Fighting in East Africa

By A British Signaler

[The New York Times/Current History, January 1916]

The following extract is from the letter of a signaler in the East African Mounted Rifles, a corps raised in Nairobi at the beginning of the war and consisting for the most part of young settlers and coffee planters:

We started at sunset, our orders being to storm a picquet if there at dawn, and then hold the ridge. The fact that we were to do a bayonet charge worried some of us because, you see, we are Mounted Rifles, and have never had much use for bayonets. There was moonlight, and dust and little puffs of cold, dry wind whispered mysteriously through the long grass, and the forbidding-looking mountain we were making for stood out very black. Toward morning the breeze got bitterly cold, and the moon set and the plain seemed peopled with horrible black shapes ourselves in extended order. We arrived at the foot of the ridge before dawn and slept for an hour before forming up for the assault. That hill was one of the steepest ever, and we were a bit disappointed when we got to the top and found it unoccupied! If it had been, I expect it would have been a bit expensive to take. It finished our work for the moment, as it was still too dark to shoot, and the King's African Rifles were to carry on the assault.

I didn't see as much of their work as I would have liked to, because, being the squadron signaler, I had to keep a bit out of it if possible. When I did try to see what was happening the enemy sprinkled me with a maxim, so I decided mere curiosity wasn't worth it. Firing didn't begin till daylight, and though quite a lot of people were moving about the hillsides, we couldn't tell whether they were British or enemy askaris, as their uniforms are much alike.

Then there was a single shot, then a volley, then the circle of hills in which we were rang with the music. The maxims joined in and rattled viciously, providing the light music; the heavy part of the opera being the rumble of rapid rifle fire in a rocky amphitheatre.

Then the K. A. R.'s charged. I heard the bugle sound and some distant yelling, and the Germans' maxims stopped their deliberate work and stuttered on and on without taking breath.

After a time there came a lull in the fighting, and the firing sounded rather like a pack of dogs who had been severely reproved for barking in the night and yet can't quite stop. A shot then more shots a lull. ("Stop it, you brute.") Then an enemy maxim would yap hysterically, and the whole pack would be off again.

We were trying to finish off a machine gun which wouldn't be silenced. I think we must have worried it a bit, for it did me the honor of taking a violent dislike to me personally for about ten minutes. It fired at irregular intervals into and over and around my rock, till I felt that I was playing an exciting game of roulette with rather high stakes. I got through about twenty rounds in that little gamble. I had to wait till they fired, pop up, pick up my mark, fire, and then grovel again, judging the time between their bursts. I do not mind the twang of a ricochet, but I have no use for the soft, threatening little whisper in your ear.

Presently I was called to flag a message, and beat an undignified retreat to what seemed a safer spot; but a sniper had now started on me, and I had sent only a few words when I heard the beastly little whisper an inch off my left ear. I knelt down, and sent a few more letters, and a bullet passed between my arm and body, and hit the sangar in front of me with a sound like the breaking of a banjo string. Then I climbed over the sangar, and went on with it, but a bullet hit a rock somewhere near the back of my neck, deflected, and hummed off into space.

I got a bit further down the hill, and tried to hurry the message through, but they turned a maxim on to the man I was signaling to, and made things exciting for him, so we were jolly glad when it was finished. The worst of this job is that you have got to pretend you like being potted at; because everybody is looking at the pretty signaler at work on occasions like this. The sniper was a German askari, not a white man, because our snipers were kept well occupied by him all day, and saw him. Several enemy snipers had slipped through the K. A. R.'s, and sniped from between them and our snipers, so both lots had a busy time chasing one another.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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The Headlong Fury