‘To this day I remember the joy of the Intendant when a column of six hundred Wassukuma carriers arrived at New Moshi from about Muanza; they brought rice, which was urgently needed, from Lake Victoria, via Kondoa-Irangi to Kilima Njaro. If one remembers that this march required at least thirty days, that the carrier needs one kg (two lbs) of food a day, and that his maximum load is twenty-five kgs (fifty-five lbs), it is clear that thee marches have to be arranged with great care and directed through well populated and fertile districts if this method of transport is to be of any value…. The Intendant, Captain Feilke, was, however, a past master in handling the men and looking after them. The carriers felt that they were well cared fro and the word ‘Kommando,’ which some of them took for a personal name, became quite common.’
So wrote General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in his Reminiscences of East Africa of the services of the men who enabled his forces to achieve what they did – the carriers!
Without the carriers, neither side would have achieved what they did during the arduous campaign in East Africa. These men carried everything from food to weapons and equipment and on occasion, were caught up in the fighting or cross-fire. The detail described by Lettow-Vorbeck is virtually identical to that set out by Geoffrey Hodges in his book Kariakor: The Carrier Corps which tells the story of the British carrier.
If any labour was needed, these men would be called on to do it, or nearby local inhabitants commandeered to do so as were the 500 labourers required to help Mimi and Toutou get to Lake Tanganyika: how many men, how many hours to cut down how many trees to build this and around 20 other such bridges?
The life of the carrier, however, was unpleasant to say the least. Corporal Haussmann, a motorcyclist in the British forces observed
The Tenga tenga suffered. These were recruited from all over Nyasaland, and were organised in groups of about 200, and were employed for the forwarding of supplies, food and fuel for the troops. Many died of maltreatment. The man in charge was short, ugly and a gorilla of a man, yet had a well-mannered way of speaking. … it was rumoured, he had been the hangman [at Zomba prison]. The normal load for each carrier was two four-gallon tins, that is 80 pounds in all, and they had to carry this as head-load all day. Those who could go no further, in spite of the sjambok, were left at the road-side. If lucky enough to be near a village, they survived, but more often they would have been devoured by hyaena by the next morning.
And interviews conducted by Mel Page in Malawi and Gerald Rillings (soon @I_W_M) I in Kenya confirm the reluctance of men to serve as porters and the impact their forced enlistment had. This is in stark contrast to those who served as askari (soldiers).
I am constantly amazed and awed by the photos of the carriers walking through the African bush or crossing rivers. And it wasn’t just men urged into service: women too played their part, carrying water and food, but also as camp followers cooking for their men and providing other services whilst on the march.
Corporal Haussmann, again, opens the window on another group of men who generally go unrecognised and that is the servant or at the time more commonly referred to as ‘boy’ irrespective of his age (a record of all known ‘boy’s and carriers can be found here). In a single sentence, Hassmann sums up the value of his and all the other servants when after fleeing into a tree to avoid a lion, he
walked back to camp during the night, guided during the last part [back to camp] by the camp fire that Otto (my servant) had prepared.
Lettow-Vorbeck, too, had his servant as did all the officers, whilst the rank and file had to share a servant between four of them. As the war progressed, so the number of servants was reduced in order to make the forces more streamlined and give more flexibility for movement.
It wasn’t just in East Africa that porters, carriers and labourers were used. The South African Native Labour Corps was involved in building railways in German South West Africa in 1914 and 1915, as well as seeing service on the Western Front from 1916. One of South Africa’s biggest war-time tragedies was the sinking of the troopship Mendi carrying over 630 men to Europe for labour service.
Albert Grundlingh has written the most comprehensive account of the South African Black contribution to the First World War in Fighting their own war and if you are privileged enough to get to read a copy of his thesis (at the University of Pretoria), he has done the same for Indian and Coloured involvement.
Another project I’m working on concerning a World War 1 Hospital in England (@NorthwoodArts) highlights another group of forgotten workers. Emphasis is being drawn to the nurses who played a significant part in the war, both on the home fronts and on the fighting fronts (Africa included). However, the number of nurses in a hospital was very small compared to the other support workers – cooks, cleaners, drivers – mostly volunteers who did the bathing of the men and other tasks to allow the specialists (doctors and nurses) to do their work.
Other groups not touched on include the Chinese labour corps, the Kroo carriers, the Indian railway workers and…
This post hasn’t done justice to all those ‘even more’ forgotten men and women who did so much to support the war efforts of their respective countries, but it hopefully gives a fleeting insight to a whole other world which shouldn’t be forgotten.