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The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919

Chapter II. The Voyage to Egypt

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Chapter II. The Voyage to Egypt.

The voyage to Egypt, a destination not then dreamed of, need not be described in any great detail. The first port of call was Hobart, where the troops received an overwhelming welcome, which contrasted with the somewhat restrained farewell the Auckland men had received in their own city. It was realised, however, that the kindly and demonstrative people of Hobart were able to greet the New Zealanders as a compliment to a neighbouring Dominion, and without the personal emotions which must always subdue those who are sending their own kin to war. The Aucklanders were later to realise through their contact with Australian soldiers that the Australians are much more demonstrative people than the people of their own land, and that Australian crowds always give freer reign to their emotions than do gatherings of New Zealanders. This difference in temperament was markedly noticeable between Australian and New Zealand regiments. In action it was observed that the Australians always made more noise than the New Zealanders. Often Australian units, when desperately engaged with the enemy, shouted like a crowd of football barrackers. This was not usually the case with the New Zealanders. When at grips with the enemy they were comparatively quiet, and they fought with a grim determination, never underestimating their foe.

Leaving Hobart the New Zealand convoy sailed to Albany, where were waiting 26 of the 28 transports of the Main Body of the Australian page 13Imperial Force. It was a wonderful and inspiring sight to see this fleet lying at anchor across the placid waters of King George's Sound, and it afforded very tangible proof of the loyalty of the Dominions, which had been questioned by the German Emperor. Although there was no opportunity for the Australians and their kinsmen from this side of the Tasman Sea to fraternise during the two days spent at Albany, the feelings of mutual esteem which now exist had their beginnings there. Ships greeted ships, and loud and continuous cries of welcome floated across the water. The secret of the atmosphere, which produced common concord among the ships, was that there was mutual understanding, a common impulse having actuated the men, whether from the Never Never or Sydney or Taupo or Timaru.

On Sunday, November 1, the fleet sailed, the Australian cruisers Sydney and Melbourne taking the places of the smaller "P" class ships, which cheered the New Zealand transports on their way as they parted company. The first transport moved towards the open sea at 6 a.m., and the last did not up anchor until 9 o'clock. Next day the remaining two Australian transports from Fremantle joined the convoy, making the total 38, certainly the largest convoy that ever set out on so long a voyage. Although the Australian ships steamed in three lines, with the New Zealand vessels in two lines at their rear, the great fleet stretched almost from horizon to horizon even when sailing orders were being strictly obeyed. Only sailors could understand fully the technical difficulties attending the sailing of so large a convoy, consisting as it did of such a variety of steamers of so varied engine power.

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The days, growing warmer and warmer, followed one another with eventless monotony. As is always the case with mounted troops at sea, the men of the Auckland Mounted Rifles spent most of their time among their horses, which required constant attention. The detachment on the Waimana had a particularly hard time, seeing that on that ship they had much more than their complement of horses. Apart from the ordinary duties in feeding and grooming the horses and cleaning the stalls, it was necessary to take a great deal of care of the animal's legs, which were very liable to swell owing to the constant standing. Frequent rubbing and hosing with salt water was carried out with wonderful results. For those not on duty among the horses, ordinary guard duties were found, and on the Star of India occasionally parties were required to transfer coal from a forward hold to the bunkers, bunker space having been reduced by two bunker compartments being used for mess rooms for the men. Incidentally it might be mentioned that in the tropics these mess rooms, being so close to the engine room, became almost unbearably hot, and eating was far from pleasant. Men began to discard one garment after another, until at last some arrived at meals wearing little more than the "uniform" of Gunga Din. Then had to be issued the famous order forbidding men to go about the ship in "a nude state." The man who asked the sergeant-major if he would be regarded as nude if he wore a full bathing suit instead of trunks only, received the fright of his career. The trooper thereupon wrote a letter to a troopship paper that was being produced, suggesting that it was hardly proper for the ship's hose to be left uncovered on the deck in full view of the public gaze.

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It was patent to everyone that the destination was somewhere north of the Line, but no one except, perhaps, the commander had any more definite information. This uncertainty appealed to the sporting instincts of one trooper who started a "book" on the hazard. He wrote down some 10 possible destinations, including India and Zanzibar, and he threw in South Africa, seeing that news of De Wet's rebellion had been received. But most of the available cash on the ship was now in the canteen, and no business was done by the sporting individual.

Aided by fine weather, the horses were standing up to their great test of endurance in a remarkable manner. By this time they had learned to recognise the bugle which announced their feeds, and the chorus of glad neighs which greeted this bugle was one of the happiest sounds of the ship.

On November 9, occurred the one sensational incident of the voyage—the destruction of the German cruiser Emden by the Sydney at the Cocos Islands when the convoy was only 60 miles distant. Briefly, the facts of this notable incident are these: About 6.30 a.m. a wireless S.O.S. message, more or less mutilated by a hostile instrument, was picked up from the station on the Cocos Islands advising that a strange warship was at the entrance, and was ignoring the station's messages. The Sydney was immediately despatched to the Cocos Islands by the captain of the Melbourne, who had assumed command of the convoy after the departure the previous day of the Minotaur, which followed the receipt of news of the naval disaster off Valparaiso. The Sydney engaged the Emden by 9.30 a.m., and at 11.20 a.m. she advised that the Emden was beaching herself in a sinking page 16condition. It was afterwards learned that the Emden had crossed the track of the convoy some little distance ahead the previous night, but had seen no sign of it. This may have been due to the great care taken to mask all lights at night. The precautions against detection by the Emden, whose presence in these waters was, of course, known, had been thorough, and it had even been ordered that no empty cases should be thrown overboard lest the hostile warship should be provided with a clue. The excitement on board the transports when the great news was announced was similar to that of Armistice Day.

