Robert Valentine Dolbey.

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with great care over the frail bridge that spans a deep ravine. A bridge
made up of tree-trunks laid lengthwise on wooden up-rights. The lion and
the leopard stand beside the road, with paw uplifted, in the glare of
the headlights at night.

Nor is there only danger from flood and fever and the denizens of the
forest. There is ever to be feared the lurking German patrol that trains
its dozen rifles upon the driver, knowing full well that he must sit and
quietly face it out, or the lorry, once out of control, plunges against
a tree and becomes, with both its drivers, the prey of these marauders.
So, while his mate fumbles with the bolt lever of his rifle, the driver
takes a firmer grip of the wheel, gives her more "juice," and plunges
headlong down the road. At Handeni I once had a driver with five bullets
in him; they had not stopped him until he reached safety, and his mate
was able to take over. Nor does this exhaust the risks of his job, for
there is the land mine, buried in the soft dust of the road, or beneath
the crazy bridge. Laid at night by the patrol that harasses our lines of
communication, they are the special danger of the first convoy to come
along the road in the morning. Troops we have not to spare to guard
these long lines of ours, so, in particularly dangerous places, the
driver carries a small guard of soldiers on the top of his freight
behind him. Native patrols, very wise at noticing any derangement of the
surface dust, patrol the highways at dawn to lift these unwelcome
souvenirs from the roads.

From South Africa, from home, and from Canada, come the drivers and
mechanics of the motor transport. The Canadians, stout fellows from
Toronto, Winnipeg, and the Far West, enlisted in the British A.S.C. in
Canada, and arrived in England only to be sent to East Africa. It seems
at first sight a strange country to which to send these men from the
north, but in fact it was a very happy choice. For they got away from
the cold dampness of England and Flanders into the summer seas of the
South Atlantic, where the flying fish and rainbow nautilus filled them
with surprise. Cape Town and Durban must have been for these Canadian
lads a new world only previously envisaged by them, in the big all-red
map that hangs on the walls of Canadian schools, A little difficult at
first, apt to chafe at the restrictions that, though perhaps not
necessary for themselves in particular, were yet essential in preserving
discipline in the whole mixed unit, rather inclined to resent certain
phases of soldier life. But soon they settled down to do their job, to
take trouble over their work rather than make trouble by grousing over
it. Well they proved their worth by the number that now fill the
non-commissioned ranks, and may be judged by the commendation of their
commanding officers. I used to think that they came to see me in
particular, at the long sick parades I held in Morogoro and Handeni,
because I too lived, like some of them, in British Columbia. I cannot
flatter my soul by thinking that they came for the special quality of
the quinine or medical advice I dished out to them. It may have been
that they were far from home, and I seemed a friend in a very strange

All I know is, that I felt a great compliment was paid to me that they
should be grateful for the often hurried and small attentions that I
could give them. They would sometimes bring me Canadian papers that took
me back two and a half years, to the time when I came to England on a
six weeks' holiday from my work, a holiday that has now spun out to
three and a half years, and shows every sign of going further still.
Very well these men stood the climate, in spite of their fair colouring,
in a country that penalises the blonde races more than the brown, that
makes us pay for our want of protective pigment. One stout fellow I well
remember, who had acute appendicitis at Morogoro, was the driver, or
engineer as they are called, of a Grand Trunk Pacific train that ran
from Edmonton in Alberta to Prince Rupert on the Pacific. We operated
upon him, and, though he did very well, yet he must have suffered many
things from our want of nursing in his convalescence. Very considerate
and uncomplaining he was, like all the good fellows in our hospital,
giving no trouble, and making every allowance for our difficulties. In
fact, the great trouble one has among soldiers, is to get them to make
any complaint to their own medical officer. If one suggests things to
them or asks them leading questions, they will sometimes admit to
certain deficiencies in food or treatment by the orderlies. But of what
one did oneself or what the German sister left undone, there was never a
complaint to me; though I rather think there were many grouses when once
they left the hospital. It seemed to me that it was not that they didn't
know better, or that they didn't know that certain things were wrong,
for it is a very intelligent army, this of ours, and has been in
hospital before in civil life, but all along I felt that they did not
like to hurt one's feelings by not getting well as quickly as they
might, and that they often pretended to a degree of comfort and ease
from pain that I'm sure was not the fact. But this phase is often met
with in civil life too, a doctor has much to be grateful for that many
of his patients insist on getting well or saying that they are better,
just to please him.

