The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough


Native Scenes and Customs.


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 experiences of local men who have been serving for some time with the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in German East Africa.


(Continued from last week).

Native Marriage Ceremony.

Sunday, October 8th, was an anniversary amongst the natives similar to our own Christmas.  It was also a great marriage day.  Feasting and rejoicing proceeded the day long.  The excitement reached its highest, however, in the evening.

I will describe two scenes which occurred after ark, and which will give you some idea of the manner in which the native celebrates a feast and ties the matrimonial knot.

Scene 1. – A square in the village surrounded by native houses shaded with palm trees and lighted by a gorgeous Eastern moon, at its full, the rude lamps of the blacks and the modern ones of the soldiers who had come to see the ceremony.

There is a ring of women dressed in all their finery, with faces painted white and wearing headgears of feathers.  A wrinkled, wizened old woman is amongst them, and their leader is a “black lady” of higher class and in more elaborate attire.  This ring of women constantly circles, the leader giving them the lead in some weird African song.

Suddenly the circling ceases and a gap in the circle is made.  Into this gap there steps a man with all a bridegroom’s seriousness of face and awkwardness.  He has on the very best clothes he can find.

Some made themselves absurd in their endeavour to create an impression upon the “bridelings” they intended to marry by wearing, say, native clothing and an old fashioned top hat.  The man kneels before his chosen bride, and to the old woman he hands a bag of money.  The girl is his.  The circling and the singing recommences, and continues until another man presents himself, when the ceremony just described is repeated.

Strange African Dances.

Scene 2. – At another part of the village the native band (the players wearing white robes and red fez) plays to an audience of women.  Around the band young men follow each other in file, dancing suggestively, and humming to the tune that is being played.

As the men dance the women shriek their applause, tearing off article after article of clothing, waving these garments towards the sky, until each stands almost bare, with a handful of linen.  The greater the applause the more vigour the men put into the dance, which they continue until out of sheer exhaustion they are compelled to rest.

On the evening of Saturday last the Fusiliers gave a great Boxing Tournament in the Market Place.  Everything was carried out according to up-to-date requirements.  A proper ring was erected, seats were provided for the officers – who included Colonel Driscoll – and at the interval the native band played Arabic selections.  The whole garrison attended, and the sport was of a very high standard.

We have some remarkably clever boxers in the battalion, particularly amongst the old Frontiersmen, including several of the world’s best professionals.  Amongst the latter is H. Synott, ex-middle and heavy weight champion of Australia, and for seven years sparring partner to Jack Johnson.  Synott is a magnificent figure of a man, and challenges any boxer in the country – which challenge has not yet been accepted, and never will!  Amongst all the boxers in East Africa there is no man who could “live” with Synott.  That is an acknowledged fact.

How Jack Johnson was found.

A unique item on the programme was described as a Battle Royal. Five blacks entered the ring, each wearing gloves, of course. The five fought until there was only one left in the ring, the others having either been knocked out or having retired exhausted.  The event was screamingly funny – for the spectators!  I am told that this type of fight is not uncommon in the United States, and that Jack Johnson was “found” in such a contest.

Occasionally we have a Camp Fire Concert.  These are much enjoyed by the men, though we have heard most of the songs so many, many times since we left England that I am afraid they are growing somewhat stale to many of us.

A huge fire is built up in the Market Place.  This is lit after sundown, and the men take their places around it in a large ring.  A piano is carried round, and song and story follows song and story until the bugle blows “lights out.”  The officers attend, and our own captain always gives us a recitation or two.

I enclose you a recitation which a fellow recited, and which will give you a rough idea of one phase of the life our fellows have led out here.

The Marvellous Bush.

As I have told you before, the scenery here is of a nature never to be forgotten.  In England there is no mountain scenery which I know of that can be mentioned in order to give you even a rough idea of the towering peaks which we saw as we passed through the country.  Yet the scenery is not so homely as the scenery is at home.  It is much more romantic and forbidding.  The bush is a terror!  Some of the grass, known as elephant grass, stands higher than a man.  The bush is thick, and almost impassable if one gets off the beaten track.  One section of the bush will cover hundreds of square miles, and if a man got lost in it he might as well give up the ghost.

The bush, in short, is the greatest feature of East African life.  It is the chief cause of the hardships of the campaign, and the reason, the greatest reason, why the transporting of troops and stores in this country is so much more difficult than it is in France and other European countries.  You cannot realise what those who organise the transports are faced with, and how slowly the men and goods have to travel – comparatively speaking.

