundreds of blacks doing the hard and dirty work, which is the custom in the East.  We afterwards changed our English money into rupees and cents, bought fruit etc., for the journey.  The train we afterwards travelled in was exactly similar to those of the Isle of Man.  Mountains and bush are everywhere.  In a word, this first picture of the country in which we may have to rough it for many many months will probably never be excelled by any scenery we shall have the pleasure of seeing.  It is a famous view, and gave us at the outset a correct impression of this land of mountain, bush, sand, and sun!  The bush was followed by luxuriant plantations of cocoanut, rubber, lime, pomegranate, pineapple, melon, banana, etc.  Tropical trees of all varieties bordered the track.  Dotted here and there were homely native kraals, with the menfolk and their women busy attending to domestic duties.  Many multi-coloured birds were disturbed by the old grunter which served as our engine, and wild duck were frequently sighted.  We stopped at nearly every station, quaint miniature affairs, with black officials.

Native Hunter with Bow and Arrow.

At one of these we had tea.  The water was obtained from the engine, and bread, jam, etc. were issued from a van in the rear.

While we were at this charming stopping place a native hunter came in with his bow and arrow and a buck which he had slain.  I saw some pigeons here.  They were of the type of the Birmingham Roller, blacks, with white flights, and chequers.

Soon after leaving the station we ran into the bush again and also into the darkness.  We slept as best we could.  There were no lamps and the only sign of life were the kraals.  Just before midnight we reached an important junction.  Here a Y.M.C.A. stall was much frequented by the men the night through, and coffee, tea, and buns went down with great relish.

Following our departure from this town – which must be nameless – we passed through a stretch of country beautiful in the extreme.  Bush covered mountains, silvery forests, and tropical vegetation came close up to the line.  This line is used entirely by the military.  It was laid by the Engineers in the early days of the campaign.  Near a blockhouse manned by Native Indian troops we had breakfast and a wash and brush-up in the open.

At the commencement of the war, when the Germans advanced into British territory, an important battle took place here, the signs of the conflict being still visible.  Ultimately we reached the camp from which I am writing.

Joe Sharpe, of Idle.

As we marched through something of a sandstorm towards the camp, I saw amongst the men who were standing at the side of the track none other than one of our old linotype operators, Joe Sharpe, of Idle.  He has been ill and is down here for a rest.  He is a driver in the Motor Machine Gun Section.  We have had several chats together.  He wishes to be remembered to his friends in Idle, and he spoke with affection of the “old firm.”  He is much thinner, but will be all right after a few weeks in England, to which he has now a strong desire to return.  That afternoon we pitched tents, drew blankets, waterproof sheets, and mosquito nets, and made ourselves as snug as possible.

The camp is healthy.  It is situated high above the level of the sea. On two sides there are towering mountains, which appear to change colour a hundred times a day.  In the dim distance on a clear day we can see snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and the second highest in the world!  The camp overlooks the plains over which Roosevelt shot, under the guidance of Capt. Selous, in his famous Expedition years ago.  Big game abounds!  At night we can hear the cry of hyenas, jackals and other beasts, and in the early morning when we go out wood cutting we can see the pad marks of animals which have scented around our tents during the darkness.

The encampment consists of log and wattle huts and tents.  There are thousands of men, horses and mules, and all the accoutrements of war.  The troops are both white and black – Colonials, Britishers, Boers, Natives and Indians.  There are herds of humped and other cattle, and bullock carts are always trotting to and fro.  Here there are men who have come down the lines to rest, and others waiting to be sent up country.  There are some splendid fellows amongst them, and they have extended the hand of welcome to us chaps ever since we arrived here.

Local Men in my Tent.

The greatest discomfort is the red sand on which the huts are built and the tents pitched.  Like the poor, it is always with us.  It is sand for breakfast, sand for dinner, and sand for tea.  It gets into everything – into your clothing and into every part of your equipment.  You can hardly imagine what this sand means.  But we are getting used to it, just as one appears to get used to anything.

In our tent there are ten men.  These are Jack Meredith, Ralph Smith, Bert Davies, Geo. Davies, Basil Uttley, A. Whitely (a Halfax chap), Guy Hudson, Billie Cannan, Bert Holmes and myself.  This tent of Bradford and district chaps is about 6 yards by 4 yards.  The floor is of sand.  Rifles are stacked round the centre pole.  Equipment is hung from the roof. A man’s bed consists of a waterproof ground sheet, a blanket, and a greatcoat.  We put kit bags at our heads for pillows and the mosquito nets on top to make them softer.  These nets are now not utilised for their real purposes, as at this season there are no mosquitoes at such an altitude.

