The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 1 - June 1977

A Narrative of the Right Section, 5th Mountain Battery, South African Mounted Riflemen.
Central African Imperial Service Contingent, Nyasaland, 1915 - 1918.

by Battery Quartermaster Sergeant J.G. Maker

Part I

Editors note: This interesting diary is published by courtesy of Mrs C. Maker, who is the widow of the diarist. Only minor corrections (mainly typographical) have been made.

This is a narrative of the activities of the Right Section of the above Battery under Lieut H. Swifte, MC, mostly with Col G.N. Hawthorn's Column, under Brig-Gen E. Northey.

As the senior sergeant of the Section, I carried out the duties of a Battery Sergeant Major, also as second in command should Lieut Swifte be absent. This position enabled me to become possessed of all the Section Orders and Intelligence Reports while we were detached from the other two sections, so the dates and places are nearly all official. Name places meant little to us, they were just some place to march to or from, other than the more important places at which some action or other took place. I doubt whether many of these names would be found on the modern maps, as indeed, I don't think they existed on the maps of the time.

The Battery was formed from volunteers of the Artillery Brigade of the S.A.M. Riflemen, stationed at Karibib, S.W. Africa, after the conclusion of hostilities in 1915. The Battery was at first called the 1st Mountain Battery, but later the 5th Battery as above.

We volunteered for service under Capt W.J. Hunt-Grubbe, but owing to certain difficulties that arose he was prevented from going with us, much to our regret. Lieut S.J. Morse then volunteered and, as he was senior subaltern he was given the command with the rank of T/Captain. The Battery Captain was Lieut F.R. Ames. These two officers later became major and captain as we were a six gun Battery. The Section Officers were:- Right Section: Lieut H. Swifte, Centre Section: Lieut M. O'Malley and Left Section: Lieut A.C. Sparks.

The rates of pay were those of the Imperial Army, the difference between the Imperial rates and those of the Union was credited to the individual in the Union. The famous Circular 7 also applied. It had its advantages and disadvantages in accordance with the position held by the individual.

J G Maker

Battery Quartermaster Sergeant J.G. Maker

The Battery was armed with German 75 (mm) Q.F. mountain guns which were captured from them in South-West Africa with a considerable supply of ammunition. We were transferred by boat to Cape Town and quartered at Wynberg, where the training and equipping for tropical warfare was carried out. The drill for these guns was made up by members of the C.M.R. Artillery Troop who had experience in mountain guns and who were members of the Battery. The NCOs were armed with revolvers and the gunners with Martini Henry .303 single loading carbines. They were later replaced by short Lee-Enfield rifles.

About a hundred Hereros came with us from S.W.A. and a few coloured men were recruited in the Cape. The former proved excellent soldiers, but the latter soon cracked up under tropical conditions and were repatriated to the Union. Lieut Sparks selected a hundred mules from the Maitland Depot for draught and pack-saddle work.

The Battery sailed on the 'Professor Woermann' which called at Durban and picked up certain details also bound for Nyasaland. It eventually arrived at Beira after a breakdown at sea, for the Germans had upset the ballast tanks when the ship was captured and she consequently had a sharp list. The ship was commissioned by the South African Railways and we enlisted two of their staff, Gunners J.H. Devereaux and W. Fisher. We transhipped at Beira to the 'Ipu' for Chinde. The conditions on the 'Ipu' were far from good. There were also some of our mules on board and, for the most part of the trip, the decks were awash. (Within a short time the very sea-sick gunners nick-named the ship 'Ispew').

From Chinde to Chindio, at least 100 miles up the Zambesi River, we were transported in barges made fast to the sides of the paddle-steamers. The barges had galvanised iron roofs as protection from the weather and the hot sparks that were emitted from the funnels of the steamers, which were fed with wood fuel. The heat in the barges was terrific and our style was further cramped as we had seven Sisters on board going up to 'man' hospitals.

The trip took us seven days as it was the dry season and sandbars frequently blocked our way, so that all had to go overboard to help tow them over the bars, but owing to the presence of crocodiles there never was a rush to be at the end of the tow-rope!

From Chindio we travelled on the Shire Highlands Railway as far as Limbe where we awaited the arrival of Lieut Swifte who had been left at Chinde with the mules and a party of Gunners and native drivers.

