T h e V o y a g e t o
G e r m a n E a s t A f r i c a
Volunteering for German East Africa – A call at the Cape Verde Islands – Hospitality in Durban
uring the first week in this month we are asked to volunteer for service in German East Africa, which every man does. The Battery is to be made into a brigade of two batteries with ammunition column. Our horses are to be handed in and replaced by mechanical transport. We are to be armed with 5 inch howitzers which are very little better than trench mortars. The howitzers have an extreme range of only 6,000 yards with a forty pound shell. Nevertheless, it proved a useful little gun although it was classed as heavy artillery.
January 15th. 1916
We handed over our horses to the Remount Depot, Charlton Park. There are many long faces among our drivers to-night, these chaps having grown to love their horses, and I may say, always looked after the comfort of the horses before they troubled about themselves. This, of course, is only as it should be.
January 18th. 1916
We leave Charlton today and proceed to Denham, a village two or three miles outside of Uxbridge, a small town in Middlesex. I don’t expect we shall be here long. We ought to get our new equipment and mobilise in three weeks.
January 19th. 1916
I am detailed in a party consisting of one officer, two sergeants and 30 men to proceed to Fort Fareham and take over from a Territorial Brigade, our new guns. After arriving at Fareham, we had to find billets for our men. We did not get them all fixed up until 11.00pm. It had been raining all the night, so we were fed up by the time we turned in.
January 20th. 1916
We take over the eight guns and stores today and make all ready for them being entrained for Uxbridge.
January 21st. 1916
We arrive back at Denham, where we find that our tropical clothing has arrived.
January 23rd. 1916
Our guns have arrived at Uxbridge, so we take our four wheel drives to bring them into camp. It is Sunday morning and we create a little curiosity among the church-goers by dashing through the main street at about 15 miles per hour.
January 25th. 1916
I leave Denham tonight for 48 hours embarkation leave. This was the official length of leave for troops previous to proceeding overseas. Our CO was very decent though and managed it so that we had 48 hours at home, clear of travelling. Even so, I don’t think the time long enough for what may be one’s last visit to his loved ones.
January 28th. 1916
I arrive back at Denham. Everything now is being rushed forward in feverish haste. We don’t know the date of our leaving, but it may be any time in the next few days.
February 2nd. 1916
Although we have already been inoculated twice for typhoid, they find there is a better injection for tropical climates, so today we have the first injection of the second series.
February 6th. 1916
We have received marching orders, so leave Denham tonight. We don’t know the port of embarkation, but it is whispered that it is Devonport.
February 7th. 1916
In the early hours we arrive at Exeter, where the mayoress personally supplied us with hot coffee and buns, a gift which was most appreciated by all. We arrived at the quayside at Devonport at 8.00pm. We had our guns, stores and equipment to off load and get them on board.
The ship we are to sail in is a captured German ship named ‘Derflinger’, 10,000 tons. She is now named the ‘Huntsgreen’. Her several decks give her a top-heavy appearance. Altogether she gives me the impression that she will roll ‘some’, when we are in the Bay [of Biscay]. We are all aboard by the late afternoon and have our first meal of the day: hard tack, more commonly known as biscuits and some liquid refreshment that the ship’s cooks called tea. It looked like mud, smelled like cabbage water, while the taste, I have never been able to fix yet.
All troops were on board by dark and the ship was moved into the lock pit. I have been fortunate enough to secure a bunk in a cabin to hold four. This was a stroke of good luck, because I see the bags of sergeants of other units laid out on the decks, tables, etc.
February 8th. 1916
We leave Devonport this morning, and see dear old Blighty disappear in the mist. At a time like this, one’s thoughts fly to a lot of places and to a lot of persons. I am filled with mixed feelings: pleasure at the thought of doing a bit for one’s home and country, sorrow at leaving those we love. I shall not attempt at a description of my thoughts and feelings. I should make a hopeless hash of the whole affair. We are picked up and escorted by two destroyers. I don’t envy the crews of these boats. We seemed to roll and pitch a lot, but when you see these boats in a rather rough sea, it makes your stomach turn.