The German surgical sister was always kind to our men, and when the
serious state of the wound was past she would do the dressings herself,
while I went about some other work. Our men liked her, and I remember
that our Canadian engine driver offered her, in his kindly way, to give
her a free pass on the Grand Trunk Railway. He little knew that this
German sister represented no small part of two big German shipping
companies that could once have provided her with free passes over any
railway in the world. I had under me, too, a couple of Canadian drivers
whose lorry in crossing one of the ramshackle bridges over a river, hit
the railing on the side and plunged to the rocky depths below. A loose
tree-trunk that formed the roadbed of the bridge had jerked the steering
wheel from the driver's hands. Over went the lorry on top of them, and
the mercy of Providence only interposed a big rock that left room below
for the two drivers to escape the crushing that would have killed them.
Badly bruised only, they left me later to recover of their contusion in
the hospital at Dar-es-Salaam.


"Please give us a drop of Johnnie Walker before you do my dressing,"
said my Irish sergeant, who had lost his leg in the fight at Kangata.
Lest you might think that by "Johnnie Walker" he asked for his favourite
brand of whiskey, I may tell you that we had no stimulant of that kind
with us. It was chloroform he wanted to dull the pain that dressing his
severed nerves entailed. Always full of cheer and blarney, he kept our
ward alive, only when the time for daily dressing came round did his
countenance fall. Then anxious eyes begged for ease from pain. But this
once over, he laid his tired dirty face upon the embroidered pillow and
jested of all the things the careful German housewife would say could
she but see her embroidered sheets and the blue silk cushion from her
drawing-room that kept his amputated leg from jars. We had no water to
wash the men, barely enough for cooking and for surgical dressings, but
there were silk bedspreads and eiderdown quilts and all the treasures of
German sitting-rooms. And the fact that they were taken from the Germans
was balm to these wounded men.

There was Murray, a regimental sergeant-major, his leg badly broken by
the lead slug from a German Askari's rifle, ever the fore-most at the
padre's services, chanting the responses and leading all the hymns. And
Wehmeyer, the young Boer, who had accidentally blown a great hole
through his leg above the ankle joint. And Green, the Rhodesian sergeant
who had been brought in, almost _in extremis_, with blackwater. Nor was
his condition improved by the experience of having been blown up in the
ambulance by a land mine, hidden in the thick dust of the road. Thrown
into the air by the force of the explosion, the car had turned over on
him and the driver, who was killed. And there was Becker the blue-eyed
German prisoner with a bullet through his femoral artery and his hip.
Blanched from loss of blood before I could tie the vessel and stanch the
bleeding, his leg suspended in our improvised splints, and on his way to
make a splendid recovery. And Taube, another German prisoner, shot
through the abdomen, and recovering after his operation. Gentle and
conciliatory, with eyes of a frightened rabbit, he was the son of the
great Taube, the physiologist of Dresden.

Cheek by jowl, in the best bed, was Zahn, the hated Ober-Leutenant,
loathed by his own men, one of whom wrote in his diary that he loved to
see the bombardment of Tanga, "for Zahn was there, the - - , and I hope
he'll meet a 12-inch shell." Jealous of his officer's prerogative, and
disinclined to be nursed in the same ward with our soldiers and his own,
he gave a lot of trouble, demanding inordinately, victimising our
orderly, unashamedly selfish. But he was sheltered from my wrath by the
grave gunshot wound of his thigh. Cowardly under suffering, he was in
striking contrast to Becker, who stood graver pain with hardly a flinch.
After a great struggle he was eventually moved to Korogwe to the
stationary hospital. There it became necessary to amputate his leg, and
Zahn surrendered what little courage he had left. "No leg to-night, no
Zahn to-morrow," he said to his nurse. And he was right, for at eleven
that night he had no leg, and at two the next morning there was no Zahn
upon this earth.

