It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally worked my way through the three books John Masters wrote on World War 1. The series, Loss of Eden, was recommended to me by a friend from Tanzania despite there being little mention of the African campaigns. It was suggested that I ‘just have to read’ the books if I claim to be a specialist on World War 1.
I can’t say I was absolutely taken with the books, but thought them well constructed and written with a huge focus on social Britain and some of the big political issues of the day. For this the author needs to be commended. And to his credit, there was some mention of the conflict in Africa and these, although scarce, provide valuable insight into how people of the time saw the campaign.
Book 1: Now, God be thanked (1979), has five mentions of Africa in the war.
A white Kenyan enlists and serves in a traditional British regiment on the Western Front. His uncouth habits and behaviours being alien to those he serves alongside.
Two mentions of Smith-Dorrien having been sent to command East Africa having been sidelined on the Western Front, a move the author thinks was a mistake.
One comment about the Konigsberg having been sunk in the Rufigi Delta as part of the navy’s successes and one comment about fighting still continuing in Africa.
What is interesting is that when there is a discussion on the various theatres of the war, Africa is not included. It is almost as though this peripheral war will have no bearing on what happens in Europe at all. For those of us who study the campaign, this is not surprising, but what is noticeable is that the theatre is also not a drain on the activities in Europe and Mesopotamia. It’s as though what is happening in Africa is in complete isolation to the rest of the war. But yet, Masters feels it is included, otherwise he would not have had these five passing mentions.
Book 2: Heart of War (1980) focuses on 1916, and has two mentions of Africa.
Page one includes a reference to the war in the Africa theatre still continuing, whilst on around page 300 there is a newspaper summary dated 2 December 1916 reporting on the capture of Tabora and actions near Iringa from 19 October.
Book 3: By the Green of Spring (1981) brings the war to an end and takes us to the end of 1919. However, despite there being mention of the Indian troops being involved in the war, there is no mention of them at all in relation to their work in Africa. In fact, in this final volume, Africa does not feature – nothing about the war continuing after the armistice in Europe being concluded, nor anything to do with the peace discussions – the focus there being more on relations with the United States of America. As one of the leading characters points out in the book, the world was starting to import ideas and it would be good for those in Britain to see what was happening outside – that the focus was on the indigenous Indians in the USA and trade unions becoming ‘bolshie’ provides a clear indication of where Britain and the other leading power’s considered important – and it wasn’t Africa.
There’s been quite a bit lately about wild animals roaming residential streets and business areas alongside many sharing photos of what’s happening in their gardens or what they discover on walks. Bottom line – nature is important to us, it provides an out from our hectic and chaotic environments, a place of solace and peace. And, it’s nothing new…
Reading John Master’s Loss of Eden trilogy, there is quite a bit about poaching and animal tracking. One young man, the son of the local squire, Lawrence Cate, should never have been sent to the front and in book 3 he is eventually shot for cowardice and deserting his post during an attack. However, all in his regiment, including his CO, saw his actions as shell shock – in the period before it was recognised. This provides food for thought in other directions, but young Lawrence faces his friends who volunteered to form the shooting party unblindfolded telling them about the song of the blackbird and how sweet it is compared to other birds. His retreat to mental bird watching was his escape from the horrors of what he was to face causing him to become paralysed at a time he most needed to be active. In contrast, the unit’s ace sniper was another young man, Fletcher Gorse, whose grandfather had taught him to poach, Fletcher in turn having taught Lawrence all he knew about the wilds of Kent.
Birds feature too in the famous Sebastian Faulks war novel – Birdsong – while a butterfly provides a poignant moment towards the end of Erich Maria Marque’s All quiet on the Western Front. But what about in Africa?
