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A First World War Soldier

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The journey from Morogoro to Dar-es-Salaam is a most interesting experience, a perfect object lesson in the kind of futile railway destruction that defeats its own ends. For Lettow and his advisers said that our long wait at M'syeh had ruined our chances. Complete destruction of the railway and of all the rolling stock would hold us up for the valuable two months until the rains were due. Our means of supply all that time would be, perforce, the long road haul by motor lorry, by mule or ox or donkey transport, two hundred miles, from the Northern Railway. Lettow bet on the rains and the completeness of the railway destruction he would cause; but he bargained without his visitors. Little did he know the resource and capacity of our Indian sappers and miners, our Engineer and Pioneer battalions.

They threw themselves on broken culverts and wrecked bridges; with only hand tools, so short of equipment were they, they drove piles and built up girders on heaps of sleepers and made the bridges safe again. Saving every scrap of chain, every abandoned German tool, making shift here, extemporising there, bending steel rails on hand forges, utilising the scrap heaps the enemy had left, they finally won and brought the first truck through, in triumph, in six weeks. But the first carriage was no Pullman car. It exemplified the resource of our men and illustrated the idea that proved Lettow wrong. For we adapted the engines of Ford and Bico motor cars and motor lorries to the bogie wheels of German trucks and sent a little fleet of motor cars along the railway. Light and very speedy, these little trains sped along, each dragging its thirty tons of food and supplies for the army then 120 miles from Dar-es-Salaam.

This adaptation of the internal combustion engine to fixed rails may not be new, but it was unexpected by Lettow. And the German engineers left it a little too late; they panicked at the last and destroyed wholesale, but without intelligence. True, they put an explosive charge into the cylinders of all their big engines and left us to get new cylinders cast in Scotland. They blew out the grease boxes of the trucks; but their performance, on the whole, was amateurish. For they blew up, with dynamite, the masonry of many bridges and contented themselves that the girders lay in the river below. But this was child's play to our Sappers and Miners. With hand jacks they lifted the girders and piled up sleepers, one by one beneath, until the girder was lifted to rail level again. Now any engineer can tell you that the only way to destroy a bridge is to cut the girder. This would send us humming over the cables to Glasgow to get it replaced. It was what they did do on the most important bridge over Ruwu River, but in their anxiety to do the thing properly there--and they reckoned four months' hard work would find us with a new bridge still unfinished--they forgot the old deviation, an old spur that ran round the big span that crossed the river and lay buried in the jungle growth. In ten days we had opened up this old deviation, laid new rails, and had the line re-opened. When I passed down the line we took the long way round by this long-abandoned track and left the useless bridge upon our right. Much method but little intelligence was shown in the destruction of the railway lines; for they often failed to remove the points, contenting themselves with removing the rails and hiding them in the jungle.

The German engineers must have wept at the orgy of devastation that followed: blind fury alone seemed to animate this scene of blind destruction. At N'geri N'geri and Ruwu they first broke the middle one of the three big spans and ran the rolling stock, engines, sleeping cars, a beautiful ambulance train, trucks and carriages, pell mell into the river-bed below. But the wreckage piled up in a heap 60 feet high and soon was level with the bridge again. So they broke the other spans and ran most of the rest of the rolling stock through the gaps. When these, too, had piled up, they finally ran the remainder of the rolling stock down the embankments and into the jungle. Then they set fire to the three huge heaps of wreckage, and the glare lit the heavens for nearly a hundred miles. But the almost uninjured railway trucks that had run their little race, down embankments into the bush, were saved to run again.

Into Morogoro station steamed the trains with the German lettering and freight and tare directions, carefully undisturbed, printed on their sides. To us it seemed that the destruction of an ambulance train that had in the past relied upon the Red Cross and our forbearance, was cutting it rather fine and putting a new interpretation upon the Geneva Convention. The Germans, however, argue that the English are such swine they would have used it to carry supplies as well as sick and wounded.

And what a magnificent railway it was, and what splendid rolling stock they had! Steel sleepers, big heavy rails, low gradients, excellent cuts and bridge work; cuttings through rock smoothed as if by sandpaper and crevices filled with concrete. Fine concrete gutters along the curves, such ballasting as one sees on the North-Western Railway. Nothing cheap or flimsy about the culverts. Railway stations built regardless of cost and the possibility of traffic; stone houses and waiting-rooms roofed with soft red tiles that are in such contrast to the red-washed corrugated iron roofing one sees in British East Africa. Expensive weighbridges where it seemed there was nothing but a few natives with an occasional load of mangoes and bananas. Here was an indifference to mere dividends; at every point evidence abounded of a lavish display of public money through a generous Colonial Office. For in the Wilhelmstrasse this colony was ever the apple of their eye, and money was always ready for East African enterprises.

Yet the planters complain, just as planters do all over the world, of the indifference of Governments and the parsimony of executive officials. A Greek rubber planter told me, from the standpoint of an intelligent and benevolent neutrality (and who so likely to know the meaning of benevolence in neutral obligations as a Greek?), that the Government charged huge freights on this line, killed young enterprise by excessive charges, gave no rebates even to German planters, and in other ways seemed indifferent to the fortunes of the sisal and rubber planters. True they built the railway; but what use to a planter to build a line and rob him of his profits in the freight? This gentleman of ancient Sparta frankly liked the Germans and found them just; and he was in complete agreement with the native policy that made every black brother do his job of work, the whole year round, at a rate of pay that fully satisfied this Greek employer's views on the minimum wage.

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