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A First World War Soldier

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These sketches of General Smuts' campaign of 1916 in German East Africa, do not presume to give an accurate account of the tactical or strategical events of this war. The actual knowledge of the happenings of war and of the considerations that persuade an Army Commander to any course of military conduct must, of necessity, be a closed book to the individual soldier. To the fighting man himself and to the man on the lines of communication, who helps to feed and clothe and arm and doctor him, the history of his particular war is very meagre. War, to the soldier, is limited to the very narrow horizon of his front, the daily work of his regiment, or, at the most, of his brigade. Rarely does news from the rest of one brigade spread to the troops of another in the field. Only in the hospital that serves the division are the events of his bit of war correlated and reduced to a comprehensive whole. Even then the resulting knowledge is usually wrong. For the imagination of officers, and of men in particular, is wonderful, and rumour has its birthplace in the hospital ward. One may take it as an established fact that the ordinary regimental officer or soldier knows little or nothing about events other than his particular bit of country. Only the Staff know, and they will not tell. Sometimes we have thought that all the real news lives in the cloistered brain of the General and his Chief of Staff. Be this as it may, we always got fuller and better correlated and co-ordinated news of the German East African Campaign from "Reuter" or from The Times weekly edition.

But if the soldier in the forward division knows nothing of the strategical events of his war, there are many things of which he does know, and so well too that they eclipse the greater strategical considerations of the war. He does know the food he eats and the food that he would like to eat; moreover, he knew, in German East Africa, what his rations ought to be, and how to do without them. He learnt how to fight and march and carry heavy equipment on a very empty stomach. He learnt to eke out his meagre supplies by living on the wild game of the country, the native flour, bananas and mangoes. He knew what it meant to have dysentery and malaria. He had marched under a broiling sun by day and shivered in the tropic dews at night. He knew what it was to sleep upon the ground; to hunt for shade from the vertical sun. These and many other things did he know, and herein lies the chief interest of this or of any other campaign.

For, strange as it may seem, the soldier in East Africa was more concerned about his food and clothing, the tea he thirsted for, the blisters that tormented his weary feet, the equipment that was so heavy, the sleep that drugged his footsteps on the march, the lion that sniffed around his drowsy head at night, than about the actual fighting. These are the real points of personal interest in any campaign, and if these sketches bear upon the questions of food, the matter of transport, the manner of the soldier's illness, the hospitals he stayed in, the tsetse fly that bit him by day, the mosquitoes that made his nights a perfect torment, they are the more true to life. For fights are few, and, in this thick bush country, frequently degenerate into blind firing into a blinder bush; but the "jigger" flea is with the soldier always.

But this campaign is far different from any of the others in which our arms are at present engaged. First and of especial interest was this army of ours; the most heterogeneous collection of fighting men, from the ends of the earth, all gathered in one smoothly working homogeneous whole. From Boers and British South Africans, from Canada and Australia, from India, from home, from the planters of East Africa, and from all the dusky tribes of Central Africa, was this army of ours recruited. The country, too, was of such a character that knowledge of war in other campaigns was of little value. Thick grass, dense thorn scrub, high elephant grass, all had their special bearing on the quality of the fighting. Close-quarter engagements were the rule, dirty fighting in the jungle, ambushes, patrol encounters; and the deadly machine-gun that enfiladed or swept every open space. We cannot be surprised that the mounted arm was robbed of much of its utility, that artillery work was often blind for want of observation, that the trench dug in the green heart of a forest escaped the watchful eyes of aeroplanes, that this war became a fight of men and rifles, and, above all, the machine-gun.

In this campaign the Hun has been the least of the malignant influences. More from fever and dysentery, from biting flies, from ticks and crawling beasts have we suffered than from the bullets of the enemy. Lions and hyaenas have been our camp followers, and not a little are we grateful to these wonderful scavengers, the best of all possible allies in settling the great question of sanitation in camps. For all our roads were marked by the bodies of dead horses, mules and oxen, whose stench filled the evening air. Much labour in the distasteful jobs of burying these poor victims of war did the scavengers of the forest save us.

The transport suffered from three great scourges: the pest of horse-sickness and fly and the calamity of rain. For after twelve hours' rain in that black cotton soil never a wheel could move until a hot sun had dried the surface of the roads again. Roads, too, were mere bush tracks in the forest, knee-deep either in dust or in greasy clinging mud.

Never has Napoleon's maxim that "an army fights on its stomach" been better exemplified than here. All this campaign we have marched away from our dinners, as the Hun has marched toward his. The line of retreat, predetermined by the enemy, placed him in the fortunate position that the further he marched the more food he got, the softer bed, more ammunition, and the moral comfort of his big naval guns that he fought to a standstill and then abandoned. Heavy artillery meant hundreds of native porters or dove-coloured humped oxen of the country to drag them; and heavy roads defied the most powerful machinery to move the guns.

In order to appreciate the great difficulty with which our Supply Department has had to contend, we must remember that our lines of communication have been among the longest in any campaign. From the point of view of the railway and the road haul of supplies, our lines of communication have been longer than those in the Russo-Japanese War. For every pound of bully beef or biscuit or box of ammunition has been landed at Kilindini, our sea base, from England or Australia, railed up to Voi or Nairobi, a journey roughly of 300 miles. From one or other of those distributing points the trucks have had to be dragged to Moschi on the German railway, from there eastward along the German railway line to Tanga as far as Korogwe, a matter of another 500 miles. From here the last stage of 200 miles has been covered by ox or mule or horse transport, and the all-conquering motor lorry, over these bush tracks to Morogoro. Can we wonder, then, that the great object of this campaign has been to raise as many supplies locally as possible, and to drive our beef upon the hoof in the rear of our advancing army? Nor is the German unconscious of these our difficulties. He has with the greatest care denuded the whole country of supplies before us, and called in to his aid his two great allies, the tsetse fly and horse sickness, to rob us of our live cattle and transport animals on the way.

