PEACE, WAR and AFTERWARDS - 1914 to 1919

A young man's letters written chiefly to his mother.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Britain declared war on Germany on Tuesday, 4th August 1914.


December 27th 1914 I'm afraid you'll be thinking I'm a bit of a heathen for not having written before to wish you the compliments of the season, but since I last wrote I have sought pastures new. Here is the whole story.

At Brakpan, the Head Surveyor was promoted to Assistant Underground Manager about the beginning of December. He told me when I agitated for a `rise' that I would get it when he was promoted; in fact we would all obtain promotion, me from Junior Surveyor to that of Second Assistant. The designation did not worry me a bit so long as I was paid more. Well, on December 19th the Head Surveyor was duly promoted, but he informed me that they had obtained the services of a man who had had more experience than I, so they couldn't give me the promised rise, but must place him above me.

This meant that my chance of promotion was indefinitely postponed, and so long as I was merely a junior surveyor my salary would remain at £20 - I made sure on that point. As a result, on hearing of a vacant sampler's job at the Wolhuter carrying a salary of £22.10.0, in a cooler mine and a less arduous job, and being thoroughly dissatisfied with my treatment, I gave 24 hours notice and left Brakpan. I commenced work here on Wednesday morning.

I had half-intended to come home for Christmas, but that would have meant that I would have been obliged to return here almost `broke' to face the prospect of seeking another appointment. This would not however, have been a difficult job as things are at present.

Well, the fact remains I'm settled here for now in a fairly decent room. I've left a lot of good pals at Brakpan, but I can always return there for golf or tennis, or for a day on the veld with them. When I actually left there, two of them made me a present of a Petson pipe as a keep-sake - a very nice one too. I will continue to enjoy their company in a small debating society and hold meetings every Thursday. This job is merely a stop-gap at present as ultimately I have hope of obtaining a survey appointment on the E.R.P.M.

I hope you had a nice Christmas at Home. I spent the day with the Walkers at Boksburg, and in the afternoon we went for a row on the lake. Today I spent with the Raymonds. I haven't received any letters for about a week from anybody but suppose they will turn up after being re-addressed from Brakpan.

January 20th 1915 The news I'm going to tell you will probably upset you at first, but afterwards I hope you will get used to it. I'm really going to the front this time, and what is more I'm going to England with my chum Bird to enlist there.

Please, mother dear, don't take this to heart too much and worry over it because it won't do any good. I know you will be thinking only of the dark side of the undertaking but really, when you come to weigh up the risks I take here with those of a campaign, there is very little difference. Here, one has always the bogie of Miners' Phthisis to face, and I sometimes wonder if my lungs are as good as they should be. Again, accidents are not uncommon here: skip-accidents, misfires, falling material, bad hanging-wall and hundreds of other things that one risks every day. In the army one risks being shot or catching disease, and of the two occupations you can see there isn't much to choose. Further, ever since I took up mining I've led a more or less adventurous life - you'll hardly understand this having lived a very quiet life in Pietermaritzburg - but nevertheless, life on the Rand and in any mining centre is always hazardous.

I think the spirit of adventure in my case is more the lure than patriotism; perhaps it's a mixture of the two. We will have a nice sea voyage, I hope, lasting about a fortnight, then once in London we will go about a bit and see things. Then when our funds begin to run too low we will enlist in Kitchener's Army.

Our scheme is to try to join the Engineers so for that purpose I am having sworn copies made of my diploma and other certificates and credentials, and am going to try very hard to obtain a commission in one of these formations In addition, I have obtained a testimonial from Mr Barns of Maritzburg College stating my service in the College Cadet Corps. If we fail to enter the Engineers, we will try the Artillery, and failing that will try King Edward's Horse, Colonial Horse or University and Public Schools Corps.

We are going armed with letters of introduction to various people at Home and I should be glad if you will send me the addresses of people around London - they may come in useful.

I've sold my motor-bicycle, golf-clubs, camera and several other things and do not propose to take much with me. It will also probably send a box of stuff down to you to keep. I will contain articles I am not taking with me such as my dress-suit, etc.

I hope to continue working here until January 31st, and then am going through to Cape Town to join the ship there on February 6th.

I've been very unsettled since the war commenced. I've had to sit still and watch most of my pals go off, and it is not a pleasant sensation, mother dear, to feel that your friends think you wanting in grit to embark on such an undertaking. Nelson, Tom and dozens of boys we know have left Pietermaritzburg, and up here there is hardly a fellow left in the School of Mines. Just think how unpleasant it will be to face them on their return!! This plan is not of mushroom growth. I wanted to go with Duirs and Lethbridge but couldn't at that time because I could not raise the money and at the same time repay my outstandings.

