Humors of the East African Campaign

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Editor’s note: The following account by “A. E. M. M.” is extracted from True Stories of the Great War, Vol. IV, edited by Francis Trevelyan Miller (published 1917).  All spelling in the original.

I. With the African Mounted Rifles

“Sahib,” said a man of an Indian mountain battery, when we were in standing camp in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, “you are obviously not infantry, and you are as certainly not cavalry. What are you?”

That was a question I had often asked myself since the day I enrolled as a signaller in the East African Mounted Rifles, locally known as “Bowker’s Horse”—a deceptive nickname, for at that time we rode mules. We got horses later on, and uniforms and accoutrements all of a piece; but in the early days of the war we were an irregular corps of straight-shooting, cheery, undisciplined scallywags, wearing garments of our own devising, saluting or not as the notion occurred to us, and literally pawing the ground in our simple-minded anxiety to ride straight into “German East” and crumple up such slight resistance as we expected to meet. The corps was composed, for the most part, of settlers, a sprinkling of juniors from Government offices, an estate agent or two, and a leavening of those nondescripts who float round any new colony, to be inevitably washed up when any piece of adventure or devilry comes along.

That was how we looked at it then; we were booked for the great adventure, and were prepared to start on it out of hand with our own rifles and ammunition and a few scrag-ends of mule.

For some days after the declaration of war Nairobi looked as it does in race week, and I wonder someone didn’t get killed in the crush at Mackinnon’s Corner, where all the principal roads converge. White men, brown men, black men, motors, bicycles, and mules seethed about all over the crossing. Somalis would bring up a batch of mules to be passed by the vet., and those would kick and bite their way through the maelstrom, whilst our local scorchers, who had blossomed into motorcycle despatch-riders, added to the joy of things by coming down Sixth Avenue like streaks and jamming on both brakes when within a few feet of the crush. This pleased the mules, of course.

It was an education to watch some of our bar-room buck-jumpers at play on the lightsome blend of fiend and whirlwind called a mule. There was a man in my troop called Eccles, who wasn’t a “Buffalo Bill” at the best of times, and they served him out a mustard-crossed white mule that looked like some kind of loathsome slug. It kicked you when you tried to mount, and promptly bucked you off if you succeeded in getting on—a perfect brute, in short.

Eccles’s first experience was at a parade in Government Road, when the mule took him out in front of the troop, deposited him on the hard road, and then capered about him, apparently undecided whether to trample on him or eat him. When we got out into camp the mule developed a habit of lying down in every stream or bit of water we crossed, and after a few days of this sort of thing Eccles decided to lead his mule. One morning, however, the animal disappeared into the blue, to the huge delight of Eccles, until a heliogram came through from the next camp to say that the mule had arrived there. Eccles scarcely spoke for two days. We sent a couple of Somali scouts over, and they, five Europeans, and a crowd of porters spent a futile morning in trying to catch the brute.

Then our regiment commandeered all the mules and horses from that camp. This one refused to be caught, but attached itself to the corps, and, as we could neither catch it nor get rid of it, both Eccles and the mule enjoyed complete happiness.

II. The Mule as a Comrade

The study of the gentle mule, as a matter of fact, occupied most of the first part of our time with the regiment. We camped along the railway line, and the entraining of mules is one of the most exciting pastimes I know, although the procedure is simple enough. One man leads the mule up to the door of the horse-box, whilst two others link arms across its hindquarters and heave or push it on board before it has had time to realize their intention. Sometimes it realizes first, and then heartless spectators gather round and yell with joy at the stirring scene. The man who pulls at the bridle has a busy time, for if the box is nearly full when he packs his steed in he has to quit through a storm of hoofs and teeth, and I’ve caught fragments of conversation on these occasions that would turn a dock-laborer green with envy.

Mules are utter hypocrites. There is no animal living that can assume an expression of such injured innocence as a mule when he has “done you down” properly. When, at the end of the first round of that exciting bout miscalled “stables,” you abandon currycomb and brush and pause to consider the possibilities of the situation, your mount gazes at you more in sorrow than in anger, suggesting that he is the stranger in a pest-ridden country, and that he merely acted in self-defence. Of course, grooming is a painful process for both parties, for unless the beasts have been well sprayed with disinfectant beforehand, the clustered fauna of Africa display a desperate tenacity. The insect pests were, by the way, one of the chief features of the East African campaign; after patrol we used to feel as if we wanted spraying ourselves.

Pack-mules provide some exacting moments when you are moving camp in a hurry. On our forced march into Aruscha—a matter of some seventy-five miles, with short intervals for food and sleep—the dawn of one day found us enticing some of the dear things over plank bridges laid across a ravine. There was a nightmare suggestion about the scene that only Sime could have done justice to; for it was still too dark to see to the bottom of the ravine, and the swaying bridges seemed to stretch into eternity.

