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A First World War Soldier

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Looting, although you may not know it, is the natural impulse of primitive man. And in war we are very primitive. To take what does not belong to one is very natural when a man is persuaded that he can be absolved from the charge of theft by quoting military necessity. How surely in war one sheds the conventions of society! It has the attraction of buried treasure; the charm of getting something for nothing. But there are different ways or degrees of looting.

Now there were a few of us in German East Africa who had been in the Retreat from Mons and the subsequent advance to the Marne and beyond it to the Aisne. Indelibly engraved upon our minds were the pictures of French chateaux and farmhouses looted by the German troops in their advance and abandoned to us in their retreat. All along the countless roads the German transport had pressed, hurrying to the Aisne, were evidences of the loot of German officers and men. In roadside ditches, half buried in the late summer vegetation, were pictures and bronzes, china and statuary, the loot the German officer had chosen to adorn the walls of his ancestral Schloss. Marble figures leant drunkenly against the wayside hedges, big brass clocks strewed the ditches. Long before, of course, had the German rank and file been compelled to jettison their prizes, for the transport horses were nearly foundered and only officers' loot could be retained. Later, when the exhaustion of the horses was complete, and capture of the waggons seemed imminent, the regimental equipment and food supply, and, finally, the loot of high officers had to be abandoned. The whole story of that retreat was to be read in the discard by the roadside. The regimental butcher had clung to his meat and the implements of his trade until the last; and when we found the roads littered with carcases of oxen, sacks of pea flour and sausage machines, we knew that we would shortly find the General's loot beside the hedge.

In the houses, too, both the chateaux and the comfortable French farmhouses, we saw what manner of man the Hun could be in the matter of looting. Where the soldier could not loot he could not refrain from destroying. Floors were knee-deep in women's gear, household goods, private letters and all the treasures of French linen chests. Trampled by muddy German boots were the fine whiteness of French bed-linen. Nor had the German soldier refrained from the last exhibit of his "Kultur," but left filthy evidences of his bestial habits behind him to ensure that the bedrooms would be uninhabitable by us.

Remembering all these things we wondered how our men would behave now that the tables were turned and they in a position to loot the treasures of many German farms and plantation houses. Of course, divisional orders against looting and wanton destruction were very strict. Where houses were at the mercy of small patrols and bodies of our men under non-commissioned officers, far from the path of the main advancing army, the temptation to all must have been immense, and it speaks volumes for the natural goodness of our men and their ingrained sense of order that never in this whole country was looting done by any of our troops. True many houses were plundered, and there was a certain amount of wanton damage; but it was all done by the plundering native or by the Hun himself in his retreat.

For our calculating enemy left no stone unturned to deprive us of any of the useful booty of war. He deliberately destroyed and ravaged and burnt the property of his fellow-countrymen, and mentally determined to send in the claim for damage against us. A German will always complain and send in a bill of costs to us, when he is once assured of the protection of British troops.

Naturally, of course, we requisitioned and gave receipts for any article or property that might be of use to us for our hospitals or our supplies. In fact, our scrupulous regard for enemy property will probably result in very many fraudulent claims against our Government when the war is over. How easy to add mythical articles of great value to the list attested to by the signature of a British Staff officer. Who could blame a Hun when the British were such fools and forgery of receipts so easy?

But such was the regard we paid to German women and children that, if a house were occupied, we took nothing and disturbed nothing. A German farmhouse was an oasis of plenty amid a very hungry army. It made us sometimes wonder whether it was quite right to leave German ducks and fowls and sheep behind us, when we had to live on mealie meal and tough trek-ox. But the women were so terrified, at first, that we gave such farms a wide berth when scarcity of water did not force us to camp within the enclosures. Shortly, however, as is the German custom, these women would profit by their immunity and come to regimental headquarters that listened so patiently and courteously to the tale of pawpaws or mangoes--fruit that was really wild--vanished in the night. In no campaign, I dare swear, has so much respect been given to occupied houses, so much consideration to conquered people. The German Government paid this compliment to our army, that they left their women and children behind to our tender mercies.

At Handeni, ours being a Casualty Clearing Station, our equipment included 200 stretchers, with little hospital equipment, beyond the men's own blankets and their kit. No sooner did we come along and install ourselves in the abandoned German fort than the 5th South African Infantry were in action at Kangata to win 125 casualties. For us they were to nurse and keep until convalescent; for there was no stationary hospital behind us, and forty miles of the worst of bad roads robbed us of the chance of transporting them to the railway.

So every afternoon I went to German planters' houses (empty, of course), for forty miles around, in a swift Ford car. And back in triumph we bore bedsteads and soft mattresses that heavy German bodies so lately had impressed. Warm from the Hun, we brought them to our wounded. Down pillows, soft eiderdown quilts for painful broken legs; mattresses for pain-racked bodies. And one's reward the pleasure and appreciation our men showed at these attempts to ameliorate their lot. They were so "bucked" to see us coming back at night laden with the treasures of German linen chests. It would have done your heart good to see their dirty, unwashed faces grinning at me from lace-edged pillows. Silk-covered cushions from Hun drawing-rooms for painful amputation stumps!

So I had the double pleasure, all the expectancy and the delight of seeing our men so pleased. Forty bedsteads and beds complete we found in that district, until the bare white-washed walls of the jail were transformed. White paint, too, we discovered in plenty, and soon our wards were virginal in their whiteness. And when I tell you that at one time I had no less than thirteen gunshot fractures of thigh and leg alone and other wounds in proportion, in the hospital, you may judge how necessary beds were.

But the natives had nearly always been before us, and the confusion was indescribable, drawers turned out, the contents strewed upon the floors, cupboards broken into, and all portable articles removed. Pathetic traces everywhere of the happy family life before war's devastating fingers rifled all their treasures. Photographs, private letters, a doll's house, children's broken toys.

And from some letters one gathered that insight into the relations between the plantation owner and the manager who lived there. At one farm, apparently owned by an Englishman who paid his manager, a German Dane from Flensburg, the princely sum of 200 rupees a month, we found that one, at least, of our own people knew how to grind the uttermost labour from his German employee. For there were letters from the manager asking for leave after 2 ½ years' labour at this plantation, and pointing out that the German Government had laid down the principle of European leave every two years. To this came the cold reply that his employer cared nothing for German Government regulations; the contract was for three years, and he would see to it that this provision was carried out. One later letter begged for financial assistance to tide him over the coming months; for his wife and children had been ill and he himself in hospital at Korogwe with blackwater fever for two months. "And how shall I pay for food the next two months, if my pay is 200 rupees only, and hospital expenses 500?"

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