Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Three — Training in Egypt
Training in Egypt
On the morning of the 2nd the ships were anchored at Port Said, and at 3.30 p.m. they left their anchorages for Alexandria, which was reached on the 3rd. On the Orari all ranks had worked splendidly tending the horses, of which there were 728 aboard. The fact that only fourteen died during the voyage of seven weeks is striking testimony to the skill and attention which was bestowed on them during that period.
On the 4th December the W.M.R. disembarked, and proceeded by three trains to Zeitoun, near Cairo.
The first train started at noon with Headquarters and the 2nd Squadron, Zeitoun being reached at about 6.30 p.m. The troops detrained immediately and proceeded to the Heliopolis Racecourse, a distance of about a mile. Here the troops bivouacked and the horses were tied to the fence which encircles the course. The 6th and 9th Squadrons arrived later and joined the 2nd Squadron.
The selection of the Racecourse as a bivouac area was not a good one, for the reason that its grounds had recently been occupied by horses infected with ringworm. Under these circumstances, prompt action was taken to vacate it, and on the 5th the Regiment moved to an open, sandy, desert area, close to the ruins of the Biblical town of On (Genesis xli., 45). Here a camp had been pegged out and tents were erected to accommodate the whole of the N.Z.E.F.
All the troops quickly settled down to work, and a vigorous course of training was initiated under most favourable circumstances. The almost unlimited expanse of desert adjacent afforded ample scope to manœuvre the troops under cloudless skies by day or by night.
The lines of the camp had been laid down with commendable foresight. Broad streets intersected the various unit areas, to which they gave access and facilitated the distribution of supplies. A water-supply system was installed throughout the camp; canteens, cinemas, and shower baths were erected, and separate areas were leased on rentals to tradespeople to ply their various callings. In short, a thickly-populated town sprang i to being in a few days where a barren desert had previously existed.page 11
The cleanliness of the camp and of the approaches thereto were outstanding features of its organisation and maintenance—the W.M.R. being specially complimented by no less an authority than the late Colonel Malone on its excellence in this respect.
The commissariat arrangements were above the average, the ordinary ration issue being supplemented with extras purchased by regimental funds. In consequence, all ranks were contented. The sergeants conducted a separate mess, with such success that when they were free from duty it became one of the most popular resorts for senior N.C.O.'s in Zeitoun. A cheery atmosphere of contentment and goodwill surrounded the precincts of the mess, which was invariably crowded with visitors on the completion of the daily routine. The sergeants were a magnificent body physically and mentally. Their average height exceeded 6ft., their other proportions corresponding. In peace or war, they were equal to any emergency, and the fact that the majority of them ultimately made the supreme sacrifice is sufficient testimony to their devotion to duty.
The Officers' Quarters were located in front of the regimental lines on "Sharia El Fire"—the camp boulevard. Here, also, were the mess huts, wherein the officers invariably assembled when off parade. Harmony prevailed throughout, a united and happy family resulting.
Reveille at five o'clock (except Sundays) heralded the commencement of the daily routine, the troops being paraded at half-past five, after the distribution of coffee. Regimental bands preceded the troops in marches, the strains of "John Peel" invariably accompanying the Mounted Column.
When the Mounted Rifles had been fully equipped they made a four-days trek to and from Bilbeis—a town in the "Land of Goshen, some thirty miles north-east—to accustom the troops to marching conditions.
Half-holidays were given on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Sundays being free after Church Parade for those who were not required for duty. On these days the troops availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the many historic structures and places of interest which abound in Cairo and thereabouts. The gigantic proportions of the Pyramids and the riddle of the Sphinx interested all ranks alike. The Citadel, the Dead City, the Holy Well and Tree, the Nile and Barrage, the Zoo, and many famous mosques were all visited in turn.
An obelisk at Materieh (Old Heliopolis, or the "City of the Sun") also drew considerable attention by reason of its great page 12age. The inscription on it reads that the column was erected by the second king of the twelfth dynasty. It is probably the oldest known structure extant. Old Heliopolis was a great seat of learning, and Moses attended school there.
The craze for sight-seeing has its limits, however, and in order to anticipate the monotony which was sure to arise arrangements were made to entertain the troops in other directions. Military sports, concerts, football and cricket matches, horse-racing and boxing contests were therefore provided at the Camp.
In the initiation, organisation, and maintenance of these forms of sport the W.M.R. bore its full share—financially and otherwise—and its representatives won many of the various contests. As a member of the Sports Executive, the mature experience of Captain W. J. Hardham, V.C., did much towards making the gatherings the great success which they proved. For boxing, the W.M.R. officers constructed a stadium, on which the regimental championships were contested. The enthusiasm and interest which the contests aroused was such that practically the whole of the N.Z.E.F. remained in camp to witness them. The popularity of boxing having been established, other units were allowed the use of the Stadium, on which they held competitions which extended over a considerable period, and the interest of the men in them never waned. Finally, the N.Z.E.F. championships were fought, Sergeant "Tassy" Smith, of the W.M.R., whining the heavy-weight contest. In the football matches the W.M.R. team was never defeated.
The sporting spirit which was thus early engendered remained with the Regiment till the end of the campaign. All ranks played the game of war with that confidence, determination, and enthusiasm which characterised them on the field of sport, and they emerged from the fiery ordeal with an unbeaten record. The "will to win" was instilled into all ranks from the commencement. With pardonable pride it can be said that the Regiment never failed to take an objective, and it never vacated a position without being ordered to do so.
The concerts given by the W.M.R. were most popular, there being no lack of talent in the Regiment. It possessed quite a number of versatile entertainers, Corporals Jago and Judd proving hosts in themselves. Local celebrities also assisted, and the spacious messroom in which the concerts were held was invariably crowded to overflowing.
At the departure of the N.Z. Infantry to participate in the historic "landing" on Gallipoli the goodwill of the Mounteds page 13went with those splendid troops, a strong affection having sprung up between the two arms of the service. The Mounted men were keen to accompany their comrades of the Infantry, but circumstances were against them; mounted troops were not required on Gallipoli. Their wishes were soon to be gratified, however. Heavy casualties at the "Landing" necessitated a call for reinforcements. The Mounted troops immediately volunteered their services as Infantry, and the offer was accepted.
An expression of appreciation from all ranks is due to a number of residents of Zeitoun and adjacent towns for the whole-hearted manner in which they assiduously devoted themselves to the task of entertaining the troops at their homes. In this respect Mr. and Mrs. W. Fletcher, of Matarieh, Mr. and Mrs. Bush, of Helmieh, Mr. and Mrs. Watkins, of Zeitoun, and many others did yeoman service, of which their guests have grateful recollections.