The Old and the Bold



With Smuts Rounding up the Huns

No. 4.

Below are further extracts from letters received from Pte. W. Watmough, of Thackley, who, with other soldiers, is serving with the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in German East Africa.

As you will have seen from the reports, Smuts is playing the very deuce with the Askari and their German officers out here.  Success follows success.  Big towns are being rapidly taken.  It is more a question, in some places, of hunting the enemy than anything else.  But it takes doing.  Still, it seems to be only a question of time before our enemies are swept out of the Protectorate.

After my experiences out here I do not think I shall ever be overfaced with anything again – and I am sure the same applies to most of us.  A campaign of this sort teaches many lessons.  You have to pay pretty dearly for it, but you learn things.

The newspapers in this country are rags.  I think there is money awaiting an enterprising publisher.  Speaking of newspapers my sergeant (Brecknall) was, prior to the war in the commercial department at the “Yorkshire Observer” Office.  We are good friends, and often chat about newspaper work in Bradford.  Downs, of the “Observer,” is also here.  He too, is one of the best, and he and I have spent scores of hours together in the bush – tree felling.

Generous Hearted South Africans.

When I wrote you last we were encamped at Maktaw.  We are, as I write, over 200 miles south of that place.  We were then in British East Africa.  We are now in German East Africa.  This is a stopping place on our way to a town recently captured from the enemy.

Here's something about our train journey up country.  On September 2nd we were vaccinated.  Two days later we entrained, or rather “entrucked,” for we rode in large iron trucks, covered in, but bare of furnishing.  There were 25 men in our truck.  The officers had no better quarters or grub.  This is a land of true democracy!  Equipment was piled on the floor, and this served as the seating accommodation.  It was a glorious warm day, and the men were eagerly and expectantly ready for another change in this, a life of endless change and variety.

Seventeen miles and we stopped at the next camp up the line.  The South Africans – some of the best and most generous-hearted fellows imaginable – treated us to tea, in their usual happy and careless way so far as money is concerned, although, probably, they had only a few rupees to bless their souls with!  But this is the spirit of these big, handsome Colonials.  Frankly, I think they have a broader outlook on life than we Englishmen.  In fact, we are all charmed with the boys of Cape Colony, Rhodesia, and the Transvaal.  A great many of these fellows are young swells, the sons of wealthy parents.  They are serving as privates, and of “side” they have none.

Another seventeen miles or so on this pantomimic railway, with its yard-gauge, and we halted for dinner at the station of a big camp lying on the border line between B.E.A. and G.E.A.  It was dark, and our wayside meal had to be prepared in a gloom only relieved by the fires which we made at the line side, and the lanterns which were removed from the trucks.  On wood fires water was boiled, and each man cooked his own ration of meat.  This was fresh meat from beasts which once were German property.  And when we had drank our tea and eaten our meat and cast-iron biscuits, we sat around the flaming logs, and the boys sang the songs they learned in England.

Meeting a Shipley Man.

It was at this camp we met a man named Wilson, who at one time resided at Alma Terrace, Valley Road, Shipley.  His people now live at Brighouse.  He is in the R.A.M.C. and has been through the campaign in the Dardanelles.  He was delighted to meet some boys from home, and stuck to us until we left the camp at mid-night.

Sleep in that crowded truck – at any rate, decent sleep – was practically out of the question, and for most of us it was a night of heat and discomfort.  Daybreak could never be more welcome.  Personally, I did fairly well, with four rifles as a pillow.

Through the second day of our ride in the trucks, we everywhere saw signs of the victorious British advance!  I refer to deserted plantations of copra, sisal, rubber, coffee, grain, millet, broken homesteads, destroyed bridges, small, rude graveyards, and other evidence of war!  We were on a single line, and in consequence were frequently held up at crossings for several hours at a time.  On these occasions we invariably left the train.  And at one important junction, where a German bridge of strategical importance was shelled and destroyed – we actually bathed, while waiting, in the River Pangani.  On its bank we saw scores of monkeys playing on the branches of the trees just as monkeys frolic in any monkey house.

