A DOCTOR'S DIARY IN DAMARALAND
March 9.---Punctually at noon the M.B.F.A. arrived at the docks. Three or four troopships were filling up with the 3rd Mounted Brigade and their effects. Our ship is one captured on the west coast early in the war. She is very high in the water, and has main, upper, promenade, and hurricane-decks, and a bridge. She looks as if she would topple over the moment she is released from the quay. There is plenty of accommodation for the officers, but the men are crowded together in every available part of the ship.
The holds are crowded with rough plank bunks as close as they can get them, strange housing for the Burghers, who are accustomed to the illimitable veldt. It is very peculiar to see a German ship crowded with Dutch Africanders going to fight the battles of the British Empire against the Germans themselves, and no doubt one that would evoke characteristic utterances from the Kaiser, could he be privileged to see it. By three o'clock everybody seemed to have got on board somehow, and the other transports departed, a Clan liner so crowded with our horses that they could not swing their tails, and another ship with the right wing of the brigade. Kind women had dispensed tea and coffee all round; Smuts, Merriman, and other visitors, had gone on shore, and we seemed ready to start. A cold mist came up, and the friends and visitors melted away. Somebody said we were waiting for some parts belonging to an aeroplane. At 7 p.m. our ship left the docks, steamed into the bay, and anchored in a fog.
March 10.---A good many men were rather wild last night as the effect of excitement. It appears that we are delayed owing to a shortage of stokers, who are expected at any moment. We hear it is quite a problem to find crews for these transports, the demand all over the world being very great for men with nautical knowledge. After breakfast we noticed a steam-launch approaching, and everybody thought it must be the stokers. However, when it got nearer we saw only a policeman and a woman who was standing upon the stern gesticulating wildly, to her imminent peril. Naturally, I thought she was on the tracks of an erring husband, but it turned out she was after a little Boy Scout who thought he would like to go to the war. He, when he found the game was up, quietly slipped down a rope into the launch, and took his seat beside his mother in a most complacent manner. She, too, as soon as she had got him, quieted down and took no further notice of him. I had seen the youngster knocking about the ship with a soldier. He had a shallow, shifty pale blue eye which suggested a doubtful career.
At 3 p.m. we left the bay, one or two very unprofessional-looking stokers having arrived, and several men from among the troops having also volunteered for the work.
March 11.---We are now well at sea, and many of our noisy landsmen are suffering from a reaction. The Captain and the P.M.O., however, are doing their best, and fatigues are being established, in units where discipline prevails, to clean up the ship.
In the evening we had an impromptu concert, of which an electrically driven pianola was the basis. A sergeant who in private life is a circus clown held the boards most of the evening with some rather risky recitations.
March 12.---It is cold this morning, and a thick mist hangs over the sea. The buzzer is going off every minute as a warning to other ships. At 8 a.m. we were 410 knots from Cape Town---that is, we are averaging 10 knots an hour. When I went to have a look at the log, there were two Burghers leaning over the stern and arguing as to how the ship maintained her course in the dark or in a fog out of sight of land. The one man thought that the slender rope towing astern kept the ship in her course. The other looked at this for a while, and then, noticing on the smooth ocean the track of the ship, said: " Kijk hier, on kerel ! Daar's die pad " (Look there, my boy ! There's the path).
March 13.---We are off Walfisch Bay now. Another fog is on. Indeed, they say there is always fog on this coast at this season of the year. In consequence of the fog we are going very slowly, and sounding every few minutes. About noon it lifted, and we caught a glimpse of a low sandy bank, and on the farther side of it smooth water where a few ships were anchored.
Walfisch Bay opens toward the north. It is protected from the Atlantic on the west by a long sandy bank four or five miles long, which runs out to Pelican Point, where there is a lighthouse. At the southern extremity of the bay is Walfisch itself, very inconspicuous, a few tents and small buildings marking the spot. Two or three miles north is a collection of eight or nine reddish buildings, which we are told is a whaling-station rented by a Norwegian firm; but when the war broke out the fishermen fled off to Norway or some equally safe place, leaving everything behind. Eastward is the mainland, a low and arid coast rising here and there into rounded sand-hills. Along the coast close to the shore we can see a train steaming north to Swakupmund. Five or six steamers are anchored in the bay.
