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African WW1 mementoes: a Club and a ‘Walking Stick’

This is an off-the-wall post in a sense. After reading all my Grandfather’s diaries from his time in East Africa during the 1914-18 war, and publishing them on this WordPress site, it was only very slowly that I realised that the unusual ‘walking sticks’ that I collected from my Aunt Isobel’s house when clearing it, many years ago, might have come from his travels. Aunt Isobel had inherited all the contents of Grandad’s house, and she had sold most of it, kept very little: so maybe these were deemed not worth selling, ie not valuable, and kept for possible use!

IMG_7585One of these sticks is in reality a Club, ie a weapon, as it is just 580mm in length. The realisation that this was an East African, or African club dawned when I visited the Selborne home of Gilbert White, and in the Oates Museum there discovered that in his time in the Boer War, Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates had collected similar weapons as examples of those used by the native people.

This club is very heavy, 510gms, with a major knob on the top and a beautifully reverse tapered handle, 28mm at the far end and 19mm half way along, to enable a good swing. The whole thing is in the weight of the knob, so the shaft feels very light in comparison.  The wood is very dense, as in lignum vitae or bogwood. The knob is 88mm diameter.


The Walking Stick

Some walking stick this is. It is the sort of walking stick you would want to have at your side if walking through an area where the ‘natives’ were not friendly, and the owner of this stick in East Africa would have had a good ally at his side. But what I can’t quite understand is where the local people would have had access to steel wire to bind the plaits round the shaft!

IMG_7588The stick is a total length of 840mm, with a small hand knob on the top, diameter 40mm. It’s not quite straight, see the picture. The stick diameter is between 22 and 19mm. There are three sections of plaited binding using steel wire, reinforcing the wooden shaft. This is not because it needs it, it is not cracked, it’s just to make it heavy, and solid. These are in sections 92mm, 157mm and 158mm long, from the top. The weight of the whole thing is 690gm.

So a quick bash with this stick would make quite an impression, although the appearance from a few metres away would have been that of an average walking stick. Quite a formidable hidden weapon. The wood is heavy, again, I suppose it is European to call it bogwood or lignum vitae.

The reason I have not used it to date is that I’m worried about the steel wire rusting! But I think it might be brought out more often in future. Thanks, Grandad! Its not what the man who made this stick expected, when it is used for someone sauntering through a Hampshire village 100+ years later!



Other stories about WW1 and East Africa

After having heard from three or four people whose family members had similar WW1 experiences to those of my Grandad, Ernest Dockray, as told on these pages, I thought it would be worth adding some further references that I have found, that are in the same vein.


  1. A paperback book published in 2001 by Alan Rutherford is entitled “Kaputala – The Diary of Arthur Beagle” which describes his time in the East Africa campaign 1916-1918. Arthur Beagle covered a lot of East Africa, starting up in the North by Mombassa, and also describing the major battle near Lindi and Mingoyo, which was the area where my Grandad was posted. The book is available on abebooks.com, and is ISBN: 0-9540517-0-X                                                                                                                        .
  2. 41FUvHrHM+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Another book covers the same geographical area, but 35 years later, 1952-1961, when it was known as Tanganyika: it was published 2004 by Donald Barton, whom we met and grew to be friends with via the Bodega wine bar in Alresford. Don lives near Alton. His book is “An Affair with Africa” and tells of his life in the Colonial service after WW2. Don was admitted to the same Hospital, the old German Hospital in Dar-Es-Salaam, where my grandfather had been, but actually Don was there some 40 years later, and it had not changed much! Don’s book is available via Amazon.co.uk, and is ISBN: 0-75520122-1.    Sadly, Don passed away in late 2019.
  3. It would be remiss of me not to mention the book that my Grandad used to get many of the illustrations for his diaries, which was “THE MAN-EATERS OF TSAVO: AND OTHER EAST AFRICAN ADVENTURES” by Lt.Col. J.H. Patterson, D.S.O., with a Foreword by Frederick Courteney Selous. Probably Grandad used a 1907 edition or earlier (actually I know he did, I found the old pics in the right format in some copies I bought): many versions are available on abebooks.com

nick@nickdenbow.com, 2016.

Addendum – “New” things seen in Africa (1918) – Part 1

1: Nature – and things that bite

The foregoing is a fragmentary sketch of many varied journeys and incidents during my Army career. Others could be added, but they are perhaps too uninteresting to interest the reader. To those who may have found interest in the foregoing I have since my return home thought it fitting to add a few afterthoughts about things not met with, in England.

