"He dressed the line, he led the charge, |
They swept the wall like a stream in spate,
And roaring over the roar they heard
The galloper guns that burst the gate."
Sir Henry Newbolt tells the stirring story of Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie, serving in India, who, on hearing that "The Devil's abroad in false Vellore", rode out at dawn, "riding alone" to rout "The Devil that stabs by night" who had attacked the barracks at Vellore.
Rollo Gillespie, described as "the bravest soldier" and who was killed in action in India in 1814, would have been proud of his descendent, Francis Denis Gillespie O'Dwyer who was also one of Britain's bravest sons. But his courage was more of the quiet kind.
O'Dwyer was born in 1910 and he was brought up in the delicious ranching country of Entre Rios; an especially enchanting area of the Argentine where rivers and marshes appear like magic as one rides over the grassy plains and where the wonderful population of wading and water birds was as great as that of the cattle and sheep that so enriched that country. In those days "the English literally ran the Argentine". There on the family estancia of La Honoria, young O'Dwyer lived a "marvellous open, carefree life".
He was educated at Cheltenham (Cheltondale House) where he was Captain of rugby, Captain of boxing and Captain of the College fives. At Jesus College Cambridge, where he read history, he was Captain of Jesus rugby and he won a university boxing blue as a heavyweight.
Even the Great Slump could not have dampened the optimism of this handsome and gifted young man as he went for interview into the Colonial Service. He had been taught that there was "no greater service one could perform in life than to serve the cause of the Empire". Only twenty-five men passed into the Service that year, out of three hundred hopefuls, and as he stepped aboard the SS Adda in June 1933, bound for Sierra Leone, his spirits were high. "Here at last I felt I was launched on the ship of life", he wrote.
For thirteen years O'Dwyer served Africa in the kettledrum humidity of the Bight of Benin ("There's few come out, Tho' many go in".) He spent those years tramping through the swamps (shooting the odd duck on the way) and over the tie-tie bridges swaying precariously over the crocodile-infested rivers, sitting in village courts as a Magistrate, collecting taxes and listening to the worries of the chiefs, headmen, farmers, miners and fishermen who lived in that isolated and often inhospitable region.
Pat O'Dwyer was deprecating about the life he led in Sierra Leone: its dangers and the loneliness. The ticklish diplomacy required to overrule a chief who had decreed that a debtor should be pledged as a slave to his creditor. The courage to settle a strike of iron ore miners who were too angry to parley; an action for which Pat was described as a "staunch fellow". And the intelligence and humanity required to try defendants for murder who believed they had the power to transfer their spirits into wild animals.
As I have recounted earlier, it was a snake which delivered the first blow to his promising career. ('Baby Taylor's Mosquito') It was little short of a miracle that the snake bite did not kill him but during the remainder of his service O'Dwyer constantly fell prey to malaria. And, who knows, perhaps it also contributed to his private "Waterloo" as he described it, which happened on Trafalgar Day.
In January 1945 he was posted to Moyamba district:
"(where the language was Mende and of course I spoke Timne which was the language of the Northern Province.) But I had been D.C. of every district of the North except Koinadugu and I was very glad to go to Moyamba, mainly because of the excellent tarpon fishing at Shenge.
The doctor in Moyamba was Tweedy, an Irishman whom I was very fond of. His wife was also there, at that time quite deaf.
Moyamba was a very busy district which should have had an Assistant, but while I was there I did not have one. So I had to work pretty hard getting round the District in the rainy season and looking after Moyamba itself.
One day in the office a woman came in and said that her daughter had been killed by the head of a secret society whose object was to murder a girl, to cut the heart out, eat it and then to smear their bodies with the fat around the heart. By doing this they thought they became impregnable to man. The murder was alleged to have taken place in Shenge. I sent a Court Messenger out to get some evidence but he came back without any. I shortly went out on trek planning to end up at Shenge where I would do some fishing and, among other things, enquire into this alleged murder.
After visiting the other chiefdoms I got to Shenge one Saturday evening, October 20th 1945. I arrived there by launch and ordered it to return to Bonthe, as I would not want it any more on this trek because I would return to Moyamba on foot - a two day march.
In the ordinary way, on trek, I would go into court and deal with complaints brought by the people as one would on any week day. However, I thought that I would take the next day, Sunday, off and go fishing. There was excellent tarpon fishing off the coast here but I had never landed one.
There was an old fisherman at Shenge whom I called Captain Huff. I sent for him on the Saturday evening and asked him if he would take me out in his dug-out canoe the next day and provide two more boys to paddle.
