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The Royal Engineers and the Blue Lanyard

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Africa ... 1879 ... about a quarter past.

There are many stories of how the Sappers came to be in possession of the coveted blue lanyard. Listen not to those artillerymen that come onto ARRSE with lies in their hearts; but listen to one such tale of daring deeds where the glorious Corps of Royal Engineers outdid the wearers of lanyards white. History is written by the victor, and it is mostly written from the journals of senior officers wishing to have their names bathed in glory for eternity. Rarely do we hear the tale of a common foot soldier and his part in that glory. But I have in my possession the diaries of my great, great grandfather, Orphelius Smith, Sergeant in the Royal Engineers and, from his account, I am able to retell his story of the Battle of Umbangaloo River; a battle forgotten in the mists of time but an example of how Sappers overcome adversity whilst Gunners hung their heads in shame.

The story begins in West Africa in 1879; the Scramble for Africa is well underway with the French/Eyetie explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza competing for a large slice of the Congo against Leopold II, King of the Belgians. The British are entrenched in Southern Africa, Egypt and the Sudan but are increasingly concerned by French, Portuguese and German interest in the ‘Dark Continent’. On 17th March 1879, HMS Thunderbox, a Royal Navy frigate lands a military expedition in the coastal town of Mala Swammpi Mano Bumba Bumba (roughly translated into English as ‘the malarial swamp where men prefer male company’) in Bangbumboland in sub equatorial West Africa. The expedition is to move by column some 300 miles up the Umbangaloo River and make contact with the E’beyo Bayo tribe who dominate the region. They are to form a military garrison and trading post and claim the upper reaches of the Umbangaloo as a British protectorate. The column is led by Colonel Rampant Felching-Hooper and consists of a detachment of infantry from the 1st Battalion Princess Agathas Own Regiment (The Waffleshires), a section of Royal Engineers, a gaggle of Artillery with six field guns and 200 native bearers. The ill fated decision to use Nepalese bearers when local African labour was freely available would later be questioned in Parliament; more used to carrying bundles up mountains in extremes of cold, the Nepalese were to rapidly succumb to illness and disease in the rain forest, dying in their dozens. To this day, anyone with the surname Felching-Hooper serving with the Gurkhas is given the honorary title of Adhyaksha Cnut (translated to ‘Chief Tw@t’).

Considering the importance of this expedition, the choice of officers was particularly puzzling. Colonel Felching-Hooper had served without distinction in the Crimea having lost an eye and a testicle to a Russian sabre; driven half mad by raging syphilis, he would later claim that it was the worst card game ever played in a Sevastopol brothel. The infantry detachment was commanded by Major Dunstable Dullard who’s only claim to fame was that he could cause whole groups of people to fall into comatose with his monotonous ramblings about warfare; said to be the illegitimate half witted son of landed gentry and only ever holding staff positions in his career, Major Dullard was neither experienced nor able to command troops in battle. Accompanying the column were two officers of Engineers; Captain Angus McCrackwun was a womanising drunkard afflicted with gout. A fiery Scot, he once held the dubious title of Highland Division Head Butting Champion for three years on the trot. McCrackwun was responsible for carrying out survey work in the upper reaches, should he remain sober long enough to have any contribution. McCrackwun was assisted by 2nd Lt Willoughby Nonce-Probin, a 19 year old effeminate officer whose mother had sent him to Africa with a rather splendid scarf and balaclava. The field guns were commanded by Lieutenant Manlove Harmony of the Royal Artillery, sent to Africa to escape prosecution after a rather unfortunate episode at a well known English boarding school for boys. The only other man with officer status accompanying the expedition was the medical officer, Dr Krook van den Clag-Knutt, a rather portly, gin sodden South African Boer with a penchant for amputation no matter how minor the ailment.

