The importance of transport

One of the biggest complaints one hears in connection with the East Africa campaign of the First World War concerns logistics and the lack of food getting to the front line. The person who is most riled against in this regard is Jan Smuts when he was commander in chief between February 1916 and January 1917. His rapid moves meant that his lines of communication became overstretched with the result that on occasion men were on as low as 1/4 rations for a few days. This when rations were already at their minimum.

So, it was with interest that reading Conan Doyle’s Letters to the Press (pp60-), I discovered that he had something to say about the importance of transport during the Second Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. Early in the war, Conan Doyle was a doctor in a private hospital in Bloemfontein, his offer of service to the War Office having been declined (see Something of themselves for more detail on Conan Doyle’s work in South Africa).

On 7 July 1900 in a letter to The British Medical Journal under the heading “The Epidemic of Enteric Fever at Bloemfontein”, he wrote:

When the nation sums up its debt of gratitude to the men who have spent themselves in this war I fear that they will almost certainly ignore those who have done the hardest and most essential work. There are three classes, as it seems to me, who have put in more solid and unremitting toil than any others. They are the commissariat, the railway men, and the medical orderlies. Of the three, the first two are the most essential, since the war cannot proceed without food and without railways. But the third is the most laborious, and infinitely the most dangerous.

He continues to expound the word of the orderlies who had to deal with the enteric outbreak where in one month there “were from 10,000 to 12,000 men down with this, the most debilitating and lingering of continued fevers. I know that in one month 600 men were laid inn the Bloemfontein Cemetery. A single day in this one town saw 40 deaths.”

The medical men and “the devotion of the orderlies” saw this through:

When a department is confronted by a task which demands four times more men than it has, the only way of meeting it for each man to work four times as hard. This is exactly what occurred, and the crisis was met. In some of the general hospitals orderlies were on duty for thirty-six hours in forty-eight…

The rest of the article is devoted to the medical conditions and how despite the lack of resources, the Medical Services achieved what they did.

An army marches on its stomach (Napoleon?) and ill men need decent food to heal properly, and for this transport would be required. When Millicent Fawcett met Kitchener to find ways to ease the issues in the concentration camps, he acknowledged that food was important but for him as commander of the army, the army was his priority. However, he had no issue adding an extra carriage with food (providing Fawcett’s group paid for it) to the trains delivering food along the railway lines. His soldiers had been suffering too from food shortages.

While South Africa had the railway line which ran the length of the country, as opposed to the three lines in East Africa which ran across, all three were single track meaning trains could move only in one direction or the other limiting the time they could run. More significantly, those needing to be fed were not always close to the railway line requiring other means to get them their rations. Porters in East Africa, ox-wagons in South Africa – each with their own limitations and challenges to overcome. As Army Surgeon General Dr Pike recorded in the report he wrote on the East Africa campaign, the transport drivers were the most hardworking, often up before most in camp and the last to go to bed, often without meals as they ensured their vehicles were fit to undertake the journey.

One could argue about whose role was most difficult and important in conducting the war, in both conflicts all were called on to exceed expectations and did. It’s where they worked together harmoniously and in sync that success was achieved. What Conan Doyle and Pike remind us of in their comments, is that those working “behind the scenes” are as significant as those on the front line.