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.

A Chinese steamer in East Africa

Reading John Bruce Cairnie’s war diary, I was struck at the mention of a Chinese steamer, the Kwong-Sang transporting men between Dar-es-Salaam and Kilwa in 1918.
I know Chinese labour served in East Africa as part of the war effort, but I’d not come across the ship before.
The SS Kwong-Sang was a cargo steamship built in 1902 at Newcastle by Wigham-Richardson and Co, with a tonnage of 2283 grt, and was 88.4 x 12.8 x 4.6 m able to travel at 12.1 knots. She sank on 10 August 1931 after running aground during a typhoon off Fuhyan Island near Santuao. Three of the 51 people on board survived and were in the hands of pirates at the time of the news report (Shanghai, 20 August 1931).
The Kwong-Sang was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, registered in London (

How the steamer came to be working on the East African coast during the war can only be surmised at this stage – either the steamer was commissioned at the time of the Chinese labour negotiations or the route to India – Calcutta – was extended to Africa because of the number of Indian troops serving in East Africa.

What is known from Cairnie’s diary is that he and his 130 5/4 King’s African Rifles boarded the steamer on 5 January 1918 at Dar es Salaam and that she was a small ship difficult to board at sea. He wrote:

The ascaris are very awkward about climbing & going up or sown stairs, especially if they are laden with a rifle, a bag full of water, a pair of boots slung round their necks, & full marching order in addition. If their boots are on their feet they are worse still. Water is going to be rather a problem on this boat so each man has brought a chagul & water-bottle full aboard, & we have done the same. We have also to look after our own feeding, & live entirely on deck.

On 24 January 1918, HMS Challenger reported seeing SS Kwong-Sang at 10.30 on Challenger’s route from Kilwa Kisiwani to Port Amelia. Later at 12.20pm the Kwong-Sang was noted to ‘have arrived’ presumably in the harbour at Port Amelia.

According to The Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Sian, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines etc, in 1909, the Captain was WP Baker and the Chief Engineer E Munsie.

A Board of Trade file for SS Kwong-Sang, official number: 115883, can be found at The National Archives, Kew reference BT 110/1651/26. It has not been possible to access this file to see what information may be held concerning the war years due to 2020 lockdown.

A brief history of the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company can be found here, while some of the company records can be found in Cambridge.

Technology meltdown

Don’t you sometimes wish technology would just disappear for a bit? But then, as soon as you can’t access your emails or the internet there’s major panic and you can do nothing else until it is sorted.

One of the things I love about travelling is that you can’t have 24/7 access to the world. Well, I suppose it depends on where you go, but generally it can take a little while to get linked up to the new networks and finding that free wireless spot.

I remember being in the somewhere in the Namib desert a few years’ back and purposefully pulling out my phone to check the signal – NONE. Wonderful, peaceful. Since then, I’ve done the same on various other travels and relished the fact that there is no signal. But always, the thought is squashed by ‘what if you need to get assistance?’

What did we do in the ‘good old days’? I recall having to phone my dad from the office before I left of an evening (if I was going to be late) to let him know I was on my way and oh boy! would I hear it if I hadn’t phoned or was later than the time he estimated it would take me to get home. Bearing in mind that this was in the early 1990s in South Africa and the potential for hi-jackings much higher than now (although stories coming out in 2016/7 are suggesting a return to a more lawless society as the wealth gap increases. I sincerely hope not!).

About 6 years ago, I was talking to some teachers in rural Tanzania about computers. They were desperate for at least one in the office as it would be a time-saver! I was told that pressing a button would allow so much to be done. Yes, it would but getting to press that one button would require hours of training and distraction from other work which also needed to be done. Having the internet added would make their lives more fraught. A simple example to test the theory: Before mobile/cell phones, I asked, how many letters or instructions did they get from the District Education Officer demanding their presence in his office? Bearing in mind that today if you own your own transport you could get there in 45 minutes otherwise by public transport it could take 2-3 hours. Compare that to the demands received since mobile phones came in to operation.

Similarly, how long did it take for letters to be typed up, posted and replied to? With the internet, people expect instant response and the time spent drafting, writing, typing, checking and then in the post system is all done away with. My correspondence went up hundred-fold (at least) with electronic connection.

I never heard another request for computers to solve their workload problem. The fact that there was limited electricity, irregular supply where it was available and the need for technicians and wind-free storage space weren’t even touched on.

Why have we become slaves to technology rather than let the technology be our slave? The number of telephone conversations I have to listen to on public transport is annoyingly high. Why do I want to know about your troubles at work or relationship issues etc. People tend to forget they’re in a public space – I’ve even heard someone discussing  an illegal immigrant (before all the current media hype) being at their house: this openly in a tube filled with people they didn’t know. I’ve learnt as an Afrikaans speaking South African – the last language you want to use to say something personal in whilst in a public space is Afrikaans – you’re bound to be understood and I can tell a number of stories where this has happened to the embarrassment of the other person. Similarly, many other languages are spoken and although I might not understand what you’re saying someone else is bound to especially if you’re speaking louder than a whisper. I’ve eavesdropped in French, Swahili, Dutch and German. Oh, for phones not to work on public transport – but then how would I know when to get to the station to pick someone up?  How did we do it in days gone by?

A friend of mine in the US has experienced just the same sort of frustrations with technology in public places and has started tweeting out reminding people of phone etiquette in particular.

In the UK, we’ve managed (just about) for phones to be switched off in meetings and theatres (not on public transport though) but in Africa generally and other developing areas where having a phone is still seen as a status symbol (rather than where not having one is viewed as being in poverty), phones ring loudly, are answered and conversations held in front of everyone else despite all around the table being there for another purpose. How do we break these cycles?

One thing I’ve learnt from my travels in Africa and elsewhere is that it’s alright not to respond to a text, email or other instant messaging system immediately – sometimes you just cannot and, surprisingly, the world hasn’t collapsed. I’ve learnt not to expect an instant response and won’t chase too quickly. I understand you might not be able to.

There is a lot we can learn from each other … if we’re only willing to listen and observe what is really happening around us.