Night came on again.  Fires were lit as before, and meals cooked.  Wright Grimshaw – Mrs. Grimshaw now lives in Idle, I believe – and I, had a banquet all to ourselves.  We made a what-is-to-us-now delicious broth from bully beef, onions, and wild tomatoes.  The latter we had gathered in the bush.  We ate this dish, drank cocoa, and probably enjoyed the meal better than many an expensive dinner in England.  Another night of general sleeplessness, another night of swearing, grunting and groaning followed – (Oh! Those vaccinated arms and bullet-proof walls!).  However, the morning of Wednesday brough us to the camp from which I now write.

Marvellous Scenery and Myriads of Ants.

This is a perfect picture of a camp.  We are on the slopes of the hills which sweep down to the Pangani.  It was in pre-war days a sisal plantation owned by a wealthy Gernam Ltd. Co.  Thousands of acres of sisal trees surround it.  The fine house of the former manager stands above the tent-dotted ground on which we are quartered.  It has already been emptied of everything of value which it contained.  There is also a rubber factory in close proximity, and tons of good new rubber lie there to perish.  I might add that it is from the sisal tree that sisal hemp is obtained, which is afterwards manufactured into rope.

There are so many magnificent snatches of scenery in passing through a country so wild and rarely trodden as this, that it would be but repetition to attempt to describe a tithe of the scenes that daily appear before our eyes, were my pen able to do even scant justice to their magnificence.  So I must ask you to take it for granted that for mountain and bush, forest and stream, we are living in a Paradise!  A view of our camp and its surroundings from any neighbouring hill will take a lot of beating, even in a land, which, as I say, is all beautiful in its own tropical way.  I am not comparing African scenery with English scenery.  It would be folly to do so – so different are they.  My opinion is that the Yorkshire Dales in their way can beat anything in Africa.  But the Dales are home, and perhaps I am prejudiced!

There is fortunately, in this camp, no red sand in our dietary.  It is, therefore, not now necessary to wash a shirt every day!  It is much hotter than it was at Maktaw, and not so cold after sundown, though cool enough to be refreshing after the torrid heat of the daytime.  Ants abound, and if you do not lay hot ashes or salt under your ground sheet, the little beggars will not let you have any sleep.

The first night we were here we knew nothing of the burning ash or salt dodge, and we served as a training ground for an army corps of these insects the night through!  Fortunately they were the small black ant, which is not a biter.  But their very presence is quite sufficient.  Africa is notorious for ants.  They are of all varieties – red, black, white, and so on.  They actually build anthills four, five, and up to six feet high!

Engaging a Black Boy.

Tent life here is similar to that of Maktaw, except that we are allowed to have black servants.  And hereby hangs a tale.  Other tents were engaging black boys. So should we.  The news reached the next kraal, and six likely lads presented themselves for our approval.  We have learnt a little Kiswahili, and we each have a pocket guide to the language.  Thus supported, we opened negotiations.  I cannot convey to you the humour of that interview.  The boys never ceased speaking and gestulating.  We took turns at ‘em.  We tried Kiswahili, we tried Pidgin English, we made signs.

This went on for an hour.  Other fellows came to see the fun, then went into their tents for dinner and returned again.  We were still at it, though weakening fast. To cut a long story short, we eventually engaged an intelligent looking lad by name of Samoona.  Samoona was to receive one rupee (1s. 4d.) per week and his chakula (food).

He commenced work forthwith.  He cleared the tent floor and washed the pots and a few shirts.  We next ordered him to fix a clothesline outside the tent. Mark you, we gave him his instructions in our version of his native tongue.  He made a start on this piece of work, and then “downed tools” and disappeared into a wood in the direction of his kraal!  Hours went by but Samoona returned not.  We had lost our boy – the boy that we had all made our tongues sore to secure.

However, we must engage another.  Again the news spread, again some half-dozen chocolate coons presented themselves, and again a boy was engaged.  This new boy was Sandino.  He at once took up the work which the missing Samoona had left undone.