Soon after the arrival of Lieut Swifte and party, Lieut Sparks left with the mules, all the Native drivers and European party and Native carriers (called 'Tenga-Tenga' meaning 'bring, bring') on a 600 miles trek to Vua at the North end of Lake Nyasa.

The Battery then marched to Zomba which is the administrative capital of Nyasaland where we remained for some time training. A Native rebellion in Nyasaland had just been quelled and some hundred, or so, had been sentenced to death by hanging, and this sentence was carried out by the half-dozen each morning in full view of our parade ground, so it was difficult to refrain from continuously glancing in the direction of the hanging bodies. These hangings were more strangulations than anything and the bodies, at first, were left hanging from sun-up to sun-down as a warning to others of the penalty of rebellion. The love of a gamble is so deeply rooted in the human that bets were even made on which of the bodies would give the last kick, so if you heard an audible whisper (on drill) such as 3, 1, 6 etc. you knew that that body, from the right, had quivered or kicked.

The question of a hangman was a serious one as there wasn't one in the country but, one day, a down and out, very short bandy-legged person blew in from the bundu, who was offered and accepted thejob! Soon he was a comparatively rich man and the story goes that the authorities kept haggling with him over the pay until it got so low that he eventually offered to do the balance for nothing, provided all the missionaries were included. He was later conscripted and put in charge of Native convoys of carriers and it is recorded that no loads were lost and trips done in record time as he was held in more than great respect.

The country at this time was primitive and we had to learn the hard way. On board ship we were lectured for hours about the selection of camp sites, drinking water etc., which proved a waste of time as war conditions were entirely different to that of selecting a homestead in peace-time. For instance no one ever told us about jigger fleas. These beastly insects got into you around the nails of your toes and worked their way into the flesh where they laid their eggs in a bag and after a while grew to be painful and, if left to ripen, the bag would burst and the worms spread into the flesh causing great distress. We learnt however, to have these insects dug out as soon as an itchiness was felt. The 'putsi' fly was an awful pest. This fly laid its eggs on shirts etc., after having been washed and laid out on the grass to dry. When you put the shirt on again the heat from the body hatched the eggs and the small worms burrowed into your skin and formed a type of 'boil' and only when the 'boil' was ripe could you squeeze the maggot out. To prevent these pests from attacking you all clothing had to be ironed, the heat of which killed the eggs. The pest was only found in certain areas, Zomba being one of them.

Then there was that stink ant! These ants wandered around the huts and always seemed to be in doorways ready to be trodden on. Oh! What a smell their gas made! It was the height of good fellowship, when on the march, and you were in the lead, to tread on one of these ants for the benefit of those in the rear!

Early in the New Year we marched to 'The Bar', Fort Johnston, and embarked on the 'Queen Victoria' for Vua near the north end of the Lake, where a clearing had been made for our camp. A couple of mess huts had been built but we were put under canvas and sweltered. We had a lot to learn. Fortunately the Lake was not far away so we made good use of it after the day's training, always keeping a lookout for crocodiles.

At about this time news had been received of the German gas attacks on the Western Front in France and, as it happened, the Battery was out on a field day. I was left in charge of the camp. I noticed a peculiar looking cloud coming from the German side of the Lake, so I immediately concluded that they were endeavouring to gas us. As this cloud travelled nearer to our side of the Lake, the more alarmed I got! I dashed around, collected all the buckets I could find and filled them with water, and soaked every towel I could lay hands on in them, with the idea of placing them over my nose and mouth in the event of the 'gas' reaching me. To my great relief the cloud changed direction and went up the Lake. I reported the matter and was told that what I had seen were Lake flies, called by the Natives 'Nkungu Flies' but I took a lot of convincing until later, when I had some experience with them.

The individual fly is very small and transparent so it took many millions to make any sort of a cloud. The swallows fly through them with their mouths open and are soon gorged. At times they are blown ashore and the shrubs and trees are bent over with their weight. When this happens the Natives sweep them up and make bread from them, but this is not palatable to the European.

