Robert Bell Smart the Royal Engineers Signals Unit

I was recently contacted by Eleanor Smart regarding a collection of photographs belonging to her and concerning her father who served in East Africa during WWI. What follows is her own description of the circumstances of Robert Bell Smart, and a selection of his photographs.

Robert Bell Smart.  Born in Glasgow July 1890. Died in Paisley Sept. 1962

 My father started his working life as a telegraph boy in the Post Office in Glasgow. In 1915 he enlisted in the Royal Signals, or The Royal Engineers Signals Unit, as Sapper R B Smart.  Not sure exactly. He was sent to France. This bit he never spoke of, so I don’t know where he was or what battle(s) he was in .It’s actually easier to trace those who were killed. His brother was killed at Arras and with little bother I found the gravestone.

He couldn’t have been in France long. He was invalided home having suffered from gas attacks and had trench feet and by 1916 was in East Africa. He seems to have started in Nairobi and over the next 3 years he made his way with the regiment down to the Cape.

He used to say that Nairobi was just a collection of mud huts and would never believe that in 50 years it might have changed! I didn’t believe what he said about the mud huts either!

It’s all such a long time ago, to remember all he said about it. And he did talk about it. If the word wasn’t quite enjoyment, it seems to have been interesting.

I remember he showed me the photo, now lost, of the tree under which Stanley met David Livingstone. He said he had once spoken to a man who had spoken to Livingstone (an iconic figure to us Scots!).

Much of their time seemed to be taken up with erecting telegraph poles, often pulled down by giraffes.  He said they never saw the Germans who were always in front of them. He had a smattering of Swahili. He contracted malaria and was stretchered by his pal from Aberdeen, Jimmy Wilson.

When he reached Cape Town , he was impressed by Table Mountain and often described the ‘Table Cloth’, as they described the cloud that often covered it. He spoke about the black Africans not being allowed to walk on the same pavement as the white man, or travel on the same transport. This was long before ‘official apartheid’.

Just to explain the generations: Dad was late marrying and I came along late on in the marriage and I am 73. His oldest brother was too old for the Great War!

There seems to be very little  literature about the war in East Africa, but I would love to find out more about the kind of thing he was involved in.

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  • Wilmysta1

    Re S.S. KONIG, photo no. 30/90, in Dar es Salaam harbour:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Peel_Ritchie

  • TJH

    Re Photo entitled UGIGI. Should this be UJIJI?

  • Blinko16934

    Thanks for posting these wonderful photos.
    I am also trying to find sources of the History of the Royal Engineers Signals in East Africa these two war diaries are available to view if you live in England (which I dont) they are at RE Museum Gillingham
    No 1 (East Africa ) Special Signal Company covers 1916 and Northern Signal Company (East Africa ) most of 1917