A portion of our men went ashore this afternoon. Quite a lot of tugs and lighters seem to be available.
March 14.---Yesterday, talking to an officer who seemed very retiring and quiet, I made somewhat of a faux pas. I noticed he wore a black badge on his collar, with a leaf in gold thread. To lead the conversation into what I hoped would be an interesting channel, I said: " I see you belong to the aviation corps." He replied that he did not, and looked at me very hard. At lunch I pointed him out to a friend, saying I thought he was an aviator. "That, my dear fellow," I was told, " is the chaplain to the left wing!"
This morning we disembarked. After an early breakfast all the officers came ashore in a tug---the Stork, of East London, by the way. Our Burgher friends were in the best of spirits, relieved, I think, to see terra-firma again, however bleak it might appear. They sat there in the tug spinning yarns as only Dutchmen can. We were dumped down on the sand, this hot Sunday morning, without food or orders, and with nothing but our blankets.
Apart from man's handiwork, which is very scanty, there is nothing but sand and water to be seen at Walfisch. To the south and west are sand-flats and lagoons. To the east and north there are sand-hills, rising, in some places, in tiers to hills of considerable height. The surface of the ground looks as smooth as it would if covered by a heavy fall of snow, only instead of the snow you have loose yellowish-gray sand. Spoors, too, resemble those made in the snow, and the tracks of waggons can be seen over the sandhills for miles and miles. Mirage distorts everything, buildings, hills, and especially men and horses, looking much taller than they are. Horses, particularly, often look very grotesque in the distance, with an ordinary sized body on very spindly legs about 10 feet long.
Buildings there are none, unless one included a few wood and iron shanties in that category. One of these places, distinguished only by a small belfry, does duty as a church for Anglicans, Romans, Wesleyans, and Dutch Reformed. There are one or two stores, and another place calls itself an hotel. All are in a shocking state of repair, iron rusting, wood rotting, and what little paint they may have had at one time now desquamating freely. When one thinks of our poor friends and neighbours with their fine town of Swakupmund on the open Atlantic, where with luck they can land every third day or so, it does seem as if Britannia had been playing dog in the manger with this splendid harbour, where only two or three ships a year call under normal circumstances. The white population is said to have been thirty-nine at one time, but I think this must be an exaggeration. One man, a store-keeper named Green, has done very well here trading in the Hinterland with Hottentots. He is quite a patriot, and in season and out of season he has emphasized the importance and splendid position of Walfisch, which is the only decent harbour on the whole coast.
Of course, it is all hubbub here now, for it is the one and only base for the whole Northern Force. Twenty-one thousand men and as many horses and mules have to be fed. This means that 500 tons of food, etc., have to be landed daily if a reserve is to be built up. Besides food, even water has to be brought from Cape Town in ships, to say nothing of locomotives, rails, sleepers, waggons, and a thousand and one things necessary to maintain an army in the field. Although Walfisch affords such good anchorage, the surrounding shore is so low that only little bits of sand-bank here and there are not covered by the sea at high-tide. In order to provide space for camps and storage of material, it has been necessary to build an extensive sea-wall to keep the water off the flats. Piles have been driven into the sand, to which boards are fastened to the height of 4 or 5 feet, and the whole is backed by piling up sand behind. Dykes, too, are cut in all directions to drain off the water. So far these arrangements have not been very satisfactory, and here and there there are large stagnant lakes of sea-water, in which our war-material soaks continuously, or periodically.
The camps, too, are below the level of high-tide, and are consequently very damp. We have been given a spot for ours which was previously occupied by horses, and is much contaminated; so that, where a tent is erected over this warm, wet, manure-sodden sand, the effluvium in that tent is not very pleasant. The flies, too, are numerous as the sea-sand, and are very energetic and voracious. The days are hot and windy, the nights are cold and damp. The water is bad, and there is not much of it. For the animals it is mixed with a certain percentage of salt water. Our food is contaminated with dust, dirt, and flies, so that altogether Walfisch cannot be described as a salubrious spot just now.