I saw the light of Ushant tonight, supposed to be one of the most powerful in the world. After this, I turn in, and for the next 36 hours I had no further interest in what was happening.
February 10th. 1916
I am about again today, but my stomach is not too reliable yet.
February 12th. 1916
We passed Madeira today, but not close enough to see any features of the island. It looked like a huge rock and that is all I know about it. We are now well away from the rough seas of the Bay of Biscay. The sea is one long swell, so the motion of the boat is much easier. Whilst we were crossing the Bay we had rather a rough passage, the boat pitching and rolling at the same time. The result was that very few of the troops were able to keep on their feet. The climate is very nice now, the sun having considerable power. The destroyers had left us after convoying us through the Channel, so we are on our own.
February 14th. 1916
We are again inoculated for typhoid.
February 15th. 1916
Arrived at Port St. Vincent, one of the Cape Verde Islands, for coal and water. It has a beautiful natural harbour, and I found everything most interesting. These islands belong to Portugal, who at this time was a Neutral. Power. In the harbour were ten interned German merchant boats. As soon as we entered harbour, and before we reached our anchorage, we had a couple of native boats bearing us company, with divers who were offering to dive for coins but the ‘simple native’ knows the value of money and only offered to dive for silver. Of course, they were soon busy and one had to admit their great cleverness. Their skill was such that they very seldom lost a coin, no matter where it was thrown. The water is very clear and one could watch the coins zig-zagging through the water while the diver swam down till he got below it, then he cupped his hands and allowed the coin to drop into them. If the swimmer missed first time, down he would continue and repeat the manoeuvre. The underwater endurance of these chaps was very remarkable. By the time our anchors had dropped we had a swarm of these boats around us, and the value of the coins had fallen from silver to copper. There were also a great number off ‘bum boats’ laden with the most delicious of tropical fruits. They did a great trade too, notwithstanding the heavy price they charged. Curios, cigarettes and tobacco could also be bought, but whatever the native is ignorant of, he knows how to charge.
February 16th. 1916
The coal lighters have been brought alongside during the night, and the natives start filling up the coal bunkers. It is pretty heavy work. No steam, the bags being hauled up by hand. The niggers can work when they have someone to make them. Only the officers have shore leave, so we have to content ourselves by watching the town through our binoculars, and dodging the coal dust, which is no easy matter. The sun is now extremely hot and we almost wish we could copy the natives by going about in our birthday costumes.
February 17th. 1916
A concert was arranged for tonight, which proved a great success. We had a number of good singers aboard and we were assisted by the wife of the English Consul, (a Scotswoman) who had a splendid voice. She sang a number of songs to us and fairly reached our hearts by her rendering of ‘Our Ain Folk’. We finished up by vigorously singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save The King’, in such a manner that I believe we put the wind up the Huns on their ships.
February 18th. 1916
We have now got our coal and have to go to another island, San Antony for our water, which is only a short distance away. The hose pipes are laid from the island to our tanks, and we start getting the water in a very short time. As I have remarked, the sea water is very clear and one can see to a great depth. The species of fish are quite different to those we pull out of our home waters. Some are grotesque, whilst others are extremely gorgeous in their colouring. I don’t know the names of any of them. The natives seem to relish eating them, but I should not care to risk it.
February 19th. 1916
We continue on our voyage today and are very pleased to do so. The sun is very hot and while we have been in these harbours we have not been able to get the least breeze. When the ship is travelling, one is always able to find a breeze somewhere.
February 22nd. 1916
Today, I have my first cholera inoculation with another one to follow. I am beginning to wonder if there will be an end to these things. I shall soon have as many punctures in me as there are holes in the lid of a pepper pot.
We are now in the midst of the flying fish, and it is an interesting sight to see them skimming the waves like miniature aeroplanes. They are often chased by other fish. When this happens, you may see thousands of them leap out of the water at once. The other day we saw two water spouts. They were a few miles away from us, but very distinct to see, great columns of water whose heads were lost in the clouds.
February 29th. 1916
We have our second cholera inoculation today.