Sunday was a glorious sunny morning and soon it got very hot out at sea. I caught a barracuda and then a king fish, but what I really wanted was a tarpon. These fish have very hard and impenetrable mouths. It is just impossible to get a hook to pierce either the top or the bottom of their mouths and only along the sides, where the mouth opens, is it soft enough for the hook to penetrate. When the tarpon first takes the bait, which in my case was a spoon, it takes it very gently and so you have no idea what kind of fish you may have on the end of your line. Then, as soon as he feels the hook he takes an almighty leap into the air. So often in the past and I had seen the hook come out of his mouth while he was in the air and that meant another tarpon lost.
Suddenly I felt a slight tug on my line so I struck, not too hard to pull the bait out of the mouth of whatever might be nibbling when I saw a lovely great tarpon leap into the air. A tarpon has very tough scales and nothing will penetrate them; as he jumps these scales shine like a bright light in the sun. He is a beautifully proportioned fish, so to see him jump is some sight.
I did not see the hook fly out of his mouth but I could not be sure that I had not lost him until I reeled in fast and found him still on the line. He would then make a terrific dash and my reel went singing out with that thrilling sound. Up he jumped again. When he landed the line went limp and I thought I had lost him. I reeled in quickly and he was still there and off he would rush again and the reel would sing. Six times he jumped like this; each time he landed and the line went limp I thought I had lost him, but each time he was there still. After that the poor old tarpon had no more strength to jump. Think of the energy to hurl yourself out of the water. He still had lots in him though and he rushed about in the sea with my line coming in and out in time with him. After half an hour he was getting tired, I could tell but, damn it, I was getting much more so.
For some unaccountable reason I quite suddenly felt all in. I had a leather butt round my waist into which I put the butt of my rod which I held with both hands. But by then I just had no power in my arms and hands and was quite unable to hold the rod. I could only put it under my right armpit, rest the length of the rod on my knee and feebly work the handle of the reel with my right hand. My left hand was limp by my side.
Gradually the poor old fish came alongside the canoe. I then saw him open his mouth, so I said to Captain Huff, "Shove the gaff down its mouth". He did this and pulled the fish into the canoe. We were both dead beat and we both lay down at the bottom of this canoe and I told Captain Huff and his two men to go for the shore. The fish and I were about the same size, both lying prostrate as the boys paddled.
As we went towards the shore I could not bear the hot son beating down on me and as we passed one of the two Gilmorris Islands I asked the paddlers to stop; I had to get into the shade. These two little islands off the coast of Shenge are covered with huge trees and with no habitation, human that is, but an absolute haven for bird life. Every kind of sea bird. On each island there is a baracoon: a huge pit, lined with stones which are now all covered over with moss. This was where the slaves were pitched which had come from up-country and were sold by the chiefs to the slave traders before being trans-shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies and the Americas. It must have been dreadful in those baracoons but at least they had the sky above them. Once they were put into ships they were chained down in the holds of the ships and of course many perished before they ever reached their destined shores.
I lay down by the side of one of these moss-covered baracoons and felt dreadfully ill. I wanted to relieve myself and stood up to do so. I was horrified to see that what came out was thick and quite black, just like Guinness, but no froth. I realised that something was wrong, so I thought that I had better get ashore. I got back into the canoe and the men paddled for land.
When I arrived the news went round the village that the D.C. had caught a tarpon. In those days no African could land one for none of them had the tackle. The Paramount Chief came down with all his Tribal Authority and the band played. The Chief was called Caulkner. He had got his name from the olden days when the slave dealers used to call into this coast. They were English and they gave their English names to the natives or some of them would have children by the native women and the issue would take on the names of their father.
The fish was weighed and it came to 96 lbs. It then had to be cut up and distributed around all the necessary people from the Chief himself downwards. I felt dreadful but had to play the game and pretend to be all right. Finally when all was cut up and the people had gone I was able to lie down on my camp bed in the Rest House.
The house was a round mud building with a grass roof, situated on the edge of a cliff, looking out to sea. The Chief had ordered that the mud walls should be covered with country cloths to decorate the place a bit for the D.C. When I lay down on the bed I felt dreadfully cold - it was boiling outside. I asked my boys to pull all the country cloths off the walls and put them over me. These cloths, made by the natives from the local cotton are thick anyway and I had a mountain on top of me, but I still felt cold. I managed to take my temperature and it was 104.
I had six Court Messengers with me on this patrol and the one in charge was Sgt Bindi Bekadu. He had been a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal West Africa Frontier Force and an excellent chap. He immediately despatched one Court Messenger to Moyamba to call the doctor. It was about 30 miles away and it had to be walked, so it was a couple of days before he arrived. Whilst waiting, very feverish in my camp bed, I had a deputation from the Court Messengers, led by Bindi Bekadu whom I can remember standing at the door saying to me, "Sir, we all know from what you are suffering. You are the victim of a swear. The head of that Secret Society which murdered the girl, whose mother came in to you in Moyamba, has put a swear on you to let you expose him and so he makes you ill. There are only two ways open; either you give us enough money with which we shall bribe him and then he will pull the swear, or you give us permission to cut off his head and with his death the swear will also die and you will recover." I answered that I was afraid I could not accede to either of these.