There is great difficulty in getting the material ashore, owing to very inadequate pier accommodation. The smaller things, such as boxes of food and perishables, are landed at a small jetty in tugs and barges, and stored on a little ridge of sand which is, fortunately, a little drier. The animals and heavy material are brought from the ships on rafts. A tug tows the rafts inshore as far as it can, then about fifty or sixty natives pull the rafts in until they ground. Through the shallow water the smaller things are carried, and the larger, such as rails, are towed through the water by means of a rope attached to a winch on the shore. About 3,000 natives are engaged in this work at two shillings a day and their rations. Gangs are working night and day, Sundays included, and their sonorous chanting as they pull on the ropes never ceases.
A very conspicuous structure in Walfisch is the Condenser, a row of boilers and four tall iron chimneys. It comes from America, and the man in charge says it is supposed to supply 80,000 gallons a day but is only doing half this amount. Similar plants elsewhere are also doing very badly. This condensed water is most insipid. The water is conveyed to the various camps in a large barrel la garden roller, much being lost in transit and also when attempts are made to get it out of the barrel.
The camp is so malodorous and damp that the O.C. and I decided to take up our quarters for the night in some empty railway trucks standing near. We have chosen one with high sides and a little straw in it, which, besides being dry, affords some shelter from the cold, damp sea-breeze which comes up after sunset.
March 15.---This morning I explored the sand-flats towards the south-west; they extend for many miles, and every now and then there is a lagoon. Evidently the sea is gradually receding here, and sand-hills can be seen in the making from the earliest stages. The wind and tide collect a little dÈbris in one place. This dÈbris consists of dry seaweed, dead birds, etc. A little sand is washed up around this nucleus. Every wind and tide adds to this little mound, which by-and-by becomes quite big. After a while a little coarse vegetation appears, and the growth and permanence of this embryo sand-hill is assured. These various stages in the growth of a sand-hill are so obvious on the flats here that there can be no doubt as to how they are formed.
Above the level of the water and among the sandhills two species of beetles are to be found in great numbers. One is a greenish-bronze colour, and is about half an inch long. It runs in a quick, jerky way, and finally escapes by flying. The other is black and rather smaller. It is very timid, and runs with incredible quickness when approached, swaying from side to side as an ostrich does. These beetles are very conspicuous objects on the dunes, especially the black one, and they exhibit wonderful nimbleness and agility in negotiating the little irregularities in the sand.
Two kinds of birds were noticeable---a small wader and a pale salmon-coloured flamingo. The latter is a very beautiful bird about 3 feet high, and frequents the lagoons in small flocks of twenty or thirty.
Out on these flats there are ten or twelve blockhouses protecting the camp. These blockhouses are small round huts constructed of sand-bags and surrounded by wire entanglements, and in the intervening spaces between them there is a wire fence. They are joined up by telephone to each other and to headquarters. The Durban Light Infantry are the garrison at present, and they have outposts on the neighbouring hills, with maxims; there is also a high-angle gun to ward off attacks of aircraft. If the Germans attacked and held Walfisch now for a week, the Northern Force in the neighbourhood of Swakupmund would be in a very precarious position; for it is living from hand to mouth, and has no reserve provisions for man or animal. The croakers in the transport and commissariat departments say that the arrival of the troops at Walfisch was premature, and that they should have been allowed six weeks or so to establish depots.
March 16.---During the night I heard considerable disturbance and the sound of moving water. Looking out of my truck as soon as it was light, I saw that a considerable portion of the camp was under water. During the night the tide had broken in, and the truck we were in had become an island. We hastily waded out to arrange platforms out of sleepers to protect our goods. Several units were less fortunate than our men. Their tents were flooded out, and their belongings were floating about. Men were to be seen on every side digging feverishly and throwing up banks to keep out the water, in most cases rather unsuccessfully, for the Atlantic laughed at their efforts. This inroad of water will make Walfisch a worse camp than ever; and the sooner the brigade, which is now all here, is moved on to Swakupmund, the better.
