The speed of travel: London to Marangu, Kilimanjaro

On Friday evening, I left London for Marangu, a village situated on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro between Moshi (Tanzania) and Taveta (Kenya). Having left home at 4.45pm, I arrived in my accommodation at 5pm on Saturday. I could have arrived slightly earlier had I flown from Nairobi to Arusha, but I decided to take the shuttle bus via Namanga and Longido and see some of the other side of the mountain (ie Kilimanjaro) and also, hopefully catch a glimpse of Mount Meru – which did pop out for a photo. (Map)

In my few years of travelling this route, it was the first time that I really got to see Mount Longido and the gap at Namanga as the border post there is being reconfigured, and I got to walk between the two posts alone!

This is travel in the 21st century and in complete contrast to what the soldiers experienced between 1914 and 1918. A soldier, such as one in the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen), leaving London from Waterloo Station at 2am on 10 April 1915 to catch a ship from Plymouth, arrived at Kilindani, Mombasa, on 4 May 1915 to begin disembarking at 2pm. After disembarking onto lighters to reach the mainland, they then were sent by train in very basic conditions (cattle trucks?) to Kajiado where they stayed for three months.

However, troops destined for Moshi would detrain at Voi from where they were sent to Mbuyuni, by vehicle if they were lucky or train once the line was built. From there to Moshi was either a march, train or truck ride. Today, travelling by car along the road from Voi to Moshi will take the most part of a day, Moshi being about an hour away from the border post at Holili opposite Taveta. The road, which passes Salaita Hill, is long, hot and dusty and it can only be wondered at how the men survived travelling this route which has a 32km waterless stretch. (James Willson’s Guerillas of Tsavo sets out some of the experiences of the men, British and German, in this area during the war.) Locals on Kilimanjaro who are old enough to remember walking to Moshi from Marangu (10 kilometres up the mountain from Himo, 10 kilometres from Holili) will tell you it took them a day to do the walk using a short cut across the mountain slopes.

The other route, which was undertaken by General Jaap van Deventer in 1916 when the South Africans advanced on German East Africa (Tanzania) was via Lake Chala, Rombo, Longido and then onto Arusha – a journey then completed on horseback. From Arusha to Moshi on the current road will take about 2½ hours by car. I haven’t done this exact route, but from Longido to Arusha is a two-hour journey by shuttle today, and it takes runners eight or nine days to do a 260km round-Kilimanjaro run completing 32 kilometres a day.

There was obviously far more to the challenges the men had to face on their journeys than I have to, and I am constantly in awe of what they survived whenever I drive along the routes I know the men traversed. Some idea of what the men had to endure to get to their regiment or base can be obtained from George Lucas’ The Young India Jones Chasing the Phantom (in all not to be taken as a true account of the campaign).

Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

The Crimson Fields, for readers who don’t know, is a BBC docu-drama on nurses during the First World War. From what I have read and heard about it, the setting is a British front-line hospital on the Western Front. This is not surprising though, given that that’s where most British blood was spilt during the war. What attracted me to it as a concept, is that it provides an insight into a previously hidden aspect of World War 1 and an opportunity to introduce some other related hidden aspects of the war.

From the Front, wounded and ill soldiers would be transported to hospitals and recovery stations away from the fighting to destinations in Europe for those who would not take long to recover or back to the UK for those needing more specialist or long-term treatment. This required a transport system including hospital trains and ships.

Once back in England, soldiers would pass through port hospitals such as those at Dover and Southampton. The book Spike Island by Philip Hoare gives a wonderful insight into the military hospital at Netley and the early days of military nursing as it evolved after the Crimea. From the ports, the men would be transported to receiving hospitals generally in the main cities such as London and Manchester. They would be allocated to hospitals, where possible, best suited for their ailment. Initial thoughts of sending men closer to home disappeared due to the huge numbers requiring to be transported. On 7 July 1917 (1916?) there was a special rush on trains as 6,174 sick and wounded were transported in 24 hours.

From the receiving hospitals, men were then sent to convalescent hospitals, often country houses which had been converted, and in one case, the local church. St John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood, Middlesex gave up their sanctuary a year after it had been built thereby enabling a total of 100 soldiers to be nursed on the premises. Researching this Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital has brought to light many other facets of war-time life: not all those who were called nurses were necessarily nurses – there were amongst others cooks and cleaners, messengers, drivers, entertainers, therapists, equipment packers working in the supply depots and many others. Often people did more than one thing such as the male VAD units which transported patients and then carried out bed baths in the evening and helped with the night-time nursing. The issue of logistics and keeping Britain moving was a mammoth task and one which still needs to be explored. (@NorthwoodArts)

Moving further afield to Africa, the hospitals and medical services there had quite a different challenge.

Comparatively speaking, battles were few and far between when compared with the Western Front. The challenge was being able to service a mobile front where there was little or no existing infrastructure, no defined battle field and an environment as tough, if not worse, than the opposing forces. There are records of men having to walk for 9 hours or so to access medical treatment or lying for days unattended. Comparisons have been drawn with the German forces which seemed to have a doctor in each contingent, or at least they did until the last months of the war.

Nature proved the biggest enemy to all the forces. The admission records to the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town kept at the SANDF archive in Pretoria, highlights that the major ailments requiring treatment were Malaria and Blackwater fever. These are also regular features in the Medical War Diaries @UKNatArchives.

A perusal of the Medical War Diaries at The National Archives in London for East Africa again, sheds light on the extent of medical support available to the men. The information in the diaries is variable, depending on the person recording, but as a collection they provide a fascinating insight to another side of war. In addition to the men, there were women serving in both the British and German hospitals. And when transporting men back to Europe became difficult and leave was cancelled, special arrangements were made for convalescent homes to be set up in the Kenyan highlands. The Bundesarchiv gives some insight into what a field hospital looked like.

As with the Western Front, there is a great need for more work to be done on the medical aspects of all the African campaigns of the First World War, and for those interested in what is available, there is the Official History of the medical services, Francis Brett Young’s memoir Marching on Tanga and William Boyd’s fictional An ice-cream war to start. One wonders if Boyd based his story on the account of a British soldier nursed in a German hospital for 9 months as recorded in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My reminiscences of East Africa (pp45-6).