Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell


Special Service Corps
Return to the Coast


Chapter XV.
The Coastward March.

Prahsu, 26th January.
The retreat is generally more fatal than the advance. In its retirement from Kumassi the expeditionary force has still had the same two foes to contend against that it had in the advance up to that place. On the one hand, it had to be prepared against the Ashantis; on the other hand, against fever.

The danger from Ashantis on the return journey lay in any attempt that might be made to effect the rescue of their king, or of one or more of their chiefs from the custody of the English, or, failing a rescue, in the endeavour which it was more than probable they would make to assassinate Prempeh. It would be a great blow to the prestige of the Ashanti nation, and destructive of the one national superstition, if the king were to be taken even across the Sberri river, which surrounds Kumassi, and then on, altogether out of the country. So that as long as he was still in Kumassi, or in Ashanti territory, there was every chance that an attempt would be made, if rescue were impossible, even by single individuals to take the king’s life. Nor would there be an end to this danger when he had passed out of Ashanti territory, for then he would travel through first the Bekwai and later the Adansi countries, where people were quite as ready to shoot him, although from another cause, namely from a desire to pay off old scores and wipe out the blood of relations who had been the victims of sacrifice at some of the king’s "customs." The narrow path that constitutes the " Great North Road," and the dense bush hedging either side of it, affords a perfect cover for such ambuscade, whether of an individual or of even a large body; consequently special precautions had to be taken to make all secure for the safe passage of the prisoner. He was escorted by white troops on the path, while all the by-paths for miles round were occupied by piquets of the levy, and the bush itself was thoroughly searched by them previous to and during the passage of the convoy of prisoners. The levy also visited outlying villages, where gatherings of armed men were reported, and drove them off in all directions. There was plenty of evidence that the precautions taken were no more than were necessary, and the additional toil was compensated by the entire success of this our last task of the campaign.

The other enemy — the fever — was not defeated with such success. Since turning its back on Kumassi for the coastward march, the force has come to feel the clutch of sickness. The weather is no worse than it was for the march up-country. It is, in fact, even more healthy just now, and the men themselves, after their long march, should now be in far better, harder condition than when fresh landed, soft from shipboard life. It is, therefore, not so much from physical causes that the men are becoming a prey to sickness; it is rather due to mental depression. It is the result of the feeling of absolute disappointment which now pervades the force. They have worked hard, marching through the poisonous tangle of rank forest and swamp, bearing up under the enervating heat, and fighting against sickness, simply with the pluck and determination that are characteristic of the Briton bent on achieving the task he has set before himself. To see the Special Service Corps, at the end of a long day’s march, suddenly prick up their ears, as it were, and press on at the double because they thought they heard firing in front, was a sight that may well be recorded. Their one idea has been to get at the enemy to give him a real good drubbing; and whatever may be said of the morality of such an aspiration, none the less it spurs Tommy Atkins to great deeds, that so he may win the medal. Now all their hopes and all their aspirations are dashed to the ground. Wearied and dispirited, they are now dragging their way back along the hateful, depressing road, and between them and the coast there lie many miles of malarial bush, through which but few can pass untouched by the poison in the air. But they plod along pluckily through the foetid forest. As I passed one loaded hammock among the many on the line of march to-day, a haggard, bearded face within looked out with burning eyes, and the sick man asked, " Do you think, sir, they will give us a medal for this ? " At my " No doubt they will," he sank back in some relief to dream it over. The men have suffered and endured even more than if they had had fighting, for the consequent excitement would have carried them through much that affects them now.

Cape Coast Castle, 8th February, 1896.
The march up to Kumassi was a weary, toilsome business, even in spite of the excitement and hope which buoyed the men up. What, then, can one say of the march down, when the same long depressing road had to be re-traversed by men whose spirits were now lowered by the deep disappointment they had suffered, and whose systems were gradually giving in to the attacks of the ever- present fever fiend ? In truth, that march down was in its way as fine an exhibition of British stamina and pluck as any that has been seen of late years. For the casual reader in England this is difficult to realize, but to one who has himself wearily tramped that interminable path, heartsick and footsore, the sight of those dogged British "Tommies," heavily accoutred as they were, still defying fever in the sweltering heat, and ever pressing on, was one which opened one’s eyes and one’s heart as well.

There was no malingering there; each man went on until he dropped. It showed more than any fight could have done, more than any investment in a fort or surprise in camp, what stern and sterling stuff our men are made of, notwithstanding all that cavillers will say against our modern army system and its soldiers.