March 17.---General Botha was here to-day. He came down from Swakupmund on a motor trolly. We hear his reason for coming was to buck the Quartermaster-General's department up a bit, in which case a move may be expected very shortly.
March 18.---Early this morning a messenger came over from Swakupmund. We asked him what sort of place it was. " Oh, fine place ! Everybody lives in 'ouses and 'as 'lectric light." A contrast to Walfisch in two respects, at any rate.
A gale is raging to-day, and in all directions tents are flapping about in clouds of dust, for it is quite impossible to make the pegs hold in the loose sand, and men are spending all their time vainly endeavouring to hammer them in. The arrival of a few prisoners was the only diversion we had this day. Eight coloured men and three Bantus had surrendered voluntarily about forty miles to the southeast. The former were dressed in khaki, very neat in appearance, and clean-looking, active, intelligent fellows. They had with them a very heavy two-wheeled cart drawn by ten oxen in good condition. They were armed with Mausers, but are reported to have said that they would not fight against us, however much ammunition they were given, and that there were many more of the same opinion. This is good news, for we have heard frequently that the Germans have armed the Bastards, and that in guerrilla warfare they are very formidable, being excellent shots and knowing the country so well.
Our transport has arrived: 168 white mules, twelve spans of twelve each for the ambulance waggons and general service waggons, and four spans of six each for the water-carts and Scotch carts. Besides we have two motor ambulances, both having a Hupmobile chassis.
March 19.---To-day the------M.B.F.A. was ordered to move on to Swakupmund. The transport and the mounted men went by road, or rather along the seashore, for there is no road. The rest of the brigade went by train. Preferring to ride, I accompanied the mounted men. For the first six miles or so the shore is quite sandy and easy-going. Here the water in the bay is very smooth. Afterwards the shore becomes more rocky, and, being no longer under the shelter of Pelican Point, the full majesty of the Atlantic can be observed, great billows rolling in and breaking on the rocks. The authorities have erected many beacons along the shore, and every thousand yards or so near the railway there is a blockhouse. The line is laid along the shore practically the whole way, and in some places it is built upon sand-bags. Consequently, at many spots it is at the mercy of a tide a little higher than the average, and almost every day at some point or other it is washed away. The line cannot be laid farther inland, for there is only a narrow strip of firm ground between the sea and the shifting sand-hills, which extend all the way from Walfisch to Swakupmund. For the present the D.E.O.R. [note: Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles, a Cape Town regiment] guard the line.
Life in the blockhouses is terribly dull, they say, as there is nothing to do except to bathe and fish and wait for the train which brings water and food. The men look very well, and are tanned the colour of the aborigines, spending the bulk of their time in shirts and knickers, and often not even in these. At one blockhouse I saw two young soldiers engaged in a violent altercation over a young penguin. The man who was holding it wouldn't let it go, because he was certain it would fly away; whereas the other man was game to bet him anything that it couldn't.
We reached Swakupmund a little after noon. It is said to be twenty-two miles from Walfisch along the coast, and a very heavy twenty-two miles it is. Waggons generally take more than one day to do it, partly because of the heavy going, partly because of the tides and travelling at night being prohibited.
To suddenly come upon a city in the howling wilderness causes rather a strange sensation, and is the sort of thing one only expects in a fairy tale. Without any warning, when rounding a little bend, there suddenly sprang into view a conglomeration of unnatural-looking buildings standing on a sand-hill some 30 or 40 feet above the sea. It seemed to be a city of towers and turrets white towers, pink towers blue towers, little towers, big towers, church towers and lighthouse towers. A few soldiers plough their way through the sandy streets; otherwise it is a city of the dead. There is not a civilian, a tame animal or bird, in the place. Windows are boarded up, and the blinds are down. Only a few buildings are occupied by various headquarters. The inhabitants left in a hurry at the beginning of the war, taking much of their belongings with them, and destroying watertanks, surf-boats, cranes, and other useful things before they left. From August until about Christmas the place was empty; then a small force of Union troops occupied it.
Doctor's Diary in Damaraland index