On the 24th April, 1916, Lieut Swifte, Sgts J.G. Maker, and J. Wray, Cpl O. Turner, Gunners A.M. Bones, G.C. Ganter, F.W.E. Tothill, A.A. Roberts, C.E. Tucker, J.R.P.S. van Reenan and W. Fisher left for Nkata Bay on H.M.S. 'Gwendolen' with one gun and three cases of ammunition (18 rounds) where training was carried out landing the guns from the ship. The Germans were repairing their ship 'Von Weismann' at Spinxhaven, Mbamba Bay, which had been blown up at the outbreak of war, and were preparing to raid our shipping on the Lake, so a force had been got together to raid the Germans before they raided us.

The ships included H.M.S. 'Gwendolen', H.M.S. 'Queen Victoria,' 'Chauncy Maples' and 'Pioneer' as the hospital ship. Our gun was dismantled and, at a given signal, the parts were lowered into a boat which was rowed ashore as fast as possible and, on touching ground, we all scrambled out and re-assembled it and prepared for action. After a few days of this the crew really got nippy and time records went by the board every day.

Great secrecy was observed over this operation; no fires were allowed by day and all our food was cooked at night far back in the forest so that smoke could not he seen from the German side of the Lake. Army 'skilley' is not interesting when hot but to have it dished up, ice cold and greasy, on a wet cold morning, it requires some stomaching, and hardly the ingredients saints are made of. Early one morning after 'stand to,' I went down into the forest and noticed a number of grey monkeys scampering up and down the trees, snatching at something, then back into the trees again. On investigating this I found they were gathering chillies (peppers), those very small hot ones favoured by Indians for mixing in their curry. I collected a couple of handfuls and, as no one was looking, stirred them into the skilley. At breakfast the hullabaloo, curses, threats etc., were such that I decided to keep my own council. It certainly was a hot breakfast!

At last the night came when we were to raid the enemy coast. It was not possible to steam at more than a couple of knots per hour as our ships used wood, and in spite of makeshift mufflers, to do so would send sparks flying into the air and so give us away. It was a pitch black night, and on arrival at the German side, boats were silently lowered into the water, the troops filed into them, and when full, faded away into the darkness.

We gunners stood by at the ready, with our gun sticking out through a partition in the side of the ship which had been removed, but I doubt if we could have hit anything, except sky or water, as we were either pointing skywards or down into the water owing to the movement of the ship. Personally I was stationed alongside a Hotchkiss gun nearby, which was manned by a Naval rating. When he was suddenly called away to assist with the boats, and ordered to hand the gun over to me, he pushed my shoulder into the butt of the gun, placed my hand on the firing lever and told me the ammunition was on the deck in front of me - then disappeared! I could not see a thing so it was as well I did not have to go into action. This was the quickest gunnery course I ever had!

The dawn came wet and cold and we cruised up and down the coast watching the infantry on land advancing on Spinx Haven, but no action took place as the reports about the German ship were false. Our ships then entered Spinx Haven and the troops spread out in the surrounding country, to cover the work of the engineers, who were to remove all the useful bits and things and then blow up the ship.

This was all very well! The engineers did not know what they were going to start! As soon as they got to hammering and banging about they disturbed large numbers of swarms of bees. Soon everybody was running about waving their arms frantically, endeavouring to ward off the infuriated insects; some even jumped into the Lake, but the bees were waiting to receive them as they came up again. Someone set fire to old tumbled down huts and, as they were wet, soon put up a good smoke screen.

We on board could enjoy the whole business. Attracted by the smoke some German scouts (Ruga-Rugas) came to investigate and let off a couple of shots without doing harm, but I think the bees won the honours of the day. I understand the German ship was eventually repaired and brought into service.

The Lake had, in the meantime become rough, and when we left, late that afternoon for Nkata Bay, we had rather a 'sickly' trip, but our ship, having more powerful engines, got us across many hours before the others. The 'Pioneer' could not make it and had to go before the wind and eventually arrived at 'Karonga.' We returned next day to Vua.

A rumour got around that the Germans were planning to raid the Vua landing so Lieut Swifte and his section were sent down to take up a position to cover our shipping and, it was while here, that we got news that the other two sections had moved off, taking with them all the fit mules and serviceable equipment, and leaving us with the 'sick, lame and lazy.' Four mules were left behind, sick, and they had a fine record of service until the last of them was shot down on the Ruhudge River, at Mkapira, when we were surrounded, and they broke out of their kraal, the troops thinking that they were the enemy creeping up on us in the dark.