Time passed on until about four in the afternoon.  I was seated in the tent writing, when in slunk Samoona – shame-faced and afraid.  In his hand he had three fresh eggs – a great and rare delicacy – which he placed on the soap-box that served as our dining table.  It was pathetic.  We paid him for the eggs and found him another job.  But the question which we can’t answer is this: Did one of us accidently use the Kiswahili word for “eggs” in attempting to speak to Samoona in his own tongue in the morning?  Or did the lad bring the eggs as a peace offering for his misbehaviour?  We shall never know.  Since the Sandino has had to go because he wanted too much to eat.  He ate us up!  Now we have engaged Culindo, who was at one time servant to an officer.  We have him in khaki.  He is as smart as paint, and is envied by all the other tents!

German Officers as Prisoners.

There is plenty of fruit here.  Bananas we buy from the blacks at ten for 6 cents (1d.), and lemons and limes we ourselves pluck from the trees.  There is a long, narrow potato grown in this country.  It is known as the sweet of African potato, and it tastes like a cross between an English potato and a parsnip.  It is a delicious vegetable, all the same.

Twenty-one German officers and a number of Askari (Kiswahili for “troops”) were brought in here on Sunday.  I daily see the Germans pacing about in the prison yard.  They are typical German.  They seem wan and war-worn, tired with the hardships of a long and, to them, unsuccessful campaign.  They are well treated here.

Yesterday afternoon, seated on their boxes, and accompanied by black servants, there were on the station two German women and their children.  They were from one of the captured towns, I presume, and were being sent somewhere down the line.

There are, of course, heaps of other things I could tell you were it not for the blue pencil of the censor. But I do not wish to transgress, and, therefore, I confine myself to speaking of matters that I am allowed to speak of.

One thing, however, I may say.  Whatever you may think, and whatever you may hear or read of the treatment of British soldiers in other theatres of war, in this country all that is possible is done for the welfare of the men!  Naturally, the circumstances make it out of the question for matters to be the same as they are in a training camp at home.  Yet we get good food, if rough, the best of medical treatment if we require it, and every other consideration shown to us.  The officers eat similar grub to the non-coms. and privates, and they pig-in with us in every other way.

A Camp You Can Keep Clean In.

We are certainly seeing things which would have cost us several hundreds of pounds to see in the ordinary way, but, of course, if a chap came out here on his own, he would do things differently.  For instance, he would not wash every morning in a tin can.  He would sleep in a bed.  He would ride in a railway carriage. He would not march through the country with 200 rounds of ammunition on his chest and a pack on his back.

Still, I am seeing and doing things that I have always wanted to see and do, and now that I am doing so I feel that I should not have liked to miss it all.  It is certainly a great experience for all of us.  I still try to take the thing the right side up.  I enjoy the wild life, and I make the best of any accompanying hardships. As you know, I have always had a feeling that I would like to see something of the world.  After we get through this business, and if I manage to get home again, I – like many others who are with me – may feel that we have had enough of it, and settle down much more contentedly.

There is one good feature about the camp which we are in now.  You can keep clean.  There is a river close to us, and in it we bathe, though using great care, for it contains crocodiles.  I have never seen a “croc.” but they tell me they are partial to human flesh.  This is, of course, a great place for animals and insects. Of the latter, the most weird is the fire-fly.  After we go to roost we see them flitting about the tent like sparks of electric light.  They are harmless, and the effect of a number of them flashing about in the dark is very pretty.  It is exceedingly hot, yet if we had the same temperature in England, it would be much more uncomfortable.  The heat is of a different kind.  The short rainy season is approaching, so we can expect a very wet time ahead.

The Y.M.C.A. Huts a God-send.

The Y.M.C.A. huts are a perfect God-send.  I do not know what we should do without them.  In my will I shall leave a million or two to this institution!

