The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter III. Arrival in Egypt
Chapter III. Arrival in Egypt.
It was in high spirits that the Regiment landed at Alexandria on December 5, the freedom of movement after being "cribbed, cabined, and confined" for seven weeks, proving the most exhilarating joy. The horses, particularly those of the Star of India which had had more airy quarters than those on the Waimana, came ashore in remarkable condition. They were well-conditioned and glossy coated, and were quite ready to display their colonial conceits to the smaller-framed Arab horses about the wharves. The Waimana contingent had suffered more from the heat, and some of the animals had lost their hair in patches through constant sweating, and the owners, who had travelled on the other ship, had difficulty in recognising their steeds. A few week's care ashore, however, restored them.
At least one official of Egypt had no doubt about the obedience of the New Zealand troops the day of disembarkation. He was a pilot, and he came up the gangway of the Star of India when that vessel was lying hove-to outside the harbour. An A.M.R. trooper had been posted at the top of the gangway with instructions that no one had to be allowed to come aboard. Accordingly the pilot was firmly refused admittance to the ship. "But I'm the pilot," exclaimed that official, as he attempted to push by. "I don't care a d—if you are Pontius Pilate," calmly returned the trooper, as he held his rifle horizontally across the gangway. "My orders are to let no one aboard." The incident was not noticed from the bridge, and the indignant pilot had to descend to his launch page 21and draw out a little so that he could hail the officer on duty. The trooper in question was not a member of the guard at the Otahuhu camp which "arrested" the hot pie on its way to the officers' mess, and therefore he was not suspected of having been indulging a taste for humour.
The whole Force was transported by train to Zeitoun, an eastern suburb of Cairo, where a camp was speedily established on the very edge of the desert, and it was here that the New Zealanders lived and worked until they were called to participate in the glorious failure on the Gallipoli Peninsula. For the first week or two the A.M.R. concentrated its attention on getting the horses fit for the training ahead. When this was accomplished, the men themselves were ready for the ordeal, the getting of the horses into shape having entailed the tramping of many miles over the desert. It was then that the men began to know the desert as it is—the flats, the high soft sand hills cast up and fantastically moulded by the wind, the rocky slopes, and the flint-like crests—and it was inevitably the crests whereon the troopers were trained in the art of digging trenches. The bulk of the training, however, was in the work mounted rifles are expected to perform in war, with some musketry and bayonet-fighting thrown in. Picture the Regiment in from the desert after a day's training! A dense cloud of dust, rising higher than the cloud that hangs over a column of infantry, is the first sign of the advancing horsemen. The practised eye can readily observe whether the column be mounted or afoot. The dust cloud, hanging thick for half-a-mile behind the tail of the column, comes nearer and nearer, but not at a galloping speed, because the commander does not break from page 22the regulation trot. Finally, the first line of horsemen looms up, but no figure is distinct, and no one identifiable until the line halts. The horses are then led towards the water troughs, but there is not room for all to drink at once. This is not understood by the horses, and those that have to wait, pull and shove and burrow their heads against their masters to reach the water for which their dust-lined throats are aching. While the watering is in progress, one may study the scene. The one colour of both man and beast is a light grey, except where perspiration makes it black. The one colour envelopes the riders' uniforms, the saddlery, and the hair and faces of the men. Looking closer it will be seen that a little ridge of clay encircles the horses' eyes, this being caused by the dust falling on the damp edge. After the horses have been thoroughly groomed, the nose bags with their strict allowance of tibbin and barley, a mixture of the country which the Colonial horses do not yet appreciate, are put on, and then, but not till then, do the troopers get a chance of cleansing their bodies of the coating of grime and grit they gathered on the desert. This was the usual routine during the training days.