March 3rd. 1916
Today our ship rounds the Cape of Good Hope and I get my first view of the Table Mountain. Of Cape Town itself, we can see nothing.
We are now longing for the chance of having a good meal. The way we have been fed on this ship is simply wicked. The only article of food that does not turn one’s stomach is the bread and that is made by an ASC Company of bakers that is going out with us. Our breakfast consists of a plate of mess called porridge which no-one can eat, bread with some vile mixture of grease to take the place of butter, and for a drink, some concoction of liquid which looked like muddy water with an awful smell, the taste of which I have not been able to fix yet. Dinner consisted of bully beef, potatoes boiled without being washed, and whilst we are in the tropics, half a pint of lime juice. Only those who have experienced eating bully beef day after day whilst in tropical or semi tropical regions can conceive how disgusting it was to try and eat a little. Our last meal, tea, was bread and jam and the so-called tea, which was worse than breakfast time, because the water had been boiled in the coppers which had boiled the potatoes at dinner time, and for some reason or other the said coppers were never washed out. Quite a number of our chaps would go down into the stoke hold and help the firemen for two or three hours a night so that they could share the fireman’s supper. When a chap does that, he is hungry. Every dinner-time, when the Orderly Officer ‘went round dinners’, complaints used to be made, but we never had any improvement. I have always flattered myself that I could live on anything but this ship has given me a rude awakening. Oh! how I long for a good cup of tea! -- and some sweet butter with my bread.
March 5th. 1916
We expect to reach Durban tomorrow morning for water and coal. The OC of troops wishes to make a good impression upon the inhabitants. For some reason or another, I am asked to take charge of the guard, although I had a guard a few days ago. If I would do so I could have my choice of junior NCOs to assist. I am agreeable, and select Corpl. Danby and Bomb. Berry. Our usual guard consists of one Officer, two NCOs and 51 men for 17 posts on the ship, but now the OC (Sir John Willoughby of the Jameson Raid fame) desired eight posts on the quayside. This made a grand total of two Officers, three NCOs and 75 men, quite the strongest guard I have seen. My unit was not the unit for duty, so I was at a bit of a loss by not knowing the men who formed the guard. But when the tour of duty was finished, I had the satisfaction in knowing that all passed off satisfactorily.
March 6th. 1916
This morning finds us outside the harbour at Durban, waiting for the pilot coming out to take us in. A little after breakfast time finds us laid at the quayside waiting for our coal and water. The harbour is a most picturesque place. At the entrance the ship passes a breakwater in the course of construction, being made by convict labour. This is not a very enviable job, the water continually breaking over, and all the workers being drenched. I expect this work has been on for many years already, and I should imagine it will continue for a good few years yet. Durban itself looks a fine place and I hope we shall be allowed ashore for a time. On the quayside there are several rickshaw boys and their vehicles waiting for any passengers. They look very fierce chaps and I expect they are Zulus by their physique and appearance. They have a great pair of horns fixed on their heads and designs drawn in red and white on their legs, arms and bodies, which give them a terrifying appearance to those who are not used to seeing them. By dinner the ‘boys’ are hard at work, coaling. The appliances here are more modern than we had at St. Vincent, and the boys are kept working at top pressure. It is rather interesting to watch them work. As soon as they grow weary and their efforts begin to slacken, they start to chant a weird tune which bucks them up wonderfully.
During the afternoon the ship was besieged by visitors. Of course, no one was allowed on board but they were sending up cigarettes and fruit till long after dark, which was very acceptable for those who were fortunate enough to get them.
I was waiting to be relieved when I received a message from my OC desiring my presence at the office. Whilst going there, I am wondering what has happened but I am pleased and relieved when he informs me that he has been able to get me a shore pass until midnight. Needless to say, I am not long (after the new guard takes over) before I am ashore, not even waiting to get my tea before leaving the ship. Now I will have a homely tea. I catch a car and board it. I don’t know where to go, but decide to ask to be dropped off at the Post Office, which I presume will be near the centre of the town. I offer the conductor my fare but am met with the words “Soldiers free”. Eventually I arrive at the Post Office and I am impressed by the magnificence of the buildings. The Town Hall is a beautiful edifice but I really have not much time to spare for beauty. I want some good tea, bread and butter.
