Time for a (little) change …

Some @thesamsonsed Twitter followers may have noticed a change of name on my account. This happened towards the end of June 2021 when someone decided that hacking my account was a good idea. Following various messages to Twitter to get the account returned to me and a perusal of what others have said about getting my original account back, it seems the best thing to do is make a change, so for anyone interested, my new Twitter account is @thesamsonsed-historian and my image, no longer one of my endearing views of Marangu Mtoni on Kilimanjaro, is now of a Rwandan Royal cow which I had the pleasure of meeting some years back. Standing with the senior cow is one of her carers – he tenderly brushes and sings to the cows every day…amongst other bovine responsibilities. It’s a job part of me envies…

Reflecting on the potential loss of my Twitter account, operational since May 2010, got me thinking of all those letters and records which were lost when ships were sunk during World War 1. While this thankfully didn’t happen too frequently, one instance stands out – the loss of Francis Brett Young‘s first draft of Marching on Tanga. We know of this loss as he writes about it, rather matter of factly, to his wife Jessie. Given that Marching on Tanga was subsequently published, he had found the time and energy to rewrite the account. But I wonder to what extent it mirrored the first draft – to what extent did his later experiences cloud those initial thoughts? What events and details had time erased? How did the tone of the two versions differ? What phrases remained exactly the same? Was the second version more objective? Did the rewrite provide an opportunity to unsay those things he said in the heat of the moment – an opportunity for a clear-out? It makes me wonder how re-reading Marching on Tanga will feel knowing it was not the original version. What will I read into his published account with this additional knowledge?

At the end of the day, the loss of a manuscript or Twitter account is minuscule in the big scheme of things – yes it makes the historian’s task a little more challenging but there are invariably other sources available to help put an account together (eventually). More significantly, when those ships went down there was invariably loss of life which had a far greater impact on the lives of family and friends: emotionally, economically and physically (positive or negative depending on circumstances).

It’s impossible to compare the loss of an object or possession with the loss of life, but both in their own way require a mental readjustment, picking up the pieces and carrying on. In many ways, when the going gets tough, it’s to the resilience of those who served in the First World War particularly in Africa whom I encounter through surviving records be they official documents, diaries, memoirs, lists, or works of fiction, that I turn. And although a Twitter name change is smaller than small, it’s given me the opportunity of sharing some thoughts on the re-writing of Marching on Tanga and not least, articulating some questions about how context impacts on how we approach historical sources.

Novelist: Francis Brett Young

Francis Brett Young was a prolific author. He had started writing before the outbreak of World War One in which he served as a medical officer in East Africa. However, on his return in 1918 he was not well enough to return to a medical practice and took to full time writing. Apart from his focus on Africa drawing mainly on his wartime experience, he also writes about the Black Country in which he grew up.

1884 – 29 June, born Hales Owen in Worcestershire
1907 – qualified as a doctor in Birmingham
1908 – secretly married Jessie Hankinson
1916 – medical officer in East Africa
1918 – discharged from military service
1945/6 – moved to Montagu, Cape Province
1956, 28 March – died in Cape Town, his ashes were returned to Britain

His novels, Pilgrim’s Rest (1922), They Seek a Country (1937), The City of Gold (1939) are set in South Africa but do not concern the Great War. The latter two are set pre-1900. In 1942 he published In South Africa being a description of the country (including Rhodesia) as he saw it.

Books on World War One in Africa

1917 – Marching on Tanga (with General Smuts in East Africa) – see Great War Fiction for a publication conundrum
1917 – Five Degrees South – war poetry
1918 – The Crescent Moon – a novel
1916-1918-1919 – Poetry (includes those from Five Degrees South)
1924 – Woodsmoke
1925 – Sea Horses
1930 – Jim Redlake

Tanga Letters to Jessie – his East Africa letters to Jessie published by the Francis Brett Young Society (2016)


Francis Brett Young Society in particular Michael Hall’s publication The World Went Mad: World War 1 in the Words of Francis Brett Young
Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham (TNA listing)
Medal card: TNA WO 372/22/120535
EG Twitchett – Francis Brett Young (1935)
Great War in Africa Association – medical project

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.