Now that I have seen you both in Johannesburg recently I shall be saved the journey down to Natal. You would have known of this trip long ago only when I knew you were coming up here for a trip, I didn't wish to cast a gloom on your holiday, so I kept silent. I wanted to tell you before you actually left, but somehow I just could not say it especially when you expressed no opinion on Warren Martin's enlistment in the Scots Guards.

Looking at this trip from a practical standpoint, it strikes me as being the chance of a lifetime to get to Europe. It would normally take me years and years to save up enough to have a proper trip to England. Now, all I have to do is to pay my fare home and then enlist and be kept at Government's expense. Kitchener gives all his recruits six months training first, so we shall have the best part of the summer there. I know perfectly well we shall have to work very hard during those six months, but that I am prepared to do. It will harden my muscles and make a man of me. I expect Dad will think this a wild goose chase but he mustn't forget that he came out to Natal as a young man under very similar conditions.

Well, Mother dear, I hope that by the time you have read as far as this, you will have become reconciled to the idea and that in your reply you will be able to say that you are proud to have a son as a volunteer in His Majesty's Army. Mrs Lawson is very proud of George. Do you happen to know Willie Merrick's address, or Bull Harkness', or Renolds', or any of my old friends now in England?

January 28th 1915 - At the Wolhuter Gold Mine. Thanks so much for your nice letter received today. I'm very glad you've taken my news in the proper spirit, and at the same time I'm sorry to have to cause you one moment's anxiety.

I'm all excitement now to set off. I'm leaving here on Saturday night for Cape Town and will stay about a week there with Harry Bird's people at "Sunnybrae", Milner Road, Tamboer's Kloof. We are to sail by the `Dunvegan', I believe.

You need have no fear about us while in London for everybody here, both Bird's friends and mine have given us instructions as to what to do and where to go; besides, I'm not so green after having lived in Johannesburg for the last four years. We have a friend in Charing Cross Hospital who is going to meet us in London and arrange lodging. Thanks for the addresses you sent me. I will try hard to go to Harrow-on-the-Hill once more. Doesn't it all sound strange? And won't it be stranger still to go there and see most of the old faces once more? I also am looking forward to meeting Duirs and many other friends who chucked up everything to go home when war broke out.

Mother dear, I expect I shall get very homesick and lonely when I realise the distance that separates us, but rest assured that you will always be with the thoughts nearest my heart, and I will never forget that you are my dearest and best friend in all the world and that you are my Mother. Be brave, Mother dear, and think only of the time when we shall have crushed for ever this Monster, and all meet again in peace in Pietermaritzburg. What a time we will have, and what yarns I will be able to tell of the great adventure! Of course I realise that I'm putting myself back a couple of years, as Dad says, but back from what, I may ask? It means that I shall be away from my profession for say, a couple of years, but what are a couple of years in a lifetime? Again, I shall not be the only one to be thus penalised, for how many other men have left much better jobs than mine to go and do their duty to their Mother Country to whom they owe so much? Besides, Mother dear, I'm sure you wouldn't like to hear the veiled sneers that people would make about sons of yours if they stayed at home while all their friends and other peoples' sons were away. To be thought a coward is a thing that few men can bear, and it wouldn't be fair to you or your family, or to Dad to have that insinuation made now. Your family showed remarkable grit in colonising Natal sixty years ago and faced innumerable unknown dangers then, so their fame and traditions must not be let down by their descendants now.

Cape Town - February 2nd 1915 I arrived here safely after a rather long journey, and was met by Bird about midnight, the train being six hours late. I met some nice people on the train, one was an old School of Mines man now farming, and another a shift-boss on the Rand. On the whole we had quite a gay time; it was bright moonlight at night so we had impromptu concerts on the balcony at stopping places.

The scenery wasn't much to write about and the Karoo was particularly devoid of interest and very dry and dusty. At Bloemfontein we stayed quite a long time and wasted the precious minutes that caused us to arrive so late in Cape Town. At Worcester we bought a big water-melon and afterwards indulged in a sort of fight with the wet skins and pips. Some girl-passengers took part and smeared our faces with the wet skins and this and the ensuing retaliation caused us all to end up in a sticky, grubby condition. Luckily we were able to wash before arriving at our destination.

Our train was exceptionally long and at Bloemfontein a lot of sailors came about, barefooted and jolly, and they enlivened us with dances and chanteys at the long stopping-places. A number of Defence Force men were also on the train, but mostly Dutch-speaking.

Before I left Johannesburg I called on the Moorebys, but they were out unfortunately. I was sorry to miss them.

