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A First World War Soldier

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Toiling behind the column on march is the long and ragged line of native porters, the human cattle that are, after all, the most reliable form of transport in Equatorial Africa. Clad in red blankets or loin cloths or in kilts made of reeds and straw, they struggle on singing through the heat. Grass rings temper the weight of the loads to their heads, each man carrying his forty pounds for the regulation ten miles, the prescribed day's march in the tropics. Winding snake-like along the native paths, they go chanting a weird refrain that keeps their interest and makes the miles slip by. Here are some low-browed and primitive porters from the mountains, "Shenzies," as the superior Swahili call them, and clad only in the native kilt of grass or reeds. Good porters these, though ugly in form, and lacking the grace of the Wanyamwezi or the Wahehe.

At night they drop their loads beside the water-holes that mark the stages in the long march, and seek the nearest derelict ox or horse and prepare their meals, with relish, from the still warm entrails. This, with their "pocha," the allowance of mealie meal or mahoga, keeps them fat, their stomachs distended, bodies shiny and spirits of the highest. Round their camp fires they chatter far into the night, relieved, by the number of the troops and the plentiful supply of dead horses in the bush, from the ever-present fear of the lion that, in other days, would lift them at night, yelling, from their dying fires. One wonders that their spirits are so high, for they would get short shrift and little mercy from German raiding parties behind our advance. For the porter is fan-game, and is as liable to destruction as any other means of transport. Nor would the Germans hesitate a moment to kill them as they would our horses. But the bush is the porters' safeguard, and at the first scattering volley of the raiding party, they drop their loads and plunge into the undergrowth. Later, when we have driven off the raiders, it is often most difficult to collect the porters again. Naturally the British attitude to the porter genus differs from that of the Hun. Our aim, indeed, is to break up an enemy convoy, but we seek to capture the hostile porters that we may use them in our turn, all the more welcome to us for the increased usefulness that German porter discipline has given them.

Porters are the sole means of transport of the German armies; to these latter are denied the mule transport and the motor lorries that eat up the miles when roads are good. So they take infinite pains to train their beasts of burden. Often they are chained together in little groups to prevent them discarding their loads and plunging into the jungle when our pursuit draws near. The German knows the value of song to help the weary miles to pass, and makes the porters chant the songs and choruses dear to the native heart. Increasingly important these carriers become as the rains draw near, and the time approaches when no wheels can move in the soft wet cotton soil of the roads. Nor are the porters altogether easy to deal with. Very delicate they often are when moved from their own district and deprived of their accustomed food. Dysentery plays havoc in their ranks. For the banana-eating Baganda find the rough grain flour much too coarse and irritating for their stomachs. So our great endeavour is to get the greatest supply of local labour. Strange to say, it is here that our misplaced leniency to the German meets its due reward.

It is not easy to tell the combatant, unless he be caught red-handed. They all wear khaki, the only difference being that a civilian wears pearl buttons, the soldiers the metal military button with the Imperial Crown stamped on it. When it is borne in mind that the buttons are hooked on, one can imagine how simple it is to transform and change identity. Nor are the helmets different in any way, save that a soldier's bears the coloured button in the front; but as this also unscrews, the recognition is still more difficult.

With these people, it has been our habit to send them back to their alleged civil occupations after extracting an undertaking that they will take no further active or passive part in the war. But, to our surprise, when we sought for labour or supplies in their country districts, we found that we could obtain neither. Upon inquiry of the natives we learn that our late prisoners are conducting a campaign of intimidation. "Soon--in a year--we shall all return, and the English will be driven out. If you labour or sell eggs, woe betide you in the day of reckoning." What can the native do? As they say to us, "We see the Germans returning to their farms just as they were before; the missionaries installed in their mission stations again. What are we to believe?"

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