In spite of the hardness of the sand as a mattress, we sleep well.  Occasionally ”little reptiles” creep into the tents, and one night Ralph Smith and Bert Davies had a bit of a scare.  They thought they heard some animal “nosing” under the canvas behind their backs.  We get good food.  The average menu is Breakfast (7.45) bacon, bread, and coffee.  Lunch (12.30) tea, bread and jam.  Dinner (5.15) stew (and good stuff too), bread and jam.  We also have bully beef and biscuits issued occasionally.

Although we have been in this camp but a little over a week we have had some rather interesting experiences.  I thoroughly enjoy the early morning excursions into the bush in search of wood, which is our only fuel.  We set out armed with long axes and daily disturb buck and other game.  One day we found a buck which had been recently killed by a lion.  It was warm and its assailant could not have been far away.

Big Game all around.

Our furthest advance into the bush was on August 28th.  With rifles and ammunition, we marched in open order, with advance guards, rear guards, and flank guards.  Although we tramped all day we saw no human being, not even a native.  It is obvious that a man could walk in the bush for weeks and months and never leave it.  It appears to be illimitable!  Everywhere we saw signs of big game.  Giraffes and lions were frequently sighted by the advance party, but we of the main body only saw springbok, etc.

At one place we passed the skeleton of a rhino, and at another point in the march we had an exciting little experience.  We had stopped for an hour to eat rations.  Bert Davies, Billie Cannan, Ralph Smith, Bert Holmes and myself were in a clearing boiling water at a fire we had made, when there rushed past, within a yard or two, a full grown hyena.  He seemed terrified, having probably been disturbed from his siesta by our flank guard.  All these wild animals seem to be afraid of men if the latter are in sufficiently large numbers.

On an evening we visit the log hut of the Y.M.C.A., and there drink tea and coffee and have little impromptu concerts.  The heat here is not so great as one would expect it to be in the tropics, but, of course, it is the winter and we are in the hills.  At nights it is cold, and we often go out in greatcoats.  As I write it is raining, and we are generally preparing for a wet period.

The news has just reached us of the entrance of Rumania into the war, and of the fall of two big towns further up the lines in East Africa.  So we are all in the best of spirits.

Windhill and Idle Lads in Football.

I must tell you of a Rugby football match that was played here and which I promised the local fellows should be reported in the SHIPLEY EXPRESS.  It was played on August 25th between teams from our company and the South African Infantry and Motor Despatch Riders.  It had quite an International flavour – Britain v. the Springboks.    From the great reputations of some of the African players and the fame of the Springboks on the Rugger field they started firm favourites.  The British team was.- Full back, Pte. Bowan (Wales); three-quarter backs, Pte. Peacock (Bradford), Pte. Naylor (Windhill), Pte. Connor (Halifax), Pte. Tweedie (Belfast); half-backs, Pte. Child (Horton), and Pte. May (Leeds); forwards, Pte. Searle (Harrogate), Pte. Buckle (Leeds), Pte. Hinton (Wigan), Sergt. Spink (Leeds), Pte. Byrne (Dublin), Pte. Woodhouse (Bradford), Pte. Grimshaw (Idle), and Pte. J. Knott (Windhill).

The Frontiersmen adopted the close, spoiling game, and stuck to their opponents with the tenacity of the leech.  The effect was that the Africans could never open out the game, and the Fusiliers pressed throughout.  Knott (Windhill) giving them the verdict with a beautiful drop goal.  It was undisputed that the visitors were the better team on the day, yet the Springboks showed marked ability.  Grimshaw (Idle) played a great game at five-eight.

I am doing a bit of journalism even out here.  Phillips (whom I told you about in one of my letters) is running a paper called “Clickety Clicks.”  He gets the name from a term in the big soldier game of “House.”  This little publication will be circulated amongst the men who came out on the “Suffolk.”  The A.S.C. of course, are not with us.  Phillips and myself have made an arrangement.  I am to write the matter relating to this company.  I will send you a copy of this uncommon newspaper.

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 27th 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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