From Boatsheds to Battlefields 57 Legion of Frontiersmen Recruits Wanted

End of 56th Entry: That summed up the situation Mr Osmond telling the three Rhodesians that during the day their best course was to go into town and investigate conditions before attempting to decide on their future policy.

After a good sleep and hearty breakfast, the trio proceeded to Cape Town where Mick, arranging to meet his companions later, began a round of interviews.

Calling at the Castle he endeavoured to enlist in a Defence Force Unit. The Colonel, an old family friend took his details but had no authority to enlist anyone – so fared Mick in half a dozen other attempts – calling at the Drill Hall he found a British Battalion just arrived from the North. Here he was informed that recruits were being accepted and was told to report at 9am the following morning.

Mick turned away feeling as though on the brink of a precipice. He intended going overseas and here was his chance, but he felt incredibly lonely at the thought of going as a private soldier in a battalion of utter strangers, felt too, the Colonial’s instinctive prejudice against the stern discipline of a regular line battalion and craved to be with mounted men of his own type.

Shrugging his shoulders Mick went off to be attracted by the painted words “Legion of Frontiersmen” over a doorway and beside the door “Recruits Wanted” calling in Mick interviewed a hard-faced citizen who after taking his particulars – Cadet training – four years Bush life – excellent education etc. ushered him into an inner office where half a dozen tougher citizens were grouped around a table. Introducing Mick the hard-faced man retired and a grizzled old veteran put the Rhodesian through a searching catechism.

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“All, right Son, we’ll enlist you in the Legion,” he said at length – “As yet we have not been officially recognised, but we’re expecting a cable any minute accepting our services as a unit to act in any capacity, mounted, infantry or special services. Parade at 5 p.m.” Filling in and signing a form, Mick felt infinitely better.

A couple of days went past. Mick put in some hard drill with a crowd that reminded him of the Anglican prayer for “All sorts and conditions of men.” but no acceptance came of the Legion’s offer of service which had been communicated to both the Imperial and Union governments. Mick inwardly grinning at the thought wondered if both Governments considered letting loose the crowd he had met on a civilized nation was contrary to the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Meanwhile, the South African Labour Party were enlisting men on behalf of the departing Imperial battalions. Mick’s agreement with the Legion allowed him to join any fighting unit in the interval before the services of the Legion were accepted. After he had passed without apparently being any nearer the firing line, Mick with Taffy, (the third having joined the Garrison Artillery),  put his name down for the Essex Regiment and came home with an armlet which in bold blood red the words Labour Legion were emblazoned on a white background.

It was September 1914. Michael Osmonds’ parents, relatives and friends belonged to the old world of ancient families to whom their order was their religion. Labour men were classified anarchists, nihilists, vagabonds and rogues and even Mick himself when out of sight of the Labour Party’s recruiting table took off the fatal armlet, and gazed upon it  with deep suspicion mixed with feelings that he had committed sacrilege, sold himself to the Evil One, and become a member of a Secret Society. 

Putting the armlet in an inside pocket Mick proceeded to have a drink then went home wondering how he was to break the news. He felt that had he simply enlisted as a private soldier in a British battalion the family would not have offered the slightest opposition, only have sympathized with him and regretted his being companionless in his venture. To, however, join via a back door such as the Labour Legion would convince him that he had lost his reason.

“Wonder why the blazers I did,” he remarked to himself “I wish that I’d joined up with that last regiment –  I’ve a damn good mind to push off to the Docks and work my passage over.” This determination was greatly strengthened by the reception his step met with at home – a reception which more than fulfilled his expectations.

Now, most of Mick’s spare time since arriving from Rhodesia had been divided between his fianceé and the Transport Office. Here he with various friends became an absolute pest in their endeavours to find acceptance of their services in the transport conveys.

On Mick’s plunge into the Labour Legion Mr Osmond aroused himself to find a loophole of escape for his son – armed with letters of introduction, Mick interviewed various influential men, then once again turned his face towards this Transport Office and sending in a letter to the Commanding Officer he waited a while, was asked to follow an orderly into the Presence and after being asked a few questions came out wreathed in smiles.

He was engaged as a conductor of Transport at 7/6 per diem and rations. A uniform would be issued if required, on the Repayment system. Duties were to commence immediately.