In recording incidents of the outward voyage I omitted mention of shoals of flying fish: of whales spouting: an occasional shark: and large albatross, all of which helped to relieve the monotony. Of the livestock of Africa a book might be written. Lions, giraffes, crocodiles, hippopotami, monkeys, rats, vermin, and pests of the insect tribe. Lions I only heard roaring in the night: I never set eyes on one. Giraffes, the silly creatures pulled our telegraph wires down occasionally, with their long necks: crocodiles we gave a wide berth when near any water: monkeys laughed and cackled and scampered overhead in the branches during the night: rats ran round and even over us in the hours of darkness: snakes, scorpions and centipedes kept us alert and watchful and pests of mosquitos killed many and always annoyed us.

The Mosquito

The pest of outstanding notice was of course the female mosquito. One hears them, sees them, feels them and occasionally, if lucky, catches them. Sometimes they advance in columns of sections: failing this they invade your particular locality either in fours, half-sections, or in single file. The mosquito is at all times pertinacious and bloodthirsty, and for its size has the biggest voice and longest nose of any known species of game. It is a knowing blighter too – watches you fix up your sleeping net, a derisive grin on its face, knowing perfectly well that there is a hole somewhere big enough for its entry: and, as soon as you settle, panting and perspiring, inside the net, the young lady begins her systematic and buzzing inspection – for all the world like a flapper outside a milliner’s window. I have known her sing some fellows to sleep, but such men have tough hides and were not average Tommies. I plead guilty to an average skin, and I always responded to their lullabies by, if possible, squeezing the life out of them. She sets her engine going when the “First post” goes, and at the inspiring sound of the “Last Post” she goes on her “visiting rounds” investigating for weak spots. When “Lights out” sounds she fixes bayonets and commences operations in earnest. He was no dullard who defined the mosquito as “A small insect designed by the Great Architect of the Universe to make us think better of flies and fleas”.

Other flies and fleas

Another diminutive little devil is the Jigger-flea. It is found wherever there is sand and its favourite haunt is under the skin of the great toe where it lays its eggs. When one becomes painfully aware of its presence a nigger and a needle are necessary. The niggers are, from long experience, expert at extracting the eggs without bursting them. Another pest is the Tsetse fly. It will bite pretty near every living thing, and everything it bites suffers in some way. Horses and cattle die from the effects of the tsetse bite: for which reason the natives were our only form of transport up-country. Hut bugs abound and these are prolific carriers of disease.

The Tsetse fly

From the hour one lands to the hour of departure, bites and stings are a daily ration in East Africa. Bugs, ticks, mosquitos, tsetse flies, ants, jiggers, gads, sand flies, wasps, scorpions, centipedes – these are a few of the pests we encountered. The Mosquito – curse her – sits on you, sucks her fill of your blood till she is drunk: then unscrews her gimlet and leaves it behind when she departs. The tsetse is not much larger than the common house fly, and is nearly the same brown colour as the common honey bee: the after part of the body has 3 or 4 yellow bars across it: it is remarkably alert, avoiding most dexterously all attempts to capture it with the hand. Its peculiar buzz is not easily forgotten. It is well known that the bite of this poisonous insect means death to the ox, horse or dog. Its bite is not harmful to man or wild animals. When an ox or a horse is bitten, the eye and nose begin to run; the jaws swell underneath; the muscles become flaccid; and being no longer able to feed the animal dies of exhaustion, staggering and blind. The mule, ass and goat are immune from the ill-effects of the bite of the tsetse. There is no known cure for the disease caused by the tsetse.

Addendum – “New” things seen in Africa (1918) – Part 2

Several times we witnessed a native festival. The natives usually shew their joy and work off their excitement in dance and song. The dance consists of men and women standing in a circle, almost in their birthday suits, with legs, arms, faces, breasts, white-washed: pom-poms in the centre of the circle kicking up a frightful din, each shouting and chanting while simultaneously lifting one leg, stamping heavily twice: then the other leg, again stamping; laughing all the time. The arms are thrown about in every direction with the utmost vigour, everyone smelling strongly of perspiration.

Attendance for a native festival - faces whitened with flour

Attendance for a native festival – faces whitened with flour


Swaheli and Shenzi porters on trek, carrying 60lbs each

Swaheli and Shenzi porters on trek, carrying 60lbs each

The fighting in columns, and daily trekking were features of the East African campaign; chasing the Germans one day and maybe chased by them the next with an occasional set-to and then a few days for rest and recuperation. The naked earth where it shews between the clumps of grass or bush, is either baked plaster-hard, or consists of glaring hot sand which burns like hot slag: and, except for a panting lizard, here and there, nothing animate is to be seen for miles and miles except our moving column of troops and porters comprising mountain batteries, Indian, Nigerian, and South African troops, British troops (Res, Fusiliers etc)., machine gun corps, SAI, KARs, RAMC, and trench mortar battery, forming a motley string of brown, black and white men extending for miles. As night falls out of the still air issue metallic insect cries and the croak, croak of the frogs with occasional jackal cries or lion’s roar. Somewhere ahead lies water and towards that we march, feeling somewhat top-heavy from the glare of the tropical sun.