To one fine young fellow — who, though evidently gripped by fever, still was doggedly marching on — I suggested that his kit was very heavy, whereat he replied, with the tight-drawn smile and quavering voice one knows too well out here, " It ain’t the kit, sir! it’s only these extra rounds that I feel the weight of"; " these extra rounds " being those intended for the fight which never came. The never-ending sameness of the forest was in itself sufficient to depress the most light and cheerful mind, and thus it was a great relief at length to get to Mansu, where the bush begins to open out, and where there is more of the light and air of heaven. But the change is not altogether for the better. The forest, it is true, is gone, but the road is open to the sun, while the undergrowth on either hand is denser now than ever, and forms a high impenetrable hedge that seems to shut out every breath of breeze. Acting on the experiences of the upward march, this portion of the road was now traversed by the troops by night, and consequently heat apoplexy and sunstroke were not encountered. But the string of loaded hammocks grew longer every day !

On the downward journey the discomforts of the march were added to by the clouds of flies, which up till now had never bothered us; but their presence was only natural, considering the refuse of so large an expedition, which attracted them in spite of every care that was taken to ensure the camp-grounds being kept in clean condition. At every rest-camp an officer and a guard of West Indians had been posted for this work during the expedition, and here one saw something of the thankless jobs that fall to troops on service, and which were, nevertheless, performed with all the zeal and thoroughness that characterized the work in front.

Mansu, Dunkwa, our marching was really coming near its end at last. How eagerly we listened for the first sound of the distant thundering surf, and longed for the first whiff of the sea breeze! And in due course they came. At length, between two hill-tops we saw the grey hazy horizon of the sea, and anon the great white ships all lying ready to take us home. In one short hour our life seemed changed; out of the dank bush and the shadow of disappointment we had come into the sunshine with hopes of home before us.

Cape Coast Castle lay as usual sweltering in the sun, but redeemed by the sea breeze which blows with steady regularity during the middle hours of the day, but maddening to the sick with its native clamour, heat, and smells. Never since the last expedition had the town been so full of life and business. First to arrive from the front were the gangs of supply carriers to be paid off. Under the charge of Captain Donovan and his lieutenant of the same name, the army of nigh ten thousand of them marched in in military order, and in two days had all been settled up with, paid, and dismissed to their homes.

Soon after them arrived the levy. We had accomplished the march from Kumassi to Cape Coast in seven days. Immediately on arrival the men handed in their arms and ammunition, and on the following morning were paid up and were marched out of the town by companies on their homeward roads. As has been before described, the levy was formed of contingents from half a dozen different tribes. The Bekwai, Abodom, and Adansi contingents had been discharged en route as the regiment passed through their respective countries. The latter, who had chiefly performed the scouting duties, received as ** dash " or reward the guns with which they had been provided by Government. This was at Prahsu. They then went on as a guard of honour to the remainder of the levy, firing salutes as they went, until the village was reached in which their king resides. The king — a decrepit but loyal old man — came out to receive his men from me, and in his conversation showed his gratitude to the British for getting back for his people their own country about the Adansi hills, and stated it as his intention to return there and re-establish the Adansi capital in its former site at Fommenah. Although the men were glad to get back to their homes, the parting between them and their three white officers was full of regret on both sides, for in the short time they had been enrolled they had already picked up such discipline and drill as had made them a useful and reliable body of men, and it seemed a pity that now, just when they had attained a good standard of efficiency, their services should have to be dispensed with.

There was now a pause in the arrivals at the base for several days, but business was very brisk in the Castle — the business of closing up the accounts of the expedition, checking returned stores, condemning and selling those for which there was no longer any further use. Indeed, hard work had been the order of the day there ever since we had left it to go up-country, and fever had been as obstructive at the base as it had been in the bush, but by transfer to the hospital ship Coromandel those who were affected were the more easily enabled to shake it off, and were, as a rule, soon back at their work again.

Here one was able to see something of the English newspapers and thus to learn something — in addition to the general news of Europe and the world at large — of what we ourselves had been doing in Ashanti. It is a notable fact that, with camps spread about as ours were over a large tract of country, one does not gather all the news that is going, and accompanied as the expedition has been by correspondents of every class and variety, it was natural to find the news was often served up in astonishing and entirely novel form. The departure of one officer from the coast to the next depot at Mansu was headed " A Plucky Dash into the Interior "; hut-building, we are told, was much interfered with by the presence of " serpents "; an illustrated paper gave views of the troops landing at the back of the Castle, where no landing is possible; another showed us Prempeh surrounded by camels and horses, animals unknown at Kumassi, and so on, ad infinitum. And doubtless we have yet to hear more of the personal feelings of some of those gentlemen who have reason to believe that they have not been treated with the respect due to merit as word-painters. To "those who know" it should be amusing reading.