Our first camp was in a bit of the Southern Game Reserve—a lovely place. The signallers were perched on a rocky peak, surrounded by clumps of low hills, which merged into stretches of plain, covered with thorn scrub. After rain the hills used to turn to a heavenly blue, with shifting lights of mauve and purple as the cloud shadows slid over them, and we could see Meru, which we then looked upon as the first place we had to take, a jagged and formidable peak; and, sometimes, when the air was very clear, Kilimanjaro appeared like a big, flat-topped cake with powdered sugar dusted over it.

III. Fighting with Lions and Rhino in Jungle Land

At night a chill wind whooped down the valleys, and we were smothered in swirls of damp mist. Lions roared nightly, and it was possible to stumble on a sleeping rhino at any time of the day. They used to charge patrols and disorganize them, and one of our fellows who had strayed away from his troop met one face to face. His mule streaked one way, he another, and the rhino nearly broke his back in vamoosing in a third direction. The trooper was lucky to have found the beast in a timid mood, for the rhino’s only amusement lies in chasing unoffending sons of empire through thick thorn scrub, though he’s usually in too bad a temper to realize what fun it is.

There is something peculiarly terrifying about a rhino charge in the camp at night. You awake and jump to safety all in a moment, impelled by the nightmare terror that belongs to the time when fear ruled the world, and the rash ancestor who slept on the ground made a spring for the nearest branch on the approach of some primeval monster.

We all have our affectations, and that of the old hand was indifference to the game peril.

“You mustn’t believe all the wild beasts stories you hear,” he would observe to the tenderfoot. “They are mostly frightful exaggerations.” Then the nervous one would look up and observe a rhino gazing morosely at these intruders on the privacy of his own special tract of forest. The next moment the tenderfoot would be in the arms of a peculiarly inhospitable tree, wondering what was going to happen next. Certainly life in what the kinema posters call “Nature’s Zoo” holds excitements of a kind unknown to the army in any other quarter of the globe. I used to think out problems unprovided for by the Hague Convention, such as, if a small British patrol met a small enemy patrol in thick bush, and at the same time flushed an angry rhino, what would be the correct procedure? Should the combatants combine to blot out the rhino, and then proceed with their own quarrel, or should they hurriedly retire and fight somewhere else? I never heard of any such contingency arising, but it easily might have done so, and it is certain that once, just as one of our patrols sighted a German patrol, a rhino charged our rear, and two of our men had to fall out to tackle it, whilst the rest fired on the Germans.

Our first engagement was at Longido, in the first November of the war.

Our regiment had a tough day, and lay for many hours under fire without food or water, but I am not out to write the story of that skirmish. It doesn’t come under the heading of the humors of the campaign, although there was a certain grim humor knocking about all the same. Our men were so new to that sort of thing that it took them some time to realize they were under heavy fire, and just when the firing was hottest one of them was waving a toothbrush and asking, “Any of you chaps lost a toothbrush?” whilst another shouted, “Come over here, you fellows. Lovely shooting!”

It was during the season that followed, when, as a correspondent of an English paper neatly put it, we “held the railway and shouted for help,” that we realized the real, inner meaning of monotony. At first we expected to get going in a week, then we put the time forward to months, and finally we resigned ourselves. To live in standing camp for the rest of our natural lives, to do long patrol, short patrol, and “bait” patrol for ever and ever seemed the best we could hope of life. Letters arrived with some regularity, for we were then only some few miles over the border. Papers drifted through to us, and we knew more of the happenings in Europe than we did of our own campaign, though occasionally we gleaned some items of local interest from the English papers. It annoyed us to see an alleged illustration of one of our “scraps,” in which smart-looking men on ramping horses were represented as fighting in open country at five hundred yards, whilst in reality it was done by untidy men on mules, in thick bush, at forty yards. The real thing was much better than the artist’s conception of it.

There are, as I have implied, three kinds of patrol—the long patrol, on which you spend many days scouring the burning veldt for Germans, and hoping you won’t find them; the short patrol, on which you spend one day doing the same thing; and the “bait” patrol, on which you spend the cold and cheerless hours before dawn wandering round the camp and hoping the Germans won’t find you. On the latter it is the earnest desire of your King and country that the noise of your getting shot will alarm the camp before the attack takes place. If, on these occasions, you meet a lion, or any vermin of that kind, you must allow him to bash you on the head and dine off your limbs rather than raise a false alarm. One of our fellows met a lioness with cubs on one of these cheery rambles, and was only saved by the fact that he and his mule both froze stiff with terror, and baffled her by not running away. He moved off slowly at last, and she followed the patrol till dawn, obviously puzzled by these strange beings.

