Chapter 8: The Elusive Germans

WE arrived in Kilindini in July, 1916. This is the point where the big game hunters disembark to prepare for their slaughter of Africa’s wild game. Africa and India, the last refuges of mammoth game, are the scenes of animal carnage that is a challenge to the sportsmanship of the world.

Some of Europe’s blasé sportsmen and America’s big “butter and egg” men spend fortunes on arsenals to attack the denizens of the jungle. Is it for science or for taxidermy? I gloat at hearing of the occasional victory of the stalked beast, for my sympathy is forever with the hunted, whether man or beast.

By troop train we made a torturing trip to Maktau Camp in British East Africa. There we drilled under the blistering sun, until every ounce of lard was sweated out of our bodies. Our next stop was Taveta. We were wandering inland because the Germans still controlled the seaports. Taveta is south of Nairobi and east of Kilimanjaro, the magnificent peak, 19,000 feet high, which shelters the spirits of the black gods. Our next stop was Korogwe, near the base of the mountain. To reach this point we rode on the Usumbara railway in the fashion of a Mexican peon army, hot, tired, and dusty.

The mountain and the jungle were more interesting to me than the opening of the campaign. Every kind of vegetation is found on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, from tropic tangles at the base to sub-arctic plants at the snowline, with a similar variation in the animal life as the altitudes and temperatures change.

We had sporadic skirmishes with the enemy, but the German bullets were not a tenth as deadly as the plague bearing insects. There were jigger fleas, matakini flies, scorpions, and centipedes. One by one men were put out of action by malaria, dysentery, blackwater fever, and other plagues. The matakini fly, by the way, lays an egg under the skin, which hatches into a vile grub from one to one and a half inches long. You can observe the yellow form growing larger daily until the flesh bursts and frees the parasite. The usual remedy is to slit the flesh and pry out the unhatched embryo, but unless the operation is performed with a sterile blade the cure is worse than the disease, for gangrene is more deadly than the matakini. Tropic veterans use permanganate crystals to sterilize a wound against infection. The jigger flea deposits eggs in a bag, and prefers the feet of a soldier on the march. The bags contain a myriad of eggs, which burst under the skin and result in a nasty infection. Some tropic doctors know how to cut these vermin out of the nest without spreading the virus under the flesh, but the natives are much more skilled in this kind of surgery …

Our first engagement with the Germans took place near Dar-es-Salaam, which we captured on September 4th. This modern African city has a large European section and a pretentious Catholic cathedral. Out in the harbor lay the half-submerged Koenig of the German East African Steamship line; like Hobson’s Merrimac, it completely and effectively closed the harbor channel to navigation.

It was in Dar-es-Salaam that I met many members of the Legion of Frontiersmen, under the distinguished Colonel Driscoll. The French Foreign Legion has a pale record compared to this tough outfit of tropic fighters. They were in every skirmish in German East Africa and were almost wiped out during the campaign. The French Foreign Legion, as is well known, is recruited from wasters, convicts, and every variety of ne’er-do-well, but the Legion of Frontiersmen is made up of veterans of the British and Colonial armies-a seasoned group of campaigners. Some day a scribe will write their story for the world, and give these veterans of the Equator an honor long overdue. That day will come, I presume, when a Hollywood promoter produces a scenario around Colonel Driscoll and Captain Fred Selous, the greatest of all African hunters.

Some day, too, the true story of the German East African campaign will be written, and when that day comes the names of its heroes will include that of General von Lettow Vorbeck. Probably he will lead all the rest. In my humble opinion, he is one of the greatest soldiers of the World War. With a few men he held off 300,000 troops, with 137 generals, and right up to the date of the Armistice was undefeated. For four years he outguessed his enemies, using every artifice of man and nature to plague his pursuers, and yet played the war game strictly according to the rules.

Von Lettow Vorbeck faced an Allied front of eight countries. The men spoke six or seven languages and ten times as many dialects. There were:

The British Expeditionary Force, composed of English units.

The Indian Expeditionary Forces, with native regiments commanded by white officers.

The East African Forces, recruited from the English speaking people of British East Africa.

The South African Expeditionary Force, under Generals Jan Smuts and Van Deventer.

Rhodesian regiments under General Northey.

Belgian troops from the Congo.

Portuguese troops from Portuguese East Africa.

