The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough


The Lighter Side of Campaigning.


No. 5

We print below some disconnected extracts from different letters received from Private W. Watmough, of Thackley – formerly connected with the EXPRESS – descriptive of the lighter side of the experience of local men who have been serving for some time with the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in German East Africa.

For obvious reasons little or nothing can be published concerning their military doings, but information has reached this district showing that the Frontiersmen have lately had a very rough time of it, both as to fighting and hardships, and that official information has been received of casualties amongst local men.  Captain Selous, who was a Frontiersman and who is so feelingly spoken of by Private Watmough in his letters, was killed in action on January 4th, when several other men from this district also made the great sacrifice.


I am quite all right at the time of writing.  I feel as fit as a fiddle, and shall endeavour to keep so.  Of course, Africa is not a healthy country, but if one follows certain simple rules there is less to fear.  I have been very lucky in making the acquaintance of an old Frontiersmen, an Irish-Canadian, who has come through the whole campaign with hardly a day’s sickness, and who knows the ropes thoroughly.  I never met a chap who treated himself in a more common-sense way, and I follow his mode of living.

We are living better now than we have previously done since leaving England.  From landing at Kilindini up to arriving in this part we had absolutely the same diet every day, and it grew exceedingly monotonous.  We have sugar, which was unobtainable in our last camp.  Even tea without milk and sugar, meal after meal, can be delicious!

My present quarters are a haven of rest after a rough journey through this extraordinary country.  My bed consists of a waterproof sheet, and a great-coat as a mattress, over me a single blanket, which I generally have to throw off, for the nights are getting very hot as the summer approaches.  My pillow is a cardigan jacket packed with shirts.  Over the whole bed is fixed my mosquito net, a fine mesh, white net, shaped like a huge marquee.  Around this the mosquitoes buzz all night, and sleep would be impossible without it.  This bed seems to be hard and uncomfortable.  It never feels so to me now.  I sleep like a top, and feel wonderfully fresh in a morning.

As the heat has increased we have gradually cast clothing.  My dress as I write is, pith helmet (which I would not dare to take off – outside – between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.), singlet, thin khaki shirt, short trousers (to about six inches above the knee), belt, puttees, socks, and boots.

The Late Captain Selous.

I was with the famous Captain Selous all last night in the bush.  We all worship him, call him “Daddy” Selous, and would do anything in the world for him.  If all the officers were like Captain Selous the life of the private soldier would be very different.  I feel greatly honoured to be associated with such a man.  He is 65 years of age, as brave as a lion, as everyone knows, as fit as wax, and considerate at all times.

In connection with some work I am doing here I am assisted by Walter Dyson, who prior to the war had to do with the Education Department in Bradford.  I never want to work with a more congenial colleague.

The heat is terrific!  You at home have no idea what heat means.  The only cool place is the sea – and that is warm! – Frank Tweedie (an Irish boy and a crack runner) and I have walked on to the Park Hotel to write our letters in quietude.  As I say, it is terrifically hot, although so long after sundown, and the mosquitoes are playing around my legs as I write.

Don’t please picture the “Park” as the Bradford “Midland” or anything resembling an English pub.  The room we are in is large and bare, with a few tables and chairs preserved from the bombardment.  The floor is carpetless.  On the walls are some German pictures – very, very near the mark, if not over it!  Five or six soldiers are sat drinking squashes (there is nothing stronger), and one fellow is playing ragtime three years old on an aged German piano.  The room opens out on to the road, grass-grown and untidy.  The landlord is Portuguese.  His servants are the ubiquitous natives.  Very different must the “Park” have appeared in swagger German days.

Visit to Famous Caves.

It might interest you to know something of the Caves of Sigihohlen, a photo of which I sent you.  Our scouts had found these caves one day when operating in the bush, and so glowing was the account they brought back that several parties had visited the spot and all had returned loud in their praises.

So one Sunday, having a day’s liberty, we started out, each fellow carrying a mess tin and a haversack containing jam, bread, meat, tea, coffee, tinned milk, sardines, sugar, etc.  On the way we obtained, from a native, bananas and pineapple.  As a result we were obviously well provisioned.

Wending our way through Tanga out into the hills and bush, we quickly passed through avenues of palm trees and cocoanuts, plantations of sisal, rubber, pineapple, banana, etc.  We saw many canaries and gaudily coloured birds.  We disturbed land crabs as big as saucers, which scuttered into their holes faster than any rabbit.  We passed scores of natives coming from the hills into the place heavily loadened with fruit, etc.  We left on our right a long-idle German tannery.

At one point of the walk we saw a big-game hunting platform, which did not appear to have been used for a long, long time.  At some distance from the platform was the post to which the “bait” was tied.  This is the common way of hunting the lion and other big game.  The “gun” sits on the platform, and a goat is tied to the post. Poor “Billy” or “Nanny” becomes hungry.  It bleats, and the game comes out of the bush to make his kill.  When it reaches the “bait,” if the marksmanship is good, there is another skin to adorn some English home.

Monkeys and Bats everywhere.

And so we tramped along.  We were, of course, bathed in perspiration.  It is good that it should be so.  The man who cannot produce a sweat out here is sure to suffer, for it is in the perspiration that the impurities which one may glean in a not over healthy country are washed away.

