Mebos and Biltong Fund

This is the heading of a SA Railways and Harbours article from September 1916. The Magazine Committee were looking to send gifts of Mebos and Biltong to their staff serving in East Africa and Overseas. They were expecting to send 4,000 parcels at a cost of 2/6. 6p was also known as a ‘tanner’ and a shilling was a bob (more on old currency here) – the purchasing power of 2/6 in 2017 was approximately £7.37 according to the currency converter. £1 in 1916 was the equivalent of £89.23 today.

A recent visit to a South African shop in Hertfordshire revealed 1kg of biltong cost £42 and a 250g bar of mebos is £6.50. I wonder therefore how much biltong and mebos SA Harbours and Railways expected to send to their ‘boys’. Perhaps the items were cheaper in 1916 due to production costs and the greater prevalence of home industry. And there are the shipping costs which someone would have had to account for.

While biltong is pretty well-known, similar to beef jerky, mebos is less so. It’s made of apricots soaked in salt and then dried and coated with sugar (see recipe). The one item missing is the South African rusk (according to wikipedia, there are a wide range of country specific varieties).

The other burning question is how many of these parcels actually got sent and how many arrived in intact? I imagine those heading to the Western Front arrived with their intended recipient, but am not so sure of those headed to East Africa given some of the accounts one reads of food parcels not arriving or being tampered with.

I presume we won’t know the answers to these questions – I’ll let you know if I discover a report on the matter. But what this little advert does go to show is that staff/colleagues were being thought of.

The December 1916 edition tells us what the men received: 1lb Mebos and dried fruit; 1lb biltong; 1 sprig of heather; 1 bag of comforts from the Ladies Committee. The parcels for Europe were being sent care of WP Schreiner. Regarding East Africa, it was recognised that transport difficulties were ‘so great that there is little likelihood of parcels (if sent) reaching the men in time for Christmas, if at all’ so that the funds which would have been spent on them will be kept until they return.

And if you’re into railway history – the SA Railways and Harbours Magazines for 1916-1918 are all on line and contain an amazing eclectic collection of articles on railways around the world, and during the war.

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.

Companion of the Imperial Service Order

Editing a book recently, I discovered the award Companion of the Imperial Service Order. It was done away with during John Major’s time as Prime Minister, 1993, although the London Gazette of 11 January 2019 lists the award and its order of significance and in 2018 there were a few people who received the Imperial Service Medal – you’re not alone if you’re now confused…

Here are some people who received the Companion, but it was Maurice Gallagher who led me to this award, a man who had served in East Africa during World War 1 where he obtained the Distinguished Service Order for his work on the Uganda Railway. Having survived the Great War, he retired in 1923 and remained in Kenya where he died on 1 October 1926. A year later, his widow appealed to the Kenya National Assembly for a compassionate pension – the debate highlighting some of the financial challenges pensioners and others faced at the time. Intriguingly, in the discussion about whether to award his wife a pension or not, the award of the Imperial Service Order did not feature whilst his DSO did – at least in the heading.

An overview of British civil honours and those currently available was compiled in 2001 whilst the Military awards are overseen by the Ministry of Defence, and specifically here for World War 1 gallantry and bravery awards.




Review: Sudan’s First Railway by Derek A Welsby

I just have to share this little gem of a find. Not my usual, I admit, but relevant for a forthcoming book. Thanks to members of the Specialist Research Group which meets at The National Archives, Kew, every few months, I was introduced to John who has a specialist interest in railways not least because he worked on numerous in Africa and Asia. He had a book which might be of use – and it most definitely has been, but there’s more to it than what I was looking for, hence sharing its find with you.

Sudan’s First Railway: The Gordon Relief Expedition and The Dongola Campaign, by Derek A Welsby was published in 2011 by the Sudan Archeological Research Society, as Publication Number 19.

Now, to be absolutely honest, the book did not directly answer my questions but in the succinct overview of the origins of the railways in Egypt and Sudan, I was able to follow references which filled in gaps we (my SA railway expert Sandy and I) were still struggling with. Derek has distilled from the copious autobiographies and other histories of the area, the development of the railway in a manner easily digestible and with some explanatory footnotes directing the intrepid researcher to other sources.

What makes this book special though are the photographs – of then and now. Derek has actually travelled the lines giving us a vision of what it looked like at the time from photographs and illustrations and how it compared in 2010. Apart from rolling stock, there are some clear maps and tables further explaining details for those particularly interested. Descriptions are given of camps and bases as well as the challenges faced in constructing particular parts of the line.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the desert has retained the ‘wounds’ of yester year – not dissimilar to the aged markings we saw through the Namib desert dating to WW1 and before. Welsby takes these photos, translates them into sketches and then explains them – there were recently similar explanations of WW1 training trench discoveries in southern England and Time Team as in the past ‘drawn’ over the image to show the pattern. Welsby’s are separate which allows for a clarity and clearness. He discusses ritual deposits, ticket offices, floor coverings, wells, redoubts, war memorials and more. This is then followed by 70 pages of ‘finds’ – photos and descriptions – of all sorts, railway materials, camp items and war related. One could spend hours pouring over the detail – not unlike visiting some museums. In fact, the book can best be described as a museum in print – at least with this museum you don’t have to get info overload before leaving, you can dip in as desired.

In addition to the texts mentioned by Welsby, for the UK railway specialist, The National Archives in Kew has a fascinating collection of pamphlets and booklets at reference ZSPC 11 and then for Cape to Cairo info, there’s Leo Weinthal’s epic publication in 4 volumes.

The railways of Africa provide a fascinating insight into the development of the continent, the economics and politics of the day. I’ve had to stop myself being diverted into all sorts of new imperialist explorations – but it won’t be for long, there are too many names from WW1 who are linked with African railway dicussions and surveys over the turn of the previous century.