Having secured enough supplies for the journey into the interior, the column set out from Mala Swammpi Mano Bumba Bumba on 25th April 1879. Given the nature of the dense rain forest, the trek upriver was estimated to take 90 days. The journey would eventually take Colonel Felching-Hooper and his men five months. This was attributed to a number of reasons; the difficult terrain, frequent attacks by hostile tribesmen, illness caused by disease and, most notably, that for the first 80 days the expedition followed the wrong river. They finally arrived at the villages of the E’beyo Bayo on 29th September 1879 and quickly established a camp. The journey had been costly with the loss of over 100 Nepalese bearers and 15 soldiers. Most had succumbed to illness but it was also noted that 7 were killed by tribesmen, 3 were eaten by crocodiles and 2 were killed whilst ‘examining the genitalia of a young hippo’. Additionally several had gone mad, most notably the two medical orderlies, Private’s Binge and Hackett who now insisted on being known as Maude and Glenda. Dr van den Clag-Knutt had also accounted for several limbs from illness and injury ranging from severe headache to a sprained ankle. As the days progressed, the Sappers worked hard constructing Fort Umbangaloo whilst the infantry provided protection from the fierce, pilfering tribesman. The Gunners spent their days polishing their guns, drinking palm wine and smoking the local hallucinogenic weed. Trade was begun in earnest with the E’beyo Bayo and it was soon quickly established that this was not the wealthiest part of Africa; there was no great mineral wealth and the ivory proffered was very poor quality indeed. But this remote area did have something to offer; the E’beyo Bayo spoke of a strange antelope that inhabited the neighbouring forest. The Binky dwarf antelope was two foot high, had only three legs and one eye and grew one misshapen antler from its head. It was said that the single black antler of the Binky was the strongest, most precious antler of all the antelope in Africa; and it possessed magical healing powers when ground down. The British agreed to trade and the antlers began to appear in their hundreds and were eagerly snapped up for beads, copper wire and coin. It would be two years later when the hoard of Binky antler finally reached England that they were found to be nothing more than the polished roots of Ingumba trees and were quite worthless. Unknown to the unsuspecting British at Umbangaloo, the E’beyo Bayo were known throughout the region for their deceptions; in fact, their descendents, the E’Bayo, would become world renowned traders in all things deceptive.

It was at this time that an E’beyo Bayo from a local village was rabble rousing; the son of a local headman, Mambo Cumkwika had proclaimed himself leader of all Bangbumboland and was travelling in the region raising an army of warriors to ‘throw the white devils back into the ocean … or the river if nearer’. Trading continued at the British outpost throughout October, November and December, the British mission completely unaware of the growing feeling of discontent. Thankfully, the work at Fort Umbangaloo had been completed by the Engineers and the fort was now a formidable defensive position. Unfortunately, in early January 1880, Colonel Felching-Hooper, suffering a particularly bad bout of madness, made one of his infamously poor decisions. He decided that the fort would be best defended if the guns were positioned on the other side of the river to give flank protection. Lieutenant Harmony was consequently ordered to take his men and his guns across the river and away from the fort. The Sappers rafted the guns and men across the river on 4th January 1880, constructed a quick camp, dug latrines and left them to their own devices. Meanwhile, the young Mambo had declared himself ‘Prince Generalissimo Dr Mambo Bangbumba Cumkwika Grand Bassoon of Bangbumboland’ and his army of followers had grown into a force of 1500 warriors itching for a fight … well; they were definitely itching as soap had never been used in trade. Still unaware of the danger of an imminent attack, life at the fort continued as normal whilst the artillery detachment slipped further into depravity on the far bank of the river. It would appear that Lieutenant Harmony had very little control over his artillery group, constantly being harangued by the detachment sergeant, Arthur Clam, a course and devious man able to manipulate others.

The inevitable happened on the morning of 29th February 1880 when the forces of Mambo Cumkwika arrived on the outskirts of the settlement. Sending forward scouts he soon discovered the fort unprepared for defence, most of the occupants taking a siesta in the afternoon heat. His scouts also discovered the guns on the other side of the river with all but Lieutenant Harmony and a young Gunner Graham (later reinvented and immortalised in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’) comatose from imbibing much palm wine. That afternoon the Grand Bassoon devised a cunning plan; a small group were deployed to capture the guns. Disguised as a band of travelling Geisha girls, the warriors quickly captured the position and all the artillerymen. Gunner Graham was quickly despatched by hanging him from a nearby Ingumba tree with his own lanyard whilst Lieutenant Harmony was moved back to the main camp. The remaining Gunners were stripped, removed to a native hut and suitably entertained by the faux Geishas, specifically chosen for their extremely large genitalia. The guns were then turned to face across the river and aimed at Fort Umbangaloo, manned by native artillerymen trained by the French … who else! The Generalissimo then ordered that the guns remain silent until nightfall; the British would be attacked as they took dinner that evening. And it just so happens, in a way not dissimilar to ‘Carry on up the Khyber’, that Colonel Felching-Hooper had organised a Regimental Dinner that evening for all the officers, less the disgraced Lieutenant Harmony. The guns opened fire on the fort just after 7pm, between the mango sorbet and Binky antelope la crème de champignon served with mango (since the Binky antelope did not exist, this was in fact goat thinly disguised in mushroom soup and mango).The Colonel, believing that the Gunners had mistakenly fired on the fort, was furious and ordered that a message be sent to them immediately to cease fire. The fort was stood too, less officers who were to continue to dine. It wasn’t until an hour later, during a course of roasted parakeet on a bed of wild rice served with mango, that the Colonel was informed that ‘darkies’ were observed to be firing the cannon and that there was no sign of the wayward artillerymen on the far bank of the river.