Add to this impressive aggregation of enemies the blockading fleet, fresh troop replacements arriving weekly in transports, and the many thousands of Askaris, and you will agree that the German leader was a crafty foeman to avert disaster and capture in the long African campaign. Any unit of the Allied troops was larger than his whole force. There was no burlesque about this East African wrangle. It cost 50,000 lives through gun-fire and many times that figure through disease. The black carriers died in myriads through inhuman treatment. The poor savages were drafted into the white man’s bloody game, and their lives were held as cheap as those of insects.

Fighting in a jungle is fighting in the dark. The Germans had better knowledge of the terrain than the Allies, and we suffered incessantly from ambush and sortie. I was captured with another Irishman by the name of Farrelley in a surprise attack between the Kiseaga and the Ruaha rivers. In the quick jumps we made, retreating from post to post, I had plenty of time to observe German strategy and jungle engineering at the back of their lines. The Germans were more interested in the capture of pack-trains than soldiers. As long as the Allies had plenty of food and ammunition the Germans determined to carry on the war with borrowed supplies.

My companion and I enjoyed such hospitality as von Lettow Vorbeck could offer on the march. The beer was fine, but the food was bad, and we determined to escape at the first opportunity. The Germans, recognizing the brogue, made friendly overtures, which were rejected with equal courtesy. German imperialism was just as objectionable in principle as the British brand, though I would have enjoyed serving such a gallant leader as von Lettow Vorbeck.

The Germans, on such foraging expeditions as they made into white plantations, acted with sportsmanship. They paid for commandeered merchandise, cattle, and supplies in paper money, which they printed on the march. I have been informed since that the German Republic has paid up all of these claims within the past few years. These certificates were bona fide orders on the Imperial Treasury which would have been honored if the Kaiser had emerged a victor.

One night we slipped out of the camp, past the nose of a weary sentry, and came back to our own lines, naked except for a pair of shorts. We travelled through bush and jungle for more than 150 miles, suffering from hunger, thirst, and insects. We were received with acclamation by our companions, who thought we had been killed in a jungle ambuscade.

Shortly afterwards I had another close call. We had arrived at the banks of the Kiseaga River, where the fickle stream had cut a high promontory around a right-angle bend. We prepared to cross the swift stream with a pontoon bridge. A strong overhead cable aided in the difficult task of fastening the pontoons, which had been transported with infinite trouble from the head of the Usumbara railroad at Korogwe, seventy miles away.

Our position was fortified by digging two long trenches with substantial breastworks. Reinforced lookout holes and firing-steps were also constructed until the little fort offered a difficult salient for the enemy. It dominated the only means of access through this isolated area.

Our company consisted of fifty soldiers of the South African Engineers and one hundred and twenty unarmed carriers. Before all the pontoons had arrived a scout appeared across the river and signalled for our pontoon ferry. He informed us that a small party of the enemy were approaching about ten miles away from the little fort.

The scout was sent back into the bush to watch for the enemy’s approach, while we reinforced the parapets. All bridge building operations were suspended until we determined the strength of the approaching Germans. We had two machine-guns, but one was useless and beyond repair.

The following afternoon the scout sighted two Germans and thirty blacks on a foraging expedition, and we surmised that the main body of the enemy was near. A messenger was dispatched to headquarters asking for reinforcements, but they came up too late to be of any help in the hot engagement the next morning.

Dawn came, but no Germans were in evidence. We kept under cover, searching the dense foliage across the stream for any sign of soldiery. As the morning wore on we determined to draw fire from the enemy with an ancient army bait. Raising several helmets on our bayonets a few inches above the parapet, we drew a fusillade from the hidden foe, and three helmets were punched by bullets. We replied at once with rifle and machine-gun fire, raking the expansive target of the bush. We maintained a steady fire for twenty minutes, until the enemy replies ceased. We felt that they had fallen back with casualties or were withdrawing until the main body arrived.

We maintained a desultory rifle-fire at every moving twig and imaginary foe. Our commander was breathing easily now, as he was certain the Germans had received a heavy dose of lead in the first blast from our guns. He was quickly disillusioned. A sudden reply to our desultory sniping brought us two casualties. One man was shot through the shoulder, and another had his arm shattered as he placed his gun at the loophole. Both of these shots came through the small apertures, and we began to respect the marksmanship of the elusive Germans. We were eager to shoot it out on a sniping duel, but a machine-gun blast from a high vantage up the river enfiladed our trench and made it untenable.

