Somewhere in Africa – 2nd October 1917

It’s been months since Henry’s written to his family. I’m sure they were worried sick.

Nabungo, G.E.A. – 2nd October 1917

It is a long time since I had an opportunity of writing and I have only just heard that a mail if being made up. Here we have come to a halt at last, well down south. We have been keeping the Hun on the move continually and we have had several scraps – big and little. At Narangombe we had probably the biggest fight of the campaign and it lasted from early morning till late into the night, [I also found this spelled Narungombe which is about 100KM west of the coastal town of Lindi] but he still lives to fight another day. It was hoped at the previous encounter we would polish him off. We had three columns converging on him [curious how Henry refers to the German soldiers as ‘he’ and ‘him’ even though there would be many Germans involved] but one of them met with unexpected obstacles and delay (which cost the commander his job) and the plan of battle miscarried. We have however always been able to dislodge von Lettow, despite the fact that we have to fight on ground of his choosing and we have taken pretty heavy casualties in getting him where he is. [von Lettow was known as the Lion of Africa and was in charge of German troops there throughout WWI]

I am in command of a company with acting rank and pay of captain and as often as not I have been detached from the battalion, sitting on water holes and generally holding the fort on my own. At Naragombe my company was the only one of the battalion in action, the others being occupied elsewhere. I was detached as escort to an Indian Mountain Battery and they did good work in the big fight, getting a special mention from the General. I had been attached to them for some time previous and was quite pleased with the job. Being with the battery I was not exactly in the firing line; in fact I was not far from the General’s H.Q. if he can be said to have had one in a mobile action like this, and I constituted myself as a sort of bodyguard to him as well.

The tide of battle fluctuated and at one time there was a general move to the rear – but not for long. My protégées, the Indian battery, were soon up to their original position and towards the end of the day there was a general move forward. The bullets were chipping the trees all round us but there was not great damage being done in our area. At one period I had to round up a batch of porters who had discarded their loads of ammunition and were stampeding to the read.

Before finally retiring the Hun set fire to the grass, the wind being in his favour, and many of our wounded met a horrible fate. The best feature of the fight was the manoeuvre of the Gold Coast regiment, who had been detached before the action to harass the enemy’s retreat which had been taken for granted. The G.C. [Gold Coast] got across his path all right and had time to dig themselves in and although considerably outnumbered gave the Huns a tremendous jolt. The bayonet was used for the first time, I believe. Despite all this battering von Lettow has still got his force, more or less intact, and we are again after him.

from a UNDP document about Tanzania

We are now on the river Mbemkuru [you can see this river towards the bottom right of the map] which is about the last water supply left to the enemy until the rains, and he put up a bit of a show here before clearing out. I am back with the battalion and we were in action on the extreme flank, taking about a dozen casualties. We expected he would make his final stand here but he has made a further move south. We move on again tomorrow and I do not think anyone knows where we are going. Chasing the Hun in the bush is an endless job and you never know when and where he is lying up for you.

I am keeping very fit despite some stiff campaigning. We are in a rotten part of the country and there does not seem to be even any game about. Elephant seem to be the only inhabitants but I have not seen one yet. I heard them trumpeting in a swamp while on the march but the grass was too high to get a sight of them. Parraquets, doves and guinea fowl are frequently to be seen, but I have left my gun in Nairobi. We are still hoping to bring this show to an end before the rains which are expected very soon, but if he can stave us off till then we are in for another campaign next year.

Any guesses on whether Henry’s in for another year of campaigning?

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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.

Somewhere in France – 16th November ’15

Photo of German trench
Photo of German trench

Alexander Henry Tod has received his first letters from his parents and after acknowledging his pleasure goes on to tell his family the latest news.

We are in the middle of another spell in the trenches and after doing our bit in the firing line are enjoying life in the support line which happens to be an old front line of the Germans. They are very elaborate – what’s left of them – especially the dugouts, which are really splendid. Timbered with pit-props, this being a mining village, they are practically shellproof, unless in case of a direct hit, when nothing on earth is safe. Their entrances, unfortunately, now face the enemy guns [!!]. In front of the trench is a belt of barbed wire some 30 yards deep which must have been a terrible obstacle to our men, although fairly well torn up by our artillery. The whole region around is churned up with shell holes. These are now full of water which are frozen over these frosty mornings. The dug-outs are overrun with rats and mice which play hide and seek round you and over you, but as you are asleep the moment you lie down it doesn’t matter much. [he’s not sugar coating anything, is he?]

The only bird life visible are hawks and owls and occasional flocks of starlings. The general scene reminds me of the open sea with the trench as your ship – a darn sight safer in it than out of it! The surrounding country hereabout is a desolate waste, white in its general aspect from the chalky subsoil turned over from the trenches and shell holes. The trenches form a network everywhere. The main communication trenches are fairly well defined and of course have been photographed by the enemy airmen and their artillery play on them regularly, much to the discomfiture of the troops going to and from the firing line.

Our D company who are in the firing line at present are getting pretty much the same punishment we got. I don’t know if I told you four of my platoon were killed including the sergeant with one shell. My equipment was buried in the debris but I recovered everything except my shaving outfit. Yesterday a shell got home on the extreme left of our line where we touch the Argylls. A lot of men were huddled together, as they will do, and eight of them were killed outright, six of [theirs] and two of ours. The more you have of shell fire the less you get used to it. The uncertainty of where the next one is coming gets on your nerves and it is a great relief when it stops for a time. You have then to build up your trench, recover the dead, so that you never get away from the ghastly business. We are in the firing line three days at a stretch and it is quite enough [I believe these stretches were extended later in the war]. Sometimes the support trenches get it worse but there is usually better cover there.

It is difficult to get off the subject, as I have not much else to write about. We will soon be back in billets for six days rest and I hear that after another twelve day spell in the trenches, the Division goes back into reserve, which if true should give us a nice quiet time. If there are any points you would like enlightenment on just mention them. It looks as if I will get a good sleep tonight but you never know.

These letters began on October 9th, 1915. You can find the rest of them by searching the tag or category ‘Somewhere in France’. I plan to create a chronological list of them in the future.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.