At around about the same, the guns fell silent and Mambo Cumkwika sent a delegation to the fort gates demanding its surrender. By this time the British force had sustained casualties and a request for the doctor and medical orderlies was refused by the Colonel; in his words, the doctor was too drunk to be capable of useful amputation and Binge and Hackett were being usefully employed in the mess as a female duet on piano and violin. His response to the surrender demand was to order the E’beyo Bayo delegation bayoneted to death for their impudence. The Grand Bassoon, infuriated by the bayoneting to death of his men (which incidentally included one of his brother-uncles) ordered the guns to fire again, this time in support of a full frontal attack by his warriors. The guns pounded the timber wall facing the river and the warriors raced with spears held high to the gate only to be met with volley after volley of Martini Henri fire. A few minutes before ten a shell ripped through the mess roof causing the alabaster (carried to Umbangaloo by the Nepalese porters) to splinter and the chandelier to come crashing down, ruining the mango blancmange. Infuriated, Colonel Felching-Hooper shouted to Major Dullard to take some infantry across the river and silent the guns. This wasn’t possible for two reasons; having imbibed some malt whiskey and with no one conversing with him, Major Dullard and taken to talking to himself so intensely that he had sent himself into a deep sleep. The second reason was that there were no infantry to spare as they were stretched thin defending the gate and fighting hand to hand at the breach in the wall created by the guns. Noticing that Captain McCrackwun had also slipped into alcoholic comatose, young 2nd Lieutenant Willoughby Nonce-Probin stood up and announced that he would take his Sappers across the river to spike the guns and blow up the latrine. He purposefully strode out of the mess to gather his men and brief them.

Under cover of darkness, the Sappers set out immediately to cross the river in their raft. The slow paddle across took place in absolute silence so as not to alert the enemy warriors on the far bank. The crossing took twenty minutes but remained undiscovered, the enemy unguarded and concentrating on firing the guns. On arrival they dismounted the raft and lined up, bayonets fixed in the river reeds. 2nd Lieutenant Nonce-Probin drew his sword, raised it, shouted ‘follow me’ and charged off to the left. This somewhat puzzled the rest of the Sappers as the guns were no more than twenty yards to their front. As the charging young officer disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen alive again, Sergeant Smith rallied his men and led a bayonet charge up the bank directly towards the guns. The E’beyo Bayo gunners were taken completely by surprise as the Sappers charged into them, stabbing with their bayonets. The fighting was fierce and hand to hand, the Sappers being outnumbered four to one. But they fought with determination and soon the area around the guns was piled with enemy dead. As the position was consolidated, Sgt Smith made the decision not to spike the guns, but rather turn them on the enemy camp facing the fort. He ordered his men to do so, at the same time dispatching two men with explosive charges to blow up the latrine. By eleven the guns were firing fiercely into the enemy camp causing scores of casualties as well as the relentless fire from the infantry within the fort. This was fortunate as it allowed the Colonel some peace to enjoy his port, and cheese and biscuits served with mango, by this time alone as the Doctor had also succumbed to alcoholic slumber. By midnight the enemy were broken and Mambo Cumkwika with less than 500 survivors fled into the forest. Sgt Smith, seeing that the fight was won, cut young Gunner Grahams body from the tree and tied the blue lanyard to his jack knife. Surprisingly, as Grahams limp body hit terra firma, he coughed and spluttered and regained consciousness; by some miracle he had survived the ordeal but the tightened lanyard around his neck would cause him to forever talk in a rather posh, la de da accent. The other Gunners were found naked and distressed in the nearby native hut, released and given sackcloth to cover their dignity; the sackcloth was tied in place using white string.