Eventually we reached the much-talked-of Caves of Sigihohlen.  A few yards from the caves there flowed a crystal-clear stream, jingling on its way to join the mighty Pangani.

By the side of this beautiful stream – so refreshing and good to look upon in this torrid land – we made our little bivouac.  We were in a very welcome shade. Large African trees threw their heavily leaved branches across both stream and path.  Vegetation most beautiful to see grew also on the face of the rock and assisted in making the grove cool and restful after the hot tramp over the hills.  Gorgeous, wild, tropical flowers grew at our feet – flowers such as the owner of a conservatory at home would rave about could he but produce them of such size and beauty.  Butterflies, large and gaily coloured, flitted here and there, and monkeys chattered in the trees.

One monkey we saw was very large.  It was adorned with long, silky hair and had black-and-white markings.  This kind of monkey is of a rare species, and it is almost an impossibility to keep it alive in captivity for any length of time in English zoos.

Here we made our fire, boiled the water, and made tea and coffee.  And then we ate and drank to our stomachs’ content.  Indeed, many a more skilfully prepared, more tastefully served, and expensive meal have been much less appreciated than was that simple al fresco lunch beneath the shadow of the gigantic Caves of Sigihohlen.

Guy Hudson as the Guide.

Lunch over and pipes smoked, we commenced to explore the caves themselves.  No better guide than Guy Hudson could have been found.  He has had much experience of pot-holing in the Dales.  With a candle attached to a long, stout stick – one of which we each carried – he led the way.

In some of the caves we were over an hour before we reached the terminus.  Gigantic boulders had to be negotiated, miniature ravines crossed, and, generally speaking, we imagined the experience something like Alpine climbing – on a small scale – in the dark!  Beautiful stalactites hung from the sides of the caverns. At times we found ourselves out in the open air on the top of the cave looking down the precipice on to the path hundreds of feet below.

At other times we appeared to be descending to the bowels of the world, reminiscent of Jules Verne’s “Trip to the Centre of the Earth.”  And all the time bats, hundreds and hundreds of them, flew above and round us.  These bats were very large, and some had wings the size of an average pigeon.  Pleasant it was to come out into the open air again.

Our exploration of the caves was followed by a refreshing bathe in that silvery little stream.  The water was deliciously cool, degrees cooler than the sea, and we perfectly revelled in our wash.  Thus refreshed, we left for camp in the coolness which follows the setting of the sun in this “eccentric” land.  Feeling thirsty on the way back, we knocked the tops off cocoanuts and drank the sweet milk which they contained.

No Intoxicants but plenty of Fruit.

As to the place we are in just now, the bay is practically always calm and blue, fringed with mangroves.  These are submerged islands, the tops of the trees alone standing clear of the water.  Mangroves are not uncommon in the tropics, but you never see them off the English coast.  Here is white sand – not pleasant sand, but slimy and messy sand, very different, say, to the sands of Blackpool.

The quay, no very large affair, is fairly busy now.  There are cocoanut and palm trees, which, of course, one finds at every turn in this country.  A green island, forbidden to the troops, adds to the beauty of the bay, and the wreck mentioned in my last still rolls lazily on its side.

It is a pleasant, peaceful scene, typical, I am told, of East African ports, and certainly similar to Kilindini, which was our landing place.  The water is deliciously warm, and to bathe in it is delightful.  Bathing is only practicable before 7 a.m. and after 4 p.m.  The sun in the intervening hours is much too strong.  The buoyancy of the water is another feature.  You can hardly sink in it, so strong are its briny properties.  We are not allowed to boat on the bay.

The town is under military law, of course, and the British soldier is in complete possession.  The shopkeepers – natives, Indians, Arabs, Greeks, Portuguese, and so on – are carrying on their trade as best they can and endeavouring to make a living out of poor Tommy.

The goods they sell are mostly – it appears to me – the stock they saved from the wreck at the time of the German evacuation.  One can buy most necessary articles at a price – often high!  Soda-water is 25 cents (4d.); Waverley mixture 4d. an ounce; a small tin of toothpaste 10d.  I bought these articles this morning, which is the reason I mention them.  As you will see, the prices were as low – if not lower – as obtain in England.  But for some things, such as shirts and other clothing, watches, jewellery, and repairs, the prices charged are fabulous.

Of intoxicating liquor there is practically none to be obtained.  Even the “Grand” is now, to all intents and purposes, a temperance house.  Soda-water, lime-juice, and other mineral waters are our thirst quenchers, though we drink coffee and tea in great quantities.  We are, in fact, getting old women in this respect.  We are always “teaing it.”  Water we scarcely touch.  It is not safe unless it is boiled, in any case.

Fruit is plentiful and cheap.  It can often be had for the plucking, and it is, of course, of the highest quality.  Bananas, oranges, limes, lemons, cocoanuts, pineapples, and pan-pans there is no scarcity of.  The pan-pan is in shape like a melon.  It is quite pink, and very luscious.  You scoop it out with a spoon (if you don’t use your fingers alone), and it is magnificent!

(To be continued next week.)

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 2nd February, 1917.


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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