For three days Mick lived next to the Dock gates working on unpacking and fitting harness, trucked a few mules and generally having an easy time. From Ordnance stores, he was issued with Bedford cord riding breeches, brown boots and leggings, a slouch hat and khaki tunic with stiff cardboard lined green collar and cuffs. He also drew a big Webly Revolver with ammunition, so felt himself a last to be a member of the armed forces of the Crown.

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Meanwhile Mick’s love affair came to an end – in many ways still only a schoolboy all Mick’s thoughts and attention concentrated on his new life – he hoped the German West business would be over in a week or two and that then he would get a chance to get Home with either or South African or Rhodesian Expeditionary Force or with some chums.

Three days after receiving his appointment Mick was ordered to proceed early next morning to the Maitland main transport depot, as one of a detail of conductors who would take charge of a large number of transport waggons and animals. On receiving the animals the conductors would drive them to the docks, ship them and proceed to one of the Theatres of War.

Next day the detail of six transport conductors and one head conductor proceeded out to the Remount Camp on the Cape Flats some six miles from Cape Town where they were issued with horses – with lively curiosity they then rode to the Transport Camp and to their disgust took over one thousand three hundred and twenty sad looking donkeys together with a hundred and fifty Cape Coloured men to act as drivers and leaders.

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Mick had drawn a really good grey horse with a beautiful action. The horse seemed to have been a pet as it was particularly well cared for, especially considering it to have been issued from a great heard of Remount horses running loose in open paddocks.

The Rhodesian, therefore, felt that drive from Maitland to the Cape Town Docks as one of the greatest events in this life. The huge grey drove of donkeys herded by shouting Coloured men, himself with half a dozen others in picturesque army dress riding around the drove heavy revolvers slung over their shoulders, short handled 25ft lashed stockwhips in their hands all made his mind bring back boyhood memories of wild Argentine Cowboys driving up the mobs of mules, horses and cattle from the Docks in the now distant Boer War days.

Then he had been one of the onlookers watching with lively curiosity and interest what appeared denizens from another world. Now he felt that hundreds watched him with the same feelings.

“Damn shame we’ve got donkeys,” he thought “Jove it would have been thrilling driving a thousand mules or horses through Cape Town.”.

At the Docks, animals were shipped into an old cargo steamer. A northerly gale was blowing with a heavy see running outside the Breakwater, and Mick grinned as he looked at his fellow conductors all of whom were typical Bush countrymen. From these men, his eyes wandered to the gay chatting coloured folk bidding farewell to numerous relations of either sex, all colours, shapes and sizes. Guitars, banjos, concertinas and fiddles were wailing, tears flowing mixed with laughter as the brown people all their feelings, surface ones, revelled in the emotions of the moment.

The Queensland had already loaded sixty transport waggons each of which would be pulled by twenty-two donkeys. Immediately the donkeys and men had been shipped hawsers were cast off, the tugs busily hauled her into the fairway and with the threshing screw, the tramp began her voyage.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 49 Battling Through Life

So Mick lived for nearly a year. Kotzee and himself obtained sixteen oxen from the ranch they have the use of them on condition that the oxen were trained to the yoke, and returned at the end of six months fit for use in waggon or plough.

The two with a few Mashona made bricks and built a house – a weird and wonderful erection whose chimney fell off after erection and whose corners came apart owing to lack of proper bond. Somehow they existed Mick bought a Martini-Henry rifle and 100 rounds of black powder ammunition from the police for £3 sent him by his father – he and Kotzee wore out their boots and walked the country barefooted – more and more the two grew into a pair who looked as though civilization’s breath had never touched them.

But Mick was no fool – he soon found his partner to be a man with no stability of mind or purpose – a visionary and a fanatic.

The two began to argue about Imperialism, Religion and farming. Each began to feel the other an enemy and Mick started to go off more and more to the Godfrey’s, the two English neighbours, Kruger and old Airth. All of them seemed to like him – he got plentiful food at their homes and they thought about everything in the same way that he did.

Then Kotzee’s wife arrived with two beautiful children – Mrs Kotzee proved to be a Christian Scientist and a vegetarian and came from a wealthy family.

The rains began and with it came Malaria – Mrs Kotzee refuse to take quinine or give it to the children – one child died – then Mick went down badly and Mrs Kotzee and the other child were taken ill.