“Get out, boys. Take cover in the bush,” shouted the lieutenant, and a mad scramble followed over the earthworks into the dense bush. My companion in this episode was a splendid South African named Forbes. I jumped over the parapet followed by Forbes, but the machine-gunner, evidently high in the tree over the shallow gorge, had his eye on the target. A bullet ploughed through my leg, and another hit Forbes in the lung. He toppled back in the trench, and I followed him. I dragged him to cover at the turn in the long ditch, but it was of no avail.

“Save yourself, Hennessey,” he croaked and died a few minutes later.

I crawled to doubtful security at the far end of the trench, over the bodies of dead and dying men. A group of us with minor wounds crouched in this haven to await death or darkness, and perhaps capture.

Night came none too soon, and we slipped out of the bloody ditch to join the rest of the company. We got a bad scare when we ran into our own relief-party and almost fired on our rescuers. This tragic mistake happened several times in the African bush; once two South African companies almost wiped each other out in a machine-gun duel.

During the night the enemy cut our steel hawser across the river, and it became hopelessly entangled in the roots and rocks along the bank. Our relief column came with additional pontoons and plenty of ammunition, but the foeman left the scene, having given us a lesson in jungle scrapping. We lost nine white soldiers killed and had sixteen wounded. We buried our men in the trench we had dug as a fortification. Later we discovered two graves across the Kiseaga; one was that of a German soldier, the other might have contained one or five blacks; the natives never got a square deal, even in death.

Fighting in the jungle was a test of stamina and nerve. There could be no decisive engagement, for von Lettow Vorbeck was like a chess-master playing a dozen or more opponents. He hurried from board to board to check the movements of his adversaries, and sold his pawns as dearly as possible.

Though the campaign was a bore, there were many incidents worth the chronicling that you might not find in the records of the British and German War Offices. I make special mention of the “bee” attack on the troop-train. Transportation was a huge problem, and the German skill in ambushing our supplies made the second line of defence more hazardous than the actual fighting front.

One day a convoy of mules and wagons loaded with foodstuffs, clothing, and sundry munitions was making slow progress along the trail in the dense bush between Tanga and Korogwe. The Askaris moved ahead of the mules, beating down the vegetation that obscured the winding path. The transport was guarded by Boers from the Cape, who, knowing they were easy targets for enemy snipers, were none too happy with the assignment.

Along the trail a German engineer had conceived the brilliant plan of harassing the enemy with bees. The German Askaris, some of whom were trained bee-keepers, gathered hundreds of swarms and attached the bees to convenient trees along the trail. Not only bees were drafted into service, but also their more vicious cousins, the yellow jackets, wasps, hornets, and every African insect equipped with a “bayonet.”

The nests were connected with wires, strung in sequence and running back to a central location in the bush. Here the German engineer waited beside his switches and a dry cell battery system, while his scouts were on the alert for the advance of the pack-train. The white guard from the Cape rode lazily in the van, and back of them came the Cape boys howling in a jargon of Kafir and Cape Dutch. The Germans had felled some trees across the trail, and the white guard halted, cursing the bad luck. Meanwhile the cavalcade piled up close behind, until mules, oxen, and horses were head to tailboard along the route.

Angrily the Cape guard ordered the blacks to cut through the barricade. Then came the signal, and the master switch sent its electric agitation into the nests and swarms. Without warning millions of bees, wasps, and hornets swept down on their huge prey.

There are no adequate words to describe the havoc that followed. Mules, oxen, and horses stampeded and dashed into the jungle to die in agony. The jungle echoed with the screams of animals and men. Wagons upset and supplies spilled over. Scarcely a living thing escaped. The blacks and whites perished in a death of excruciating torture. Their faces were unidentifiable. In less than half an hour silence reigned along the trail; victory had come to the Germans without their firing a shot. There may have been a few survivors, but when our troops came up there was none to tell the tale. I got the complete details in the German camp after my capture with Farrelley in the ambush near the Kiseaga River.

Subsequently the Germans drove away their winged allies from the scene of victory by a dense smoke-screen. The German Askaris heaped up the loot into neat piles and loaded the wagons again. New animals were supplied to carry away the generous spoils of a strange victory.