On returning to Vua camp our section undertook the training of oxen as draught animals to our guns, and it was not an uncommon thing to have a span of oxen careering through the camp with a tree behind them, with most of the gunners streaming after them. We had a number of farmers' sons with us so it was not long before yokes, skeis and reims were made and a good job of work done. One advantage of having draught oxen was that we always had fresh meat with us. When the time came these animals were well trained and hardened; their first march was some eighty miles 'inland' to join up with Major Flint at Fort Hill prior to our advance into enemy country.

The advance into German territory was made under cover of darkness on 24/25th May, 1916, but we did not get our animals over the Songwe River until daybreak as the bridge, made from felled trees, was not too suitable for oxen, through which they kept falling. These rivers, it should be understood, were full of crocodiles so animals could not be pushed through without creating a great deal of noise to scare them off, which of course, under the circumstances, we could not create.

We followed the troops as best we could but the country, in the direction of the enemy Boma, was extremely difficult, being traversed by wide and deep dongas, the sides of which had to be cut down to allow our guns to pass through. This was, of course, a long-winded business as a considerable amount of country had to be covered before a suitable, or I should say, the easiest, way could be found. One wondered why our scouts did not report on the conditions which we would encounter as it would then have been possible to employ carriers to transport our guns and equipment. As it was it took a considerable time to get guns and oxen through these dongas and was heavy work. It would have been a serious position had our services been required by the infantry to shell any enemy strongpoint.

It may here be told a little story which was afterwards amusing but could have been serious at the time. I was sent forward with a party of three or four gunners, and some Natives, to blaze a trail, as explained above, so that my party was nearly always ahead, as we pushed on as soon as the guns caught up with us. At one of these 'crossings' a gunner named Wells offered me some rather good looking beans to eat. I asked him what they were, he didn't know but said they were rather tasty. I asked what the Natives said about them. Oh! he said, they say they are 'schelums'. I called him a damn fool and went on my way.

That evening we camped at a stream, as we had been left behind by the column, but fortunately the medical section was also left with us as everyone who had eaten the beans was stricken with severe colic and purging. Even some of the Natives who had eaten them merely because they had seen the White Man do so, went down. For some hours the Medical Officer was fully employed treating these chaps from his limited supplies and, those of us not affected had instructions to keep the patients from getting to water, which they constantly endeavoured to do. This was some job because as soon as our backs were turned collecting someone, others crawled away into the grass making for the stream. The M.O. said that it would be fatal if they got to water. As the night went on I think some of us hoped Wells would get to water! They were a sorry sight in the morning and, needless to say, it was unnecessary to warn them against eating strange fruits in the future. The beans turned out to be castor-oil beans!!

5th Mountain Battery

5th Mountain Battery, S.A.M.R. Original Battery after two years service in
Central Africa. Left to right : Front row: Bdr Ritchie, Bdr W. Tolmie,Bdr Liddell,
Gnr Myburgh, Gnr Oosthuizen. Middle row: Sgt H. Fish, BQMS J.G. Maker
Capt F.R. Ames, Lt H. Swifte, MC, BSM W. Lawford, Sgt Maritz, Sgt Radford.
Back row: Cpl van Aswegen, Gnr O. Frieslich, Cpl Bean, Sgt R.S. Holland,
Gnr Horne, ?, Gnr van Eyssen.

From this point we were ordered back to Fort Hill and, on arrival, instructed to make haste to Karonga as Col Hawthorne's Column was being held up in their advance by a strong German position beyond the Songwe River. We practically ran the eighty miles to Karonga and it was just too wonderful how the oxen stood up to it. We were met some miles from Karonga by a runner informing us that the enemy had now retired, so we made the last few miles in our own time.

On arrival we found that General Northey had made his headquarters there.

We remained at Karonga for some time and as was our custom, started the usual drills etc., which included physical jerks in the early morning. We were ordered to stop this and let the men rest. It was not long before they started to get enlarged spleens, livers and what-not, and to go down with malaria and so, on representations to General Northey, our exercises were recommenced, and soon an improvement in the health of all was seen. Eventually Gen Northey and his staff also joined in our jerks. The King's African Rifles followed our example when we were halted for any length of time.

To be continued

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /