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Portuguese East Africa WWIOn the Rovuma – 7th October 1918

I have not been able to get a letter off to you since August, when we started on a very long trek from the vicinity of Mozambique [the city]. We have now pulled up at our old friend, the river Rovuma, for a day or two to collect rations. After being in the wilderness for weeks we are back on our old lines of communication, with the port of Lindi as the base. From all this you will rightly conclude that von Lettow has succeeded in recrossing this river back into his old territory. We are presently at a point on the river about midway between the coast and Lake Nyasa where the river Lugenda joins it from the south. [Check the map to see where the Rovuma branches. The south branch is the Lugenda.] The Germans crossed over further to the west. It has been an interesting march, but the going has been a little too strenuous to be enjoyable. We have done well over 600 miles in five weeks and as we were a “flying column” we had to pick up our living as best we could.

mahala hammock for transport in AfricaBefore starting off I had done a long patrol with my company. The enemy had been reported to be on the banks of the Lugenda and I was set off post haste to verify this, only to find when I got there he had crossed over two days before and had gone further west. On the way I overtook a Portuguese tax collecting “safari” consisting of three officials and a fair lady (or rather a dark one) all being carried on “mahalas” – hammocks slung on a pole and carried by native porters. A string of porters carried their tents, beds, provisions and what looked to me like casks of wine. I cast a predatory eye on these things and never felt so near high-way robbery in my life, especially as they were not over courteous in returning my greeting. They blame us equally with the Germans for bringing the war into their colony and there were disagreeably surprised to find signs of it so near at hand.

I went ahead and as it was getting dark I camped down at the first water, for which of course our friends were also making. I was lucky to shoot a wildebeeste for the pot. I knew the noise would alarm our friends behind and so to play a trick on them for their discourtesy I got several askaris to blaze off their rifles. It had the desired effect as they turned tail and as far as I know they are still making for Mozambique. [Looks like Henry was rather annoyed!]

I reached the Lugenda on the seventh day and it was very impressive listening to the sound of its waters long before we came to it. I could hear nothing at first, although I knew we were getting near it by the gradual change in the look of the country, but the askaris were oddly excited and kept repeating the word “maji”, meaning water. I may say that by this time “maji”, generally speaking, had come to be the most important thing in life, more so than food or even the enemy, and the eye unconsciously scanned the country for any sign of its presence. We had halted about three miles from the river where I could get some sort of view of the surrounding country and by listening intently I could at last pick up a faint indescribable sound, which I was assured was the big river. It now behoved me to act cautiously and I sent scouts ahead and we gradually felt our way to the river.

We came on a village but there was not a soul to be seen. As usual the inhabitants were hiding. There was no sign of the enemy hereabouts but I wanted to get hold of some of the natives who could doubtless tell me something and I sent out search parties. Eventually they brought back an old fellow who was headman of the village. He told me the Germans crossed the river a few miles to the south two days before, where the river is fordable, and after a day’s halt had resumed their trek westward. I had been told to keep a look-out for one of our secret service scouts, a Dutch big game hunter, who was doing sort of spy work for us and keeping close track of the enemy. I enquired of the headman if he had seen anything of a single “mizungo” (white man) and he said there was one in hiding on the opposite bank of the river, with half-a-dozen natives. He knew quite a lot and when I asked him why he ran away from us, he said he wanted to make sure we were not the “Germani”. I asked him if he had a boat and he said he had and offered it to me. I took my orderly, a trusty Masai, and leaving the company in charge of the second in command and a white N.C.O., crossed the river in a dug-out with the head man. A native with a rifle appeared on the other side as we landed, and after some masonic [??] exchanges with my orderly, he bade us follow him. He took us to the lair of his master, a small brown tent you could just creep into, and there was the arch scout waiting for me. [Are you holding your breath? I am.]

It was a strange meeting, a Scotsman meeting a Boer in the depths of the bush in the pursuit of the wily German, with a Portuguese native chief in attendance. [I doubt the native chief considered himself Portuguese in any way.] Truly a war of the nations. He had not much more to tell me than the headman and I doubt if he relished being discovered so far our of touch with his quarry. They get good money these “intelligence” men and have a picked band of native trackers with them. On a previous occasion I came in touch with the great Pretorius, also a Dutch big game hunter, who had a big reputation for shadowing von Lettow and on whose head the Germans had put a price.

I took my friend’s report and started back on my week’s walk, with the more comfortable feeling that I knew where the water supplies were. About half-way however I met the advance guard of our Column, consisting of the E.A.M.R. (Mounted Rifles) in their optimistic quest of the foe. I made my report to the Colonel and as I knew the way, was attached to the advanced guard and given a mount, which was just what I wanted. We went back on my tracks to the Lugenda and the M.R. forded the river where the Germans did. The rest of the column kept to the eastern bank and we marched north following its course more or less until we came to this halt on the Rovuma. Other columns were operating to the west of the Lugenda and our beat was on this side.

We were travelling light, without our supply transport and had to live off the country. The fare for the Europeans consisted of game and sweet potatoes for the most part, while the askaris and the few porters we had were simply turned out to graze [not something anyone would say now!] at the halts and they filled themselves with nuts, green bananas, bread fruit and a share of the game if it went round. Buck, bush pig and zebra were fairly plentiful and kept us going. Elephant, rhino and hippo were also much in evidence but rarely caught sight of, and to see their traces in the muddy flats, which was their playground, reminded me of Flanders.

panga macheteI saw my first hippo while crossing a dry riverbed and if I had not been advance guard I would have bagged him for the pot, as the askaris would soon make a meal of him. He was grubbing along the bank and tried to run when he heard us. I watched him out of sight and carried on with the war, with a compass in one hand and a “panga” (meat chopper) in the other, with which I was blazing a trail for the column to follow. [Henry’s panga might have looked like this one.]

All this country is in undisputed possession of wild animals and for days on end there was no sign of human habitation. One of my askaris killed a lioness with a single shot entering through the nose and I have been carting about the skin but by this time it looks like nothing on earth. The Lugenda is full of hippo, but we did not waste any time on them. In his native element the big fellow can make himself pretty small and we heard more of him than what we saw. His sonorous grunt always told us where the river was, when that happened to be in doubt. We had often an escort of chattering monkeys who resented our intrusion, but the big dignified baboon would stalk alongside on all fours pretending to ignore us.

We marched chiefly by compass rather than follow the tortuous course of the river. We shall probably rest here for a spell but we are too far away from everybody to be of any use here. The news from Europe is great and we hear rumours of peace negotiations. Bulgaria’s surrender is surely the beginning of the end. We are all full of hope for an early and victorious peace.

The end is getting closer and Henry knows it. What a relief it will be when it comes.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.