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Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919

Chapter Two — The Voyage to Egypt

page 6

Chapter Two
The Voyage to Egypt

By 24th September all was in readiness for embarkation. The Awapuni Contingent had reached Wellington, where it was "farewelled" officially and otherwise in Newtown Park. After the ceremony the troops marched to the wharves through dense crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers, the bands playing "Tipperary" and other tunes popular at that time, and the embarkation was quickly accomplished. The men were highly elated at the prospect of an early departure, but disappointment awaited them. The presence of two powerful German cruisers had been detected in adjacent waters, and in consequence the departure was deferred pending the arrival of two other warships to strengthen the escort. The troops were therefore disembarked, the Regiment marching to Trentham Racecourse, where training was resumed, but with more than a full share of recreation. Dances, concerts, and other forms of amusement were provided by the citizens of Wellington, and the troops have grateful recollections of the many kindnesses bestowed on them.

On October 14th H.M.S. Minotaur and the Japanese battleship Ibuki reinforced the escort, and early next morning the troops began to re-embark.

They were shipped like sheep when the dawn was grey
(But the officers knew that no lambs were they);
They squatted and perched where e'er they could,
And they "blankey-ed" for joy as we knew they would,
Knew they would—
Knew they would;
They blankey-ed for joy, as we knew they would.

A memorable day in the annals of New Zealand had arrived—the day of the final departure of the Main Body.

The re-embarkation was quickly effected, the W.M.R. being quartered on three troopships, as follows:—

  • Arawa: Headquarters Staff, 2nd Squadron (less one troop), and Machine-gun Section.
  • Tahiti: 6th Squadron (less one troop).
  • Orari: 9th Squadron (one troop each, 2nd and 6th Squadrons) and all the horses of the Regiment.
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The Officers of the Regiment were: Headquarters, Lieut. -Colonel W. Meldrum (in command), Adjutant-Captain V. A. Kelsall Quartermaster-Captain A. H. Wilkie. Signal Officer-Lieut. R. Logan, Machine-gun Officer-Lieut. H. T. Palmer. Attached Major P. M. Edgar, N.Z. Veterinary Corps, Captain H. J. McLean. N.Z.M.C., and Major W. Grant, N.Z. Chaplains' Department.

2nd Squadron

Major J. Elmslie (in command), Captain W. Hardham, V.C. (second in command), Lieutenants W. Jansen. T. P. James, W. Risk, and B. F. Joll.

6th Squadron

Major C. Dick (in command). Captain W. F. Hastings (second in command), Lieutenants J. Sommerville, H. P. Taylor, J. B. Davis, and G. P. Mayo.

9th Squadron

Major S. Chambers (in command). Captain C. R. Spragg (second in command), Lieutenants W. D. Cameron, P. J. Emerson, H. B. Maunsell, and A. F. Batchelar.

Lieut. C. Watt was in charge of the 1st Reinforcement draft.

The hearts of the men were high and the cheering crowds which witnessed the departure of the splendid manhood of the Dominion little realised that within ten months a large percentage would be killed and of the remainder nearly all would be crippled by wounds or stricken with sickness. At about 3.30 in the afternoon fond farewells were exchanged, and, to the accompaniment of bursts of cheering from dense crowds which lined the wharves and buildings adjacent, the troopships glided away and anchored in the stream.

At six o'clock next morning the convoy of fourteen ships sailed away in single file for an unknown destination, conveying 9,000 trained and equipped men as New Zealand's first contribution to assist the Motherland in the fight for freedom. General training continued from the commencement of the voyage, and on the morning of October 21st the convoy arrived at Hobart. On the following day the troops disembarked for exercise, the mounted troops leading the column, which was given a great ovation as it moved along the line of march.

Our men were loaded with fruit and at many points it was difficult for the column to penetrate the crowds of people who were desirous of showing their hospitality in a more tangible manner than by a shake of the hand. The jaunt ashore occupied page 8about three hours, during which time all ranks enjoyed themselves immensely. About mid-day the troopships left the wharves and anchored in the stream till 4 p.m., when they proceeded on their journey.

Target practices were held on the Arawa, a specially-constructed floating target being towed for the purpose. This form of musketry instruction was popular; it not only provided good sport, but it tended to improve the marksmanship of the men very considerably. The majority of the marksmen "found" the target first shot, but the less experienced had some difficulty in reconciling the roll of the transport with the bobbing movements of the target astern. But practice worked wonders.

On the 21th the first publication of The Arrower appeared, the contents comprising all manner of skits and jokes, relating principally to characters on board. Poetry was also attempted, the prophetic ring of the following verse terminating the effort of an embryo poet to give an indication of the minds of the men at the time:—

We'll soon fall in midst battle din
To see what we can do.
With leaders right, we're bound to fight
And see the business through.
You'll find we'll stand for Maoriland
And play the game of war.
And fill the gaps for the British chaps
When the guns begin to roar.

Albany was reached on the 28th, and early in the morning of 1st November the first Australian and New Zealand transports, with their escorts, strengthened by the Australia and Sydney, left this port, no destination being mentioned.

The sight of this fleet as it rounded Cape Leeuwin will always be remembered by those who witnessed it, the great lines which the transports formed extending over the horizon. In order to mask the ships' movements as much as possible the naval authorities issued strict orders that no lights were to be exposed at night. The order was rigidly observed in many cases, but the illumination on some of the ships resembled the glare of a torchlight procession.

In order to provide sports and entertainments, committees were formed, and they succeeded in unearthing much talent. The late Corporal Robertson, of the W.M.R., a champion wrestler, defeated several opponents in turn, and well-contested boxing bouts, sports, and concerts enlivened the daily routine.

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On 9th November a stirring and historical event happened. An S.O.S. message was received from Cocos Island—at that time some fifty miles distant—intimating that the wireless station on the island was in danger. In consequence, the cruiser Sydney, one of the escorts, was despatched at full speed to render assistance. Later in the day a message was received from the Sydney that she had engaged and destroyed the German cruiser Emden. Tremendous excitement prevailed on the transports on the reception of this great news.

On the 13th the cruiser Hampshire (on which Lord Kitchener subsequently lost his life) joined the escort, and on the same day the fleet crossed the equator. To celebrate the latter event, elaborate preparations had been made on the Arawa, as on the other ships. A big canvas bath had been erected and filled, and the ceremonial rites for the occasion were rigidly adhered to, all aboard being "ducked." At the height of the excitement, however, a most unfortunate accident occurred, whereby Lieutenant Webb, a medical officer, dislocated his neck, the injury proving fatal some days later at Colombo.

At 9 a.m. on the 15th November the convoy arrived at Colombo, where it remained until the 17th, shore leave being allowed in me interval.

On the 28th a mild sensation was caused, when orders were received for the troops to prepare to disembark at an Egyptian port, Alexandria being definitely named on the following day.

During the morning of the 1st December the foremost ships reached Suez, and some time later they commenced to file through the Canal at intervals of half an hour. The passage through this gateway between East and West is always impressive By night the narrow waterway is lit by the brilliant searchlights of the vessels as they pass through. New stars blaze in the sky On either side stretches the desert—the Garden of Allah—dim mysterious strange—the Desert that was later to become so familiar and to witness such momentous and historic happenings.