As this is mainly a narrative of personal encounter, I omit the drab records of sniping and skirmishing, to tell of the undisciplined conduct of three Irishmen, Hennessey, Farrelley, and Conroy.

The three of us were sent on a soldierly errand to Kigoma on the new railroad running from Dar-es-Salaam to the shore of Lake Tanganyika. We rode for a while on the train, but most of the time we free-lanced on the railway, getting lifts on Reo tractors. A railway builder’s task in this country is difficult under normal conditions, and, with a war prevailing, the hazards of building and operation were increased a hundredfold. The railway was of paramount importance as a line of communication and supplies. It had to be protected at all costs.

On this trip we visited many villages, and had an opportunity to study the home-life of the natives. The village chiefs received us with much éclat and, at times, declared a banquet in our honor. On one of these occasions a pompous old rascal killed a fatted koodoo for the feast. The koodoo is a large tan deer with ears like cabbage-leaves. His carcass, half-skinned and partly cooked, lay across the embers of the fire. Beside him was a high stack of baked yams and a cauldron of boiled white Indian corn. Before the feast the king’s royal chamberlain served each of us a calabash holding a quart of liquor. Thinking it to be the native beer called “pombe,” we stood up, gave the king a dozen loud huzzas, and swallowed a long draught of the beverage. I fell over and vomited. So did Conroy and Farrelley. When I recovered I asked the chamberlain, in Swahili, the coast dialect, what kind of a drink he had served. The question was relayed to the chief himself.

“My friends,” he answered, without batting an eye, “you have brought honor to our village. As a mark of esteem to you I have served the rarest and choicest liquor of my household. It is the urine of the sacred cow from the stables of the chief! ”

We bade adieu to the chief, giving him presents of misfit khaki tunics and a dozen rounds of ammunition.

The natives have some fascinating dietary customs and strange table manners. They file their teeth to sharp points, which enables them to tear raw meat into shreds. I have seen a native seize a hen, pluck the feathers from the squealing bird and sink his teeth into the breast meat. Evidently the struggle of the chicken adds a zest to his appetite. There is another vivid picture in my memory of a pickaninny seizing a pullet and chewing raw meat from its back, feathers and all. Eventually he spat out the feathers – especially the large wing pinions.

In our engineering work it was necessary to have a large safari, which we employed in the transport of stores and the cables, pontoons, and ammunition. They also labored in the construction of bridges, roads, and camps. We brought along oxen and cows for food. Frequently an animal died en route from some tropic infection. That would be a sign for a commotion among the native carriers. Presently a head boy would come forward and ask permission for the carriers to eat the carcass, which was readily given.

Each would salvage a small square of hide, which he dried and cured. These mementoes of the feast are stitched into valuable articles for the home-pouches, wallets, belts, and thongs, also other essentials of native life.

Some of our men were suspected of having cannibal instincts, and perhaps experience. At least, an occasional dead cow feast satisfied the thwarted passion for human flesh. It was common knowledge that many of the Belgian Askaris were cannibals-sometimes. with the permission of their superior officers. Whether there is any truth in this statement I am not certain, but camp gossip accused the Belgian whites of encouraging cannibalism among the Askaris.

I can relate one barbarous episode, which is fastened on the Belgian Askaris beyond hope of denial. I was in the hospital at Dar-es-Salaam recovering from a severe attack of malaria, when a dozen or more East Indian matrons and maidens were brought into the hospital for treatment. The doctor gave me the full story of their attack by the savages attached to the Belgian troops. I saw some of the victims. The affair took place in an Indian settlement not far from Dar-es-Salaam.

These human jackals swooped down on the village and carried off the women to satisfy their great passion of tasting human flesh!

There was no love lost between the Belgian whites and British South Africans, who shared my nonchalance towards the story of the Belgian outrages at the hands of the Uhlans in Flanders. The men from the Cape knew too much about the brutalities of Leopold’s men in the Congo to have any sympathy for Belgians, whoever they were. I have often watched a detachment of Belgians on the march, followed by their officers in home=made palanquins. These dandies would be resting beside a bibi, or concubine, while the black litter-bearers struggled along with the precious cargo. Cohabiting with the native women is an open practice in the Belgian Congo – an unsavory alliance for white officers, as these dusky courtesans share their favors without distinction of color.

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