For some days Mick lay delirious without a soul visiting him – he came to himself weak as a kitten and looking like a ghost.

Then came Kotzee with a shotgun practically stone mad raving that Mick had poisoned his family, put his wife against him, ridiculed him to his neighbours and that he would have Mick’s life. Mick thoroughly alarmed grabbed his Martini knocked Kotzee aside and left.

A few days later barefooted and starving he arrived in Salisbury his only possession his rifle and two shillings. At a tearoom, he ordered some soup and fainted whilst trying to eat it. On coming round he found a pretty little waitress doing all she could to help him – the girl told him at once that he had better get into the hospital as he was rotten with fever and advised Mick to interview the Anglican Clergyman who would arrange his entry.

Wearily Mick trudged up to the interview but evidently gave the worthy minister the impression he was drunk. Half delirious Mick understood that the Clergyman couldn’t do anything for him and staggered back to the tearoom for further advice.

The waitress wasted no time but helped Mick to her room and put him to bed. Three days later feeling much better the youth set out on foot for the Angwa alluvial goldfields where a younger brother of his family’s – the family black sheep was earning a precarious living from hunting and gold washing.

Advised that his route was “Follow the railway line”, Mick did – but the Fates sent him along the wrong line until he reached a farmhouse where he was advised to cut across country to the Lomagundi line the one he was on leaving to Cape Town.

That night he came to another farm – a tall bearded man took him in for a meal and hearing his name said: “Well I’m damned – not the son of William Osmond of Sea Point?”

“Yes I am,” answered Mick “Do you know Dad?”

“God Bless your soul youngster I used to live next door to you – nursed you as a baby – Hell it’s a small world.”

For two or three days Mick was kept in bed and well looked after. The Stewart’s to whose hospitable door fate had brought him laughed at the idea of the Angwa pointing out that the place was a death trap and the diggers merely making a bare existence.

The tobacco boom was in full swing and their neighbour Godfrey a brother of Mick’s Marandellas friend wanted a man. Godfrey himself came over to interview Mick with the result that a satisfactory agreement was concluded the youth as soon as he was fit enough moving over to his new employer’s home.

Mick had now had over two years of battling through life and with the exception of three months in the Struan District and six weeks near Grahamstown, his life had certainly not been a soft or easy one. He had become inured to disappointment, used to coarse scanty fare and well able to hold his own amongst any type of men.

His twenty-first birthday was past but with all his rough and tumble experiences Mick still retained the heart of a boy of sixteen with all his idealism unspoilt. A nature full of emotionalism, a strongly developed imagination and the closest possible contact with a father and a mother whose letters showed that however far from him they were in body, yet in spirit, they were always near, kept Mick from many pitfalls. His pen and his imagination were his greatest friends – if with the one he could fight loneliness with the other turn hardship and rough conditions into a game.

Early years spent on the sea and mountain certainly contributed much to his ability to accustom himself readily to any emergencies or calls on his powers of adaptability. They had given him the wiry constitution of a savage and the digestive powers of an ostrich and with Mick, a squall was past was gone – others would come but it was foolishness worrying about them and those that had struck him always left some memory to chuckle over even if only at his own damned innocence or foolishness.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 47 Second Letter Home

Dearest Dad,

I have now thoroughly entered into the daily routine and must say this is an ideal sort of life. The weather being bitterly cold in the early mornings we only begin stirring about eight.

The hour seems ridiculous for a farm but neither love nor threats will get a Mashona to move before the sun begins to kill the frost and warm up the earth. At eight a picannin brings a kettle of boiling water and we make tea. Having no cows we drink it black and weak. At about half-past, we get up, have a wash outside, dress and begin the days work.

At about eleven comes a halt to set about preparing a meal which combines breakfast and lunch. This consists of sourdough bread made and baked by ourselves from rapoko and wheat meal mixed – the rapoko now and again we vary by using Kaffir corn which combined with the wheatmeal or flour makes a great sustaining bread.

With the bread, we usually have rapoko or corn porridge with an occasional change to rice or maize – all four are good but Jove do I long for milk and cream. Dry bread, milkless porridge and black tea doesn’t sound appetising, but when hungry they go down all right and anyway as long as a man feels full it doesn’t matter much what sort of stuff he puts inside himself – not as long as it is nourishing anyway.

