A Great Adventure in East Africa
An RFC Observer's WW1 Exploits
by Frederick W. Lane
A review by Duncan Reid
Published by The Walmsley Society, 2015
Written by Walmsley Society member Fred Lane following some years of painstaking research, this new book has a striking cover showing a World War 1 bi-plane against an outline map of Africa and dramatic skyscape. It also carries an important subtitle: ‘An RFC Observer’s WW1 exploits’. The author sets out to contextualise and give greater historical depth to an autobiographical account, Flying and Sport in East Africa, written by Leo Walmsley in the years following his return from Africa after World War 1 and published by William Blackwood and Sons in 1920.
Walmsley’s book is now rare, though copies can still be obtained at a price! Fred Lane is interested both in the East Africa campaign and in Leo Walmsley’s account of his experiences flying as an observer in the fragile and dangerous early planes available to the Royal Flying Corps as a means of supporting the troops on the ground.
The book is, therefore, primarily about Leo Walmsley’s experiences from his enlistment in the RAMC (the Medical Corps) at Whitby in September 1914, through his deployment to East Africa in the role of RFC Observer and, after an extraordinarily eventful military career, to his release from military service in May 1920.
Although this, too, is the main substance of Walmsley’s own account in Flying and Sport in East Africa, Fred Lane adds a considerable amount from his own researches. He uses letters written by Walmsley to various people including his mother, newspaper articles, material from Walmsley’s diaries as well as historical accounts written by others with experience of the same campaign. These notably include the account written after the war by the officer commanding the German forces in East Africa, General Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa. Such material allows us to glimpse a bigger, more rounded picture of the war than that provided by Walmsley himself and, crucially, provides a framework for Walmsley’s own writings – often quoted at length – which have their own distinctive qualities and character.
Walmsley’s accounts, both in Flying and Sport and elsewhere, can be disarmingly humorous and even boyish, somewhat in the tradition of ‘Boy’s book of Adventure’-type tales. Overall, he gives an account of the war that provides both humour and ‘thrills’. His language is often up-beat so that even when he is wading through swamps or being eaten by tsetse flies he manages to remain cheerful. Parts of his narrative are written very much in the voice one imagines the author might have used in giving one of his popular talks on returning home. For the modern reader this type of writing comes across as enjoyable but also, after a while, tedious. We want more than this, and Fred Lane’s book provides it, from both Walmsley as well as from the author himself.
It comes in the form of the best of Walmsley culled from a number of sources: beautifully written accounts of his flying exploits, as well as of his observations of wildlife, landscape and the sea. In a previously unpublished account, he describes a training flight above Salisbury Plain as if anticipating his adventures to come:
Half a mile below, the River Avon meandered snake-like towards Salisbury, a vein of lead inlaid into the dark green of the sodden grasslands. Away to the west the watery winter sun was making an early departure into a billowy bed of reddening storm-clouds. The lofty spire of Salisbury Cathedral made a conspicuous landmark to the south...
Later in this same narrative, as Walmsley’s boat is transporting him and many others towards the war zone, he stays on deck during stormy weather in the Channel:
The gale howled louder than ever. The sea was magnificent. Great grey rollers came charging madly past with their crests lashed to smoke by that inexorable blast. One would suddenly rear up grandly in front of our bows threatening to engulf us in his gargantuan maw, then would dash harmlessly by with just one glorious flash of brilliant emerald as the hull of the ship stirred its depths. Our wake was like a seething mass of molten marble...
We occasionally get a feel for something of the stresses and strains of the campaign and the pressures on Walmsley himself. For example in a letter to his mother in 1916 he frets:
I do wish you’d send out some of the things I ask you to – I don’t think it’s too much trouble to wrap up a Yorkshire Post occasionally, or a few old magazines… honestly, I’m beginning to think you people at home refuse to consider this a war at all out here. I can assure you the Tommy in France doesn’t suffer one quarter what our Tommies out here are suffering...
and then goes on to be very explicit indeed about some of the conditions being experienced by troops on the ground.
He might have been right or wrong in his assessment of the comparative difficulties being experienced by British soldiers in foreign war zones but this doesn’t matter. Here is the passionate voice, the concerned voice; here are the sentiments that enable us as readers to get a little closer to the actuality of the real life of this war.
There is a great deal of excellent writing in Flying and Sport, too, and Fred Lane quotes extensively from it: wonderful, terrifying accounts of the difficulties of trying to draw accurate maps, flying in turbulent conditions, coping with the engines that keep cutting out, crashing into the bush and having to re-fuel in mid-air. This is seriously exciting, breath-taking stuff that called for real bravery under extreme conditions. It can only have been arduous in the extreme, and emotionally draining to have to experience day by day. Small wonder, then, that Leo Walmsley was awarded the Military Cross for one specific act of bravery which I will not spoil for you by telling you about here.
Throughout the book Fred Lane keeps us on track by inserting additional detail about the campaign and its various strands, but this is not an academic account giving detailed chapter and verse. It is about Leo Walmsley first and foremost, and it shows the best of Leo Walmsley, a best which is often very good indeed and utterly compelling.
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