The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—Departure for Egypt
Part 2.—Departure for Egypt.
Embarkation—At sea—Albany—The convoy divides—1st Battalion via Fremantle to Suez—Aerodrome Camp, Heliopolis— 2nd Battalion, via Colombo, arrives, and is warned for service in the field—2nd Battalion to Dabaa—Command, Col. Chaytor— Command, Lieut.-Col. Fulton—Unrest in Cairo—1st Battalion to Mersa Matruh.
On the morning of 8th October, 1915, the two battalions entrained for Wellington, and on arival at the port at mid-day marched with kit-bags and sea-kits to the troopships. After the men had been told off to their quarters and kits stowed away, they were granted leave till 10.30 p.m. This being their last evening ashore before departure, it might have been expected that there would be some trouble in the city; but the men were put on their honour, and all reports agreed that the behaviour was excellent.
Troops were taken off their ships at six o'clock next morning, and at 7 a.m. the official embarkation with checking of the rolls took place. At 1 p.m. they were marched off the ships and paraded for a farewell march through the town at 2.30 p.m. The parade comprised the two battalions of the Rifle Brigade, with the Honorary Colonel. His Excellency the Earl of Liverpool, Governor of New Zealand, at the head, and also the 7th Reinforcements under Major R. St. J. Beere. The quick swinging march of the Rifle Battalions with their arms at the trail was new to the great crowds that had assembled to watch the parade. The troops, having returned to the docks, re-embarked, and the troopships moved into the stream and anchored at 5 p.m.
At 6 a.m. on the 10th of October, 1915, the transports sailed from Wellington, the convoy consisting of:—
|1.||"Maunganui" (Transport No. 30), with Brigade Headquarters; 1st Battalion; 2nd Field Artillery Brigade; Divisional Ammunition Column, and Ambulance and other details.|
|2.||"Tahiti" (Transport No. 31), with 2nd Battalion, and A.S.C. and Divisional Signalling Coy details.|
|3.||"Aparima" (Transport No. 32), with 7th Reinforcement Mounted Rifles, and Divisional Train and Ambulance details.|
|4.||"Navua" (Transport No. 33), with 7th Reinforcement Mounted Rifles, and Artillery, Infantry and Ambulance details.|
|5.||"Warrimoo" (Transport No. 34), with 7th Reinforcement Infantry and Ambulance details.|
There was no escort of warships.
The sea journey on the whole was interesting but uneventful. Food and quarters were good, and the daily inspections by the Master, accompanied by the O.C. Ship, revealed a state of order and cleanliness very creditable indeed to all ranks. All available deck-space was made use of for such drill as could be carried out, this training being supplemented by lecturettes given at frequent intervals by officers and non-commissioned officers. Signallers had excellent practical work sending and receiving messages from ship to ship. Boxing tournaments were frequent, and impromptu concerts beguiled many a tedious evening, and revealed much talent that was carefully noted for future use in arranging company and battalion concerts in camp and billets in the more strenuous days to come. On the "Maunganui," the ship's disused printingpress was commandeered, and a weird and wonderful magazine, called "The Periscope," was produced. It was an eightpaged paper, printed with decrepit type and faded ink, on such sheets of absorbent paper as could be spared from the battalion orderly-room; a poor thing, doubtless, but nevertheless prized as being entirely our own. At Fremantle, by means of judicious purchases, the type-founts were augmented and a supply of paper and ink laid in, and as a result there blossomed forth, before we reached our destination, a second number of the magazine, somewhat thin in bulk, yet resplendent in its crimson binding and gold lettering. An endeavour had been made to secure a green cover, as more fitting for a Rifle Brigade paper, but the resources of Fremantle proved to be limited.
At 5 p.m. on the 19th October we reached Albany, our first port of call, the weather on the way across having been, with the exception of two rather rough days in the Australian Bight, decidedly good. We were greatly interested in the picturesque appearance of King George's Sound and the harbour of Albany. Naturally enough, disappointment was felt on learning that owing to some irregularities on the part of troops page 18(not from our own country) that had been ashore some time previously, the military authorities could not grant permission for general leave, and we had to content ourselves with a route march to town next day, from 8.30 to 10 a.m. The march proved to be a pleasant break to the monotony of life on board ship. The "Willochra," with sick and wounded for New Zealand, being in port, an interchange of visits was carried out, and old acquaintanceships renewed.