The Sun and the Rain

Occasional knolls or hills lift us to vantage points where the eye leaps to great distances to the horizon miles away. One begins to feel dizzy after 10 or 20 miles of this and the mind becomes slightly unbalanced by the heat, and the distant view swims as footsteps waver. One’s throat aches from the drought, the water bottle having been drained long hours ago. It is then when a tropical shower is welcomed. It acts as a tonic and clarifies the atmosphere for a while. But weeks and months pass without one drop of rain. When it does come it falls like shot dropping on tin; in a sharp patter. Then with a crash the whole sky bursts. There is a roaring as if the earth had split in two, and down comes the water as if the sky had broken in bits. It is a blinding rain: one cannot face it: its force is staggering. And the thunder daunts one. The racket and the glare appear as bad as shell-fire. But afterwards one is thankful that the air is cooler.

Day and Night at Work

Darkness falls with surprising suddenness, and lights, speech, fires and noise – if we are near to the enemy – are strictly forbidden. Pickets are posted and the remainder lie down anywhere, when on the march, as moves are often made at midnight when the moon rises. No sound, save that of a lion roaring in the distance, is to be heard, with perhaps the cry of a jackal, and the monotonous crescendo and diminuendo of the mosquito-cries coming out of the nowhere. Mosquito nets of course are not in use except maybe as a pillow. Rolled in a blanket one soon, from sheer exhaustion, loses oneself in unconsciousness, ‘till the call is made for advance, when off we go again reeling out mile upon mile of cable in the glare of the sun. And so we spent most of our time ‘till we bumped the Germani.

Struggling through the bush with heavy cable, soaked with perspiration or rain; dirty torn and bleeding from thorns etc, sharing bully, biscuits, water, duty, or eve clothes, brings men very closely to understand each others qualities and weaknesses. There is a wonder in it all which, in spite of the hardships, I am glad to have experienced: tho’ some of us have wandered far in the ‘Dark Continent’ and looked in vain for things recorded by former travellers.  Indeed there is not much to see, after a vast boundless bush, and forest land, with little variety: and only occasional traces of the “magic east”: for animals have fled before the oncoming troops, and even many a native village is demolished or deserted.

The Use of the White Flag

It should be recorded that on two occasions I was interested in the use of the white flag, the traditions of which were faithfully observed. The first occasion was when our columns were pressing and harassing the retreating Bosche, and they, having numerous sick and no medical comforts, sent in under the white flag for quinine, bandage etc. Hostilities ceased for 2 hours and supplies were given them.

On the second occasion the Bosche retreat was so precipitate that they were obliged to send in – under the white flag – their women who were unable to keep up with the pace and the hardships. After being fed and given medical attention they were carried back to our Base.

Yet a third time I heard of the Germani  sending in to our OC (Col Taylor) that Captain Logan, the Boer Scout attached to our column, who I had often seen, had been caught, shot and buried on the summit of Tandamuti Hill.


Addendum – “New” things seen in Africa (1918) – Part 3

Major Pretorious and a captured baby elephant

Major Pretorious and a captured baby elephant

Major Pretorious, the cleverest scout we had, attained that rank by sheer merit, being merely a trooper when war commenced. Disguised as a native, he frequently penetrated the enemy encampments and ascertained their strength and intended movements. The Germans put a big price on his head but it was never earned. In the hide-and-seek fighting in East Africa where columns of opposing forces might pass each other in the bush and elephant grass, comparatively close, yet unobserved, such scouts – local residents and versed in the ways and languages of the natives – as Major Pretorious and Capt Logan were invaluable.

The Natives

The natives have fine white teeth, strong and well kept. Many of them filed their teeth to a point. Others ornamented themselves by burning (cicatricing) their faces, each mark about half an inch long and a quarter in diameter so that a number of them forma star or other device. A profusion of brass and copper rings on the arms and ankles is seen on both men and women. A peculiarity is the woolley nature of the hair of the natives and the “hairy” covering of the African sheep.