This morning Bird and I went into town to enquire about boat sailings. Cape Town, so much as I've seen is a quaint place, something like Durban. The avenues are pretty and the buildings old and picturesque but it simply swarms with half-castes.

Mrs Bird and her daughters are very kind and have made me feel quite at home. We live in a nice part of the town, but I find it very windy out of doors though not altogether unpleasant.

Yesterday we went to Muizenburg and enjoyed a bathe and a loaf in the sun. Got very sunburned. Today we went to the Castle, a quaint old place bristling at present with military equipment and khaki.

A diary commenced while at sea on "Llanstephan Castle"

February 13th 1915 Horatio (Harry Bird) and I, actuated by patriotic motives leave our native land to cross the ocean and help to repel the enemies of our Motherland.

As we leave Cape Town amid showers of farewells and good-byes, the old rugged mountain, stern guardian of South Africa's oldest city, is lit up by the sun so that we see our native land for longer than is usual as she disappears slowly into the dusk. Searchlights of the Union Defence also help by playing now on the ship and now sweeping seawards until lost in the distance. We are indeed well speeded on our journey.

Outside the Bay the old ship gets into her stride and we feel her throbbing and rolling under our feet, and the thought uppermost in our minds is whether or not Father Neptune will levy toll and if so, whether we will be bound to pay up.

The first night passed without untoward happenings although we confessed afterwards that we were harassed by doubts as to the character of our two strange cabin-mates. They turn out trumps, however, and we slept well, the motion of the ship reminding me very forcibly of the train journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town. In fact, when Horatio called out playfully, "next stop De Aar" it completed the illusion.

Sunday on board was a bit slow as no deck games were allowed, and no-one ventured to approach the piano. Evensong was held in the evening and the Bishop of Pretoria who was on board, officiated. The singing of the hymns went off well, and altogether it was a fitting ending to our first complete day at sea.

On Monday deck-games were begun and helped to while away the time that we did not spend in basking on the deck chatting to a couple of soldiers; a sergeant and a corporal of the Royal Engineers. Acquaintanceship soon ripened and in the afternoon about four o'clock, three of us South Africans played the two soldiers and another lad at a game of football'. The `ball' was made of a couple of socks rolled up and sewn together. `England' beat `South Africa' by eight goals to six.

Tuesday was quite an interesting day. In the morning a deck-quoit competition was organised and five of us, Bird, the two Army men, `the lad' (a Kimberley chap called Genade) and I all entered and styled ourselves `The Combine'. It was arranged that if any one of us won we were all to share in the prize. The `Lad' won second prize of 7/-, and this was duly liquidated.

On Tuesday I suffered a surprise. We went to the Barber's shop to make some purchases and found to our annoyance that Kruger money was refused! I hadn't realised that it wasn't regarded as currency outside of the Union. I have four Kruger sovereigns so I suppose I won't get their full when changed. In the evening our piano was moved to the Second Class deck where the orchestra gave selections, mostly dance-music, so we enjoyed a passable evening although I had only one dance as there were not partners enough to go round.

The succeeding days were passed in much the same way as already described; the `Combine' would bask on deck lying on rugs and cushions, and smoke and tell yarns, some true, some otherwise. The last few days have been horribly hot, and yesterday morning we crossed the equator, so I suppose we have not yet finished with the hot weather.

On Saturday night the `Combine' slept on deck. So long as it lasted it was great, but unfortunately we were turned out about four a.m. by the deck-hands engaged in scrubbing the decks.

Yesterday, being Sunday we did the usual thing, lolling about on the deck, reading, smoking, yarning and sleeping. Three services were held, and included Evensong on deck last night at 8 p.m. A service at sea is much more enjoyable, to my mind, than the usual `dry-as-dust' stuff they hand out on land.

Today, Monday February 22nd, 1915 we are much nearer Africa than before. When they `shot the sun' at noon we were placed just off the northern boundary of Liberia. Our sports start today but unless the weather changes a lot, I'm afraid the entries will be very few. A few days ago `The Combine' were photographed. The negatives have proved to be a success and prints are promised for tomorrow. Sweepstakes have been organised for the last week, but so far I have drawn nothing but blanks. However, one never can tell what may be in store.

Tuesday 23rd, was remarkable for the lovely calm, rippleless sea. Advantage was taken of this to hold most of the deck-competitions which kept us busy for most of the day. As it turned rather cool towards evening we were able to sleep soundly after the strenuous day.