Two days later Harold Tweedy and his wife, Dorothy, arrived. The Court Messengers had got the people of the village to make a good sized shimbeck for them alongside the rest house. Hal Tweedy took a sample of my blood and apart from the black water fever which accounted for the colour of that pee on Gilmorris Island, he found that I had the bugs for Triponomosiasis, or sleeping sickness, as well as malaria.
Nobody really knew how one got black water fever except that it has an affinity to malaria and also that it may be a form of quinine poisoning. It was usually fatal. The pathology of the condition was that the red corpuscles flowed out of the blood and clogged into the kidneys. Thus when one passed water this was mixed up with these red corpuscles which made it very thick and black. One therefore died either through anaemia through having no red blood cells or through the kidneys not functioning at all.
The sleeping sickness is caused by the bite of a tsetse fly which had bitten either an animal or a person with the disease. Malaria had been a constant complaint of mine out there, the cure for which, in my day, was quinine. As advised by the doctors, I took quinine every day prophilactically as well as increased doses when I had the fever on me.
Hal Tweedy thought that he must have some help so he sent off to Freetown for a European nursing sister to be sent out. In the event they sent another doctor, Dr John Busby and a sweet girl, whose name I cannot remember. The Tweedy's therefore returned to Moyamba. Hal had reckoned that it was best to do nothing but made me drink in order to obviate the black water fever.
When the nursing sister saw me she thought that I was going to die. John Busby, who thought the same, then gave me a massive dose of a drug called triparcimide. This drug was specifically for the triponosomiasis. It was only in vogue for a short time. There was no known drug that could deal with blackwater fever but triparcimide had a miraculous effect on me. From being practically at death's door within a few hours I was quite a new man, though dreadfully weak.
The H.Q. of the Army in Freetown got to hear of my plight and they knew that Jack Wanklyn was my brother-in-law. They sent him a signal that he could use any form of army transport he liked to get down to see me at Shenge. Imagine my delight therefore when I saw old Jack walk into that rest house.
I was in bed in Shenge for ten days and there was nothing much for Jack, John Busby and the girl to do. Both Jack and John Busby fell in love with the girl. She used to wash me and massage my back in the most marvellous manner and I too, though utterly impotent, fell in love with her.
I always had a dog with me called Hank. He used to lie under my bed and suddenly he developed symptoms of rabies. Jack took him out and shot him. Jack always believed in juju and when he heard the story of the head of the secret society who had put a swear on me he reckoned he would go out and shoot him. But he did have the sense to ask my permission first which of course I refused. John Busby thought that it was time I was transferred to Freetown so he sent off there for a launch to transport us. We were all on the cliff where the Rest House stood, looking out to sea, when one of the others called out, "Oh look, there comes the launch." I was in bed but could see out perfectly well, but as I looked out to sea I could detect no launch. I just thought it odd, but not important.
I was carried down to the seashore in a hammock. The launch could not come right alonside so the Chief and his Tribal Authority were all drawn up in the water ready to say goodbye to me. I shook his hand from my hammock and told him that I would soon be back and I would take that case about the missing girl and other matters.
I remember that trip back to Freetown very well and was joking away with Jack, John Busby and the girl. An ambulance drove me to the European Nursing Home in Hill Station. It was evening and the sun was going down over the sea. We were looking out westward, of course, and as the sun went down I saw that green flash on the sea that one gets in this part of Africa; a mysterious optical illusion.
In the morning, it was still dark when an orderly came and shaved me. Later one of the nurses brought me some breakfast. It was still dark; I just thought that they started very early in this place, so I asked the time. She said it was 8 a.m. when the sun would be quite high in the sky.
I suddenly realised that I was blind. The triparcimide had paralysed my optic nerve. That green flash was the last thing I ever saw.
My first reaction was one of anger. I was absolutely livid and swore like a trooper, so much so that the Matron came and ticked me off. I felt angry for about a limit of two hours and then a strange metamorphosis came over me. I suddenly had a feeling of utter relief. I felt that all the weight had been taken off my shoulders and felt light and happy. I felt perfectly well, I just could not see. In a sort of a way this feeling has never left me although I do remember hanging over the rails of the ship which took me back to England, thinking how easy it would be to jump overboard in the night. I could not be found and that would put an end to it, for I saw no future in life.
Post Script: There was a future for Pat. He married and had a family. He became a very successful physiotherapist in Eastbourne. He always blythely ignored his blindness as if it was but a minor impediment to living.
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