Elephant guard

Why an elephant as the header?

This is not just any old elephant. In fact it’s a rather young male standing guard duty at the entrance to the Maktau fort in Tsavo, Tanzania AND it stopped us revisiting the site in 2011!! He has a reputation which precedes him.

Although a little difficult to see with the glare of the sun, there is a pathway on the far side of the elephant. This leads to the remains of a fort which has been cleared by military enthusiast James Willson (author of Guerillas of Tsavo) and Willie Mwadilo (Salt Lick Lodge) and now forms part of a battlefield tour.

You can read more about the fort and associated battlefields at: Historian4Africa

Surprisingly, given the number of elephants around during the war, they feature very rarely in diary accounts. The animals which feature most tend to be lions and crocodiles – a few soldiers and porters met their end filling these beasts tummies… The odd hyaena and jackal features too as do numerous buck. A number of these were shot for food when this was permitted. More often than not, it was not permitted as the sound of the gunfire would alert the enemy to where one was. There is one mention of a rhino stampeding a soldier to death – DD Dobson, Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve on Monday 10 July 1916 (Peter Charlton’s Cinderella’s Soldiers and In Memory refers).

Many of the soldiers who wrote home tended to write about the fauna and flora they encountered. They knew this would be better suited to family members back home compared to the horrors they were facing – jigger fleas, malaria, dysentery and starvation. The downside of writing home about the wonders of nature was that some family members and friends thought the men were on safari and having a good time whilst their colleagues were suffering on the Western Front. This was not helped by the appearance of taxidermy ads in newspapers offering to mount the trophies gathered during the war.

Many letters talk of hunting, but one has to be careful as hunting referred to both shooting for the pot and also shooting with the camera!! Although banned in war, a large number of soldiers seemed to have cameras and with hunting banned but also the realisation that shooting for the fun of it was damaging, many took to literally hunting with the camera, using the same techniques to get the best photo as they would to get the best shot. Where men didn’t have access to cameras, they reverted to pen and paper and there are some wonderful drawings in letters and diaries – those of Richard Meinertzhagen at Rhodes House Library (Oxford) being a prime example.

It’s quite tempting to start a record of which accounts record animal sightings… perhaps one day…

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