There are all the accounts of big game hunters turned soldier and intelligence agent such as Frederick Selous, Arnold Wienholt etc, while others such as Cherry Kearton were renowned wildlife photographers and authors. More telling though are the letters, memoirs and diaries men wrote – there are sometimes long descriptions of the fauna and flora passed, Bruce Cairnie’s diary in particular giving observations of the landscape. WW Campbell (East Africa by Motor Lorry) describes the various bugs he and other mechanical/motor transport drivers encountered. Richard Meinertzhagen whose diaries (and published versions) have raised many questions about their validity provide a rich insight into the wildlife of Africa through the drawings and sketches he populated the text with. No doubt these descriptions of nature when compared with descriptions of mud and other horrors from the Western Front gave the idea that the men serving in Africa were on safari, having an easy time. But for the men themselves it was an outlet, a way to deflect attention from the horrors they did not want to concern family with. For many, in Africa, nature was both a solace and the source of their greatest fear – it had more stealth and impact than the human enemy; it had no allegiance to any superpower other than itself and the laws of nature.
Reading John Bruce Cairnie’s war diary, I was struck at the mention of a Chinese steamer, the Kwong-Sang transporting men between Dar-es-Salaam and Kilwa in 1918. I know Chinese labour served in East Africa as part of the war effort, but I’d not come across the ship before. The SS Kwong-Sang was a cargo steamship built in 1902 at Newcastle by Wigham-Richardson and Co, with a tonnage of 2283 grt, and was 88.4 x 12.8 x 4.6 m able to travel at 12.1 knots. She sank on 10 August 1931 after running aground during a typhoon off Fuhyan Island near Santuao. Three of the 51 people on board survived and were in the hands of pirates at the time of the news report (Shanghai, 20 August 1931). The Kwong-Sang was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, registered in London (wrecksite.eu).
How the steamer came to be working on the East African coast during the war can only be surmised at this stage – either the steamer was commissioned at the time of the Chinese labour negotiations or the route to India – Calcutta – was extended to Africa because of the number of Indian troops serving in East Africa.
What is known from Cairnie’s diary is that he and his 130 5/4 King’s African Rifles boarded the steamer on 5 January 1918 at Dar es Salaam and that she was a small ship difficult to board at sea. He wrote:
The ascaris are very awkward about climbing & going up or sown stairs, especially if they are laden with a rifle, a bag full of water, a pair of boots slung round their necks, & full marching order in addition. If their boots are on their feet they are worse still. Water is going to be rather a problem on this boat so each man has brought a chagul & water-bottle full aboard, & we have done the same. We have also to look after our own feeding, & live entirely on deck.
On 24 January 1918, HMS Challenger reported seeing SS Kwong-Sang at 10.30 on Challenger’s route from Kilwa Kisiwani to Port Amelia. Later at 12.20pm the Kwong-Sang was noted to ‘have arrived’ presumably in the harbour at Port Amelia.
According to The Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Sian, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines etc, in 1909, the Captain was WP Baker and the Chief Engineer E Munsie.
A Board of Trade file for SS Kwong-Sang, official number: 115883, can be found at The National Archives, Kew reference BT 110/1651/26. It has not been possible to access this file to see what information may be held concerning the war years due to 2020 lockdown.
A brief history of the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company can be found here, while some of the company records can be found in Cambridge.
Working through WW Campbell’s East Africa by Motor Lorry (reprinted with additions by GWAA), I was intrigued to read about ‘sleeping sickness … (which, by the way, is not to be confused with sleepy sickness)’. I just had to look up sleepy sickness.
This sleepy sickness is not caused by the tsetse fly which causes sleeping sickness, otherwise known as trypanosomiasis. Its cause is not known and it apparently presents with typical flu symptoms by which time it’s too late to prevent the virus from attacking the brain. Its official name is Encephalitis lethargica and it was identified about 1915/6. An Austrian neurologist Constantin von Economo and the pathologist Jean-René Cruchet brought it to world wide attention. Over its run between 1915 and early 1920 approximately 1 million people died from it but its impact was swamped by the Spanish Influenza pandemic which caused the death of over 5 million people world wide (January 1918 to December 1920). At the time of writing, Corona had resulted in fewer than 150,000 cases world wide, with 4,300 deaths (www.worldometers.info – 11 March 2020), a month later these figures had risen to 1,872,014 cases with 116,071 (13 April 2020) . Howard Phillips provides some interesting insights regarding the 1918 flu.