And there was Sergeant Eve of the South African Infantry, who got a
D.C.M., a Londoner, and of unquenchable good humour. Vastly pleased with
the daily bottle of stout we got for him with such difficulty, from
supplies, he faced the awful daily dressing of his shattered leg without
flinching, pretending to great comfort and an excellent position of his
splint, which his crooked leg and my practised eye belied.

And there was Smith, yet a boy, but who always felt "champion" and
"quite comfortable," though his days were few in the land and his pain
must have been very severe. Yet in his case he had days of that merciful
euthanasia, the wonderful ease from pain that sometimes lasts for days
before the end. In great contrast with these was an individual with a
wound through the fleshy part of the thigh, by far the least seriously
wounded of all in the ward, who never failed with his unending requests
to the patient orderlies and his eternal complainings, until a public
dressing-down from me brought him to heel. And Glover who wept that I
had lost his bullet, that unforgivable carelessness in a surgeon that
allows a bullet, removed at an operation, to be thrown away with
discarded dressings.

But, of all, the perfect prince was De La Motte, a subaltern in the 29th
Punjabis, ever the leader of the dangerous patrols along the native bush
paths that give themselves so readily to ambush. Shot through the spine
and paralysed below the waist his life was only a question of months.
But if he had little time to live, he had determined to see it through
with a gay courage that was wonderful to see. Previously wounded in
France, he yet seemed, though he cannot possibly have been in ignorance,
to be buoyed up with the perfect faith in recovery with which fractured
spines so often are endowed; never asking me awkward questions, he made
it so easy for me to do his daily dressing, so grateful for small
attentions, and so ready to believe me when I told him that it was only
a question of weeks before he would be home again. And in spite of all
fears I have just heard he did get home to see his people, and by his
cheerful courage to rob Death of all his terrors.


Up the wide stone steps, under the arch of purple Bougainvillea and you
are in my operating theatre. A curtain of mosquito gauze screens it from
the vulgar gaze. Behind these big wooden doors a week ago was the office
of this erstwhile German jail. To the left and right, now all clean and
white painted, were the living rooms of the German jailor and his wife,
but for the present they are transformed into special wards for severely
wounded men. On the lime-washed wall and very carefully preserved is
"_Gott strafe England_" which the late occupants wrote in charcoal as
they fled. Strange how all German curses come home to roost, and move us
to the ridicule that hurts the Hun so much and so surely penetrates his
pachydermatous hide. That the "Hymn of Hate" should be with us a cause
for jest, and "strafe" be adopted, with enthusiasm, into the English
language, he cannot understand. To him, as often to our own selves, we
shall always be incomprehensible.

Through the gauze screen on to the white operating table passed all the
flotsam of wounded humanity in the summer months. All the human wreckage
that marked the savage bush fighting from German Bridge to Morogoro came
to me upon this table. And its white cleanness, our towels and surgical
gloves and overalls, filled them with a sense of comfort and of safety
after weary and perilous journeys, that was in no way detracted from by
the gleaming instruments laid out beside the table. Even this chamber of
pain was a haven of refuge to these broken men after long jolting rides
over execrable roads.

But a particularist among surgeons would have found much to disapprove
of in this room. Cracks in the stone floor let in migrating bands of red
ants that no disinfectant would drive away. Arrow slit windows, high up
in the walls, gave ingress to the African swallow, redheaded and
red-backed, whose tuneful song was a perpetual delight. His nests
adorned the frieze, but they were full of squeaking youngsters and we
could not shut the parents out. So we banished them during operating
hours by screens of mosquito gauze; and to reward us, they sang to our
bedridden men from ward window-sills.

