is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts. the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea
A First World War Soldier

Prev | Next | Contents


Of the many plagues that beset this land of Africa not the least are the biting flies. Just as every tree and bush has thorns, so every fly has a sting. Some bite by day only, some by night, and others at all times. Even the ants have wings, and drop them in our soup as they resume their plantigrade existence once again.

The worst biter that we have met in the many "fly-belts" that lie along the Northern Railway is the tsetse fly: especially was he to be found at a place called Same, and during the long trek from German Bridge on the Northern Railway to Morogoro in the south. At one place there is a belt thirty miles wide, and our progress was perpetual torture, unless we passed that way at night. For the Glossina morsitans sleeps by night beneath leaves in the bush, and only wakes when disturbed. For this reason we drive our horses, mules, and cattle by night through these fly-belts. Savage and pertinacious to a degree are these pests, and their bite is like the piercing of a red-hot needle. Simple and innocent they appear, not unlike a house fly, but larger and with the tips of their wings crossed and folded at the end like a swallow's. They are mottled grey in colour, and their proboscis sticks out straight in front. Hit them and they fall off, only to rise again and attack once more; for their bodies are so tough and resistant, that great force is required to destroy them. They are infected with trypanosomes, a kind of attenuated worm that circulates in the blood, but fortunately not the variety that causes sleeping sickness. At least we believe not. In any case we shall not know for eighteen months, for that is usually the latent period of sleeping sickness in man. Their bite is very poisonous, and frequently produces the most painful sores and abscesses. But if they are not lethal to man, they take a heavy toll of horses, mules, and cattle. Through the night watches, droves of horses, remounts for Brits's and Vandeventer's Brigades, cattle for our food and for the transport, mules and donkeys, pass this way. Fine sleek animals that have left the Union scarcely a month before, carefully washed in paraffin in a vain attempt to protect them from flies and ticks. But what a change in a short six weeks. The coat that was so sleek now is staring, the eye quite bloodless, the swelling below the stomach that tells its own story; wasting, incredible. Soon these poor beasts are discarded, and line the roads with dull eyes and heavy hanging heads. We may not shoot, for firing alarms our outposts and discloses our position. To-night the lions and hyaenas that this war has provided with such sumptuous repasts will ring down the curtain. A horse's scream in the bush at night, the lowing of a frightened steer, a rustling of bushes, and these poor derelicts, half eaten by the morning, meet the indifferent gaze of the next convoy. More merciful than man are the scavengers of the forest. They, at least, waste no time at the end. Strange that the little donkeys should alone for a time at least escape the fly; it is their soft thick coats that defeats the searching proboscis. But after rain or the fording of a river their protecting coats get parted by the moisture, and the fly can find his mark in the skin. So the donkey and the Somali mule that generations of fly have rendered tolerant to the trypanosome are the most reliable of our beasts of burden. Soon, these too will go in the approaching rainy season, and then we shall fall back on the one universal beast of burden, the native carriers. Thousands of these are now being collected to march with their head loads at the heels of our advancing columns. The veterinary service is helpless with fly-struck animals. One may say with truth that the commonest and most frequently prescribed veterinary medicine is the revolver. Certainly it is the most merciful. Large doses of arsenic may keep a fly-struck horse alive for months; alive, but robbed of all his life and fire, his free gait replaced by a shambling walk. The wild game, more especially the water buck and the buffalo whose blood is teeming with these trypanosomes, but who, from generations of infection, have acquired an immunity from these parasites, keep these flies infected. Thus one cannot have domestic cattle and wild game in the same area; the two are incompatible. And shortly the time will come, as certainly as this land will support a white population, when the wild game will be exterminated and Glossina morsitans will bite no more.

More troublesome, because more widely spread, are the large family of mosquitoes. The anopheles, small, grey and quietly persistent, carries the malaria that has laid our army low. Culex, larger and more noisy, trumpets his presence in the night watches: but the mischief he causes is in inverse ratio to the noise he makes. Stegomyia, host of the spirium of yellow fever, is also here, but happily not yet infected; not yet, but it may be only a question of time before yellow fever is brought along the railways or caravan routes from the Congo or the rivers of the West Coast, where the disease is endemic. There for many years it was regarded as biliary fever or blackwater or malaria. Now that the truth is known a heavier responsibility is cast upon the already overburdened shoulders of the Sanitary Officer and the specialists in tropical diseases. Stegomyia, as yet uninfected, are also found in quantities in the East; and with the opening of the Panama Canal, that links the West Indies and Caribbean Sea, where yellow fever is endemic, with the teeming millions of China and India, may materially add to the burden of the doctors in the East. Living a bare fourteen days as he does, infected stegomyia died a natural death, in the old days, during the long voyage round the Horn, and thus failed to infect the Eastern Coolie, who would in turn infect these brothers of the West Indian mosquito.