Novelists who served in East Africa

For some time now, Leo Walmsley has been on my list of people to investigate – he was a flight observer in the East Africa campaign writing about his experiences in Flying and Sport in East Africa published in 1920 and later So Many Loves published in 1969.

After his stint in East Africa, Leo returned to Robin Hood Bay where he had grown up and there wrote various novels of which, until recently, I was unaware. It was looking up Turn of the Tide to check if there was a link to East Africa that I discovered there was so much more to Leo than initially thought. Despite all his adventures in Africa – apparently surviving 14 crashes, Leo chose rather to concentrate his novels on life on the water around Robin Hood Bay, not far from where Bram Stoker was inspired with Dracula as Michael Clegg explains.

I’m still to read Leo’s memoirs – there have been other priorities – but I was so taken with my discovery of him being a novelist, I had to share it.

And in common with the other novelist to come out of the East Africa campaign – in fact he was writing books whilst in the field – Francis Brett Young, both have societies in their names. The Walsmley Society and FBY Society respectively.

Brett Young actually wrote Marching on Tanga in East Africa, the first version being lost at sea when the ship it was on was torpedoed. His letters at the Cadbury Library in Birmingham are quite moving on this account. He was able to eventually rewrite it but could not recover the lost photographs. Unlike Walmsley, Brett Young who was a doctor with the Indian Army in the East Africa campaign, used the campaign for a couple of his books, notably Jim Redlake (1930) and Crescent Moon (1918), the first of which I have read.

A German writer, Balder Olden served as a transport rider at the start of the war, capturing his experiences in Kilimandsharo and On Virgin Soil (1930)

A final novelist to have been in theatre at the time is Gertrude Page who lived in Rhodesia. She wrote a book of short stories and a novel, Follow After (1915) and Into the Limelight (1918) about life on the Rhodesian front and the challenges of deciding whether to serve and, if so, where to serve.

Various other novels and stories involve the East African campaign in particular which were published during, or soon after, the war but these were based on news travelling to England.

More on the novels can be found in two papers I’ve had published – Fictional Accounts of the East Africa Campaign and The End of the 1914-1918 War in Africa (Anglica) whilst the Historical Association has an article on CS Forrester’s The African Queens.


War-time sanitation

At the start of the First World War, a review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (27 August 1914) on two books dealing with sanitation in war.

The review provides some interesting figures on how since the Crimean War instances of dysentery had been reduced. The reviewer notes that while the idea of missiles and other weapons carry the imagination of the civilian as the main cause of death, the figures show it’s disease.

Going further back to Napoleon, in 1809 he apparently had 241,000 men in Spain and 58,000 in hospital.
A month before the battle of Corunna, Sir John Moore had 25,858 men available and 4,035 in hospital. He lost 800 in the battle.

Of the 52,584 men admitted to hospital in Crimea between 1 October 1854 and 31 March 1885 of which 3,806 were wounds, the remainder being due to illness.

The greater understanding of how disease spread and simple methods to hinder their extension went a long way to reduce the number of lives lost through disease. Preservation of health moved up the priority lists for the military authorities.

This was evident during the 1899-1902 war in Southern Africa where the deaths among NCOs and rank and file was 12,669 from disease against 7,010 from military action. Amongst officer ranks there were 716 deaths from military causes compared with 404 from disease.

The point of the article was to remind readers and in turn ‘young soldiers’ to not forget what they’d learned in training and that just one small drink from contaminated water could have dire results. Similarly, camps were to be kept as clean as possible and ‘filth’ as far away as possible. The review ends:

The recruit who masters the information which [the books] contain will not be likely, by a carelessness which would amount to criminality, to jeopardize either his own life or the lives of his comrades.

Although great strides were made to reduce the impact of disease in the war, it being the first where battlefield deaths exceeded disease deaths, in Africa it still accounted for all but 10% of deaths. Malaria, Blackwater Fever, Dysentery being the worst. Accounts by Norman Parsons Jewell, letters by Edward Harris and Francis Brett Young at the Cadbury Library, give insight into what doctors had to deal with while Gerald Keane explains how the African Native Medical Corps came into being and the work they did. The Pike report gives an overview of what conditions in Africa were like when an official investigation into the medical provision in East Africa was undertaken. None of this however, prepared the continent for what was to come in 1918.