But despite these shortcomings of the operating theatre itself, we did
good work here, and got splendid results. For God was good, and the
clean soil took pity upon our many deficiencies. Earth, that in France
or Gallipoli hid the germs of gangrene and tetanus, here merely produced
a mild infection. Lucky for us that we did not need to inject the
wounded with tetanus antitoxin. But an added charm was given to our work
by the necessity of improvisation. Broken legs were put up in plaster
casings with metal interruptions, so that the painful limb might be at
rest, and yet the wound be free for daily dressings. The Huns left us
plaster of Paris, damp indeed but still serviceable after drying; the
corrugated iron roofing of the native jail provided us with the
necessary metal. Then by metal hoops the leg was slung from home-made
cradles, and I defy the most modern hospital to show me anything more
comfortable or efficient. Broken thighs were suspended in slings from
poles above the bed, painted the red, white and black that marked German
Government Survey posts. Naturally in a field hospital such as this, we
had no nurses; but our orderlies, torn from mine shafts of Dumfriesshire
and the engine sheds of the North British Railway, did their best, and
compensated by much kindliness for their lack of nursing training.

Sadly in need were we of trained nurses; for the bedsores that developed
in the night were a perpetual terror. Ring pillows we made out of grass
and bandages, but a fractured thigh, as you know, must lie upon his
back, and we had little enough rectified spirit to harden the
complaining flesh. But nurses we could not have at so advanced a post as
this. The saving factor of all our work lay in the natural goodness of
the men. They felt that many things were not right; for ours is a highly
intelligent army and knows more of medicine and surgery than we, in our
blindness, realise. But they made light of their troubles, as they
learnt the difficulties we laboured with. So grateful were they for
small attentions. That we should go out of our way to take pains to
obtain embroidered sheets and lace-edged pillows, absolved us in their
eyes from all the want of surgical nursing. Liberal morphia we had to
give to compensate for nursing defects. I have long felt that I would
rather work for sick soldiers than for any class of humanity; and in
fifteen years I have come to know the sick human animal in all his
forms. So that the least that one could do was to scheme to get the
precious egg by private barter with the natives, and to find the silk
pillow that spelt comfort, but was the anathema of asepsis. No wonder
that such splendid and uncomplaining victims spurred us to our best
endeavours and made of toil a very joy.


This is the season of blackwater fever, the pestilence that stalks in
the noontide and the terror of tropical campaigning. Hitherto with the
exception of the Rhodesians who have had this disease previously in
their northern territory, or men who have come from the Congo or the
shores of the Great Lakes, our army has been fairly free from this dread
visitation. The campaigning area of the coast and the railway line of
British East Africa that gave our men malaria in plenty during the first
two years of war, had not provided many of those focal areas in which
this disease is distributed. The Loyal North Lancashires and the 25th
Royal Fusiliers had been but little affected. The Usambara Valley along
the Tanga-Moschi railway was also fairly free. On the big trek from
Kilimanjaro to Morogoro the blackwater cases were almost entirely
confined to Rhodesians and to the Kashmiris, who suffer in this way in
their native mountains of Nepal. But once we struck the Central Railway
and penetrated south towards the delta of the Rufigi the tale was
different. British and South African troops began to arrive in the grip
of this fell malady. It was written on their faces as they were lifted
from ambulance or mule waggon. There was no need to seek the cause in
the scrap of paper that was the sick report. All who ran could read it
in the blanched lips, the grey-green pallor of their faces, the
jaundiced eye, the hurried breathing. Thereupon came three days'
struggle with Azrael's pale shape before the blackwater gave place to
the natural colour again, or until the secreting mechanism gave up the
contest altogether and the Destroying Angel settled firmly on his prey.
At first, if there was no vomiting, it was easy to ply the hourly drinks
of tea and water and medicine. But once deadly and exhausting vomiting
had begun, one could no longer feed the victim by the mouth. Then came
the keener struggle for life, for fluid was essential and had to be
given by other ways and means. Into the soft folds of the skin of the
arm-pits, breast and flanks we ran in salt solution by the pint. The
veins of the arms we brought into service, that we might pour in this
vitalising fluid. Day and night the fight goes on for three days, until
it is won or lost. Here again, as in tick fever, we use the preparation
606, for which we are indebted to the great Ehrlich. Champagne is a
great stand-by. So well recognised is the latter remedy that all old
hands at tropical travel take with them a case of "bubbly water" for
such occasions as these. Blessed morphia, too, brings ease of vomiting
and is a priceless boon.

