|History of World War 1||The Western Front||The Russian Front||Italian Front||The Middle East||Air Warfare||War at Sea|
THE MECHANICAL TRANSPORT
A cloud of red dust along a rough bush track, a rattling jar approaching, and the donkey transport pulls into the bushes to let the Juggernaut of the road go by. Swaying and plunging over the rough ground, lurches one of our huge motor lorries. Perched high up upon the seat, face and arms burnt dark brown by the tropical sun, is the driver. Stern faced and intent upon the road, he slews his big ship into a better bit of road by hauling at the steering wheel. Beside him on the seat the second driver. Ready to their hands the rifles that may save their precious cargo from the marauding German patrol which lies hidden in the thick bush beside the road. In the big body of the car behind are two thousand pounds of rations, and atop of all a smiling "tota," the small native boy these drivers employ to light their fires and cook their food at night. And this load is food for a whole brigade alone for half a day; so you may see how necessary it is that this valuable cargo arrives in time.
It may sound to you, in sheltered London, a pleasant and agreeable thing to drive through this strange new country full of the wild game that glimpses of Zoological Gardens in the past suggest. "A Zoo without a blooming keeper." But there is no department of war that does such hard work as these lorry drivers.
For them no rest in the day that is deemed a lucky one, if it provides them only with sixteen hours' work. The infantry of the line have their periodical rests, a month it may be, of comparative leisure before the enemy trenches. But for mechanical transport there is no peace, save such as comes when back axles break, and the big land ship is dragged into the bush to be repaired. Hot and sweating men striving to renew some part or improvise, by bullock hide "reims," a temporary road repair that will bring them limping back to the advance base. Here the company workshop waits to repair these derelicts of the road. Burning with malaria, when the hot sun draws the lurking fever from their bones, tortured with dysentery, they've got to do their job until they reach their lorry park again. But often the repair gang cannot reach a stranded lorry, and the drivers, helpless before a big mechanical repair, have to camp out alongside their car, till help arrives and tows them in. A tarpaulin rigged up along one side of the lorry, poles cut from the thorn bush, and they have protection from the burning sun by day. A thorn hedge, the native "boma," keeps out lions and the sneaking hyaena at night. Nor are their rifles more than a half protection, for the '303 makes so clean a hole that it is often madness to attempt to shoot a lion with it. Once wounded he is far more dangerous a foe. Here the "tota" earns his pay, for he can hunt the native villages for "cuckoos," the native fowls, and eggs.
The load of rations must not, save at the last extremity, be broached.
And the roads they travel on: you never saw such things, mere bush tracks where the pioneers have cut down trees and bushes, and left the stumps above the level earth. No easy job to steer these great lumbering machines between these treacherous stumps. From early dawn to late night you'll meet these leviathans of the road, diving into the bush to force a new road for themselves when the old track is too deep in mud or dust, plunging and diving down water-courses or the rocky river-beds, creeping with great care over the frail bridge that spans a deep ravine. A bridge made up of tree-trunks laid lengthwise on wooden up-rights. The lion and the leopard stand beside the road, with paw uplifted, in the glare of the headlights at night.
Nor is there only danger from flood and fever and the denizens of the forest. There is ever to be feared the lurking German patrol that trains its dozen rifles upon the driver, knowing full well that he must sit and quietly face it out, or the lorry, once out of control, plunges against a tree and becomes, with both its drivers, the prey of these marauders. So, while his mate fumbles with the bolt lever of his rifle, the driver takes a firmer grip of the wheel, gives her more "juice," and plunges headlong down the road. At Handeni I once had a driver with five bullets in him; they had not stopped him until he reached safety, and his mate was able to take over. Nor does this exhaust the risks of his job, for there is the land mine, buried in the soft dust of the road, or beneath the crazy bridge. Laid at night by the patrol that harasses our lines of communication, they are the special danger of the first convoy to come along the road in the morning. Troops we have not to spare to guard these long lines of ours, so, in particularly dangerous places, the driver carries a small guard of soldiers on the top of his freight behind him. Native patrols, very wise at noticing any derangement of the surface dust, patrol the highways at dawn to lift these unwelcome souvenirs from the roads.