Soon after daybreak on February 5th, the West Yorkshire Regiment marched into the town from Dunkwa, having in their midst King Prempeh and the captive queen and chiefs. These were marched directly to the beach, where eight large surf-boats were lying ready for their embarkation. A few marines and Houssas were posted in each boat to act as escort and to ensure the safety of the prisoners, for it was considered possible that the Kroo boatmen might, in the excess of their hate, contrive to upset Prempeh in the surf, and hold him down till dead ! However, all went well. The boats were quickly paddled through the surf, looking, with their paddles — six a side — like beetles crawling over crumpled satin, and ere long the prisoners had been transferred aboard H.M.S. Raccoon. This was to them the climax of their troubles. Awed and nervous at their first sight of the ocean and their first experience of boats and ships, at the utter breaking up of all their royal prestige, and their ignorance of what it might portend, they huddled all together, chiefs and attendants, in one close, frightened group; and presently, as the ship steamed out, their trials were increased by sea-sickness. An hour’s run along the coast brought them abreast of Elmina Fort, and here, much to their relief, the surf-boats took them off and landed them at their final destination.

A harsh, unpromising place it looked to European eyes — a grim white fort on the surf-lashed strand, whose inner court, which forms the prison, is not inaptly termed the " Bear-pit." Here will Prempeh and his chiefs remain; but attended as they are by a fair allowance of wives and slaves, and with all their wants supplied, their confinement will in no way be a hardship to them.

Before Prempeh had, reached his prison-house, his late escort, the West Yorkshire Regiment, were already installed on board the transport Manila — such of them as were well, but a long string of sick was sent aboard the CoromandeL So many that, the following day, when the Special Service Corps arrived, they had to divide the regiment between the two ships for conveyance home, and local steamers called up from neighbouring ports by telegraph were utilized to carry drafts of officers and men according to their various capacities. The bearer company embarked on the Manila ere she sailed on the 6th. The immediate headquarter staff are on the Coromandel. To-day the last of the sick from the base hospital at Conor’s Hill have been swung on board, a sick-roll of close on twenty officers and 200 men. Of these nearly all are fever cases, the balance being dysentery; and it is curious to note that the percentage of sick among the officers is greater than that among the men. It is a sight to sadden any eyes to see these pale, limp forms who, but a few weeks back, were men selected for their vigour and robustness to join the expedition.

But the medical arrangements all along the line have been faultless, and have worked without a hitch. Medical attendance and stores have been abundant, sick transport has been carried out with comfort and rapidity, and once on board the hospital ship, with its comfortable, airy wards and its excellent service of hospital orderlies and nursing sisters, the invalids have every chance of speedy recovery. And perhaps the best medicine to the majority of them will be the sound of the screw and the rushing of the seething waters as we steam away out of the " smokes " that envelop this pestilential coast with their noxious haze.


    The Authors Apology to the Reader.
    Sketch Map of the March to Kumassi
I.   Reasons For The Ashanti Expedition of 1895-96.
II.   Preliminaries To The Expedition
III.   Local Preparations.
IV.    At Cape Coast Castle (with a note on the British Royal Family).
V.   The Levy Starts
VI.   In the Bush
VII.   Pioneer Work
VIII.   The Scouts
IX.   The Bekwai Column
X.   Forward Movements
XI.   In Kumassi
XII.   Preparing the "Coup"

The Downfall

XIV.   After Events
XV.   The Coastward March
XVI.   Homeward Bound
XVII.   The Formation of the Native Levy
    Sir George Baden-Powell, "Policy And Wealth In Ashanti, 1895"

Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell.
The Downfall of Prempeh, 1895-96.
Chapter XVI. Homeward Bound
Major R. S. S. Baden-Powell.
The Downfall of Prempeh, 1895-96.
Sketch Map of the March to Kumassi
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter V: Soldiering
"With a Native Levy in Ashanti"
Eileen K. Wade,
The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924
Chapter VIII. Ashanti.
The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Lord Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career.
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