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.

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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 – 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 – 20th May 1917 continued

Let’s see how things go now that Henry has arrived at his new location. It’s a long post and a continuation of yesterday’s.

Letters are more likely to fall into enemy hands here than anywhere else so I cannot tell you very much of our little post here and its garrison. It is one of a chain of similar posts extending from the coast to the Lakes, with plenty of room in between, but which we keep well patrolled. These patrols are continually “bumping” those of the enemy whom we are trying to contain in the territory to the south of us, and then there is a terrific fusillade of rifle fire without as a rule much material damage. The native soldier believes in noise if nothing else. At the moment, with the rains on, big operations have been suspended [this is consistent with yesterday’s extract from a thesis on WWI in German East Africa] but it will not be long before we resume our driving movement and clear the Germans out of the colony. They have a very well trained native force including one of the old K.A.R. regiments which was disbanded just before the war in the interests of economy.

I have had several “bumps” with the enemy but so far as I know there has been little blood spilled. My first was an attempt at laying an ambush on a track leading to a water-hole known to be used by the enemy some 5 miles from our camp. I was out all night with my patrol and had a guide to steer me through the bush to the spot. In the virgin bush you can be completely lost a few hundred yards from camp. It was pretty tough going but there was a moon and I was lucky enough to strike some elephant spoor going part of the way, which made things easier. Elephant are plentiful hereabout and it is a god-send to be able to get on their tracks. We disturbed a couple of fearsome looking brutes which sprang from practically under my feet, but I could not make out what they were. “Simba” said my orderly, which means lion, so I suppose they were.

elephant grass

We got to the spot just before dawn but it was a poor place for the job as the track here lay through elephant grass 8 to 10 feet high, and I wanted to see better what I was doing. I reconnoitred for a bit and came to a more open place, with a fat tree on the edge of the path. I got my black warriors into position in the scrub and I got behind the tree, hoping they wouldn’t plug me in the excitement. They could all see me and my strict orders were that no one was to fire before I did. The main idea was to get a live prisoner and I did not want any shooting and so give the show away.

I waited for three hours, by which time the sun was well up, and was wondering how much longer I would stick it out when I spied a couple of German askaris coming along. They were walking nicely into my trap when a fool of a corporal – a blood thirsty Abysinian – blazed at the leading one, hit him without bringing him down and they both vanished into the bush. We searched about in the hope of getting one or the other but I knew it was no good and as we were in the middle of the enemy country it wasn’t healthy to hand about now that the alarm had been given. We returned on our tracks, half expecting the tables to be turned on us, which is a common proceeding in these parts.

Another occasion was when we went out to reconnoitre in force with a view to ascertaining the enemy’s main position in that vicinity. We were about 100 strong with two machine guns. His [the enemy’s] location had always been a matter of mystery and our small patrols had always failed to penetrate his outlying picquets and defences. As a matter of fact we did not do much more, but we drew the fire of his main body and had to withdraw before becoming too heavily engaged. We were advancing warily through the thick country when fire was opened on us from the left. We got into extended formation and continued our advance in direction of the shooting, to be threatened almost immediately after from the opposite flank.

We then formed a rough square and returned the fire and soon we were involved on three sides. We could not see each other, although it was comparatively open here, but that did not prevent a very noisy battle from taking place, which lasted long enough for us to have achieved our object. We eventually got our lot to cease fire and discovered we were in some danger of being surrounded. We retired in battle order and got clear without much difficulty and without having sustained a single casualty! They may have been less lucky but I doubt if we shall ever know.

Don’t you love that term “bumping” with the enemy. More to follow … this is a very long letter home!

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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.