From South Africa, from home, and from Canada, come the drivers and mechanics of the motor transport. The Canadians, stout fellows from Toronto, Winnipeg, and the Far West, enlisted in the British A.S.C. in Canada, and arrived in England only to be sent to East Africa. It seems at first sight a strange country to which to send these men from the north, but in fact it was a very happy choice. For they got away from the cold dampness of England and Flanders into the summer seas of the South Atlantic, where the flying fish and rainbow nautilus filled them with surprise. Cape Town and Durban must have been for these Canadian lads a new world only previously envisaged by them, in the big all-red map that hangs on the walls of Canadian schools, A little difficult at first, apt to chafe at the restrictions that, though perhaps not necessary for themselves in particular, were yet essential in preserving discipline in the whole mixed unit, rather inclined to resent certain phases of soldier life. But soon they settled down to do their job, to take trouble over their work rather than make trouble by grousing over it. Well they proved their worth by the number that now fill the non-commissioned ranks, and may be judged by the commendation of their commanding officers. I used to think that they came to see me in particular, at the long sick parades I held in Morogoro and Handeni, because I too lived, like some of them, in British Columbia. I cannot flatter my soul by thinking that they came for the special quality of the quinine or medical advice I dished out to them. It may have been that they were far from home, and I seemed a friend in a very strange land.
All I know is, that I felt a great compliment was paid to me that they should be grateful for the often hurried and small attentions that I could give them. They would sometimes bring me Canadian papers that took me back two and a half years, to the time when I came to England on a six weeks' holiday from my work, a holiday that has now spun out to three and a half years, and shows every sign of going further still. Very well these men stood the climate, in spite of their fair colouring, in a country that penalises the blonde races more than the brown, that makes us pay for our want of protective pigment. One stout fellow I well remember, who had acute appendicitis at Morogoro, was the driver, or engineer as they are called, of a Grand Trunk Pacific train that ran from Edmonton in Alberta to Prince Rupert on the Pacific. We operated upon him, and, though he did very well, yet he must have suffered many things from our want of nursing in his convalescence. Very considerate and uncomplaining he was, like all the good fellows in our hospital, giving no trouble, and making every allowance for our difficulties. In fact, the great trouble one has among soldiers, is to get them to make any complaint to their own medical officer. If one suggests things to them or asks them leading questions, they will sometimes admit to certain deficiencies in food or treatment by the orderlies. But of what one did oneself or what the German sister left undone, there was never a complaint to me; though I rather think there were many grouses when once they left the hospital. It seemed to me that it was not that they didn't know better, or that they didn't know that certain things were wrong, for it is a very intelligent army, this of ours, and has been in hospital before in civil life, but all along I felt that they did not like to hurt one's feelings by not getting well as quickly as they might, and that they often pretended to a degree of comfort and ease from pain that I'm sure was not the fact. But this phase is often met with in civil life too, a doctor has much to be grateful for that many of his patients insist on getting well or saying that they are better, just to please him.
The German surgical sister was always kind to our men, and when the serious state of the wound was past she would do the dressings herself, while I went about some other work. Our men liked her, and I remember that our Canadian engine driver offered her, in his kindly way, to give her a free pass on the Grand Trunk Railway. He little knew that this German sister represented no small part of two big German shipping companies that could once have provided her with free passes over any railway in the world. I had under me, too, a couple of Canadian drivers whose lorry in crossing one of the ramshackle bridges over a river, hit the railing on the side and plunged to the rocky depths below. A loose tree-trunk that formed the roadbed of the bridge had jerked the steering wheel from the driver's hands. Over went the lorry on top of them, and the mercy of Providence only interposed a big rock that left room below for the two drivers to escape the crushing that would have killed them. Badly bruised only, they left me later to recover of their contusion in the hospital at Dar-es-Salaam.