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A First World War Soldier

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Of all the departments of War in German East Africa probably the most romantic and interesting is the Intelligence Department. Far away ahead of the fighting troops are the Intelligence officers with their native scouts. These officers, for the most part, are men who have lived long in the country, who know the native languages, and are familiar with the lie of the land from experience gained in past hunting trips. Often behind the enemy, creeping along the lines of communication, these officers carry their lives in their hands, and run the risk of betrayal by any native who happens across them. Sleeping in the bush at night, unable to light fires to cook their food, lest the light should attract the questing patrol, that, learning of their presence in the country, has been out after them for days. Hiding in the bush, short of rations, the little luxuries of civilisation long since finished, forced to smoke the reeking pungent native tobacco, living off wild game (that must be trapped, not shot), and native meal, at the mercy of the natives whom both sides employ to get information of the other, these men are in constant danger. Nor are the amenities of civilised warfare theirs when capture is their lot.

Fortunately for the British Empire there has never been any lack of those restless beings whose wandering spirits lead them to the confines of civilisation and beyond. To this type of man the African continent has offered a particular attraction, and we should have fared badly in the East African campaign, if we could not have relied upon the services of many of them. They are for the most part men who have abandoned at an early age the prosaic existence previously mapped out for them, and plunging into the wilds of Africa have found a more attractive livelihood in big game shooting and prospecting. By far the most exhilarating calling is that of the elephant hunter, who finds in the profits he derives from it all the compensation he requires for the hardships, the long marches, and the grave personal dangers. In the most inaccessible parts of the continent he plies his trade, knowing that his life may depend upon the quickness of his eye and intellect and the accuracy of his aim. Nor are his troubles over when his quarry has been secured. The ivory has still to be disposed of, and it is not always safe to attempt to sell in the territory where the game has been shot. The area of no man's land in Africa has long since been a diminishing quantity, and the promiscuous shooting of elephants is not encouraged. It becomes necessary, therefore, to study the question of markets, and the successful hunter finds it convenient to vary the spheres of his activities continually.

Not the least of the assets of these men is the knowledge they have of the native and the hold they have obtained over them. That man will go farthest who relies on the respect rather than on the fear he inspires. The latter may go a long way, but unless it has the former to support it, the chances are against it sooner or later. One man I know of owed his life more than once to his devotion to a small stick that walking, sitting or lying he never allowed out of his hand. The native mind came to attach magical powers to the stick, and consequently to the man himself. On one eventful journey when he had gone farther afield than his wont, and farther than his native porters cared to accompany him, symptoms of mutiny made their appearance. A council was held as to whether he should be murdered or not; he was fortunate enough to overhear it. The only possible deterrent seemed to be a dread of the magical stick, but the two ringleaders affected to make light of it. Realising that the time had come for decisive action, the white man summoned the company, told them that his stick had revealed the plot to him and warned them of the danger they ran. To clinch his argument he offered to allow the ringleaders to return home, taking the stick with them; but told them that they would be dead within twenty-four hours, and the stick would come back to him. To his dismay they accepted the challenge, and for him there could be no retreat. In desperation he poisoned the food they were to take with them, and awaited developments. The two natives set off early in the morning. By the afternoon they were back again, and with them the stick. In the solitude of their homeward trek their courage had oozed out; they feared the magic, and fortunately had not touched the poisoned provisions. In the feasting that had to celebrate this satisfactory denouement it was possible to substitute other food for that which had been taken on the abortive journey. Magic or the fear of it had saved the situation; but the instincts of loyalty had been fired previously by a character that had many attractive features and never allowed firmness to dispossess justice.

At the outbreak of the war two of our Nimrods--whom I shall call Hallam and Best--were camped by the Rovuma river. Hearing that there were British ships at Lindi, they made for the coast to offer their services in the sterner hunt, after much more dangerous game, that they knew had now begun. The native runner that brought them the news from Mozambique also warned them of the German force that was hot foot in pursuit of them. So they tarried not in the order of their going, and made for the shelter of the fleet. But Best would read his weekly Times by the light of the lamp at their camp table for all the Huns in Christendom, he said, and derided Hallam's surer sense of danger near at hand. So in the early hours their pickets came running in, all mixed up with German Askaris, and the ring of rifle and machine-gun fire told them that their time had come. Capsizing the tell-tale lamp, they scattered in the undergrowth like a covey of partridges, Hallam badly wounded in the leg and only able to crawl. The friendly shelter of the papyrus leaves beside the river-bank was his refuge; and as he plunged into the river the scattered volley of rifle shots tore the reeds above him. All night they remained there. Hallam up to his neck in water, and the ready prey of any searching crocodile that the blood that oozed from his wounded leg should inevitably have attracted; the Germans on the bank. Next morning the trail of blood towards the river assured the enemy that Hallam was no more, for who could live in these dangerous waters all night, wounded as he was? But if Hallam could hunt like a leopard, he could also swim like a fish. Next day brought a native fishing canoe into sight, and to it he swam, still clutching the rifle that second nature had caused him to grab as he plunged into the reeds. With a wet rifle and nine cartridges he persuaded the natives not only to ferry him across to the Portuguese side, but also to carry him in a "machela," a hammock slung between native porters, from which he shot "impala" for his food. But somehow word had got across the river that Hallam had eluded death, and the German Governor stormed and threatened till the Portuguese sent police to arrest the fugitive. But the native runner who brought him news of his discovery also brought word of the approaching police. So with his rifle and three cartridges to sustain him, often delirious with fever, and the inflammation in his leg, he commandeered the men of a native village and persuaded them, such was the prestige of his name, to carry him twenty-eight days in the "machela" to a friendly mission station on Lake Nyasa. Here the kindly English sisters nursed him back to life and health again.