As I have previously stated, the country absolutely abounds with wild animals from the elephant to the small buck, which is fairly swarming in parts.  I greatly regret that we are not allowed to use the rifle for sporting purposes, but now that Captain Selous (the most famous big game hunter in the world) is with us, I am hoping for the best.

Black men and black women are nearly as numerous as ants, but cause us little worry.  They do all the dirty work, and we should probably be lost without them. The heat is greater than it has been since we landed.  The nights are gorgeous when there is a moon, but dead black when the latter is absent.  It is indeed a wonderful country, full of incident, and there is so much to see and learn if one only keeps one’s eyes and ears open.

Battle of Tanga.

An impressive ceremony was witnessed in Tanga on October 27th last, the occasion being a Memorial Service, following the re-interment of the bodies of those who fell in the attack on the town by the British on November 3rd and 4th, 1914.

When the history of the campaign in East Africa comes to be written, there will be brought to light the full significance of the important part which the struggle for – and eventual occupation of – Tanga played in Britain’s successful attempt to wrest from the Hun his sole remaining colony.

Tanga is a typical German East African port, which was in a fairly flourishing condition prior to the war, surrounded by fertile plantations of sisal, rubber, and other African products.  It possessed a considerable European population, including many very wealthy Germans.

Even now, when the town still carries the wounds it received in the fight of twenty-four months ago, one gets an impression of well-planned streets, tree bordered and picturesque, of public buildings, private houses, and hotels, commanding and of good architecture for a tropical port of this character, of adjoining native villages, neat and well laid out.  Of, in fact, a pleasing picture which Tanga must have made before our artillery rained their fire upon it on November 3rd and 4th, 1914.

On these dates the British launched their attack on the town.  A comparatively small number of troops were landed, and for two days detachments of two white regiments and several native India regiments took part in the assault.

How the place was taken.

The attempt to take the position was unsuccessful, the failure being due to reasons which the annals of the campaign will at some future date disclose, and it was not until July 7th, 1915, that a column moving down the coast caused the Germans to evacuate the town.

For the past five months Tanga has, therefore, been under British martial law.  British troops have occupied its white, red-roofed houses, and it has been one of General Smuts’s most important camps on his lengthy lines of communication.  The trade of the town is conducted by natives, Greeks, Portuguese, Arabs and tradespeople of other nationalities, and these and the British garrison are the sole inhabitants.

On all sides now, in every street and avenue, there are signs of the heavy bombardment from both land and sea of two years back.  Houses and hotels lie in the state of ruin in which our guns left them.  Some of the largest buildings are crumbled to dust.  In short, evidence of the heavy fire which Tanga was subjected to is to be seen everywhere.

After the action of November 3rd and 4th, 1914, the bodies of the Britishers who made the supreme sacrifice were left by the Huns – with their usual absence of honour and decency – to be buried by the small Indian colony settled in Tanga.  They were thus interred where they were found, in the large cocoanut plantations in which they fell.  And when two years later our troops swept into Tanga, they found only rude black crosses standing here and there amidst the trees to mark the resting places of their comrades. The crosses had no names, nothing but a roughly inscribed number.

Re-interment of those who fell.

It was wisely considered by the authorities that a proper burial should be given to these heroic officers and men, and the happy thought resulted in the ceremony referred to above.

The bodies were re-interred in one large grave, situated amidst trees of cocoanut, palm, and mango, on the very ground where the fight had reached its fiercest. A temporary tombstone was erected, and on October 7th (sic.), as already stated, the Memorial Service was held.

On that day there marched through the white streets of Tanga – bathed in glorious sunshine – from their respective camps to the burial ground representatives of the regiments which at that time constituted the garrison.  A detachment of the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers provided the firing party.

The Rev. Thomas, chaplain to the forces in Tanga, conducted an inspiring service at the graveside.  The Royal Fusiliers, who have played an invaluable part in the East African campaign, fired three volleys over the grave, the troops sang the hymn “O God, our help in ages past.” and the bugles gave “The Last Post” and “The Reveille.”

Thus was just tribute paid and a Christian burial given to the heroes who lay at peace in this far corner of our extending Empire, beneath the white tombstone draped with the flag, in upholding the honour of which the brave dead had sacrificed their lives.

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 9th 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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