Somewhere in Africa – 7th October 1918

mahala hammock for transport in Africa

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.


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

Somewhere in Africa – 10th December 1917

Ndanda – 10th December 1917

I have received a batch of your letters, the last of which are dated August. I note Andy is at Shorncliffe and hope to get a letter from him before long. [Andy is one of Henry’s brothers who has been homesteading in western Canada.] You will have heard of the practical termination of the campaign in this country with the disappearance of the German force over the Portuguese border. [see map – source Kaisers Cross] Unfortunately von Lettow is still with this force and will have to be watched until accounted for. The Portuguese seem quite incapable of doing anything and we have received their tardy permission to send a force into their territory, while another force will garrison the frontier.

We chased the Hun right down to the river Rovuma, which is the boundary between German and Portuguese Africa. At the moment we have retired to Ndanda which is some 20 miles from Massasi, which with luck you might pick up on the map. It is only a mission station with a small settlement [a Benedictine mission] and I was detached here with my company on the way through to garrison the place. I had the privilege of breakfasting with no less than five generals while I was there.

Here’s an excerpt from the website Kaisers Cross describing the campaign:

“In late 1917 the British forces around Kilwa and Lindi were formed into columns, roughly corresponding to brigades, that were used to try and force Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Schutztruppe out of this corner of German East Africa.  On 27th September the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Regiment of the King’s African Rifles (1/3 KAR) and the 129th Baluchis were ordered to support No 1 Column whose principal units were the Gold Coast Regiment (GCR), the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment of King’s African Rifles (2/2 KAR), and a section of the 27th Mountain Battery (Indian Army). The 25th Cavalry (Indian Army) was temporarily attached to No 1 Column but one squadron was deployed elsewhere with another column. Colonel G.M. Orr, Indian Army, was the No 1 Column commander and he had marched his men down from the Kilwa area; his mission was to disrupt enemy withdrawal routes by destroying German food depots and watering points.  In this region good water holes were few and far between.”

We did some record marching in the latter stages but there was not a great deal of fighting for our column. In fact there was not much fight left in the Hun and his main strategy has been to give us all the trouble possible in trying to corner him. Operations for us have come more or less to a stand-still and we are fixing up a more or less permanent camp for the rainy season, but it is quite on the cards that we shall be sent into Portuguese territory at any moment. Meantime there are visions of leave for a month or so, which gives us something to look forward to. I have stuck it longer than any of the other of our crowd without a break. [tough guy our Henry]

The country has become a little more broken in these parts and there are some hills to look at, but for all that you are eternally lost in the bush and one pines for the sea and open spaces, and a respite from the sun which gets at one sooner or later. It is surprising how little shade there is in the “bush”, which consists of half dead trees of stunted growth, dead grass about as high as yourself and billions of ants and insects. One stumbles on a native village, usually deserted, and one wonders what on earth they live on. The river Rovuma was no great shakes, but it will be a different story when the rain starts. This place also boasts a mission (Catholic) with a respectable stone building, now used by us as a hospital. There is a trickling burn nearby – the first clear running water I have seen in the country.

I think Henry sounds a little down in this letter, don’t you? And pining for home. The contrast between the African bush and Scotland would have been quite something.


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

Somewhere in Africa – 20th May 1917 continued (2)

More about Henry Tod’s early experiences fighting the Germans in East Africa.

Last time I was out with a patrol we were ambushed less than a mile from camp and how they did not “scupper” the lot of us I don’t know. [I’m sure his mother was happy to read that!] At the first crack we dropped in our tracks, flat, and as we were in extended order there was not much for him to pot at. I got my askaris to return the fire by volleys and it was not long before we silenced them. They were on both sides of my track but made no attempt to close on me. I caught a glimpse of a couple  of a couple of them scuttling away for dear life and had a parting shot at them. I had one man hit in the shoulder and sent him back to camp with an escort of one. I followed up on our attackers and came on their lair, and what should I find but a perfectly good British made rain coat, which the officer in charge must have left in his hurry. There is no doubt that at one time it belonged to one of our fellows.

source: – a group of K.A.R. soldiers

I continued my patrol, the object of which was to reconnoitre a small conical hill in the enemy territory and where I was to spend the night. The hill is quite a landmark and known to be well patrolled by the enemy. We had no further “bumps” and when night fell we made ourselves as comfortable as possible occupying the slope facing both their country and ours. I cannot say I slept very well in the middle of my little band of a dozen, with a sentry up of one in three. It was not so much the enemy as the wild beasts I was thinking of, and they were there all right. We found we could hear something or other throughout the night sniffing around and we were all a bit scared that a lion would snatch up one of us and vanish, which is a habit they have. I was quite glad when 5 a.m. came (stand to hour at camp) when I was to send up a Very light as a signal and return.

I have been learning something of the battalion’s doings in the earlier stages of the campaign and they have had a pretty thin time. Our last C.O. (Colonel Edwards) was killed in a recent action, and apparently he is sadly missed. I have just met our new C.O. (Lathom) and Irishman and a cheery sort of bloke. He is at the next post with half the battalion and I have just been escorting a full blown general to there by motor car. Poor Wilson our water expert and engineer, was killed the other day doing the same trip. His car was held up by a rope stretched across the track and he and his orderly were shot. A note was pinned on his chest “regretting the necessity of such action”. There have been several similar mishaps. His job was to advise and report on the various water supplies in our territory, which took him about a good deal.

I have had my first bout of fever and it was pretty severe while it lasted, but I was well looked after by the doctor who told me I was babbling quite a lot in my sleep. Our camp is very busy now and there is every sign of a resumption of active operations. A battalion of South African Infantry have arrived and some Indian units and there is quite a babel of tongues – English, Dutch, Hindustani and Swahili.

I wonder when I will get a letter from you and live in hopes.

Wild animals, jungle fevers, and enemy fire! So much for Henry and his family to worry about.


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