Sleeping Sickness or trypanosomiasis gained notoriety during the First World War for the number of animals who died as a result of it. Misinformation given to (through ignorance, as we know the British held maps of German East Africa were poor) the South African investigators in late 1915 as to the feasibility of horse-power in the East African theatre resulted in the mounted forces suffering extraordinary losses when they hit tsetse fly areas, by which time it was too late to save the animals. The demands of the theatre and drive to push the Germans into a corner, led to all, including animals, being asked to give their all. Today, trypanosomiasis is still prevalent in 36 African countries affecting both humans and animals. Concerted efforts have been implemented following an outbreak in the 1970s with the result that by 2030 it is hoped the disease will be completely eradicated.
I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.
So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.
Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.
While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.
In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?
And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.
A Tusker is a beautiful animal. It’s also the name of Kenya’s premier beer but how that rates I cannot say as I am teetotal.
I was however, intrigued to discover how the beer got its name especially as it has a World War 1 link.
The beer was the idea of two brothers, Charles and George Hurst. George had served in the East Africa during the war and at the end had stayed on and applied for a settler farm – he was an elephant hunter as well. After trying a few things such as coffee, Charles hit on the idea of beer and investment sought. In 1923 the first cases of beer were delivered to the Stanley Hotel.
Not long before the beer was delivered, George was out hunting when he was killed by a large male elephant – brother Charles decided to name the beer in memory and so Tusker Beer came into being. According to SDE, the tusks were kept as a memento of the tragedy – although where they are today I do not know. Brother Charles died in 1966.
During the war, George was awarded the Military Cross (LG 27 July 1918) for his services during the war. He was with the East African Mounted Rifles and then on the EA Special List.
Interestingly, if you go onto Kenya Breweries site, before you can look at anything you need to disclose your age…I understand the need for age restrictions on sales, but on information?
Another little interesting snippet, is that Kenya Breweries consume 6% of Nairobi’s water supply – for a brief history of the company’s development and owners, HapaKenya provides an overview for which you do not need to disclose you date of birth…
I wonder how many other institutions have their origins linking back to the First World War in Africa? For starters, alongside Tusker, there is the South African Comrade’s Marathon started by Vic Clapham in memory of those he served alongside in the East African bush…
At the start of the First World War, a review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (27 August 1914) on two books dealing with sanitation in war.
The review provides some interesting figures on how since the Crimean War instances of dysentery had been reduced. The reviewer notes that while the idea of missiles and other weapons carry the imagination of the civilian as the main cause of death, the figures show it’s disease.
Going further back to Napoleon, in 1809 he apparently had 241,000 men in Spain and 58,000 in hospital.
A month before the battle of Corunna, Sir John Moore had 25,858 men available and 4,035 in hospital. He lost 800 in the battle.
Of the 52,584 men admitted to hospital in Crimea between 1 October 1854 and 31 March 1885 of which 3,806 were wounds, the remainder being due to illness.
The greater understanding of how disease spread and simple methods to hinder their extension went a long way to reduce the number of lives lost through disease. Preservation of health moved up the priority lists for the military authorities.
This was evident during the 1899-1902 war in Southern Africa where the deaths among NCOs and rank and file was 12,669 from disease against 7,010 from military action. Amongst officer ranks there were 716 deaths from military causes compared with 404 from disease.
The point of the article was to remind readers and in turn ‘young soldiers’ to not forget what they’d learned in training and that just one small drink from contaminated water could have dire results. Similarly, camps were to be kept as clean as possible and ‘filth’ as far away as possible. The review ends:
The recruit who masters the information which [the books] contain will not be likely, by a carelessness which would amount to criminality, to jeopardize either his own life or the lives of his comrades.
Although great strides were made to reduce the impact of disease in the war, it being the first where battlefield deaths exceeded disease deaths, in Africa it still accounted for all but 10% of deaths. Malaria, Blackwater Fever, Dysentery being the worst. Accounts by Norman Parsons Jewell, letters by Edward Harris and Francis Brett Young at the Cadbury Library, give insight into what doctors had to deal with while Gerald Keane explains how the African Native Medical Corps came into being and the work they did. The Pike report gives an overview of what conditions in Africa were like when an official investigation into the medical provision in East Africa was undertaken. None of this however, prepared the continent for what was to come in 1918.