I repeat that there is money out here for a young man who is prepared to hide himself away from civilisation for a few years, work hard, very hard, and who can stand the climate.  Personally, Bradford is good enough for me, but this will be a great country after the war.  Some of the places where we are camping will at some distant date be flourishing towns.  It must be a nasty knock to the Hun to have German East Africa taken from him.  He was developing it in no half-hearted way.

I have just met a chap named F. J. Connolly, who once lived at Bradford Moor, where his family still reside.  He has a brother in the Bradford Pals, and another brother in the 9th Royal Fusiliers.  He emigrated to Nigeria in 1908, went up nearly to Lake Chad, and traded up the River Niger with the African Traders’ Association.  He returned home and was in business in Cambridge.  In 1912 he came out to South Africa, and was in East London when war broke out. Business prevented him taking part in the German West campaign, but he came up to East Africa with the 2nd South African Brigade.  He is in the S.A.I., and has seen much scrapping.  He has trekked through the bush with only two mealies (the contents of corn cobs) per day for rations.  He says South Africa is the finest place in the world for the young bachelor.  I mention this, as you might be able to let Connolly’s people know that he is in the land of the living and all right.

Still Moving Up Country.

We are still moving.  We left our last camp on October 5th.  We were conveyed in trucks as on our previous railway journey, and were perforce very tightly packed.  Personally, I had a comfortable ride, as I was in the store van, having been one of the guard mounted over the baggage, etc., through the night preceding.  The country all along was much the same as that seen by us on the train-ride which first brought us into German East.  There were the same signs of high German cultivation, and the same signs of the Britisher’s irresistible advance.

Our camp is, so to speak, a calling place before we proceed to our ultimate objective.  As to the town where we are stationed, I will copy what I have just written in my diary which I still religiously post:-

“A beautiful German coast town, with long tree-lined streets and avenues.  There are picturesque white houses, hotels, and other buildings, set amongst an abundance of luxuriant tropical foliage.  There is a calm, blue bay, with an island of the deepest green as its centre-piece.  A wreck lies there of some vessel probably destroyed in the bombardment, signs of which are everywhere to be seen.  This once classy seaside resort has temporarily gone to rack and ruin. There is obviously no time to devote to re-erecting fallen houses.  As it is, the ruins remain as the guns left them.  Gone, of course, are the Germans, but Portuguese, Indian, Arab, and other traders still sell their wares.  And at the principal hotel you may have a seven course dinner if you will.  The Y.M.C.A. has adopted a once popular cafe as its institute where we have tea, coffee, and whatnots and play billiards on tables minus pockets.

A Great Native Village

Here is the finest and largest native village we have seen in Africa.  It contains street after street of white wattle huts mostly thatched.  There are native shops of all descriptions, native Africans and native Indians, Arabs, Greeks and Portuguese, with their goods set out in front of their shops, vying to sell you wearing apparel and food.  All of them usually ask twice the price they are ultimately willing to accept.  It is a market place of never-ceasing babble!  A native band adds to the din by playing Arabic melodies.  Here we have tea, coffee, and various cooling drinks in a vain endeavour to quench a mighty thirst!

Between 6 and 7 in the morning we bathe.  The water is warm – warmer far than it could ever be in an English sea.  Last night there was a concert outside the Y.M.C.A. in a square, surrounding which are graceful palm trees, beneath whose giant leaves one can find welcome shade when the sun is at its height.

The most numerous inhabitants of this place are the mosquitoes.  Swarms of these beastly insects come out at sundown, and buzz and bite the night through. Mosquito nets are essential, and a good night’s rest would be impossible without them.  Mosquitoes are not large – nothing approaching the size I imagined they would be – but they have an insatiable appetite for human blood.

I cannot say how long we shall remain here.  A week, I understand.  But we were only supposed to remain a few days at the last camp, and we were there about a month.  The next jump will probably mean another sea trip, a welcome change after so much travelling overland.  I never felt better in my life – I am touching wood! – though the climate is very trying and is not suiting all the chaps quite so well.

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 24th November, 1916.

Copyright © 2012-2024 - All Rights Reserved - Steve Eeles -


William Errol Glanville Watmough


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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