Letter by a British Officer in German East Africa
Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) was a young British doctor and aspiring author who volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps. As a medical officer, he served in the conquest of German East Africa in 1916-17. Each day, Francis Brett Young wrote either in his diary or to his wife in England describing the contrast of the African countryside to home, the hardships of the campaign for the soldiers, and the difficult conditions in his field hospital.
The campaign in German East Africa was one of the most gruesome theatres of war. Between 1914 and 1918, several hundred thousand African civilians, porters, and soldiers died in the British-led conquest of the German colony. The war was largely fought by men from East Africa, who were joined by soldiers from South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, as well as from India. However, most of our knowledge of the war is based on the impressions of European soldiers, in particular officers, who recorded their experience in diaries, letters, and photographs.
Francis Brett Young provides us with one of the most comprehensive collections that we have from amongst the British medical officers. Already an aspiring author at the beginning of the war, he used his service in East Africa in 1916-17 to write about his impressions of the African landscape, flora and fauna, and of course the people, both soldiers and civilians. During his time in Africa, Brett Young not only served with soldiers from different parts of Africa, but also with different Indian regiments from the Punjab, Kashmir, and Baluchistan. He recorded the soldiers’ different customs and languages, and studied Swahili, Hindi, and Pashto during his 10-month service in East Africa. In his letters to his wife he gives detailed accounts of his surroundings and, although he avoids overtly racist remarks, he represents the paternalistic attitude towards the African and Asians common among many British officers.