The war of the insect

The battle for Tanga fought between 2 and 5 November 1914 is often referred to as the Battle of the Bees as so many were stung by bees who had been disturbed by the firing. The British/Indian forces believed the Germans had set the bees to attack them specifically, Francis Brett Young in Marching on Tanga writing ‘a man who had fought at Tanga […] told me how the outlying bush through which our men had passed had been full of these hives, and how the Germans had snared the pathways of the wood with cords which set them in motion, so that when our attack began the hives were roused, and the wild bees swarmed in their millions, doing more damage to one Indian regiment than the German maxims.’ (p57 in Arthur Loveridge’s Many happy days I’ve squandered). The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was amused at belief, as his men had suffered just as much from the angry bees as the British forces.

Bees seem to have played a fair part in this war, Loverage recounts that they were caught up in an attack by bees just outside Moshi where he was asked by Lieutenant Tryon to remove ‘a sting from just below his eye’ and that ‘these forceps were in great demand for the rest of day’ removing stings. Because ‘so many men were bung-eyed we remained under some nearby trees [near the German lines] until next morning.’ Loveridge goes on to explain how the African bee differs to the an English wasp. What triggered this attack remains unknown. On another occasion he recalled an Indian in Handeni being killed by bee stings in an isolated attack.

David Bee in his novel The Curse of Magira: A novel of German East Africa and Tanganyika refers to bee attacks in the southern theatre of the campaign. I wonder how many other bee attacks there were which were never written about or which feature in a lone diary – it’s not quite the same admitting that you’ve been defeated by bees as opposed to an enemy’s fire.

Similarly, Loveridge talks about the danger ants proved to the unwary – In a gruesome but fascinating account he describes how they killed a baby crocodile, amongst other creatures. This is not something you come across in many diaries at all. Spiders and scorpions get more of mention than ants – the former two creatures featuring regularly in Campbell’s East Africa by motor lorry.

Apart from the bees at Tanga, the next creature to share the limelight, is the tsetse fly which resulted in sleeping sickness. Loveridge doesn’t spend as much time on this creature as he does on others – perhaps because they feature in so many other accounts with such devastating impact on horse and cattle. A fly does get a mention in comparison with bees. ‘A cloud of flies […] had plastered the plugs and other parts of his [Ford Jigger] with their glutinous egg-masses’ to the extent that he couldn’t start his car. And talking of jiggers, these creatures get some rather unusual mentions when compared with other diaries – jiggers below the eye and in the ear because of men sleeping on the ground. This is definitely not for the feint-hearted if you’ve ever seen photos of jigger infestations. The anopheles mosquito which caused Malaria is all but glossed over by Loveridge, although he did suffer its effects.

It seems to be that our best understanding of the role insects played in rendering the campaign in East Africa one against nature is found in the memoirs of entomologists and doctors who either studied the creature for scientific purposes or the consequences of its attack on man and beast. Norman Jewell for example considers tick bite fever and Dr Max Taute was a sleeping sickness expert. More will no doubt come to light as the GWAA medical project develops.

Two sides

I was quite intrigued reading Arthur Loveridge‘s Many Happy Days I’ve Squandered, an autobiography (1951) covering his early years and service in East Africa during World War 1. It comes with a huge warning today – its content may not be to everyone’s liking using today’s standards of passing judgment.

Arthur was one of the early curators of the Kenyan Natural History Museum meaning he would go out and kill specimens for display. It took a little getting used to his talk of ‘killing bottles’ – these were items with chloroform or other gas which he used to kill and preserve insects etc for later display. Similarly, mammals and other creatures would be shot for skinning and display purposes too. Although he didn’t go into great detail, I’m intrigued as to the porters and others who likely had to carry these items between bases and how they were eventually got to Nairobi. He does talk of exceeding his allotted weight and an attempt to smuggle excess baggage onto a boat via a truck.  Also intriguing is the support he got from senior officers in his quest whilst other lower ranking officers forbade him collecting.

Arthur also takes a little while to introduce us to his local staff, that is give us their names and once he does, he is full of praise for Salimu bin Asmani who was his trusted assistant for 10 years. Whilst his actions and accounts of his experiences may not be to everyone’s taste today, he does provide an insightful look at village life and human as well as animal behaviour. One of his official tasks as a game keeper was to protect locals from lions and other scavengers, and he’s a well-known snake collector. Aside from his exploits in killing various specimens, he also rescues and studies animals adding to our scientific understanding.

But the comment which really caught my attention concerned lions and their hunting method. After a fifth lioness had been killed in a gun trap where the lions had been attacking cattle at Igulwe station, ‘a convenient base from which to supply the troops’, he recalled on p184:

an old crone mumbled in the vernacular: “Lions are just like men, they send the lionesses into the traps first and so they never get caught themselves.” There was a general laugh among the assembled Africans, but an alternative interpretation of the incident occurred to me. Perhaps the lionesses were greedy and pushed forward while the lions, politely stepping aside, reaped virtue’s own reward.

This resonates – often whilst walking in rural Africa, I’ve been taken to task for not walking behind my husband, I’m invariably found in front leading the way. But this little tale got me thinking again – how often do we look at things from our perspective, without considering there might be another quite valid interpretation. This is one of the traits of my biography on Kitchener – the man we’ve come to understand is not the man I discovered and one of the challenges we face with most texts dealing with Africa in World War 1, we still have very little of Africa’s perspective to work with but slowly, in the way we eat an elephant – one mouthful at a time, African views are starting to come to the fore.