As dawn broke on the following morning, the infantry went out to carry out the traditional task of stabbing to death the enemy wounded and the Sappers handed over the guns to the artillerymen and re-crossed the river on their raft. Colonel Felching-Hooper greeted the returning heroes and ordered that from that day on they were to wear blue lanyards. He also ordered that the Gunners on the far bank of the Umbangaloo were to be re-issued uniform and were to fashion their own lanyards from the white string tying their sackcloth. Two months later a relief column arrived to relieve the garrison and hunt down the rebellious E’beyo Bayo. The rebellion was effectively ended in June 1880 when Prince Generalissimo Dr Mambo Bangbumba Cumkwika, Grand Bassoon of Bangbumboland was captured and taken under escort to Mala Swammpi Mano Bumba Bumba

So, what became of our ‘heroes’ from that day?

  • Colonel Rampant Felching-Hooper died of syphilis on board HMS Thunderbox on the return journey to England. His son, Sir Hans Felching-Hooper went on to invent the condom vending machine.
  • Major Dunstable Dullard went on to command the 1st Battalion Princess Agathas Own Regiment (The Waffleshires) in India without distinction. On retirement, he became a geography teacher at St Baldrics School for Maladjusted Boys. The Dunstable Dullard Cup is still awarded annually at the school to the boy found to be most tedious by the masters.
  • On his return to Mala Swammpi Mano Bumba Bumba, Captain Angus McCrackwun RE raised funds to lead his own expedition back up the Umbangaloo for the purpose of surveying the upper reaches of the river. He set out with a small party by boat in September 1880 never to be seen again. His grave was finally discovered in 1948 on the Atlantic island of St Helena.
  • The whereabouts of Lieutenant Manlove Harmony RA was discovered five years after the battle; captured by the E’beyo Bayo tribe, he was sold on to an Arab slave caravan and found himself transported to Turkey. He was eventually traced to a brothel in Constantinople and monies were raised to attempt a rescue mission. These plans were dropped when it was found that Lt Harmony was in fact the madam of the brothel having changed his name to Fanny Harmony.
  • The remains of 2nd Lt Willoughby Nonce-Probin RE were eventually found in the destroyed latrine. It was thought that during his gallant, if somewhat directionally challenged, lone charge into the night, he must have slipped and fell into the latrine. There he lay unable to pull himself free from the sucking muck when the explosive charges were thrown into the bog, killing him instantly. His scarf and balaclava are displayed at the Royal Engineers museum in Chatham.
  • Dr Krook van den Clag-Knutt returned to his native South Africa where he served with the British forces in the first Boer War. He then switched allegiances and served the Boers in the second Boer War. On 19th January 1900, during the infamous British attack on the settlement of Spud Ulik he was severely wounded by an exploding shell resulting in the amputation of both legs and arms. Some might say what goes around comes around.
  • Sgt Arthur Clam never achieved his ambition to become a Master Gunner at Woolwich. For the rest of his career he served as SNCO in charge of No6 Royal Artillery Concert Party which consisted of all members of the detachment present at Umbangaloo River. He did rise to the rank of Sergeant Major and on retirement became a professional drunk and pimp.
  • Maude Binge and Glenda Hackett returned to England where they were discharged from the army on mental health grounds. They went on to become an unsuccessful cross dressing double act in 1890’s London, an idea later made famous by another duet.
  • Prince Generalissimo Dr Mambo Bangbumba Cumkwika, Grand Bassoon of Bangbumboland was eventually captured by the relief column and sent to England. After a year in incarceration, he was released and joined a travelling comedy show. Known as Mambo No1 – The Darkie Prince Jester (the Victorians despised political correctness), he was said to be a favourite of Queen Victoria and was the forerunner of great black comedy acts such as Lenny Henry and … well … Lenny Henry.

And what of my great, great grandfather?

Sergeant Orphelius Smith RE went on to become a Warrant officer and Supervisor of Drains and Latrines at the School of Military Engineering and Field Works. On retirement he held the esteemed position of Keeper of the Corps Joke at Chatham. The Corps Joke was only ever removed from safe keeping and recited at the Battle of Umbangaloo River Dinner held on 29th February every four years at HQ mess Chatham; those attending were sworn to secrecy and forbidden from repeating the joke.

Great, great grandfather Orphelius passed away at the age of 67 at Chatham in 1917; whilst moving the Corps Joke to a safer location, a great shadow overcast the parade ground. Fearing an attack from a hunnish Zeppelin, he inadvertently raced onto the firing range where a new flame thrower was being tested. Orphelius was killed instantly and the Corps Joke incinerated, lost forever. As it happens, the suspected Zeppelin turned out to be a pair of bloomers belonging to the Corps RSM’s wife that had broken free from her wash line in a sudden gust of wind … no doubt a wind originating in West Africa.

Submitted by k13eod - so blame him!