Wednesday 24th. Rather an eventful day on the whole. In the fore-noon a bolster-bar contest was held and I was knocked out. Horatio was more fortunate and skilful and managed to win second prize. Almost as soon as this bit of excitement was over, an eagle-eyed passenger spotted land to the starboard. Eyes were strained and glasses levelled and bye-and-bye as we came nearer one could distinguish the wireless-station buildings at Dakar, and also later on, the lighthouse on Cape Verde. Excitement was also caused by our overtaking several native fishing-boats, long narrow hulls evidently deep draught for their size and, I fancy, supported by outriggers, but we could not ascertain as we were not close enough.

Added to all this excitement a large steamer crossed our track heading down the coast: then followed next on the panorama the lighthouse, and alongside it and evidently aground, was another steamer surrounded by a ring of breakers. The next item on the programme of events was a two-masted schooner with a fair number of sails set. It was a pretty sight. This morning's entertainment was very welcome to us all after ten days of open sea. Today the sea is fairly rough; we have a head-wind and sea against us so the ship is pitching somewhat.

Friday, 26th. Yesterday and today have been quite a change from the previous days. A cold head-wind and a heavy sea are causing the ship to pitch quite a lot. Her bow goes sawing up and down, and occasionally we hear a dull thud or two as the propeller blades reach the surface as the stern rises on a wave.

Yesterday we passed a small tramp steamer off Cape Blanco. She was going across our track and labouring heavily in the waves, rolling horribly with water rushing over her decks. She had a string of signals up but we passengers could not of course read them. She looked so troubled that I thought she was signalling for help and I expected at any minute to see our ship swerve round and lower a boat but as she kept straight on her course I suppose things were not so bad as they seemed.

Since passing Dakar we get war news every morning. It is the usual story of Russian retreats and our capturing trenches and the torpedoing of neutral shipping. We expect to reach Madeira tomorrow afternoon but I'm afraid against the head-wind and sea the ship will make poor progress so we may arrive there late in the evening and so will miss most of the scenery. We expect to pass Tenerife today.

Saturday 27th. Busy all the morning writing and attending to my home letters. In the afternoon we had arranged to pull the Second Class in a tug-of-war match. I was one of the team and we practised hard under the leadership of an old sergeant-major who was an old hand at the game but the second-class team disappointed us and their Captain apologised for their non-appearance. Towards sundown a cruiser was sighted. As it approached nearer it proved to be H.M.S. Argonan. There was a general rush to get field-glasses, and a fine sight it made with its four funnels and stumpy masts. After sending up numerous signals it turned about and steamed away. Later on the lighthouse of Madeira was sighted and gradually the lights of Funchal appeared, and by ten o'clock we found ourselves at anchor in the roadstead. Even though it was dark and fairly cold the usual boats came out, and the boys dived with marvellous accuracy and retrieved the silver coins thrown into the dark sea. After the port authorities had left, the hawkers swarmed aboard like rats up ropes and poles and hustled one another up the ladders to be first to spread out their wares on deck. The Portuguese seem to be low types with no self-respect at all.

Although the ship stayed only four hours at anchor we went ashore to see the place, and even on the launch the crew came round begging for small change; a case of pure cadging as they had not done any of us the smallest favour to deserve recognition. We looked round the quaint town for a little while and then had a motor ride which was well worth the money if only for the excitement. The driver went tearing along the narrow cobbled roads at a fearful pace, and none of them was wide enough for two cars to pass and were full of twists and turns. Once I thought we were going straight into a brick wall but the driver calmly turned to one side without slackening speed and we passed down a side street. Eventually we pulled up at a cafe called "the Golden Gate" where we had a solid meal of steak and eggs and also sampled some Madeira wine which wasn't half bad. After that we went back to the ship and shortly afterwards the vessel resumed her journey, having replenished her water-tanks and added fresh vegetables and fruit to her stores.

The usual tactics were adopted by these Dago hawkers; fabulous prices were asked at first but afterwards as the ship was departing they accepted almost ridiculously low prices for their wares. For example, our pantryman bought a small wicker table and two large arm-chairs for 14/-. The next day, Sunday, saw us well on our way once more. The day was cold and noticeably short for it was quite dark by six o'clock.

Today, Monday March 1st, 1915 is still cold and a fairly thick Scotch mist, after hanging over the sea during the morning, was soon dispersed when the sun shone through. Already one notices the weakening power in the sun's rays and it is almost possible to look the old thing straight in the eyes without blinking.

A fine three-masted sailing ship passed us this morning, and as I am writing this a two-masted schooner is passing just astern. Since we are only a few miles north of Lisbon, I expect the schooner is Portuguese and bound for the Azores or the Canaries as she seems to be heading that way. Tomorrow at mid-day we should be in the Bay of Biscay. The days are fairly cold now towards sunset and tea-time; the vessel has been pitching a lot today and has done only 331 miles in the 24 hours.