At Albany the convoy divided, the "Tahiti," with the 2nd Battalion, sailing in company with the "Navua" and "Aparima," for Suez via Colombo. The "Maunganui" and the "Warrimoo," on the other hand, called at Fremantle, where the 1st Battalion and troops of the 7th Reinforcements went ashore for a route march and three hours' general leave. These two transports sailed from Fremantle at 8 p.m. on 23rd October, and by the 25th the weather had become sufficiently hot for awnings to be spread. The Line was crossed on November 4th, and four days later Cape Gardafui, the north-eastern point of Africa, was sighted. The passage of the dreaded Red Sea, much less distressing, however, than was anticipated, was completed by 7.15 a.m. on the 14th, at which hour the "Maunganui" dropped anchor at Suez. Reveille had been sounded at 4 a.m., and by 7 a.m. the troops were drawn up ready to disembark. However, orders were received to the effect that we were not to go ashore until the following day, and we were able to contemplate at leisure our strange and interesting surroundings. Away to the north-east was enemy country, the fawn-coloured desert sloping to the bare hills on the horizon. Nearer at hand were the weird sights and sounds of an Eastern port, with its gangs of noisy and gesticulating coolies, whose tendency to adopt "go-slow" tactics was met by prompt and energetic application of the big stick. The activities and cries of the vendors of fruit in the boats alongside, the calls for "Backsheesh! Backsheesh!" and the exploits of the native divers, all excited our interest and curiosity; but we were brought back to the realities of our mission when a number of New Zealanders came aboard to look up friends and acquaintances, and recounted some of their experiences on Gallipoli.
On November 15th the 1st Battalion disembarked from the "Maunganui" and entrained for Aerodrome Camp, near Cairo. The operation of transferring the troops, waggons, page 19gear and stores from the ship to the trains was by no means simple. We had our plans worked out down to the smallest detail, but these, it appeared, did not coincide with those of the local entraining officer, and considerable friction resulted until Captain Purdy, who had been detailed for the special duty, prevailed upon the regular official to leave us to own our devices. Thereafter the entraining proceeded with precision and expedition, and the feats of our carrying and loading parties were quite evidently a source of wonderment to both the English soldiers and the native labourers.
The open trucks of the troop-trains were altogether comfortless, and the jolting stops and starts astonishingly disconcerting; but the novelty of the experience and the interest attaching to the mysterious land through which we moved served to divert the mind from the contemplation of troubles that in other circumstances might have been sufficiently annoying. From Suez northwards the line ran close to the Canal, along which were numerous posts garrisoned mainly by Indian troops, the first we had seen on definite active service. At Ismailia we turned westward, and presently passed from the barren and monotonous desert to the fertile delta land, intersected by its innumerable irrigation ditches, the broad fields of growing crops and clumps of waving palms affording a veritable feast for the eye. At every stop, whether by day or by night, crowds of natives, carrying baskets of oranges and hardboiled eggs, besieged the train and hawked their wares with strange new cries. "Eggs-a-cook! Eggs-a-cook!" was fairly easily interpreted, but the meaning of "Orranghees! Orranghees! Verra nice! Verra sweet! Verra clean! Orranghees! Orranghees! Two forra half!" was more difficult of comprehension. Experience, however, is the best of teachers, and we soon learned that the mysterious "half" was half a piastre, the equivalent of a penny farthing. Our education advanced a further step during the following day, when the newspaper boys overran the camp bawling "'Mbaberr! 'Mbaberr! 'Mbaberr tomorra! Egyptian 'mbaberr! Timees! Verra good news!" and we discovered that this country was so up-to-date as to publish the morning paper on the previous afternoon.
After a journey of seven hours, the last of the three trains by which the battalion moved reached Helmieh Siding, some two miles from camp, half-an-hour before midnight. The page 20Regimental Band had accompanied the 1st Battalion from New Zealand, and now marched a detachment across the desert to the camp, playing, in the darkness, "Left, Right," a tune repeated by one of our bands just three years later as it led the march of its battalion across the Rhine, again during the night.
Aerodrome Camp was part of a large base camp situated quite close to the modern portion of the town of Heliopolis, which is practically a suburb of Cairo, though distant some six miles from the centre of that city. Our area was close to that of the Australian Light Horse, whose officers kindly extended hospitality to those of the 1st Battalion until the latter were able to complete arrangements for their own mess. The pushful native caterers and refuse contractors were early on the scene on business intent, and Battalion Headquarters were pestered by guides and hawkers bent on securing passes to enable them to ply their nefarious trades and callings within the lines.
On the first day in camp the companies drilled from 10 a.m. till noon, and in the afternoon the battalion had an interesting route march through Heliopolis and Zeitoun. Lieut.-Col. Fulton and Brigade Headquarters arrived from Suez late in the evening.
On the 17th the 1st Battalion officers opened their own mess. The native caterer was anxious to please, but the curious French-Egyptian dishes did not meet with an enthusiastic reception. By degrees we instructed him in the peculiarities of our requirements and brought to his notice certain joints cooked in the British fashion in a company kitchen. With due thought for his finer feelings, we hinted delicately that his chickens were really pigeons and his eggs the product of the same bird. Proceeding diplomatically, yet firmly and with patience, we at last secured a very passable mess; but we were grieved to notice that as the table improved, the snowy robes of the great six-foot native waiters as surely changed from their pristine whiteness to an indescribable dun-colour, and patchy withal. It is interesting to record that the caterer's name was Morgan, that one of his ancestors was a Welshman, and that he claimed to have been guide to sundry crowned heads of Europe in the palmier tourist days. He also dealt in scarabs and other interesting curios, as did countless other natives. We knew that these baubles were genuine, for had page 21we not the vendors' solemn declaration to that effect, and, in addition, full particulars of the tomb or temple or ruin from which each was obtained? In view of such affirmation, could the sceptic have the hardihood to suggest that the cunning craftsmen of Birmingham had been more intimately concerned in the production than had the long-vanished subjects of the Pharaohs?