Fortunate it is in one way that anopheles is the mosquito of lines of communication, of the bases, of houses and huts and dwellings of man, rather than of the bush. Our fighting troops are consequently not so exposed as troops on lines of communication. For this blessing we are grateful, for lines of communication troops can use mosquito nets, but divisional troops on trek or on patrol cannot. Soon we shall see the fighting troops line up each evening for the protective application of mosquito oil. For where nets are not usable it is yet possible to protect the face and hands for six hours, at least, by application of oil of citronella, camphor, and paraffin. Nor is this mixture unpleasant; for the smell of citronella is the fragrance of verbena from Shropshire gardens.

Least in size, but in its capacity for annoyance greatest, perhaps, of all, is the sand fly. Almost microscopic, but with delicate grey wings, of a shape that Titania's self might wear, they slip through the holes of mosquito gauze and torment our feet by night and day. The three-day fever they leave behind is yet as nothing compared to the itching fury that persists for days.

Finally there is the bott-fly, by no means the least unpleasant of the tribe. Red-headed and with an iridescent blue body, he is very similar to the bluebottle, and lives in huts and dwellings. But his ways are different, for he bites a hole into one's skin, usually the back or arms, and lays an egg therein. In about ten days this egg develops into a fully grown larva, in other words a white maggot with a black head. It looks for all the world like a boil until one squeezes it and pushes the squirming head outside. But woe to him who having squeezed lets go to get the necessary forceps; for the larva leaps back within, promptly dies and forms an abscess. Often I have taken as many as thirty or forty from one man. It is a melancholy comfort to find that this fly is no respecter of persons, for the Staff themselves have been known to become affected by this pest.

With the flies may be mentioned as one of the minor horrors of war in East Africa, one of the little plagues that are sent to mortify our already over-tortured flesh, the jigger flea. As if there were not already sufficient trials for us to undergo, an unkind Providence has sent this pest to rob us of what little enjoyment or elegant leisure this country might afford. True to her sex, it is the female of the species that causes all the trouble; the male is comparatively harmless. Lurking in the dust and grass of camps, she burrows beneath the skin of our toes, choosing with a calculated ferocity the tender junction of the nails with the protesting flesh. No sooner is she well ensconced therein than she commences the supreme business of life, she lays her eggs, by the million, all enclosed in a little sack. What little measure of sleep the mosquitoes, the sand flies and the stifling nights have left us, this relentless parasite destroys. For her presence is disclosed to us by itching intolerable. Then the skill of the native boys is called upon, and dusky fingers, well scrubbed in lysol, are armed with a safety pin, to pick the little interloper out intact. Curses in many languages descend upon the head of the unlucky boy who fails to remove the sack entire. For the egg-envelope once broken, abscesses and blood poisoning may result, and one's toes become an offence to surgery.

All is well, if a drop of iodine be ready to complete the well-conducted operation; but the poor soldier, whose feet, perforce, are dirty and who only has the one pair of socks, pays a heavy penalty to this little flea, that dying still has power to hurt. Dirt and the death of this tiny visitor result in painful feet that make of marching a very torture. So great a pest is this that at least five per cent. of our army, both white and native, are constantly incapacitated. Hundreds of toenails have I removed for this cause alone. Nor do the jiggers come singly, but in battalions, and often as many as fifty have to be removed from one wretched soldier's feet and legs. So we hang our socks upon our mosquito nets and take our boots to bed with us, nor do we venture to put bare feet upon the ground.

A yell in the sleeping camp at night, "Some damn thing's bit me;" and matches are struck, while a sleepy warrior hunts through his blankets for the soldier ant whose great pincers draw blood, or lurking centipede or scorpion. For in these dry, hot, dusty countries these nightly visitors come to share the warm softness of the army blanket. Next morning, sick and shivering, they come to show to me the hot red flesh or swollen limb with which the night wanderer has rewarded his involuntary host.

Prev | Next | Contents