Veterans of the A.M.R. have vivid memories of many stirring incidents they have witnessed, but one of the great pictures in the gallery of their minds will always be that of the Sydney dashing away to the horizon that morning in November to fight her first fight, and the first fight of the Australian Navy, against the one hostile ship which could have wrought harm to that vast convoy.

On November 13, the New Zealand transports, under the care of H.M.S. Hampshire, pushed ahead of the Australian boats on account of coal and water needs, and reached Colombo two days later. The shore leave granted was greatly enjoyed after the trying days in crowded comfortless ships which did not possess the first essentials of passenger boats in the tropics. The convoy, with the exception of 10 transports which still required coal, sailed on November 17, and reached Aden eight days later. During the run to Aden an A.M.R. mare on the Star of India, in defiance of army regulations, gave birth to a foal, and surviving the ordeal, she was regarded by the experts as something of a miracle. The foal was a fine speci-page 17men, but a foal cannot be kept by a mounted rifles regiment even as a mascot, and it had to be destroyed.

The chief memories of that run to Aden are those of a sunrise on a perfectly glassy sea, of the fins of flying fish flashing in the sun, and of hundreds and thousands of porpoises, affected by the martial spirit of the world apparently, manœuvring in troops, squadrons, regiments, and brigades. They moved in troop column, in squadron line, and line of squadrons, the most mobile force that ever assembled.

At Aden the convoy met eight transports on their way to India with British territorial battalions, a cheery crew who insisted upon bestowing large quantities of cigarettes upon the crews of whale boats from New Zealand transports when they learned that cigarettes had been banished from the New Zealand vessels. They also rejoiced in wet canteens, which were painfully absent from the New Zealand troopships.

The colonial convoy, now united again, sailed for Suez on November 26. The days spent in the Red Sea were intensely hot and extremely trying for man and beast. The veterinary officer of the A.M.R., who had lost a remarkably small percentage of horses, and was most anxious to keep up the reputation of his horses, gained a name for professional zeal by commandeering some of the windsails which were supplying a little ventilation to the suffocating quarters of the men in the cavernous place that had once been a hold, and leading them to the horse stalls on the deck above. The troopers, or most of them, were spending the nights on the deck, however, so no one died of suffocation in the dormitories.

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Before Suez was reached, instructions were received that the Force had to prepare to disembark in Egypt. Seeing that Turkey was now at war against the Allies, the men of the Regiment were not disheartened at hearing the destination. Those who were still pessimistic over the fear of garrison duty, cheered up visibly when the order came for the sharpening of bayonets and the overhauling of saddlery, and they became quite optimistic when, during the passage of the Suez Canal on the night of December 1, they beheld the very considerable preparations being made for the defence of that vital line of communication. They saw real trenches for the first time, and they exchanged greetings with sentries of many different Indian regiments, who kept watch on the canal banks. This night was the first occasion that guards of the N.Z.E.F. were posted with magazines charged. A previous ship, it was said, had been fired at by scouting Turks or their Bedouin friends, so on each ship a guard was posted to return any compliments of this nature that were offered. No hostile hand disturbed the peace of that extremely peaceful night, however, and the voyagers were able to drink in the wonder of the scene.

The ships, with searchlights at their bows, sending a path of blazing light down the narrow strip of water which is the gateway to half the world, steamed slowly through. The constellations, then strange but to become so familiar to these men from Britain's farthest outpost, blazed with a splendour that intoxicated the senses—the splendour of the orient sky; the eternal desert, so quiet and still and mysterious, so alluring in that strange grey light which hides more than it reveals, whispered its seductive enchantments to these men page 19from the distant green southern islands, and filled their hearts with a strange yearning, and longing to go out into that sandy waste and seek the Thing that called. They were afterwards to know that the soft voice of the moonlit desert was as false and cruel as the mocking mirage when it woos and beckons the thirst-tormented wanderer.

Perhaps the brooding spirit of the old, old land had wakened again at the sound of the gathering armies, and was pondering the stirring days of yore. Maybe it numbered again the legions of its dead, and there was a stirring of the countless bones which lay beneath the all-effacing sand. Perhaps it was the voice of the past telling the tale of history—how the Persian and the Roman had passed that way, how the Crusader in his mail had clanged onward to the battle of the Cross. It may have been that the spirit of the desert whispered of the flight to Egypt of a father and a mother and a Babe. These soldiers, so unlike the warriors who once went that way, gazed in thrilled silence at the scene, but felt more than they saw. It was a wondrous night. Since then they have learned the moods of the mocking pitiless desert; they have suffered its thirst, endured its angry heat, and choked in its storm-lifted dust and sand. They sometimes curse the desert, but the beauty, the charm, the lure, the haunting whispered appeal of that night will always remain with them, for that night they stepped on to the famous stage whereon the greatest drama of all was to be enacted.