The passage across the Bay was as calm and uneventful as one could wish, and after passing Ushant and entering the channel, shipping became much more plentiful and twice strange merchant ships came right up to us, turned and signalled and then went on with their patrolling.

All told we were intercepted four times during the voyage by these guardians of England's commerce. As we drew near England things became more exciting. Three men were placed on look-out duty, one in the crow's nest and two in the bows, and as night approached, stewards went round covering up all the port-holes, and finally all the deck lights were extinguished and so we went feeling our way along in the darkness until suddenly searchlights from Plymouth picked us out. It was a grand sight and made one wonder how any enemy could hope to enter such a port or even approach England's shore.

A gentle drizzle fell all that night and a cold wind blew, which we felt rather keenly while waiting about on deck in case it was possible to land that night. Actually this proved to be impossible so we reluctantly returned to our cabins to unpack and sleep one more night aboard the ship.

Next morning after an early breakfast we were passed through the Immigration Officials who put a few questions to us. One asked me if I was a Cornishman; not very complimentary, I thought, after having met some of the Cousin Jack miners on the Rand. However, I satisfied him as to my identity, and so we passed on to the tender lying alongside. We were then conveyed ashore to the G.W.R. pier where we had to wait until all our luggage had been landed and arranged in alphabetical order, and then after having taken our tickets for Paddington we were let loose on the Customs Officials. I was made to pay 4/8d a pound on my tobacco.

When this barrier had been passed, the Combine occupied its previously reserved compartment and after a fair run of four and a half hours the train brought us safely to London. The scenery en route was interesting in an unusual way, especially in Devonshire, where owing to the very heavy rains, fields were submerged; at times only the top bars of five-barred gates were visible. A canal ran parallel to the railway for a long way and was a novel sight to us visitors unused to seeing locks and barges in actual use. London's approach was heralded by the usual advertisement hoardings which were followed by cramped-up tenement houses and finally, before we had realised it, we found ourselves at a standstill in Paddington Station.

We took a taxi to our hotel near Charing Cross and took up our quarters amidst the cheers of an appreciative population, (I mean amid the stares and ill-concealed grins of the Hall Porters who no doubt thought we were a flock of pigeons for the plucking.) We made this hotel our headquarters for a few days. Our first evening was spent at the Pavilion where we had a shilling's worth. Quite good seats, a long programme and altogether quite enjoyable and a rattling good show.

Photograph 1: `The Recruits':

[Back Left:] Harry Bird [Back Right:] ?Schenken [Front Left:] Albertson [Front Right:] Brian Wade {Author}

The next day I called on Mr Ford at King's Cross, and in the afternoon I wrote my Home mail.

On Saturday a friend of the Rhodesians (Schenken and Albertson) took us out to `Cleve Hall' at Denmark Hill, where we procured two adjoining rooms in the annexe. Our first impressions of this big English boarding-house were not too good and after the evening meal on Saturday we all with one accord thought of leaving it on the next day. However after the other guests had learned that we were over to enlist, they became more friendly, and now we have hardly an evening left to ourselves. Tomorrow night they have arranged a dance for us in the music-room; tonight, we are going to a skating-rink and on Monday night a party of us is going to a picture show in Camberwell.

On Tuesday last, Bird and I went to see a Mr Flanagan who welcomed us very warmly and then took us to the War Office where we entered our names on application forms for Commissions. We were interviewed that afternoon, but unnecessary difficulties seem to be raised so in a fit of pique we went off to Great Scotland Yard and enlisted as full blown privates in King Edward's Horse stationed at Watford.

We took the oath on the same day, obtained our first pay, 2/11 and also seven days leave, and here we are now seeing as much of London as we can before next Thursday, St. Patrick's Day, when we must parade on Horse Guards Yard and march off headed by a band to Charing Cross Station en route for Watford.

Last night we went to the Empire where the show was not too good. The afternoon too proved a little disappointing; we had visited Madame Tussauds and thought it rather a poor show, especially the Chamber of Horrors. Today, Friday I am writing my mail in the glass conservatory of Cleve Hall. A piano is being played in the music room but otherwise everything is quiet and peaceful. Outside it is misty but dry. Today I intend to go to the City to visit the bank in order to change my South African bank notes. They charge the enormous sum of 2/- for exchanging a fiver, a charge that I have difficulty in understanding, besides, two shillings goes a long way here in London, for example, the other night we went out and enjoyed ourselves very much and it cost only 2/7 each!

Published: 1 October 2007.

Here is a shortcut back to Peace, War and Afterwards Front Page.