Somewhere in Africa – 30th October 1917

Bully beef WWI

Henry is still on the move, his brigade heading south to keep on the tail of von Lettow.

I have just received a batch of your letters up to 19th July and this is a line to acknowledge same and report all well. We have been making good progress with the campaign but at the moment we are held up for lack of transport. We are hoping to give the Hun the knock-out any day now, but if we don’t it will have to be after the rains – six months hence at least – so here’s hoping.

Bully beef WWIThe country has improved a bit as we trek south but it is not much for all that, especially as the enemy has stripped it bare in his retreat and we have a hungry population on our hands, amongst our other troubles. Patrolling and traversing the country generally for our maps keeps us busy. [I wonder what he means here.] We shall resume our march when we have accumulated some food. We are subsisting on bully beef [see photo] and green bananas, which when boiled or fried make an excellent substitute for potatoes and occasionally we come on some small tomatoes to vary the menu. Game is conspicuous by its absence which is a pity, as it is always a welcome addition to the larder. It is possible to get a guinea fowl now and again, even with a rifle, as he is pretty slow in the take off, and he makes a fine meal.

We have had some pretty stiff marching and counter-marching lately. One evening we had just reached our camping place with that feeling of relief and anticipation, which we always associate with the evening halt, when we got orders to “carry on” and establish contact with the Gold Coast regiment, who were half a day’s march ahead. After a hasty uncooked meal we trailed off again into the blue. It was my turn for advance guard and I had to pick up a field telephone wire which had been laid through the bush and was my only guide. It has its comical side, which of course we only appreciated later.

Our C.O. (an acquisition from South Africa) is a worthy but fussy sort of man and certainly errs on the side of discretion. I was able to pick up the trail all right but the difficulty was for the rest of the battalion to keep in touch, while our baggage train, consisting for the most part of donkeys, was miles behind and was giving our transport officer something to think about. You can imagine the confusion of a night march in the bush; it can be bad enough in the daytime.

The C.O. has a whistle on which he signals all his commands. At one of the many halts while he was trying to close up the ever increasing gaps I had gone back to see what was doing. I met the adjutant and another captain and we were discussing the general hash we were making of things. The adjutant made a reference, more forcible than polite, to the Colonel, when out of the darkness the latter’s voice was heard. “Capt. —, you will rejoin your company and report to me in the morning. Another South African has got the vacant post.

The South Africans have a big pull in this show, for political reasons, and all promotions and decorations go their way. I have twice been recommended for the M.C. [I think this means Military Cross – a significant decoration] but that is as far as it has got. We got through the night somehow but as for making contact with the Gold Coast, we might as well have stayed in camp.

On another occasion when I was advance guard in a night march, this time to the whole column, or brigade, I came most unexpectedly on the tail of von Lettow’s main body. It was a stroke of luck and I got most urgent orders from the General to maintain contact until morning. This I did with the loss of six men. The telephone was run out to me and I had to report hourly to his nibs. Next day we forced him to a rearguard action, but it was only to cover his retreat. During the action I heard the German buglers sounding the “retreat” which I had never heard before in the war.

There are strong rumours that an air-ship has left Germany for these regions to pick up von Lettow and I am sure it is the best thing that could happen, as he will never surrender, and he will keep us chasing him all over Africa.

According to FirstWorldWar.com, “Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964) was remarkable among military commanders of the First World War in that he served for the entire period without ever having suffered defeat.”

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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 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 Sierra-Leone.org.

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

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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.

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.