I see that locusts - the eighth biblical plague - are back in the news. It has prompted me
to turn up an old diary for 1945 when I was working in the Sudan. I see that I reported
with my cook on September 14th at Shendi, a town north of Khartoum. There I was
given a truck and driver, with tent, water, provisions and a supply of bait (Paris Green
and bran) and we drove off to my base at Bir Nagaa. It was in the shadow of some
splendid ruins of the ancient kingdom of Merowe. There I met the scout who was to
guide me round the locust-infested parts of the country, and two British army signallers,
and their interpreter. They had been sent down from Egypt so that we could keep in
touch by wireless with the Shendi headquarters who would provide more bait, petrol and
money as required.
The signallers were making the most of their secondment; they had discarded their
uniforms and taken to arab garb and had somehow acquired a young orphaned gazelle
which they kept as a pet.
My job was to control and pay the baiting gangs which were scattered over a huge
area. The bait was spread by the gangs in front of the advancing hoppers which were
killed in their thousands.
I had better explain here about the hoppers. Locusts are extraordinary, schizophrenic
insects. For years they live as solitary, fairly inoffensive, grasshoppers, in places like
the Republic of Niger or Arabia. Then, perhaps because food runs short, they are seized
with a need for lebensraum. They enter a migratory phase and rise in swarms, often to a
great height and instinct takes them to areas of sandy soil where seasonal rains are
imminent. Here they lay their eggs in pods of around 100. The eggs hatch when the rain
falls and hordes of tiny hoppers emerge which feed on the new vegetation, also brought
on by the rain. They advance on a broad front and, as they grow, they shed their skins
about five times until, after some 45 days, they sprout shiny, diaphanous wings and,
after a few trial flights, rise in the huge swarms that move on to cultivated areas to
devastate the crops.
Flying swarms are notoriously difficult to attack, but the hoppers are vulnerable.
I would start my rounds early in the morning, because the hoppers were most active
before the day got hot. I kept to the lorry as much as I could but sometimes had to go by
After about six weeks our scouts said they could find no more hoppers. I paid off the
gangs and returned unused bait to Shendi. We bought a lamb from a local Arab and the
signallers, guide, interpreter, my cook, driver and I had a celebration feast.
The signallers resumed their khaki and went back north with their wireless, no doubt
to a humdrum existence, until their time came to be demobbed. I knew them only as
Geoff and Dutch and that they came from midland counties. I wonder what tales they
told their grandchildren of the time they camped with their radio under the monuments
This account prompted Andrew Seager to recall his own experiences of dealing with locusts in