The Old and the Bold

William Errol Glanville Watmough

First published in;

The Shipley Times and Express, Friday, 2nd March, 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.




No. 6

We give further extracts from letters received from Private W. Watmough, of Fairfield, Thackley, who is in East Africa with the Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). The extracts we publish show the lighter and somewhat happier side of campaigning in a remote and tropical country, and how some of our local men spent their Christmas.


I have never regretted being sent out here.  We are seeing much more than most soldiers elsewhere will see in the way of magnificent scenery, unique people, weird customs, etc.  The hardships of the campaign in Africa are mainly due to the nature of the land and the almost insurmountable difficulties of transport.  I say again, you cannot possibly realise what those in charge of transport have to contend with, and how efficient the system is in view of the difficulties referred to.  Men must have food, and seeing that they get that food in such circumstances is at times an almost superhuman task!

It is when the rains come that our armies suffer so very much.  We had an experience of African rain when we were at Korogwe, on the banks of the famous Pangani.  One night when we turned in it was pitch dark and the sky was covered by one huge black cloud.  The only light besides our oil lamps was a great bush fire across the Plains.  This was a bush fire scores of miles in width, burning up everything in its course and driving all varieties of wild animals before it. The rain might almost have been sent by Providence to put an end to the fire’s devastating work.

Anyhow, we went to sleep.  In the middle of the night the rain came.  Imagine the worst thunderstorm you ever remember in England, multiply its strength by two or three, and you will get some idea of what these rains mean.  By morning our waterproof sheets, which we sleep on, were practically floating about.  At daybreak every man turned out, and, with our great-coats on, we began to dig trenches around the tents and through the centre of the lines between the tents. As our camp was pitched on the slope of the hills, which here sweep down to the Pangani, those trenches had to be deep.  It took us days to complete them.  In fact, we had only just got them finished when we left Korogwe for the more civilised districts which we afterwards lived in.


Where we are now is not too healthy, though I am well and hearty.  I have a topping appetite.  I have always been told that a man does not eat as much in the tropics as he does at home.  I do.  And just now I have an opportunity of fully satisfying that appetite.  It has not always been the case since we landed, but I have not yet had to go hungry for too long.

One thing I regret.  I have never been able to shoot game, although I have seen plenty.  Permission has been strictly refused up to now, but I still have hopes – especially as Captain Selous is with us. [Captain Selous has since been killed in action. – Ed.]

There was fishing in the Pangani at Korogwe.  I was as keen to fish there as I ever was at home.  (What a day I could have just now on the peaceful Wharfe, or at Winterburn or Fewston, with Charley Halford, John Obank, and others I could name!)  But an officer strongly advised me not to sit for hours on the river bank, for, as he said, “fever always lies in the valleys.”  Some of our chaps did fish – with a fair amount of success – using very rude tackle.  True, however, to the lieutenant’s prophecy, nearly every man of ‘em had malaria.

Malaria may sound very dreadful to you at home, as it used to do to me.  And, of course, it is so in many cases.  But it depends almost entirely upon how bad you get it.  If it is only a mild attack that you have you soon come all right.  In slight cases a man feels rotten – so those who have had it tell me – he has a bad head, lacks energy, and his temperature goes right up.  He gets down in his tent, rolls himself in two or three blankets, takes quinine, goes on to a milk – tinned – diet, and in two or three days is usually all right.  Worse cases go to hospital, and, of course, the doctor always examines for malaria any man who reports sick.  I have only once had to go to the medical inspection room, and that for a cut knee – now better – so I have not ailed much.  Touch wood!


It might interest you to know a little about one of the moves we have had since we landed in this country.  I mean a move from one place to another.

It was on a Saturday that we received definite orders that we were to leave by boat on the Sunday.  (Our moves always appear to take place on the day of rest – or such it ought to be but never is on active service.)  Packing and preparation for the journey went on all day.  We were absolutely run off our feet.  We were up at five next morning, the tents were dropped, and the men picked up their “beds” and cleaned up the camp.  By noon the detachment marched to the boat.

Before leaving, a lot of the chaps held a jumble sale, attended by Indians, Greeks, Portuguese, Guanese, Arabs, and natives.  In this way they sold various articles of furniture which they had “collected” and which had once been German property.  Some of the old Fusiliers, who have nothing to learn about campaigning, actually sold the camp wash-house to three different people, and drew a good big sum from each.  They then left the new owners to fight it out.  I can imagine a jolly good scrap over that wash-house, which, as it was Government property, would eventually be claimed by the authorities.