At first we thought the German in East Africa to be a better fellow than his brother in Europe, more merciful to his wounded prisoner, more chivalrous in his manner of fighting. But the more we learn of him the more we come to the conclusion that he is the same old Hun as he is in Belgium--infinitely crafty, incredibly beastly in his dealings with his natives and with our prisoners. Only in one aspect did we find him different, and this by reason of the fact that we were winning and advancing, taking his plantations and his farms, finding that he had left his women and children to our charge. Then we saw the alteration. For I had known what eight months in German prisons in Europe mean to a soldier prisoner of war, and now I had German prisoners in my charge. Anxious to please, eager to conciliate, as infinitely servile to us, now they were in captivity, as they were vile and bestial and arrogant to us when they were in authority, were these prisoners of ours.

Nor was this the only aspect from which the campaign in German East Africa appealed to those of us who had taken part in the advance from the Marne to the Aisne in September, 1914. Then we saw what looting meant, and how the German officer enriched his family home with trophies looted from many chateaux. We knew of French houses that had been stripped of every article of value; we saw, discarded by the roadside, in the rapid and disorganised retreat to the Aisne, statuary and bronzes, pictures and clocks, and all the treasures of French homes. Now we were in a position to loot; but how differently our officers and men behaved! The spoils of hundreds of German plantations at our mercy; and hardly a thing, save what was urgently needed for hospitals or food, taken. Every house in which the German owner lived was left unmolested; only those abandoned to the mercy of the native plunderer had we entered. It pays a great tribute to the natural goodness of our men, that the German example of indiscriminate looting and destruction was not followed.

To people in England, and, indeed, to many soldiers in France, it seemed that this campaign of ours in German East Africa was a mere side-show. It appeared to be a Heaven-sent opportunity to escape the cold wet misery of the trenches in Flanders. To some it spelt an expedition of the picnic variety; they saw in this an opportunity of spending halcyon days in the game preserves, glorious opportunities for making collections of big game heads, all sandwiched in with pleasant and successful enterprises against an enemy that was waiting only a decent excuse to surrender.

How different has been the reality, however! The picnic enterprise has turned out to be one of the most arduous in our experience. Many of us had served in France and the Dardanelles before, and we thought we knew what the hardships of war could mean. If the truth be told, the soldier suffered in East Africa, in many ways, greater hardships, performed greater feats of endurance, endured more from fever and dysentery and the many plagues of the country than in either of the other campaigns; the soldier marched and fought and suffered and starved for the simple reason that time was of the essence of the whole campaign. From June until Christmas we had to crowd in the campaigning of a whole year; for once the rains had started all fighting was perforce at an end. Once the transport wheels had stopped in the black cotton soil mud the army had to halt. All the time the great aim of the expedition was to get on and farther on. We had to advance and risk the shortage of supplies, or we would never reach the Central Railway. And there was not a soldier who would not prefer to push on and suffer and finish the campaign than wait in elegant leisure with full rations to contemplate an endless war in the swamps of East Africa.

The early history of the war in this theatre had been far from favourable to our arms. In late 1914 our Expeditionary Force failed in their landing at Tanga, a misfortune that was not compensated for by our subsequent reverse at Jassin near the Anglo-German border on the coast. The gallant though unsuccessful defence of the latter town by our Indian troops, however, caused great losses to the enemy, and robbed him of many of his most distinguished officers. But against these we must record the very fine defence of the Uganda Railway and the successful affair at Longido near the great Magadi Soda Lake in the Kilimanjaro area. But when South Africa, in 1916, was called in to redress the balance of India in German East Africa, the new strategic railway from Voi to the German frontier was only just commenced, and the enemy were in occupation of our territory at Taveta. To General Smuts then fell the task of co-ordinating the various units in British East Africa, strengthening them with South African troops, pushing on the railway toward Moschi, and driving the German from British soil. In so far as his initial movements were concerned, General Smuts carried out the plans evolved by his predecessors. After a series of difficult but brilliant engagements, the enemy were forced back to Moschi, and to the Kilimanjaro area, which, in places, was very strongly held. From this point he mapped out his own campaign. Colonel von Lettow was out-manoeuvred by our flanking movements, and forced to retire partly along the Tanga railway eastward to the sea, and partly towards the Central Railway in the heart of the enemy country.

Two outstanding features of this campaign may be mentioned: the faith the whole army had in General Smuts, the loyalty, absolute and complete, that all our heterogeneous troops gave to him; and the natural goodness of the soldier. As for the latter, Boer or English, Canadian, East African or Indian, all showed that they could bear the heat and dust and dirty fighting, the disease and privation just as gallantly, uncomplainingly, and well, as did their British comrades on the Western front.

Finally, there is one very generous tribute that our army would pay to the Germans in the field, and that is to the excellence of the leadership of Lettow, and the devotion with which he has by threats and cajolings sustained the failing courage of his men. Nor can one forget that in this war the mainstay of our enemy has lain in the discipline and devotion of the native troops. Here, indeed, in this campaign the black man has kept up the spirit of the white. Nor does this leave the future unclouded with potential trouble, for, in this war, the black man has seen the white, on both sides, run from him. The black man is armed and trained in the use of the rifle, and machine-gun, and his intelligence and capacity have been attested to by the degree of fire control that he mastered. It must be more than a coincidence that in the two colonies--East Africa and the Cameroon--where the Germans used native troops they put up an efficient and skilful resistance, while in South-West Africa, where all the enemy troops were white, they showed little inclination for a fight to a finish. In Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck the German army has one of the most able and resourceful leaders that it has produced in this war.

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