Of long patrol your first intimation of the joy in store for you usually is an excited clucking of the telephone buzzer at 2 a. m. on a particularly joyless morning. “Kaar-kuk-kuk! Kaar-kuk-kuk!” it observes, exactly like a hen that has laid an egg. Of course, the obvious thing to do is to fling a boot at the ‘phone and go to sleep; but we signallers have a strong sense of duty, so we call the adjutant, who takes a mean revenge by telling us to be saddled up in fifteen minutes and go out for ten days to some “ticky” and waterless part of Africa which is, according to the ‘phone, swarming with Germans.

The next ten minutes is spent in feverishly collecting gear, with which you stagger through the night to your disgusted steed, who, when he has realized what is in store for him, behaves as though he had never seen you, nor your saddle, nor the helio stand, nor anything that is yours in his life before, this being his habit in all moments of emergency. Then you take a few frantic tugs at your cigarette before the “No smoking” order is passed down, and ride out into the unknown.

IV. Night Rides Over the Veldt

Those night rides over the veldt were all alike. Your vision was limited to the man in front of you, who was a blurred shape that you, in a half-dream, were always chasing and never coming up with. It was a dream that seemed to go on for years and years, and then your mule would stumble and bring you to your senses with a jerk. In that light—for it is never very dark in Africa—men appear as trees, and thorn bushes dismount and take aim at you.

Dawn would find the whole patrol riding with eyes glued to the horizon and lips closed on unlit cigarettes. The order regarding smoking on those night-marches is strict. Once when we were escorting a captured German patrol, one of our men thoughtlessly lit up. One of the prisoners promptly leaned over and said, in English: “You mustn’t do that; the enemy will see us.”

The scenery was always the same there—rolling stretches of sun-browned veldt, kopje upon kopje, wonderfully shadowed, patches of thornscrub, and, clothing the banks of rivers and streams, strips of forest; the climate cold by night and hot by day. Africa is a queer, baffling, changeable country. Exactly the same scene can take on absolutely different aspects at different hours in the day. The thorn-tree flowers into a white brush with a sweet smell, and in the early morning, with a whitish haze hanging over and a cool wind blowing, the country seems beautiful and the trees appear as though laden with apple blossoms. Yet, in the hard, hot light of midday, with inky shadows outlined and the dust settling on the trees, the same place is ugly and repellent. On these patrols we moved by night, and failed to sleep by day, because the patch of shade that will remain shaded for even a few hours is non-existent. I usually woke to find my body too hot to touch and my water-bottle on the boil.

Later, when the South African forces came over and we got going, we had easier times, could travel by day, and lost that feeling of being little veldt-mice creeping out of our holes.

Once patrol was over and we were “home” in camp, we led a curious life, half soldier, half country gentleman. We lived in roomy bandas, or grass huts, a section in each, and as nearly every trooper had a “boy,” or native servant, our meals were brought to the banda, and we clubbed together for luxuries. Also, we picked up our own sections, so that if four pals elected to go through the war together, they got the O. C. to fix it up.

Leave was the one thing that really mattered—those ten glorious days when you went back to your own life, and bathed daily and ate what you wanted to, instead of what you could get. No one minded night-rides across the veldt with that end in view, and I have slept very comfortably under the stars, with my saddle for a pillow, dreamily wondering if the lion in the distance was making that noise because he was hungry or because he had had too much to eat. Once in Nairobi, you bought a silk shirt, and could display the trousers with the crease in them and the socks that mother sent you. You wallowed in your bath, and walked down Government Road pretending that you had never shovelled damp earth out of a trench or groomed an accumulation of sticky African mud off a truculent mule. In the afternoon you sat in the fashionable tearoom and ate cakes and sweets and ices, and in the evening there was a dance, and you met the dearest girl. It was all like heaven!

When we really did start—I was with the mounted column that came down from Longido, to sweep round and threaten the German rear—the people I was sorry for were the transport drivers. The rains broke soon after the advance began, and swamped us out at Kahe, where we had a three days’ scrap in thick brush. What with weather and scrapping, and mud and broken bridges, we had a hard enough time ourselves—we had dropped the “country gentleman” part of it—but the wonder is that the transport ever got through at all. We used to curse at it sometimes. When you have been under fire all night and scrapping all day, when you have lost your pipe in the river and the cigarettes have run out, when you are very dirty and very hungry, and word is passed down that no one knows where the food-wagons are—that is the sort of happening that is calculated to make your spirits rise with a bound. Then they come along, like bearded and very dirty angels, dumping supplies of bully beef and potatoes, bread and jam, and dates and coffee, and all is forgiven.

It isn’t always fun being a soldier in East Africa, but I think the transport driver who “gets there” every time deserves a Military Cross at the least.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


    • This was a good find, full of enduring human interest. Most of the First World War literature I’ve come across has aged very badly, being either dull or suffused with a dated anti-German hysteria.

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