In search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish soldier in the age of imperialism by Frank Reid is a short and intense read.
Initially I wasn’t sure this book had anything to do with World War 1 in Africa, but it clearly does. Frank Reid goes on an exploration of his grandfather in an attempt to discover what he did that was so bad his, Frank’s, mother wanted nothing to do with her father. The result is a case study shedding light into growing up in Glasgow at the turn of the last century, why a young man enlisted in the same year, but at the end, of the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences of actions.
For the student of the First World War in East Africa, this genealogical account opens up some fascinating doors to explore further. Of particular and current interest is a medical reference. Willie had contracted VD in his early army life which impacted on his military career. Despite having been cured of the ‘disease’ in 1911, he struggled to complete his army service with his home regiment, the Connought Rangers. Having been discharged, he refused to sign up again until he was conscripted – at this point he was felt to be medically unfit for the Western Front but suitable for service in East Africa! This raises some interesting questions regarding the War Office perception of the war in Africa.
Willie arrived at Dar-es-Salaam on 26 February 1917 (I write this 26 Feb 2018) – this is before the Pike Report into medical conditions is commissioned but after the official complaint into the treatment of soldiers by Colonel Kirkpatrick of 9 South African Infantry. The War Office clearly knew about the poor conditions in Africa, so why were they sending out men whose health was not the best? In addition to Willie’s VD complications, he had served in India before the war and had suffered from Malaria. The decision to send him to serve in East Africa as a Royal Engineer Signaller seems irresponsible to me.
On a related note, Frank points out that Willie was awarded the Military Medal for action at Medo and apart from a time soon after arrival in Dar when he went AWOL, he was a model soldier. How many others with a similar background to Willie were sent to East Africa and how does this link with the statement by Dr Pike that VD cases in the theatre were below average? Were the men so busy, as Frank implies, that there wasn’t time for socialising? Or were the men too remote to encounter women?
Apart from these fascinating questions about health and the attitude of the War Office, Frank’s little book provides a vivid account of his own experience in trying to locate the site of the battle of Medo in which Willie won his Military Medal. This sheds light on how ground mapping and air mapping differ as well as how subtle changes to the terrain can impact on perceptions. What is absolutely remarkable with this account, is that Frank is blind and totally reliant on the Zimbabwean Karl Wolf who is his guide into Mozambique.
And of final interest to the student of World War 1 in Africa, is the role and function of the signaller – Frank provides some insight into how this worked in practice – who would have thought that the Germans tracked the British allied forces by following copper telegraph wire? (p120).