The local beauties

The local beauties

Living with ants

Swarms of ants are met with everywhere, the red variety being particularly fond of animal food and sugar. They foregather in thousands and when in search of food they appear as a solid-looking, red, moving mass, some 20 yards long, 8 inches wide, just like an army on trek, all pressing forward in one direction. Should one happen to tread on a patch they rush up the legs and bite with surprising vigour. Their bites are like sparks of fire. At our encampment near Narunyu our officer was unfortunate enough to lie down in the track of a huge battalion of ants, near the edge of an old tree. They were very quickly all over him and in desperation he tore off his tunic-shirt, shorts and rubbed, squashed and picked off the marauders dancing about as they crawled over and bit him. Ugh! The little beggars made the most lethargic look alive. It is really astonishing how such small bodies can contain so large an amount of ill-nature. They not only bite buy twist themselves round after the mandibles are inserted, to produce laceration and pain. I have dropped a lighted cigarette amongst them and seen it disappear almost immediately by their vicious attack. They know no fear and attack anything which crosses their path.

There is also a species of big black ants, tinged with grey, about ½ inch in length. They usually travel in thousands four abreast, and if disturbed utter a distinct hissing sound. The main body are the carriers of sugar, meat etc, each taking a small grain, led by a few guides who appear to do no carrying, but which attack white ants , and other insects, and inflict a sting which renders them insensible, when they are carried off for food by the rank and file. I have witnessed a mass of these insects removing their eggs from a nest in which they were likely to be flooded by the rains. I reckoned their number at not less than 2000. They carried their eggs a short distance, then laid them down, when others took them farther on, the whole column working in relays.

The effects of Malaria

It is interesting and not generally known that malaria took such a heavy toll in E. Africa that the total casualty list was the highest of any battle front – not even excepting France – reaching over 50%. It is noticeable that it soonest attacks the youths and the elderly person: also those of irregular habits. In most cases it acts as a sort of slow poison. First one feels ‘Out of sorts’, then gradually paling with temperature mounting one becomes anaemic and after a few attacks the heart becomes weaker and weaker, till finally one feels that death would be a happy release. I have had 30 attacks of varying intensity but happily they are becoming weaker and in a few years as my blood thickens I hope to be immune. Quinine is the sheet-anchor of the disease, but it plays havoc with one’s teeth and nervous system.

Bazaars and markets

Lindi tailorsIt is interesting to take a stroll through the native bazaars which are to be found in the coast towns. Here one may find the tailor squatting before his Singer sewing machine. These brown men of India sit at their open stalls and they will repair your jacket while you wait. The next stall may be full of beads, and cheap gaudy German or Brummagem gimcracks which no European would look at a second time, but which are dear to the heart of a nigger. Then comes maybe the café, a disreputable-looking place retailing tea, of doubtful quality and cleanliness, and odd-looking cakes somewhat like lumps of baked molasses.

Lindi market

Lindi market

At the next stall bananas, pineapples, pau-pau, limes etc are displayed. These are luscious, picked ripe in their native home instead of steam ripened as we are used to getting them from Northern fruiterer’s warehouses. Every native hut has its banana patch which requires nothing of labour in cultivation save the weeding away of old stalks. Four thousand lbs of bananas will grow with so little human aid in the same space of ground required to raise 99 lbs of potatoes or 33 lbs of wheat. Pineapples are truly luscious and popular at 2d. each. Oranges too are a big improvement on those sold in Blighty, and they were obtainable at 4 a penny. Limes squeezed into our water bottles made a pleasing drink, and whenever possible we gathered them in the plantations or bought them from the natives at 2d a dozen. Cocoanuts abounded, and it afforded us no little interest to see a young nigger “walk” up a cocoanut palm almost as easily as we walked the ground. Their toes are as distinct members as the fingers and almost as long; and clasping the tree trunk with the hands and feet (the sole of the foot flat at each leaf-scar) they quickly mount to the treetop. Twelve-pounders come crashing down, and with a sharp-pointed stick the native skilfully strips from each nut the thick fibrous matting.


Snakes are numerous, and one of our camps teemed with them. I am not going to recount any personal adventure with these slimy creatures for I found they took quick opportunity of gliding away when approached. I caught one fine highly–coloured specimen by smashing its head with a stick. It died at sunset and I skinned it, and “cured” the skin by pinning it flat on a board, rubbing it and coating the inside with salt and pepper and putting it to dry in the sun.