After skoff work starts again, continuing until about five when we set to on getting the evening meal ready. This is a sort of Irish stew – potatoes, native beans, shelled monkey nuts or peas which has been simmering on the fire since noon.

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Now and again we trade a fowl for some salt or a cartridge case. Sometimes Kruger or Airth the manager of an adjoining ranch sends us a bit of buck, and once or twice I’ve shot something – If we’re lucky enough to have meat we gorge to bursting point – if we haven’t, well! we add a bit of curry powder and some powdered stuff from a soup sausage – a sort of concentrated mixture of pea-flour, bacon, herbs and stuff. This thickens and flavours the stew and it goes down rapidly enough.

After eating we play euchre or go to sleep. Neither of us has any money so candles or paraffin are unobtainable luxuries. The old Lee Metford I brought up with me is the only weapon we possess and is almost useless. At 100 yards it throws eighteen inches to the left.

At present hunting is a mug’s game for the long dry grass prevents the hunter from seeing the buck and the rustling and noise of a man moving in it is enough to frighten anything within a hundred yards. One’s only chance of securing game is by going out with a shotgun and some dogs.

A buck hearing something moving in the grass generally lies down – if a hunter is accompanied by dogs they will put it up and a charge of heavy shot provides a few days supply of meat. Otherwise, it is sheer luck coming on a buck perhaps standing under a tree or feeding in an open space where the grass isn’t too long.

In a month or two the veld fires will start and then everybody assures me I will see all the game I want to. I must get a Martini-Henry rifle then, as the heavy lead bullet doesn’t give a buck a chance of getting away. I hate wounding anything and it is marvellous the vitality shown by a wounded animal. I’ve seen one run over a mile with the whole of its entrails dragging from it.

Wild things always seem to either be killed instantaneously or to fight desperately for life against most awful wounds and it is really terrible the sort of mess a soft-nosed or a bullet with its end nicked into a cross makes. If one strikes a bone or anything but soft flesh it mushrooms and splits.

There are quite a number of people in the district but all on the other side of it. Between Marandellas and ourselves, there are the Godfreys and Kruger – beyond are two young Englishmen growing tobacco in partnership and beyond them again are two fellows living in the hills doing a bit of trading.

Behind and in front of us is all native reserve and wild uninhabited country. From Marandellas towards Wedza is where settled country is – there people are going in for growing Virginian cigarette tobacco on an extensive scale and experimenting with citrus fruits, cattle breeding and general farming.

From all accounts, there are fortunes to be made from tobacco but a lot of capital is needed. Flue curing barns are required; and with transport at 5/- per 100 lbs, carpenters and bricklayers at 30/- to 40/- per day and all found, it needs £300 at least to build and equip a standard flue-curing barn 16 feet by 16 and 20 feet high. Then one requires unlimited labour – on the other hand, the profits are big.

At an average yield of 500 lbs per acre sold at from 2/- per lb for scrap to 4/6 for best Brights, the growers base their average price at 1/6 per lb or £37-10 per acre – one barn will cure 10 acres or at least £375 worth of ‘baccy’ in a season.

We want to try and build a small flue barn ourselves and also air and sun cure a couple of acres of tobacco as a start – with wheat, oathay, barley for the brewers, potatoes, trading and transport riding we should soon be on our feet but Oh Dad its cruel work starting with nothing.

Every day we are offered maize at 2/6 per 203 lbs by the Mashona and can dispose of it at 9/- to 12/- at Marandellas. Native beans cost us 8/- per bag and sell in Marandellas at from 20/- to 30/-, ground nuts 3/- to sell at 8/-. Rice 10/- to sell at 20/- and the same with everything else.

Our waggon can take 20 bags of maize – so an eight to ten-day trip would yield only £7-10. Beans pay us best but we’ve never enough cash to buy a full load.

Ever your loving son,

Mick

Letters in Bernard’s handwriting

Here are the pages from the manuscript From Boatsheds to Battlefields that contain the letters to Mick Osmond’s Dad.  Are the letter’s real or being used as a storytelling technique?

I believe that Bernard did write and send these or similar letters to his father William Frederick Leffler telling him about life as a pioneer in Rhodesia. There is evidence that father and son exchanged letters on a regular basis.

It is lovely to picture William reading his son’s descriptive letters of adventure to his mother, brothers and sisters gathered around the dining table in Cape Town.

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