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A First World War Soldier

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Wearily along the road from Korogwe to Handeni toiled a little company of details lately discharged from hospital and on their way forward to Division. Behind them straggled out, for half a mile or more, their line of black porters carrying blankets and waterproof sheets. Arms and necks and knees burnt black by many weeks of tropic sun, carrying rifle and cartridge belts and with their helmets reversed to shade their eyes from the westering sun, this little body of Rhodesians, Royal Fusiliers and South Africans covered the road in the very loose formation these details of many regiments affect. Far ahead was the advance guard of four Rhodesians and Fusiliers. Nothing further from their thoughts than war--for they were thirty miles behind Division--they were suddenly galvanised into action by the sight of the advance guard slipping into the roadside ditches and opening rapid rifle fire at some object ahead.

For at a turn of the road the advance guard perceived a large number of Askaris and several white men collected about one of our telegraph posts, while, up the post, upon the cross trees, was a white man, busily engaged with the wires. One glance was sufficient to tell these wary soldiers that the white men were wearing khaki uniforms of an unfamiliar cut and the mushroom helmet that the Hun affects. So they took cover in the ditches and opened fire, especially upon the German officer who was busily tapping our telegraph wire. Down with a great bump on the ground dropped the startled Hun, and the Askaris fled to the jungle leaving their chop boxes lying on the road. From the safe shelter of the bush the enemy reconnoitred their assailants, and taking courage from their small numbers, proceeded to envelop them by a flank movement. But the British officer in charge of the details behind, knew his job and threw out two flanking parties when he got the message from the advance guard. Our men outflanked the outflanking enemy, and soon as pretty a little engagement as one could hope to see had developed. Finding themselves partly surrounded by unsuspected strength the Germans scattered in all directions, leaving a few wounded and dead behind upon the field. There on his back, wounded in the leg and spitting fire from his revolver, was lying the German officer determined to sell his life dearly. His last shot took effect in the head of one of the Fusiliers who were charging the bush with the bayonet; up went his hands, "Kamerad, mercy!" and our officer stepped forward to disarm this chivalrous prisoner. Then they wired forward to our hospital, at that time ten miles ahead, for an ambulance, and proceeded to bury their only casualty and the dead Askaris.

Happening to be on duty, I hurried to the scene of this action in one of our ambulances, along the worst road in Africa. There I found the German officer, an Oberleutnant of the name of Zahn, lying by the roadside gazing with frightened eyes out of huge yellow spectacles. We dressed his wound and gave him an injection of morphia, a cigarette, and a good drink of brandy, and left him in the shade of a baobab tree to recover from his fears. Then I turned toward the dividing of the contents of captured chop boxes that was being carried out under the direction of the officer in charge. On occasions such as these, the men were rewarded with the only really square meal they had often had for days; for the Hun is a past master in the art of doing himself well, and his chopboxes are always full of new bread, chocolate, sardines and many little delicacies. I stepped forward to claim the two Red Cross boxes that had obviously been the property of the German doctor, and with some difficulty--for no soldier likes to be robbed of his spoil--I managed to establish the right of the hospital to them. In the boxes were not only a fine selection of drugs and surgical dressings and a bottle of brandy, but also the doctor's ammunition. And such ammunition too. Huge black-powder cartridges with large leaden bullets; they would only fit an elephant gun; and yet this was the kind of weapon this doctor found necessary to bring to protect himself against British soldiers. Had that doctor been caught with his rifle he would have deserved to be shot on the spot. Nor were our men in the best of moods; for they had seen the dead Fusilier, and were furious at the wounds these huge lead slugs create.

The orderlies then lifted the German officer tenderly into the ambulance; and the prisoner, now feeling full of the courage that morphia and brandy give, beckoned to me. "Meine Uhr in meiner Tasche," he said, pointing to his torn trouser. "Well, what about it?" I asked. Again he mentioned his watch in his pocket, and looked at his torn trouser. "Do you suggest," I said sternly, "that a British soldier has taken your beastly watch." "No, no, not for worlds," he exclaimed; "I merely wish to mention the fact that when I went into action I had had a large gold watch and a large gold chain, and much gold coin in my pocket. And now," he said, "behold! I have no watch or chain." "What," I said again, "do you suggest that these soldiers are thieves?" "No! Not at all; but when I was wounded the soldiers, running up in their anxiety to help me and dress my wound" (as a matter of fact they had run up to bayonet him, had not the officer intervened, for this swine had forfeited his right to mercy by emptying his revolver first and then surrendering) "inadvertently cut away my pocket in slitting up my trouser leg." "Then your watch," I continued coldly, "is still lying on the field, or, if a soldier should discover it, he will deliver it to General Headquarters, from whence it will be sent to you." Sure enough that evening the sergeant-major in charge of the rearguard came in with the missing watch and chain.

Later, we learned, from diaries captured on German prisoners, what manner of brute this Zahn was.

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