Somewhere in Africa – February 1917

RMS Walmer Castle – nearing Cape Town

This finds us completing the second part of our voyage and we should be in port again the day after tomorrow. I wrote you from Sierra Leone that we are doing the voyage in three stages. [That letter seems to be missing.] We have already been six weeks on board, so it is going to be ‘some’ journey. Apart from the life and incident on board there has been nothing very exciting to record, except on the day after we crossed the line [the equator] when we were all agog on account of the whole convoy and escort putting about and making for the port (S.L.) we had left a few days before. For 18 hours we were steaming in the wrong direction and then again put about and resumed our course. The reason for this manoeuvre was never divulged and we are still wondering what it was all about.

We were a full week at that West African port and as we were allowed ashore, it made for a pleasant break. The first thing I saw on dropping anchor was a big shark, about 12 feet long, which leisurely cruised round the ship. I was informed it was a sea-shark, hence its size, which had evidently followed us in and are seldom to be seen near shore, like the ground or sand shark. I saw another one the other morning which kept alongside for a little, just showing the tip of its dorsal fin. Flying fish are about as common as sparrows and lately we have run into big shoals of porpoises, hundreds of them.

It was much warmer north of the equator than what it has been south of it, which would appear to be the exception. The weather has been very fine but for the last few days we have been getting some heavy rollers coming up from the south, which may well get worse nearing the Cape.

The voyage has not been so tedious as it looked like being, thanks to an energetic programme of sports and entertainments for both the troops and passengers. There have been some very good boxing contests, in which soldiers, sailors and marines have taken part, but one, Gunner George, has so far been invincible. He is up against a tough proposition this afternoon however and the excitement is great.

The little bit of Africa I have seen so far was quite interesting and pretty in its way, but they tell me there is not another place like it on the whole West Coast. We rowed ashore in one of the ship’s boats and I tell you they take some handling in the little bit of sea that was running. I had the misfortune to break a fine pipe Uncle Fred gave me in the rather clumsy descent I made into the boat from the accommodation ladder. I took a hand at one of the oars but it seemed more like a telegraph pole. We landed at the river bank, which rises to a wooded hill. There were palm trees and other sorts of foliage which I shall never know the name of.

Freetown is spread along the shore and reaches some way up the hill side. It was very hot walking about and when we spied a local taxi – sort of a hammock slung on poles carried by natives – three of us made a sprint for it. I got there first but fell out of the contrivance in my hurry and the next man got it. We took a short railway ride up country and had a good look round. The natives are of a strong Mahommedam [sic] or Arab mixture, who originally trekked across the Sahara desert and have settled at various points along this coast.

Apparently we are only to be a day or so at Capetown, from where I will post this, with a P.C. [postcard?] or two.

Note: I found these images on

As someone who can get seasick standing on the dock, Henry’s lengthy voyage would have been torture for me.


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

RMS Walmer Castle – January 1917

What has happened to Henry Tod and where is the RMS Walmer Castle going?

1st January 1917

My dear Father and Mother,

When you see this you will be wondering, like myself, when we are going to get away. I said good-bye to the depot battalion in Edinburgh on 14th November. We are on board ship it is true but as near East Africa as ever. Further information I am not at liberty to give you.

It is tedious in the extreme this hanging about and it is like being in a prison. I have been on shore only once since embarking. We are making the best of it however and have just got through the Christmas and New Year festivities, with plenty of sing song and good cheer. But it is difficult to keep in really good form with so little exercise and a generous menu. A round or two on the Edmonton golf course is what I want. [His parents and two brothers are homesteading near Edmonton, Canada.]  Those were great games we had to be sure and I cannot quite figure out even now who is the champion of the family but no doubt each of us in our own mind has decided the point. But in your line mother you are an easy first – whether it is at the piano or the kitchen range – and I’ll back you against the best in the land. “East, West; hame’s best.” I wonder what the native cooking is like and shall probably have to face some wonderful productions.

Here is wishing you all the very best in the New Year. We brought the new year in all gathered on deck and did full justice to the occasion. The other ships in the harbour did likewise and it was quite impressive.

Still stuck in Devonport, it seems. Plymouth dockyard was renamed Devonport in 1843. It was a major shipbuilding site for the Royal Navy. Now it is the largest naval base in Western Europe and is the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy.

A glance at the next letter suggests that they set sail soon after.

Somewhere in France – not in France at all

Henry Tod’s letters home have an unexplained gap of more than six months and unfortunately, there is no one alive to ask for details. We’ll pick up the story in December 1916 and see what happens.

Union Castle Line – RMS Walmer Castle – Devonport, 22 Decr. 1916

My dear Father and Mother,

I received your letters of 2nd December just half an hour before leaving London. We embarked today but there is the possibility of our not sailing before Christmas. This is a splendid ship, almost the latest addition to the fleet, and there is a full complement on board. Further than that I suppose I must not say.

Came down from London last night and what a bustle it was getting on the train at Paddington. There were hundreds of us on this train alone for the same ship, which is taking troops to the various fronts in the east, via the Cape and India, and everybody had a goodly supply of kit. It was very much the same at this end and I have just been putting in a very strenuous time lumping my kit on board, as it was hopeless trying to get anyone to do it for you.

The same [I think he means his kit] comprises 2 cabin trunks, 2 wooden cases, 1 valise, 1 tin box containing pith helmet and my gun case. [I love finding details like this when I’m writing a story – adds such a ring of authenticity.] I bought a sporting rifle and shot gun, and this together with my service rifle and revolver, should surely account for something. I am thinking more of sport than Germans this trip, wherever that may be.

I am sharing my cabin with a man, also from a Scottish regiment, who has been serving in Egypt and also bound for East Africa. He seems to think the climate in E.A. will be more salubrious than Egypt, but I ha’e ma doots. It is possible that the destroyer on which young Noel Grabowsky is a lieutenant and presently in these waters, will form part of our escort.

I left them all well at Stirling. I think I told you that Chris has put herself on the active service list and expects to go overseas shortly. I took a run out last week-end to Norwich and saw cousin Lizzie, now Mrs Dr. Colonel Ogston, and they seem to be enjoying life pretty well. There was quite a dinner party followed by a visit to the theatre.

Wilson’s peace proposals arrive when I was in London, but no one seems to appreciate his interference and we all feel the same about it. It is time the Americans realised what we are fighting for but that seems to be beyond people of their kidney. [I didn’t make that up!!] Shall probably let you have another line before sailing.

Well, now we know … he’s on his way to East Africa. So that resolves the question of his wounds. But what will happen there?

I found this introductory comment about the East Africa campaign – a diversionary tactic by the Germans – on a site called The Centre for Hidden Histories.

“The Campaign in East Africa during the First World War was of a totally different kind to those on the Western Front, fought over immense distances without roads, over unexplored and unmapped areas, in deadly swamps and on remote mountains, in a tropical climate where malaria was rife. One of the more extraordinary aspects of this extraordinary campaign was the number of different ethnicities and cultures that were involved.  Sikhs, Punjabis, Arabs, West Indians, Nigerians, Rhodesians and South Africans (both black and white), Sudanese, and members of many East African tribes fought side by side in the Allies’ comparatively small army.”

Apparently, in 1916 the campaign required reinforcements.

And here’s a map from Wikipedia showing Africa at that time. Attribution: By Professor Delbruck, Public Domain,

And here’s an article offering a perspective on Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 peace proposal, which many referred to as ‘peace without victory’.


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