The Dockray Diary 1914-1920s – Chapter 1a: Introduction

Green ink: typical page of the diary

Green ink: typical page of the diary

An introduction by Ernest Dockray

When I wrote the following pages or rather the bulk of them I lived in a ward of twelve beds in Mile End Hospital, London. There I spent about 7 months and had ample opportunity for thinking over the previous four years and the many incidents, some trivial, some important, which had so strangely altered the mode of my existence. At present I am a sojourner in a civilized life again. I should not obtrude my small affairs on any reader’s notice if enquiries had not been made by friends concerning my mode of life whilst in the Army – what I got to eat: did I feel lonesome: was I ever afraid: and the like. Moreover I found that the preparation of this book – cutting papers, arranging and binding them, together with the writing – served an useful purpose in taking my mind from my illness, and by awakening and stimulating a mentality which had grown rusty by long neglect. I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake in these notes to answer some of the questions. I should not talk about myself if there were anyone else’s army experiences I knew as well. Unfortunately I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover I on my side require every writer, first or last, to give a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives: some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land. Perhaps these pages will appeal more particularly to those who, whilst generally interested in the great war were unfortunately, unable to take an active personal share in it. As for the rest they will accept such portions as apply to them.

All I trust is that opinion will not be too critical, as these fragments were strung together often under peculiar circumstances and many distractions, and at times when the writer was moved to write them as a relief from ennui or pain.

(signed) E. Dockray, London E. Sometime after 1919

Ernest Dockray, 1915

Ernest Dockray, 1915

Two quotes:

“When a soldier is hit by a shell

Rags are as becoming as purple”

“Our ends are as obscure as our beginnings;

The line of our days is drawn by night, and

The various effects therein by a pencil that is invisible.”

–        Sir Thomas Browne.

FOOTNOTE: Some of the pictures used in Ernest Dockray’s diary as illustrations are faded photographs, others are cut out from one or more publications. One of these publications has been identified as the book: “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”, by Lt Col John Henry Patterson of the Royal Engineers. This is described as follows, on a LibriVox audio book page –

“In 1898, during the construction of a river-crossing bridge for the Uganda Railway at the Tsavo River, as many as 135 railway workers were attacked at night, dragged into the wilderness, and devoured by two male lions.

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo is the autobiographical account of Royal Engineer Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson’s African adventures. Among them, his hunt for the two man-eating lions.”

This book, first published by Macmillan in around 1907 according to the Preface, although I have only found a 1919 copy, was also the basis for the 1996 film ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’.

Whether Ernest’s descriptions of these extracted pictures are entirely accurate is unknown, there is possibly some element of ‘adapting available images that give the right impression’.

Nick Denbow, 2013 (Editor)

Chapter 1b: Enlisting, and posting to… Biggleswade

Leeds, March 1915

The two I left behind

The two I left behind

I applied for permission to join the Army in November 1914, but without success, as all the Territorial members in the Civil Service had been mobilized on the outbreak of war thus weakening the staff left to carry on. However after further applications in December and January I received my calling up papers and, with my confrere Arthur Hedges, was duly attested, medically examined, [passed A1], and mustered as a Sapper, in the Royal Engineers, Northern Signal Section of the Territorial Army.   In quick succession followed khaki, squad drill, Swedish drill, riding lessons. Lectures on the war, horsemanship, etc, route marches, musketry and guard duty, – all during the first three weeks spent at Gibraltar Barracks, Leeds.     A preliminary musketry course at Strensall Camp, York, and two inoculations preceded our departure for Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Biggleswade, May to September, 1915

At Biggleswade the Company were billetted in private houses, and “The Peacock Inn” Landlord – Old Kiff) was our first army domicile. I need only state that The Peacock Inn had the undisputed reputation as the vilest dirtiest hole in the town, as we soon found out: and that Arthur’s main pastime was swatting bugs on the bedroom walls. Our meals were served us in the bar parlour amongst the smoke, beer, language, and – ladies! Needless to say we thought we had started badly, yet in after times, of which we then had no inkling, I have often remembered “Old Kiffs” and by comparison, it was a jolly fine place!

The Northern Signal Coy, with the Westerns, Southerns, Scottish and London Signal Coys, paraded on the town cricket ground, under RSM Blackburn. Here for a few months I was mainly occupied on stable duties – grooming, feeding and watering – and polishing harness. It doesn’t sound inspiring but we were a happy crowd and I became hardy and full of health, feeling particularly fit and well. The riding school was a bit strenuous and I almost broke my neck by a nasty fall over my horse’s head. This was a good thing really, for I was transferred from Camp duties to the Headquarters Section. “Schemes” were inaugurated by Major Stott, and the various Cable Sections and HQ left Biggle each week on cable laying expeditions all over Bedfordshire, spending 2,3, or 4 nights away from billet. These were happy days, travelling sometimes on horseback, at others on cable-wagons, or motor-lorries, sleeping in fields, barns, or schoolrooms.

