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.

Review: Kariakor by Geoffrey Hodges

Kariakor: The Carrier Corps by Geoffrey Hodges is probably the best known and regarded book on the Carriers or Porters of World War 1 in East Africa. This is not surprising as he spent 15 years researching the topic, starting in 1968. The current publication (1999) is an abridged version of that initially published in 1986 in the US as Carrier Corps.

THR Cashmore’s review of the book is in keeping with how many perceive the plight of the carrier. However, the story is far more complex than that set out by Hodges in his publication. At the 2015 SCOLMA conference, John Pinfold gave some insight into what was not published in Kariakor. He is working through the research Hodges collected which is kept in the Bodleian Library Archive (Charles Wendell David Reading Room / microfilm copy at IWM) and what appears to be evident is that Kariakor was a victim of the political era in which it was written (1970s – cf decolonisation, Idi Amin in Uganda…)

That the account is somewhat biased (and this is not to detract from the horrors and stresses the men (and women) suffered) is supported by veteran interviews Gerald Rilling did in the 1980s which are stored at the Imperial War Museum. Myles Osborne inĀ Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya (2014, pp75-6) notes:

In the early months of the war, volunteers were common. At one point, for instance – in just one week – Kiteta and Mbooni locations provided 600 men for the Carrier Corps. Officials found men in both Machakos and Kitui willing to join us, and recruiters encountered little opposition as they went about their work. Relatively few deserted, and recruiting officers rejected only 6 percent of men from Machakos for service.

Other texts to consider when researching the Carrier Corps include are Oscar from Africa (1995), the biography of Oscar Watkins who was commandant of the Carrier Corps during the war. Frank – Bishop of Zanzibar by H Maynard Smith (1926). Frank accompanied his carriers on their journey, giving us first-hand insights.

Frank was most careful about getting the names of his men properly enrolled, and seeing that maintenance was provided for their wives while away. He saw that each had his correct equipment, blankets, water-bottles and haversack. He even had postcards served out to those who could write, and they were used. Here is a letter written by one African to another. It was shown to a lady on the staff, who has kindly sent me a translation:

Truly is our Lord Bishop a great man! Did he not call us and gather us all together? Did he not drill us and go for marches with us every day?

Truly, he is a great man! For when after many days a ship came to take us to the mainland, he came down to the shore to take leave of us. Then we said to him, ‘Bwana, we go not without you, for are you not our father?’ And he said unto us, ‘Good, I will go with you.’

Truly, he is a great man, for he came over the sea with us, and when we reached the mainland, he marched with us, he slept with us, he ate with us, and when we laid down at night, did he not pray with us? And when we arose in the morning, did he not pray with us again? At the end did he not take us into camp.

Truly, he is a great man.

The horror of the road was increased by the lack of water. Frank had indeed received an official list of watering places, but the man who had surveyed the route had done so during the rains. At the first halting place there was no water at all, and the weary men had to go on until night. On the second day, after a fifteen mile walk, the well was found, ‘but an inquiring spirit was rewarded with a museum of dead frogs.’ Another six miles had to be walked, and Frank writes:

The man who has not had to do extra miles beyond his promised halting place, under a tropical sun, has yet much to learn of what a broken spirit really means.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, Frank could write:

Our men did very well in this particular work. We made a record for the journey both in time and accuracy, that is, we got our loads there quicker than other porters and we got them all there. I gather this was not common.

Hodges looks at the role of the Carriers from Kenya from a specific time. As seen from the quotes above, his work needs to be taken into consideration with other texts looking at different times and places of the same campaign.

Experiences in the south, although similar, were also different. In particular, Ed Yorke considers the role of Zambians as does Jan-Bart Gewalt. Mel Page in the Chiwaya War which considers Malawi’s contribution, while Michelle Moyd in Violent Intermediaries (2015) considers the German perspective. The forthcoming book On call in Africa 1910-1932 provides some insight into the medical assistance available to, at least some, carriers whilst on the march.

The numbers quoted differ depending on what source you are using. It is not clear how much double counting has taken place and to what extent casual labour is/is not included. This is a project which is currently being undertaken by GWAA – capturing the names and details of all those involved in the campaigns in Africa, and particularly in East Africa, will hopefully help clear up some of the uncertainties surrounding the roles and numbers of those caught up in the horrors of war. The blog I did on the Numbers game (13 June 2014) needs updating in light of new information which has come to light. It’s going to take some time, but watch this space…

Hodges deserves to be recognised for opening up the world of the carrier and porter, however, his findings should be treated cautiously as the reality is far more complex than he portrays.

And for anyone interested in a slightly different history, there is MG Vassanji‘s And Home was Kariakoo, a memoir which reflects back on the history of the place he grew up in. It mentions 17 Letters to Tatham.