It will be remembered that the 2nd Battalion in the "Tahiti" left the convoy at Albany. They reached Colombo on November 1st, and after a pleasant break ashore sailed again for Suez, at which port they disembarked on the 18th, and moved by rail to Aerodrome Camp. On the following evening this battalion was warned to be ready to go forward at a moment's notice for active service with the Western Frontier Force. The 1st Battalion was to have been vaccinated on the way from New Zealand, but apparently through some oversight the necessary supplies of vaccine had not been put on board. On the morning of the 19th vaccination had been carried out, and all ranks of the 1st Battalion were disgusted to find that but for this it would have been their good fortune to move instead of the 2nd, who had been through the ordeal of vaccination on the troopship.
Both battalions had brought from New Zealand full equipment for their transport sections,—waggons, harness, tools and spare parts, but no animals. Horses and chargers for the Brigade were drawn at the Aerodrome Camp on the 21st November.
On the evening of the 22nd, the 2nd Battalion left by rail for Alexandria, to join the Western Frontier Force on the line of communications in the direction of Dabaa.
Colonel E. W. C. Chaytor, C.B., assumed command of the Brigade on the 23rd, and Major M. M. Gard'ner, R.N.Z.A., took over the duties of Brigade Major from Capt. P. H. Bell. On the 26th, Lieut.-Col. Fulton returned from Alexandria, where he had been attending to the despatch of the 2nd Battalion, and resumed command of the 1st Battalion. Capt. Purdy, Acting-Adjutant, returned to his company, and Capt. P. H. Bell returned to the battalion as Adjutant.
On December 3rd, a New Zealand and Australian Reserve Brigade was formed of details from the camp at Gizeh, the command to be taken over by the Brigadier of the New Zealandpage 22
Rifle Brigade in addition to his ordinary duties. The units of which it was composed were the New Zealand and the 4th, 6th and 7th Australian Training Battalions, and its special duty was the defence of Cairo in case of emergency.
On the 5th of December, Colonel Chaytor returned to A.N.Z.A.C. to command the Mounted Rifle Brigade. Lieut.-Col. Fulton assumed command of the N.Z.R.B., and of the N.Z. and A. Reserve Brigade, and Major Austin resumed command of the 1st Battalion, N.Z.R.B.
At about this time there were fears of a possible native rising, and on the 10th Brigade Headquarters received the revised scheme for the defence of Cairo if this trouble should eventuate. Orders in accordance with the plan were issued to the 1st Battalion and to the units of the Reserve Brigade, and their commanding officers instructed to reconnoitre their areas in preparation for any possible development.
The 1st Battalion received warning on the evening of December 15th that it would replace the 2/5th Devons at the Citadel of Cairo, and all preparations for the relief were well forward when, at 8 p.m. on the 16th, the orders were cancelled and replaced by fresh instructions to be ready to leave at short notice for service with the Western Frontier Force at Mersa Matruh. Orders for the move were received at mid-day on the 18th, and by 6 p.m. the complete battalion, strength 30 officers and 968 other ranks, had left for Alexandria.
During the 1st Battalion's five weeks' stay at the Aerodrome Camp much useful training was done. As it was the winter season, the heat was not unduly oppressive. The midday hours were hot, but as a rule the parades were held in the morning and evening, with a long interval in the middle of the day and early afternoon. Trench-digging by day and by night formed an important part of the work, and night advances and attacks were frequently practised. Even the process of entraining with order and speed was rehearsed on the desert, car and truck spaces being marked out on the sand.
Here we had our first experience, so often repeated in later days, of sending men for training for a short period at an Army School of Instruction, 2 officers and 40 other ranks for a course in bombing, and 2 officers and 20 other ranks for signalling being detailed on November 22nd. The Machine Gun Section page 23also was detached for special training at the school, returning to battalion on 4th December.
Route marches, gradually increasing in length, had a fine effect in hardening the men after their long sea voyage. These, too, were made interesting as far as possible. Often they were planned so that halts should take place near a New Zealand or an Australian hospital. The band would play outside the building, and the men were given an opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances within. Amongst the interesting points visited in this way were the finer portions of Heliopolis and Zeitoun, Napoleon's Towers on the Suez Road, Old Heliopolis, the Virgin's Well, and the companion obelisk to Cleopatra's Needle, still standing at Matarieh. As often as the Regimental Band could be spared it was sent to the various hospitals, and to the Esbekieh Gardens and the New Zealand Y.M.C.A. establishment in Cairo; and the many expressions of thanks received indicated a keen appreciation of services gladly rendered. The temporary effects of vaccination somewhat interfered with the work, but eventually when the battalion marched out of camp for their first taste of active service all ranks were in a better state of fitness than they had ever been.