You ask me the cause of this disease, and I have to admit that among the
authorities themselves there are no settled convictions. Some hold - and
for my part I am with them - that the attack is caused by quinine given
in too large a dose to a subject who is rotten with malaria. But there
are others who maintain that it is a malarial manifestation only, and
that the big dose of quinine, which seems to some to precipitate the
attack, is only a coincidence. Be that as it may, there is little
difference in the treatment adopted by either school. Death achieves his
victory as frequently with one as with another. Certain it is that, to
the common mind, quinine is the reputed cause and is avoided in large
doses by men who have once had blackwater, or who are in that low rotten
state that predisposes to it. In one point all agree, that one must be
saturated with malaria before blackwater can develop. So great is the
aversion shown by some men to the big doses of quinine as laid down by
regulations, that men have often refused to take their quinine. Others,
too, who have protested at first, take their quinine ration only to find
themselves in the grip of this disease within twelve hours. Such a case
was a Frenchman named Canarie (and the colour of his face, upon
admission, did not belie his name), who had been treated for blackwater
fever by the great Koch in Uganda many years before, and had been warned
by him against big doses of quinine. That evening he was on my hands,
fortunately soon to recover, and to win a prolonged convalescent leave
out of this rain to the sunny and non-malarial slopes of Wynberg.

Seldom do the rumbling ambulances roll in but among their human freight
is some poor wretch snoring into unconsciousness or in the throes of
epileptiform convulsions. Custom has sharpened our clinical instinct,
and where, in civil life, we would look for meningitis, now we only
write cerebral malaria, and search the senseless soldier's pay-book for
the name that we may put upon the "dangerous list." As this name is
flashed 12,000 miles to England, I sometimes wonder what conception of
malaria his anxious relatives can have.

For there is no aspect of brain diseases that cerebral malaria cannot
simulate; deep coma or frantic struggling delirium. A drop of blood from
the lobe of the ear and the microscope reveals the deadly
"crescents" - the form the subtertian parasite assumes in this condition.
No time this for waiting or expectant treatment. Quinine must be given
in huge doses, regardless of the danger of blackwater, and into the
muscles or, dissolved in salt solution, into the veins. The Germans have
left me some fine hollow needles that practice makes easy to pass into
the distended swollen veins. Through this needle large doses of quinine
are injected, and in six hours usually no crescent remains to be seen.
As a rule, conscious life returns to these senseless bodies after some
hours; but, unhappily, such success does not always crown our efforts.
Then it is the padre's turn, and in the cool of the following afternoon
the firing party, with arms reversed, toils behind our sky-pilot to that
graveyard on the sunlit slopes of Mount Uluguru, where our surgical
failures are put to rest.

One can always tell, you know, the onset of such a complication as this;
for when one finds the victim of malaria hazy and stupid after his fever
has abated; and, more especially, if he develops wandering tendencies,
leaving his stretcher at night to choose another bed in the ward, often
to the protesting consternation of its present occupant, then one passes
the word to Sister Elizabeth to get the transfusion apparatus ready. I
shall not readily forget one stout fellow, a white company
sergeant-major in the Gold Coast Regiment, who was lost in the bush and
discovered after many days in the grip of this fell disease. Him they
bore swiftly to me at Handeni, and after many injections and convulsions
innumerable, he was restored to conscious life again. Sent back by me
eventually to Korogwe with a letter advising his invaliding out of the
country, he opened and read my report upon the way. But he was of those
who do not take kindly to invaliding. Who would run his machine-gun
section, if he were away, and his battalion in action? Who like he could
know the language and the little failings of his dusky machine-gun crew
that he had trained so long and so carefully in the Cameroon? So he
appeared in the books of the Stationary Hospital at Korogwe as an
ordinary case of convalescent malaria on his own statement. And when
they would send him still further back to M'buyuni he broke out from
hospital one night, and, with his native orderly, boarded the train to
Railhead and marched the other 200 miles to Morogoro. Here I met him on
the road starting out on the next long trek of 125 miles to Kissaki. For
news had come to him that the Gold Coast Regiment had been in action and
their impetuous courage rewarded by captured enemy guns and a long
casualty list. But he was determined and unrepentant, one of his beloved

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Online LibraryRobert Valentine DolbeySketches of the East Africa Campaign → online text (page 4 of 10)