The conditions that the B.S.A.s, and their riders, had to endure were extraordinarily arduous. As well as the rider, each machine carried up to 140 pounds of equipment including rifle, ammunition, and bedding. On the 14th August 1917 the War Diary records details of a telegram received from Lieutenant McHardy in which he stated that the day before he had only travelled five miles in seven hours! He was of the opinion that it would take one hundred labourers two weeks to make the road passable for motor cyclists. The idea of a despatch riding system along that particular piece of ‘road’ was abandoned. “None of the roads are more than improved native paths, and the country is all hilly or mountainous, much of it being dense bush and very unhealthy,” reported The Times on September 26th, 1917.  The machines were carried across rivers in dugout canoes and steadied down descents by up to four men with ropes. In May 1916, during the rainy season on the Irangi Plateau, the daily average speed of the motor cycles was reduced to just three miles per hour. The whole area they were operating in on the plateau had turned into a quagmire which was made even worse by the stink of rotting horses. The War Diary for 4th December, 1916 recorded that,

“At several places on the Dodoma – Iringa road deviations had to be cut through the bush and for some 10 or 12 miles altogether the patch consisted of a climb over rocks with boulders strewing the so-called path and gradients of 1 in 4 to 1 in 10. Again at Lukigeta Nek there are 4 miles of road over which the cycle will hardly pull itself up without the rider running alongside. Between MIOWA and IDODI it took 3 men pushing and the engine firing to get the machine over the mountain.

In fact, the roads round Iringa with very few exceptions are quite unsuitable for cycle work, and it says a good deal about the skill of the riders, and the staunchness of the machines, that the damages have not been greater. As it is, every machine in the Corps has required from 6 to 20 back spokes each and some 40 new back rims have been fitted.”

Lack of spare parts for the B.S.A.s was a constant issue. The Corps did not get all the spares they required before they arrived in German East Africa and owing to transport difficulties many of the spares ordered did not get through at all. Even more galling was the order to hand over what spares they did have to be pooled and shared among all the units with motor cycles. Because the S.A.M.C.C. was farthest from base they got practically nothing in the redistribution! Until they reached Kilossa every machine that they had brought with them was still running but after that the appalling roads, which had never previously been used by wheeled traffic, began to take its toll. Machines had to be cannibalised to get parts.

Food was also a problem. The S.A.M.C.C. War Diary for November 17th 1916 records that, “Rations came in this morning by 600 porters, so the troops are to be put on ¾ rations tomorrow, that is: ¾ lb flour, 3 oz sugar, ¾ oz coffee, ½ oz salt, 3 oz jam, 1 ½ oz milk alternate days.”  Later in December they were ordered that rations were to be halved and although the meat ration was doubled as rations had been issued to the 31st December they would not receive any more till the 8th January. The Adjutant protested to strongly to General Northey but the situation did not change even for those out on patrol. For some weeks in 1917 the daily ration for men was reduced to a cup of rice, a cup of flour and a ‘little’ tea, sugar and salt.

Shortage of petrol, which was usually carried in by porters balancing tins on their heads, was also a problem. The War Diary for December 3rd 1916 records, “Petrol shortage is serious, as most of the men on our posts have only an average of 30 – 40 miles left. This would not bring them back to Iringa should this be necessary. 250 gallons is required to fill their tanks. A memo was sent to O.C. supplies asking for this.”  

One of the hazards that the riders had to contend with was African wildlife.  The Times of Tuesday, May 23rd, 1916 reported that, “Horrified hippos disturbed in the quietude of their lairs by the buzzing of motor-cycles, charge about open mouthed with a protesting snort.” The article also reported that two rhinos had charged a lorry. There was so much wild life about that a driver remarked that, “This place is a blooming zoo, and they don’t lock the animals up at night.”  A letter from a S.A.M.C.C. motorcyclist reported that, “Hardly a morning passes but we have the unique sight of droves of big game careering between the different squadrons. They comprise chiefly wildebeeste, eland, hartebeeste, gemsbok, rooibok, grysbok and springbok. Also there abound all sorts of wild beasts – lions, leopards, hyenas, wild pig, giraffes and ostriches.”

A very close encounter with a lion was recounted in the September 7th 1916 issue of The Motor Cycle. A  S.A.M.C.C. rider was travelling at speed just on dusk when he saw a lion lying on the track. Although he swerved he grazed the lion’s hind quarters and tail. He then hit a rock and while doing an involuntary dismount, sprained his ankle. The lion jumped around to see what had hit him but before it was able to take any further action the rider had scrambled up a tree. He had no time to get his rifle from the scabbard and he was forced to spend the night in the tree, enduring a thorough soaking from a tropical downpour. When it became light the dispatch rider saw that the lion had finally left but the track was now under water and unrideable. The cyclist limped along on foot until he reached the camp where he delivered his message.

It was much smaller wildlife that was the most deadly in the East African campaign. Mosquitoes spread malaria amongst the troops and in the last three months of 1917 up to 15,000 sick soldiers were evacuated from East Africa, most of them with malaria. Sickness was responsible for many more deaths and hospitalisations in this theatre of war than in any other. Disease was far, far deadlier to the allied troops than any efforts by the Germans. Robert Dolbey writing in Sketches of the East Africa Campaign said that, “In this campaign the Hun has been the least of the malignant influences.”  Of the 35 S.A.M.C.C. men who died during, or shortly after, the campaign only four died from enemy fire. Thirty one died as a result of disease. When 5 officers and 54 other ranks of the S.A.M.C.C. left for two months leave on January 29th 1918, there remained only 15 of the cyclists who originally left South Africa in 1916. When the Corps left Irangi a large number of B.S.A.s had to be left behind because so many of the Corps had dysentery.

Not everyone thought that malaria was spread by mosquitoes. The S.A.M.C.C. War Diary of late September 1916 stated that, “There was a considerable amount of fever amongst the men, especially before the huts were erected. In all probability the trouble was mostly caused by the sun.”  Again on the 28th December 1917 the War Diary recorder wrote, “Moved camp to hill on north of town where, though high up and difficult to get at, the camping ground is clean and fairly free from mosquitoes. There is also plenty of shade amongst the trees. This is important as many of the attacks of so-called malaria are, in my opinion, simply slight sun-stroke attacks.”  

Victory Medal to John Edgar, S.A.M.C.C.  Five soldiers line up on their BSAs. Photo: Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Pretoria

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