We went on board the gunboat, carrying what we had to carry.  At that time of the day the sun was at its height, and it was a terribly hot job.  I have never perspired so much since we came out here.  To see us marching to the boat was a rare sight for the inhabitants, with whom we had left plenty of cash, whom we had amused immensely with our concerts and sports, and who were in consequence sorry to see us going away.

Men carried monkeys, parrots, cooking tins of all descriptions, shapes, and sizes, baskets of fruit, etc.  Another corporal and myself had charge of a Seval cat (wild) cub and a couple of fox-terrier puppies.  A lighter took us on to the boat, and at 4 p.m. we sailed.  Each man dropped his equipment on the deck, and the little space left around him when all the troops were in their places was his pitch for the voyage.


Another old Fusilier – a man from the Argentine – a great horseman, and an expert with the lasoo, a good fellow, whom I will tell you more about some day – bought a tin of beans from the ship’s canteen, and we did the lot in between us.  The tin was supposed to provide a meal for six men!  But we had had little to eat that day, and were very hungry.

We slept on deck just as we were, without blanket, great-coat, or anything.  It was a beautiful, warm night, and the mild sea air was very refreshing after the torrid and perpetual heat of the place we had left.  I had one of Captain Selous’s kit bags as a pillow, and I slept like a top.

We lay off Zanzibar all night.  Next morning I was up at five, and was able to get a splendid view of this famous slave-trading port and island.  It is similar in every way to the average East African port.  The same red, white, and green colouring; the same placid sea and general peacefulness.  We sailed again at 10.30, and landed at our destination at 3.

It took us three hours to get men and stores ashore, and it was dark when we lined up on the quay.  We then marched to camp – a good mile and a half – dead tired and hungry.  And then all my fatigue and hunger were swept away, for who should be there to welcome us but Frank Hammond (of Undercliffe) and Percy Moorhouse (of Baildon).  They and the remainder of their draft had arrived on the Friday previous.  We had not seen them since we left them at Hounslow.  It was a memorable reunion.  I slept with Percy – both wrapped in the same blanket – that night.  I was up early next morning, cooked my own breakfast – bacon, coffee, etc. – and later in the day took up my quarters in a long white shed, once used as a store room for cocoanuts or some similar purpose.  The camp was in a large cocoanut plantation.


I will tell you how I, at all event, spent the Festive Season.  It was anything but festive so far as I was concerned.  But I suppose it was not less so with us than with most soldiers.

On the day of Christmas Eve I got off my old wooden apology for a bed – and yet it serves the purpose just as well as the best – at 6 a.m.  The grinning black boy who attends to our wants brought me a cup of tea.  It is the customary thing out here amongst the troops – when, of course, they can get it!  (But I shall have more to say about tea later on.)  I was ultimately dismissed for the day.  I then saw Walter Dyson, who is in the Fusiliers’ orderly room (headquarters).  He and I strolled back down the main street of Dar-es-Salaam, the sun shining down in a most un-Christmassy manner.  We came back to where I was quartered, and in the English style I asked my guest to have a bit of the Christmas cake I had had sent from home, and which we ate together with the greatest relish, not having tasted anything like it for nearly half a year!  We washed our “bit of Christmas” down with a bottle of soda-water, and tried to think we were doing things large.

And then we talked of our past and happy days in England.  Talked of how we should respectively have been spending Yuletide had we been at home.  Talked of our hopes and ambitions when we return to the old country.  Such chats are frequent when soldiers have an idle hour to spare.  They help us to keep going, and they seem to bring us into closer touch with home.  Walter Dyson is a capital fellow, and has proved a good soldier, which is not always the case with a married man of his age, who, like so many, may have got into a city groove.

Seeing the day it was, we had lunch at the Y.M.C.A.  It was a decent feed, for our rations are better cooked and served here than it has previously been possible.  After this mid-day meal we took our siesta, as is the custom in the Tropics.  Then followed more talk, more soda-water, more cake, chocolates – that had been enclosed in my Christmas parcel – tobacco, and cigarettes, until 4 o’clock, when Dyson left.  He is quartered on the hill above the town, where he lives in a tent with some of the old Fusiliers.