Several times I was loaned from HQ to the Scottish and London Signal Coys, as they were short of skilled Telegraph Operators*, and I gained cable experience which afterwards stood in good stead in East Africa. In fine weather especially these outings were ideal as we lived entirely in the open air, visiting fresh villages daily. The most interesting places we linked up by cable were: Broom. Southill, Northill, Blunham, Ockwell Green, Sandy, Potton, Hitchin, Gamlingay, Letchworth, Hatley St George, Eyeworth, Hinksworth, Haynes Park, Northend, Littleington (sic), Old Warden [and the editor has been there lots of times], Ashwell, Steeple Morden, Codicote, Gt Offley, Tempsford, Highworth, Welwyn, St Albans, Harpenden, etc.


Saturday afternoons were pleasantly passed bathing or boating, walks by the river (Ivel), “pictures”, or cycling to Bedford, Cambridge, Letchworth, etc. We were especially a musical crowd and evening concerts, dances, etc were well patronised. Private musical evenings were enjoyed at Mrs Chews, Mrs Gees, Mrs Taylors and at other friends made in the town.    At Mrs Chews especially Arthur and I spent many happy Sundays in their fine garden and orchard. After changing our billet from the Peacock Inn to a private house (Mrs Green) we were very happy at Biggleswade.

Freda, born 1915, pictured later

Freda, born 1915, pictured later

Orders were received for our company to proceed to Watton, Norfolk, and we were inspected by General Smith Dorien, after which I obtained “special leave” home to inspect the new arrival there. [Editor’s note: 29 August 1915 Freda Margaret was born, Ernest Dockray’s second daughter, and later to be my mum].

The Northern and Western Signal Companies left ‘Biggle’ by motor lorries for Watton.

*Ernest was born 1881, so by 1915 he was 34 years old, and had been working in the post office for some time. I assume he was a qualified telegraph operator for at least part of that time, and this skill was to get him separated from the rest at several occasions.

Chapter 1c: Watton, Norfolk: September 1915 – March 1916

Arthur Hedges (rt) and EJD at their billet at Watton

Arthur Hedges (rt) and EJD at their billet at Watton

Arthur and I were very conveniently billetted opposite the Signal Office and parade ground. Zeppelin raids were frequent during our stay here, as we were in line with London from the Wash. The nearest bomb to us dropped 3 miles away, a petrol tank fell in one of Mr Playle’s meadows 2 miles away, and much damage was done at Dereham and Bury St Edmunds 9 miles away. At Dereham where we cycled to see the sights, the Church tower was cut in two, like a piece of cheese, and an Inn nearby demolished.

Our training period at Watton was the happiest of all our Army life and the townspeople vied with each other in offering hospitality. The Norfolks are a large-hearted race and they will long be remembered with affection by the Northern Signal Coy, RE. Airline, and cable-laying, lamp signalling, squad, company, and rifle drill, and route marches, were given us in small doses: Signal office duties were very light as we had only one circuit to the Northern Army HQ at Lyndford Hall, Mundford.


On Saturdays we arranged pleasant trips by motor lorries to outlying military units playing football. In this way we visited Dereham, Swaffham, Norwich, Yarmouth, etc. Winter evenings were passed at friends, with music etc; dances; and smoking concerts at the Bull Hotel (Ted Sayers – Mine Host). Rabbit coursing, ferritting, shooting were our privilege whenever we cared to visit Fen Road Farm (Mr Playle’s), and Arthur and I were constant visitors, having a free run of the game and the loan of guns, greyhounds and ferrets.


Christmas was a gay time, and although we got no home leave, we were royally fêted by the farmers and their families in the district amongst whom were Playles, Myhills, Gunsens, Seamons, Waces, Sayers. We bathed and boated: bowled and in other ways enjoyed Loch Neaton, the local park; and arranged Sunday concerts there.

One remembered evening was spent at Merton Hall, famous for its library and music Salon. We had music and dinner as the guests of the Chief Butler (the Earl and family were away in London!!) and 2am was all too soon to disperse. Amongst places visited in Norfolk by motor lorry, motorcycle, horseback, on cable wagons or by train or on foot in the course of cable laying or on pleasure bent were Yarmouth, Norwich, Carbrooke, Saham, Threxton, Merton, Shipdham, Hingham, Hillborough, Swaffham, Dereham, Little Ellingham, Cranworth, Cressingham, etc. It was a severe winter, and miles of telegraph wires and hundreds of poles were brought down by snow and wind. Most of our company were withdrawn for repair work in the Northampton – Rugby area. I was retained at Watton and got my first stripe, becoming a Lance-Jack, a little later, and sent to Lynford Hall – the Northern Army Headquarters.

After a pleasant month at Lynford Hall, the London Signal Company took over from us and Sergt Burrows, myself, and the rest of the HQ signal section joined the Northerns at Watton. The Western and Northern Companies were next ordered under canvas at Norwich and I accompanied the advance party to prepare the camp, spending a strenuous 5 days, 6am to 8pm tent erecting, etc. The troops arrived by road, bringing stores, cable wagons, horses, etc. The camp was beautifully situated on a sloping field, edged by a coppice and running down to the river, and overlooking the city of Norwich.

