AN ARMY WIFE IN SOUTH AFRICA AND CHINA

Ethel (b.1887)

The first time I went from England to Johannesburg, Pretoria, was from Chatham Barracks. Mary was about 9 months old…we had to go out there hurriedly, something was on there. It’s a very nice place…a lovely country.

Proper houses, the people who were out there first were the Dutch people. They were quite nice people too, someone you could speak to. Breakfast in the morning, have your bath. Then you go out and do your shopping. If you want anything from the canteen, they’ll send it up, you go down the canteen and order it. Then the day’s your own ’til lunch time. All I do is to cook the dinner, and dish it up because I won’t let the boys touch it. They clean the vegetables and that’s all I want, after that I won’t have them in the kitchen. All the married women there…they had an easier life, they made the blacks do it – they were Welsh, they were artful. My mother used to write to me and say, be careful of what you eat and look at all you food that is prepared for you. I do the cooking but nothing else in the house.

The Dutch and what blacks there were in quarters had to pay for what they wanted before they got it – there was no trust. They army had nothing like that – we used to make our order out and phone it through to London – clothing and everything we wanted. To dress a little kiddy, say a twelve month old, it cost you to buy from the Dutch in the drapers shops about £7 – not worth it – it’s hideous, a lot of money. ‘No fear,’ I says, ‘I’ll send to London.’

As regards working – I didn’t. All the housework and shopping was done, I used to go out and do the shopping and they’d send it up from the canteen, one of the soldiers would bring it up.

They’d got their verandas all round the house, and they’d got their beds…swing cots, you know. People…they have a bath…no one could see them not even the people in the house, they’d get out of their bath, get into their swing in the hammock until they’re dry and then get up and dress.

You’d got your own quarters, army furniture, arm-chairs for the grown-ups, what they call saddle chairs and you’d got your beds, blankets and sheets, everything provided. When you pack up and you’ve got to go to another country to do service you leave your things behind, you mustn’t take anything with you, and if anything was lost we’d got to pay for it.

They’d tell you, keep the children away from the huts, I mean their prisons, where the snakes are, keep them away from there…cobras, pythons, cor they are a size. They’d go under three houses together. You’d stand there and have a good laugh at them – one of the sergeants came along and says, ‘You wouldn’t laugh at them if they were loose.’

The only thing you’d find is, if a snake had got out you might find a dead body…but you could always tell because they’d been poisoned or else they’d get a tail end of a snake – they’d leave something from the snake.

The amusements they used to have, the boys, was to get a snake and dig a deep pit and put a snake in and a couple of scorpions and see them fight ‘cos the snake can’t get over…it’d get it’s head up to make a bite. The troops liked that every evening, they never missed. All those who wanted to go for a long walk across the veldt and then they used to come back again, ‘Sit down before we have our supper,’ they said, ‘and we’ll watch these.’ Nice, gentle swearing, the sergeant major says, ‘You’d better be careful, the flag’s wife’s over here. Tell the boys to keep their dirty news to themselves.’ I’ve had a good many laughs out there.

The only thing we didn’t agree with, say the Dutch and the blacks, if they’d done anything they were put in prison, an underground prison. They used to make them send them down, undo the gates, they had to…catch as many snakes as they can while it was daylight for the people who were working in and out so any of them won’t get bitten by them.

Underground, I don’t know what they were after, whether they were looking for diamonds…I don’t know…I wasn’t interested enough to ask. If they robbed, burglaries…if you could catch hold of them they’d give them any…God’s quantity of punishment for perhaps a trifle…silly little things. My husband said, if that had been our men they’d have thrashed them and let them go, but they don’t do that out there, not what we call punishment. The Dutch would think no more of getting the blacks together and shoving them down in with the snakes. That’s the difference with the two, the blacks wouldn’t do that.

Thunderstorms and lightning – it’s a picture. See the sky, it just seems as if it’s going to come down on you, and when the thunder goes…talk about the army drums, that’s how the thunder sounded there. ‘Course it’s all open plains.

A different view altogether in China, straight across China…Peking. Yes, it would be about 1910. They don’t tell you what’s going on, you’ve got to read it in the papers. We went from Johannesburg across the water to China we landed in Peking; we were stationed at Peking, Shanghai and the other places – there were nine of them.

The people were all right, if they hadn’t been as friendly it wouldn’t have been so nice. I think myself, ‘cos that’s me, I’m a bit suspicious of people. I liked them (the Chinese) I got on very well with them. They wouldn’t let you hit the children. They’d got their own place, they mustn’t come into our part. Only those you’d got, if you’d ordered a cook for the duration. I had a four room bungalow – two bedrooms, sitting room and a dining room, all furnished.

You could watch them…but you mustn’t go into the gate, Peking’s gate…it’s all gated in. You can see them do marching and they were cruel. They’d got these boys…my husband said they were twelve years old…just time to go out riding on horses and if any of them fell off they put the whip on them, it was like a cat-o-nine-tails, leather on the end of a stick. They were in Peking, a different part…they buried the Prince down there when we were there. The Prince, the son died, a young fellow of about 25 I think he was. He died and they had this black thing put across the railings so no-one could see the mourners I suppose.

Only one parade – I think it was the day my girl was christened – and the royalty came and that was a little while after the son, the heir to the Chinese throne, he died. Bags of flowers, people in their cars, and I don’t know how many trying to walk behind…it just looked like coming from a football match, whole crowds of them.

Oh yes, it was a marvellous place (The Great Wall). You wouldn’t think they could ride a car on it. Motor cars – on the top – I don’t know if they do it now. You’d got to watch out though, they were a bit of a careless lot.

We used to go into the church – well, what they call a church. They used to have animals in there, mixed up with people, it used to stink like anything. I said, ‘I’m not going to church today.’ I got out of it – I went twice.

A medical officer said don’t let the children go near the Chinese children ‘cos any disease he says they’ll only take it, keep them away. So the children would run over and I’d say, ‘No! No!’ Our children would have played with them nicely, I said, ‘No you mustn’t, they are sick and you don’t want to take pills. No, well you mustn’t go near them.’ That’s the way we used to stop them from going ‘cos otherwise they used to sneak out through the legation, get out in amongst the Chinese town. They’re all singing and dancing there and of course our kids would do the same.

I liked Peking because you were in with the elite – toffee nosed. Chinese – the old men are worse than the young men. Crafty – the look on their face. I came in, he (her husband) says, ‘Did you have a nice afternoon?’ I say, ‘Those crafty old devils.’ He said, ‘What have they been up to, say anything to you they shouldn’t?’ I say, ‘No, it wasn’t for the sake of getting pinched.’

There was no association. If they had have done they’d have had them up. They were very strict on anything like that. Unless you actually live inside with them you don’t know what’s going on.

Hinckley Territorials answering the ‘Call of their Country’ 6 August 1914

We were getting all ready for a dinner and dance with the Germans. They came to us the night before on the Monday, on the Tuesday we were going to them. A cable came through from England, stop all leave at once, get packed up. The next thing we know we were on our way up here to England to fight – The Great War (World War One).

Well, the telegram came. We went by boat from Peking, then we had nearly two days journey in the train. I didn’t mind, I was longing to get there and see my people. I had three killed in one week – my father’s nephews. There was Will died on the Monday, on the Wednesday Charlie died and on the Friday or Saturday, I’m not sure which now, Douglas died, all within the one week. They were fighting – the ’14-’18 war.

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