Best was not so lucky, for he was taken prisoner. But there was no German gaol that could hold so resourceful a prisoner as this. In due time he made his escape, and was to be found later looping the loop above Turkish camps in the Sinai Peninsula.

One German, of whom our information had been that "his company did little else but rape women and loot goats," fell into my hands when we took the English Universities Mission at Korogwe. Could this be he, I thought, as I saw an officer of mild appearance and benevolent aspect speaking English so perfectly and peering at me through big spectacles? Badly wounded and with a fracture of the thigh, he had begged me to look after him, saying the most disloyal things about the character and surgical capacity of the German doctor whom we had left behind to look after German wounded. Not that the Oberstabsarzt did not deserve them, but it was so gratuitously beastly to say them to me, an enemy. He deplored, too, with such unctuous phrases, the fact that war should ever have occurred in East Africa. How it would spoil the years of toil, toward Christianity, of many mission stations! How the simple native had been taught in this war to kill white men; hitherto, of course, the vilest of crimes. How the march of civilisation had been put back for twenty-five years. How the prestige of the white man had fallen, for had not natives seen white men, on both sides, run away before them? Many such pious expressions issued from his lips. But the true Hun character came out when he asked whether the hated Boers were coming? The most vindictive expression, that even the benevolent spectacles could only partly modify, clouded his face, and he complained to me most bitterly of the black ingratitude of the Boers toward Germany. "All my life, from boyhood," he complained, "have I not subscribed my pfennigs to provide Christmas presents for the poor Boers suffering under the heel of England. Did not German girls," he whined, "knit stockings for the women of that nation that was so akin to the Germans in blood, and that lay so pitifully prostrate beneath the feet of England?" Nor would he be appeased until I assured him that the Boers were far away.

Another, whose reputation was that of "a hard case, and addicted to drink," I found also in hospital in Korogwe, recovered from an operation for abscess of the liver, and living in hospital with his wife. Spruce and rather jumpy he insisted on exhibiting his operation wound to me, paying heavy compliments to English skill in surgery; not, mark you, that he had any but the greatest contempt that all German doctors, too, profess for British medicine and surgery. But he hoped, by specious praise, to be sent to Wilhelmstal and not to join the other prisoners in Ahmednagar. Bottles of soda-water ostentatiously displayed upon his table might have suggested what his bleary eye and shaky hands belied. So I contented myself with removing the pass key to the wine cellar, that lay upon the sideboard, and duly marked him down on the list for transfer to Wilhelmstal.

That the spirit of Baron Munchausen still lives in German East Africa is attested to by Intelligence reports. It says a great deal for Lettow's belief in the accuracy of our information that he very promptly put a stop to the notoriety and reputation for valour that two German officers enjoyed. One had made an unsuccessful attempt to bomb the Uganda Railway on two occasions; but neither time did he do any damage, though, on each occasion, he claimed to have cut the line. The other, possessed of greater imagination, reported to his German commander that he had attacked one of our posts along the railway, completely destroying it and all in it. The painful truth he learnt afterwards from German headquarters was that the English suffered no casualties, and the post was comparatively undamaged.

The sad fate of one enterprising German officer who set out to make an attack upon one of our posts was, at the time, the cause, of endless jesting at the expense of the Survey and Topographical Department of British East Africa. He was relying upon an old English map of the country, but owing to its extreme inaccuracy, he lost his way, ran out of water, and made an inglorious surrender. This, of course, was attributed by the Germans to the low cunning employed by our Intelligence Department that allowed the German authorities to get possession of a misleading map.

That retribution follows in the wake of an unpopular German officer, as shown by extracts from captured German diaries, is attested to by the record of two grim tragedies in the African bush, one of an officer who "lost his way," the other of an officer who was shot by his own men.

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