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How came I to go to the Argentine? Truly the statement is often made that when one goes out in the morning his or her destiny is determined according to the turning, right or left as the case may be.
Perhaps I was somewhat unsettled after my return from the South African war, not as a regular soldier but simply one of those who after the black week in December 1899, when the call came for the men who could shoot and ride, joined up in the irregular and then newly formed force of Imperial Yeomanry. However, this narrative is not concerned with that affair.
On the return from South Africa I went into the Civil Service but found employment in the Admiralty Works Department although congenial, was somewhat humdrum after an open air life.
Then by chance it was my fortune, or misfortune, to meet a General Manager of an Argentine railway who was temporarily resident in London. He asked me if I should like to go to the Argentine, to which my reply was that I was ignorant of the whereabouts of that country. To me, South America was just the home of Revolution and yellow fever.
Anyway, he suggested that I might try his Engineers’ Department for three months and if that service did not appeal to me, I could return to England and he would respond for the passage both ways. I accepted.
At that time, 1905, I had a wife and two babies and as the immediate future was uncertain, they were fixed up in a small house in Keynsham and I sailed once more southward bound on the SS Highland Heather.
On arrival in Buenos Aires my three months probation in a drawing office was less exciting than had been my work at Devonport Land & District and the corresponding salary, 200 pesos a month, was insufficient to maintain a wife and family, and no advancement being further up, the economic question compelled me to resign at the completion of my probation.
At that time prospects of great activity reigned in the Argentine. One heard of schemes for railway expansion in all directions as well as other commercial enterprise. So, before deciding to return to England, it was advisable to find out if other employment was forthcoming. To my surprise, individuals of the civil engineering fraternity were in demand and no application was ignored or promptly rejected.
The Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway was contemplating, among other extensions, the prolongation of its lines to Chile and which would entail vast exploration and survey work over the Andes. The Chief Engineer of that company offered me twice the salary that I had been receiving and assented to a contract to be signed in London, which would allow me to return home to arrange my domestic affairs.
The contract was duly signed in London and thus I found myself married for the second time, this time to South America.
Previous mention has been made to the schemes of railway expansion and although preparations had been going forward by the large British owned railways, the machine of government approval works slowly, being contingent upon the authorisation of the two Houses of Parliament, Congress and the Senate.
Anyone with experience of South American countries knows what “La Política” signifies. To those who do not, it is sufficient to state that it means opposition, which embodies obstruction to a fine art, presumably for the benefit of the party who obstructs, immaterial whether the appropriate bill will benefit the country as a whole. Consequently postponement as well as procrastination is to a fine art.
Were it not for the railway development of the Argentine, the country would have remained in much the same conditions as it was a hundred years ago, a statement that is equally applicable to Great Britain, but with a difference: Great Britain constructed her railways with her own capital. The Argentine did not and from its initial instance of that form of mobile transport opposition always obtained, notwithstanding that that precedent demonstrates the minimal valorisation of the zones affected.
By mid-year 1908 the programme of railway expansion was approved and a rush to form and equip survey parties immediately followed. The Southern had their reach already in being but many gaps had to be filled in order to place our parties in the field.
The respective chiefs were trained engineers but of the assistants few had expert knowledge of railway pioneer work location and, what aggravated the difficulties, that class of man was not available in the country.
Each company was eagerly snapping up any man who was capable of using the simple engineer’s level. The question was asked by the higher railway officials by leaving the Chiefs of Parties to complete the staff from a non-existent market.
The author was given charge of the proposed railway from Chascomús to Ayacucho, a connection of 148 kilometres and considered himself lucky to have a first assistant who had been a colleague of his in England, a young bushman who had recently graduated from Trinity College and an ex-Hussar Officer as technical staff; an ex-Sgt Major of the Bucks Yeomanry as quartermaster, whilst the rank and file of the party was comprised of a dozen nationals; altogether a very scratch lot to determine the basis for the outlay of £150,000. Thus we mobilised.
The zone of the country was wholly one of cattle grazing and largely liable to floods; otherwise the configuration was of the simplest description.
Our transport in those days was wholly horse drawn and as we commenced work at daylight, many were the headaches that must have fallen to the lot of our quartermaster, phlegmatic temperament though he possessed, as the horses often wandered miles during the night.
However, a humorous side did develop to each difficulty and many were the amusing incidents. Our hussar friend was loath to get up in the dark and consequently was always late for breakfast, when he would rush into the mess tent, bolt a cup of coffee and fill his haversack for consumption later on. Advantage was soon taken of his failing and one morning his usual cup of coffee was half filled with mustard. He hurried in according to habit, wolfed the coffee in one gulp and will I remember his expression, Oh! C the b calks are loose.
Our steward was a cockney and a deserter from one of the Royal Mail boats and the comments during the evening meal often developed a military topic. He had a way of shoe-horning in his martial experiences having served in a military regiment. One was “we always drilled in open order”. When asked “why?” he surprisingly replied “Why? Why to keep the rear rank from shoving their ‘ands in the front ranks’ pockets!”
On another occasion when ten eggs had been brought in overnight, only eight were served at breakfast.
“Bishop, where are the other two eggs?”
A voice from his English friend outside the mess tent:
“Yes. They’ve slipped down his ruddy throat!”
updated: 29 January 2014