[After the] evening feed Percy Moorhouse came to see me.  I put six bottles of soda-water in a bag – I have, by the way, struck a very cheap line for sodas.  I pay five cents (less than 1d.) per bottle, the usual price being [?] cents (over 4d.).  With these sodas Percy and I set out for the place where Basil Uttley is quartered.  Basil left us at Tanga, under transfer to the Supply and Transport.  He is at a little homestead so close to the beach that the waves actually lap the front of the house.

This town is entered from the sea by what can best be described as a bottle-neck which breaks out into a large basin, one of the natural harbours so numerous on this coast.  No invigorating sea breezes ever blow across the shore, but rather hot, humid breezes carrying with them the odour of the fruit and luxuriant tropical vegetation over which they blow.  But as one walks along the edge of the “bottle neck,” amongst the palm and other trees, which grow right up to the white sand of the beach, one receives the full blast – which is really a steady wind compared with English seaside breezes – from the open sea   Anyhow it seems to put new life into those of us who at times pine for the moorland breezes we were accustomed to in good old Yorkshire.

All along the beach there are German trenches prepared in expectation of a probable British attack from the sea, such as that which was vainly attempted at Tanga in November 1915.  Rolling on her side in this “bottle neck” is a large German vessel, the “Koenig,” destroyed by our navy and left where she was struck – a lonely derelict, an example to the inhabitants of the place of Britain’s ocean supremacy.

It is only a short distance beyond the [?]tered “Koenig” that the little house of Uttley and his colleagues stands.  It is an [?] bungalow, probably the home of some German fisherman up to a few months ago.  The [?] is fairly in ruins, a shell evidently smashing through it in its passage to some more worthy objective.


It was in this lonely house that Percy and I passed our Christmas Eve with Basil and his friends.  They have each a bed of sorts and a couple of black boys to do their cooking, washing, etc.  They get better pay and better “scoff” than the poor infantry, who have to rough it.  Here we found, in addition to our friends, a couple of bottles of something stronger than tea – as we had expected to hence the sodas which I had “lugged’ those good two miles.

Like good Yorkshiremen, we made ourselves as happy as we could.  We toasted a better Christmas in 1917, at home, and we toasted many other things as well. We chatted merry and smoked furiously until 10 o’clock, when Percy had to return to camp and I to my billet.  Thus ended Christmas Eve – certainly one of the strangest I have ever experienced.

Christmas morning didn’t feel like Christmas morning at all.  Walter Dyson and I passed the time between being dismissed and midday in a native café drinking tea and listening to a young soldier endeavouring to pump “Christians awake,” “While shepherds,” etc. out of an ancient German piano.

But the tunes sounded like a mockery.  I am afraid there was no “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men” here during the Christmas of 1916!  How could there possibly be with such a war as this one going on?  All through the holiday here the Christmas spirit was absent.  It might have been the sun, the heat, and the flowering trees – so unlike the Yuletides of old England.  And it might have been the absence of those who are so near and dear, and with whom one has always spent Christmas time in the past.  A great change to all of us.  Anyway, it didn’t feel one bit like Christmas.  But we will make amends at Christmas, 1917, when the war will be over.

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon there were aquatic sports in the bay.  The chief events were won by the members of the crew of a monitor anchored in the harbour.  It is always pleasant to come into contact with these white-uniformed sons of the sea when they come ashore.  This they often do for a few hours’ recreation and a break in their vigilant and ceaseless patrol of the East African coast.  They look so much healthier and fitter than do those men who have stayed too long in this country – a country with little to commend it as a health resort.


A man who does not stay out here more than twelve months need not suffer too much if he is constitutionally strong and looks carefully after himself.  But after two years which is the length of time the old Fusiliers have been here – the continual heat, etc., begins to tell.  And then they have to go to South Africa or England to recuperate.  But I am wandering away from my point.

For our Christmas dinner at the Y.M.C.A. – a magnificent institution that has far more than justified itself since the war commenced – we tried to arrange for chickens and plum pudding.  But those good things did not come off.  So we had to be content with buck and tinned-fruit pie.  The evening I again spent at Uttley’s.  It is a pleasant change to this cottage.  The bracing air there is itself well worth the tramp along the coast.

On my way back I heard the band of the King’s African Rifles (natives) playing for the officers at General Headquarters.  And when I reached my billet I was told that during the evening the Y.M.C.A. had entertained a large number of German women and children to a concert, and had given each child bags of sweets. Truly we are a chivalrous and strange people!  Would the Huns treat us in this way?

(To be continued next week)

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

Next Back Home