Chapter 1d: Preparations for departure

Norwich: Winter 1915-16

After arrival at Trowse Camp, Norwich, I was detailed to prepare a scale plan of the camp and district, following which Major Hordern detached me for a few days during the following week to attend daily at a private residence in Norwich for the purpose of preparing confidential maps and plans of Norfolk shewing anti-aircraft gun positions, aerodromes, railways, telegraph and telephone lines, military camps, etc. Following this a big “Scheme”, involving all types of signalling – cable, air-line, and visual, and embracing all troops in the Eastern Command, was successfully carried out.

Zepps were at this time very busy, passing frequently over our camp, but fortunately their messages dropped outside the city area. On these occasions the camp was roused, and emptied, each man taking a horse to avoid any stampeding. A second big “scheme” was carried out, embodying all Norfolk troops. This lasted 10 days and nights and we took over Norwich P.O. as Headquarters. I was night duty N.C.O. in charge of the office and staff of the A.D.M.S. (1st Cyclist Division) during the absence of the Sergt on sick leave and acted as confidential clerk to Colonel Blandford (A.D.M.S.) and to Capt Baxter (D.A.D.M.S.). They were two splendid officers and I greatly enjoyed the change, especially as I was given a good private billet and was freed from all camp duties.

After returning to my own Company we went to Horsford for our second musketry firing course. I scored exceptionally well. We were now ordered to quit camp and once again I was detailed for plan-drawing, spending several days at Eaton Hall, our new winter quarters, preparing scale drawings of rooms in the Hall and of stabling and outbuildings for 120 horses and equipment.

image0-004Our stay here was short, but agreeable, and I took the opportunity to visit old friends at Fen Road Farm, proceeding the 40 miles by motor bike. Had a bad spill on the return journey, caused by skidding on the wet tramlines in the Norwich suburbs. Damaged the bike pretty badly and my knee. We next received orders to proceed to Hitchin to be disbanded as a Territorial unit. After handing over Eaton Hall, our horses and other impediments we proceeded by motor lorries taking all our stores to Hitchin, via Wymondham, Attlebore, Thetford, Newmarket and Cambridge.


Spent harassing days handing over all stores etc to Qtr Master. Next, disbanded and transferred to the Regulars. Inspected by Brig-General Boyes after standing, for 3 hours, waiting his pleasure. Following this we entrained for Bletchley taking up quarters at Fenay Stratford.

Fenay Stratford

From here the Sappers were sent to Newport Pagnell, and NCOs retained for NCO special course of instruction under Q.M.S.I. Lewis. Afterwards spent a few weeks of drilling squads of raw recruits from Birmingham, performing guard duties at frequent intervals. Passed through gas course, (lectures, marching in gas masks, etc: then vaccinated and inoculated – (third time)). After “standing by” one wet wintry night, on the parade ground from 10.0pm to 3.0am, as a test of quick mobilization, 60 men of the Company failed to attend or were late on first parade (6am). As a punishment the whole Company was paraded on the Saturday afternoon, (our half holiday), lectures on discipline, and taken a 10 mile route march. We were shortly afterwards placed on a “French” draft and granted final leave.


On our return we proceeded to Hitchin – the RE Draft Depot – for equipment, pay-books etc: and spent an idle few days, attending only two check parades daily. The weather was very severe but I was feeling as fit as the proverbial fiddle.

image0-021For reasons not known to us our Draft was cancelled; all our new equipment was handed in and we became Draft Reserves. A few days later however I was placed in an E. African draft: hurriedly formed, to replace one which was isolated owing to an outbreak of infectious disease. “Eastern” kit was next drawn from the quarterbloke. Spent a fortnight in a manipulation school which had been specially fitted up in the Town Hall for the purpose of final telegraphic training. Occasional Guard duty and long route marches varied the work. Visited Letchworth: – the garden city – and Baldock on these route marches. Finally the Draft was inspected by the Brass Hats and marched with full new kit, including ground sheet, blanket, rifle, etc, by our new Draft officer to Stevenage for short final training and to await embarkation orders. I had now parted from Arthur and other friends and joined an entirely fresh company but there were many fine fellows amongst them. I naturally missed the close companionship of breezy pals like Buckley, Hedges, and Cahill, who ultimately were drafted to France, Egypt and India respectively.