While I am looking about for a café, I am button-holed by a gentleman. During our conversation I tell him that I am looking for a square meal. He takes me to a first class restaurant where I have a tip-top tea of bread and butter and two or three cups of the most delicious tea I have ever tasted. I was taken rather aback when he insisted on paying the bill. Knowing that I had no particular place to go to, he suggested that I should go with him to the theatre. This was kindness itself but I had to invent an excuse to get away. I could not stop with one who would not allow me to pay for anything. I wander around until I find myself near the Town Hall about 10 o’clock. I have still two hours to go so I decide to have another good meal, I then go back to the ship in style, that is, in a rickshaw. I am picked up by another gentleman and I have a fine supper of cold chicken and ham, washed down by excellent coffee. While I am enjoying this meal, I am wondering what the poor devils on the ship would think if they could have had the same. My ‘new friend’ would pay and when I suggested paying half, I was told not to mention money at all or he would be offended. What was a chap to do? Some men I know would have had a royal time at very little expense if they could have got ashore.
At last I got in a rickshaw and go back to the ship. The stamina of these men is wonderful. They will take two passengers anywhere about the town, and at any time of the day. Their speed is a little faster than our horse cabs. They are always on the run and you never find one walking with passengers. You have to remember that during the day, the glass stands at anything above 90 degrees in the shade to realise that this work is remarkable. I arrive back at the ship in good time. The niggers are still at work and chanting their weird song. My pass is closely examined and I give the countersign correctly so I get to my bunk OK. Thus ends a day I shall always remember, if only for the fact that I had two good meals after almost learning to live without eating.
March 7th. 1916
Today, all troops have a route march to one of the Durban parks, where we are to be addressed by the Mayor and other local gentry. We are paraded on our respective parade decks at 6.30am., then marched shore to a parade ground near the quayside. We are dressed in new khaki drill uniform, slacks, puttees, tunics, belts, bandoliers, rifles, etc. We march away at 9.15am. after standing about two hours and three quarters under a sun that was already very hot, while we were very thirsty. We march along the harbour side, which looked very pretty with its avenue of palm trees, etc. We arrive at the park, where we are formed up, and wait for another hour or so. This is typical of Army routine for any ceremonial parades. Waiting about for an hour or so here, an hour or so somewhere else, but more consideration should be given, especially under a burning sun. We are marched to tables, where the ladies of Durban supply us with ale and cakes. Ale! It was truly the nectar of the gods this morning. I had two glasses and could have drunk more, but I had not the nerve of Oliver Twist to ask for more. After we had been addressed by the Mayor and others, we were marched back to the ship. The sun had now got extremely hot and the rays seemed to pierce one’s backbone like knives. We had quite a number of men go down with it while we had been standing in the park. We were marched back by another route, which took us the full length of West Street, Durban’s main thoroughfare. We met with a great reception, being literally showered with flowers, fruit and cigarettes. We arrive back to the ship in the early afternoon, most of us being more or less ‘done up’, and suffering very much from thirst.
March 8th. 1916
We leave Durban tonight. There are thousands on the quayside to bid us farewell. As we steam gently away, the whole crowd follow us down to the Point. It is a wonder to me that none of them get pushed overboard.
When we get over the bar and look at Durban, I think it makes the prettiest picture I have ever seen. The whole town is lit up, extending right up the hill-side. The beach front is illuminated by various coloured lights, the whole twinkling by the gentle breeze, makes a most striking show. The cheers are now being drowned by the monotonous thump of the ship’s engines and we are at sea once more.
The generosity of Durban will always live in my mind. The people could not do enough for us. From daylight to dark, there was always a crowd around the ship, sending up delicacies of all kinds, running errands for anyone who wanted anything. They would do anything to help, in any shape or form and would not even listen to a “Thank you”. I sincerely hope they will not be imposed upon.