I was now appointed Full Corporal and billetted with Sgt Snow in a splendid billet at Miss Scillitoes, 11 Grove Road and spent an enjoyable month here. Our training comprised lectures on East Africa, trench digging, route marching: with football each afternoon to keep us fit. We were then medically examined and after a thorough overhauling from head to foot I was pronounced “A1 and fit for anything”. I felt it too. The Draft was specially equipped, paraded, and inspected by General Roper prior to going abroad. The following day we were informed that all embarkations were temporarily suspended owing to loss of transport, (not reported in the press) and keen submarine activity in the Channel.

A few days later I had a nasty cycle accident, returning in the dark, without lamps, from Hitchin. In descending a hill the brake failed to act and I was thrown over the handle-bar into a ditch. No bones were broken but I was badly shaken and bruised. At long last we received marching orders and returned by road to Hitchin for paybooks. The same evening we marched to the station, accompanied by the Regimental Band and the usual crowds of civilians and entrained to our port of embarkation, but which port we could not ascertain. At midnight we reached Paddington: Exeter was our next stop in the early hours of the morning, and we then correctly premised that our destination was Devonport. At Exeter we were regaled by the Lady Mayoress and other ladies with very welcome hot coffee and refreshments. Arriving at Devonport we went immediately on board the troopship which was already crowded by men of many regiments.


On board the troopship “Medic”, a converted White Star liner, were accommodated 2000 men and non-commissioned officers, and 50 officers. After two days wait, during which no shore leave was allowed, and no communications left the boat, we set sail, amid great excitement at the forthcoming adventure to which we looked forward so eagerly. We were accompanied by six other transports, six destroyers, several torpedo boats, and a sausage balloon through the beautiful Plymouth Sound. It was an impressive and imposing convoy and one not soon forgotten by the 2000 men setting out to unknown lands with an unknown future before them.

Chapter 1e: Sailing round Africa

At sea on an eleven week sail to East Africa

Immediately on leaving Devonport the Commanding Officer, Major Charlesworth, required a shorthand clerk and typist for himself and the Adjutant, and through the good recommendation of our Draft Officer I was selected. I acted also as Orderly Room Corporal with Sgt Snow, of ours, as Orderly Room Sgt. On a long voyage – ours comprised 11 weeks – this appointment proved a great privilege to me, as, with Sgt Snow, a most interesting companion, we were allowed the exclusive use of the Orderly Room, situated on the upper deck adjacent to the Officer’s quarters. We worked there, slept there, and, rare privilege, kept our kit there, instead of being herded, like cattle, with the rest of the 2000 troops on the lower decks, where the atmosphere and general conditions were horrible especially at night-time when hammocks were slung in every available inch of space. Meals were good (from an Army standpoint) and plentiful, but for the first day or two they were mostly left untouched owing to sea-sickness. I was pleased to find that as formerly, the sea produced no ill effect on me, even when it was rough or choppy and my health and physical condition were splendid throughout the voyage.

image0-011The air ship left us in the Channel, and we formed a tempting bait for the U boats with our line of seven transports (Medic, Persic, Athenic, Kyarrah, Coronia, Hobart, Baranbah), Torpedo boat No.37, H.M.S Minerva, H.M.S Africa etc. For the first 10 days we sailed almost due West in order to avoid the regular trade route – and the submarines. A guard of 30 men were continuously looking seaward in search of submarines. During the first week Sgt Snow and I worked all waking hours in the Orderly Room but afterwards about 2 hours daily sufficed for our work, the rest of the day being spent in deck chairs, writing, smoking, watching the officers, or chatting with the Marconi operators whose office adjoined ours. After passing the Tropic of Cancer the heat became oppressive and awnings were erected over all the open decks as protection from the sun for the men spent all day sitting, standing or walking on the decks.

Concerts and Boxing contests were arranged to relieve the monotony. I took a prominent part in the former – singing, accompanying, and preparing programmes – but not in the latter which however were very enjoyable. Card playing never ceased – crown-and-anchor, pontoon, banker, and “house”, being the most popular – and big sums of money changed hands. One man who ran a crown and anchor board won £180 on the voyage out. He got none of mine! All lights were out after sunset, when smoking was strictly prohibited. Life-belts were worn, or carried day and night: during the day they were generally used as cushions – hard ones ‘tis true – as no sitting accommodation was provided above-deck.

The “Alarm” was frequently sounded when everyone on-board assembled at the respective life-boat stations, wearing life-belts properly fixed. Letters were handed in for censoring prior to our arrival at Freetown (West Coast Africa). The temperature now rose uncomfortably high, and a minimum of clothing was worn: the hose-pipes and salt-water shower baths became popular and were in constant use. We changed from khaki to drill clothes and fancied ourselves, I doubt not, in our new “shorts”.