Occasionally treks of two or three days' duration were made through the pleasant areas made prolific by irrigation, and these long rides along the paths between the plots of luscious beersim, and through the groves of date palms, were times of placid content, and of rare value in giving the men a chance to study the Fellaheen as he is. One or two trips were made to the Delta barrage, where the horses were swum in the Nile.page 23
In times of freedom, most of the men became tourists, and all the wonders were thoroughly explored, even if time was found to taste the entertainments that Cairo offered. Despite the fixed convictions of many folk who were not there, the nights in Cairo were not wild orgies of dissipation in the realms of vice. Most of the gaiety was of a perfectly innocent character, the soldiers behaving just as well, if not a good deal better than the generality of tourists who go to Cairo.
On December 23, three days after His Highness Prince Hussein Kamel Pasha was proclaimed Sultan in the stead of Abbas Hilma Pasha, the late Khedive, who had shown his colours by going to Turkey after that country had joined our enemies, the Regiment, heading the column, took part in a march of all the colonial troops through Cairo, this demonstration of strength being considered necessary in view of the seething discontent of the Nationalists over the ending of Turkish suzerainty and the establishment of British protection over Egypt. The route led from the main thoroughfares through the narrow bazaars, where the curious eyes of harem women peered through the lattice window screens of the overhanging upper storeys, and sometimes sent eloquent glances when they caught the gaze of the troopers below. A man, whose name shall be Smith, raved about the ravishing eyes of one face at the window, and vowed he would "call," but later altered his mind when he passed an establishment, the entrance of which was guarded by a spectacular gentleman of ferocious aspect—maybe a Montenegrin—who wore in the sash which encircled the top of a pair of very red and very baggy trousers, a couple of revolvers of ancient make and a brace of knives which, Smith page 24observed, were evidences of "a hideously suspicious nature." The mosque area, known to be the centre of seditious sentiment, was embraced in the march.
The display of force may have had good results, for when the Turks made their forlorn attack on the Suez Canal, on the night of February 2—an action in which, to the great disgust of the mounted rifles, New Zealand was represented by the infantry only—Cairo remained placid; the clamour of street hawkers filled the air as it would fill the air if the trump of doom sounded; the gentlemen of importance drank their coffee in the open cafes in all serenity, and smoked the bubbling narghileh; the weird, tuneless music of the kemengeh, the arghool, and the ood, punctuated by the resounding darabukkeh, arose from the malodorous bazaars where the Ghawazee girls danced for the plaudits and piastres of the crowd; and if the students of E1 Azhar whispered in secret conclave and planned a jehad for the glory of Islam and the crescent, their fantastical hopes faded when the dawn broke on a calmly indifferent city.
Anzac Snapshots. 1. Periscopic rifle in position. 2. Indian transport mules. 3. Sleeping in support line. 4. The Beach sap. 5. Glimpse of Walker's Ridge. 6. Casualty Clearing Station.
An important milestone in the history of the Regiment and of the Force, was the day on which General Sir Ian Hamilton, who had come to the East on an important mission, not then divulged, reviewed the whole Colonial Corps, which comprised the 1st Australian Division and the Australian and New Zealand Division. He alone knew what would be required of these troops, practically untried and without regimental tradition behind them, but he has since recorded the high estimate he then placed upon their fighting qualities.
That dusty review will ever remain a bright memory in the minds of the men, for there the Force assembled in full strength on one parade ground for the first and last time. It was a thrilling and inspiring sight, even to those who participated, and it was not surprising to hear that the general described these young regiments as "spoiling for a fight" Whatever warring strategists may say or not say about the Gallipoli Campaign, there is no doubt about the fact that Sir Ian Hamilton has a vigour and personality that appeals to the colonials, and it is certainly a fact that at this review the general rode straight into their hearts. He was as much under inspec-page 26tion by the colonials as they were under inspection by him, and if he were pleased, so were the troops; and whatever happened or did not happen subsequently, the men retain feelings of warm regard towards the Commander-in-Chief. If it was he who was responsible for the failure, the men of the Dominion will be the first to offer excuse. As he rode down the long glistening line of sun-tanned virile manhood, he called cheery welcomes to the officers he remembered meeting when he reviewed the Territorials in New Zealand the previous year, and his smiling but keen eyes seemed to include every man in their searching gaze. After he had gone from one end to the other, the march past took place, the mounted rifles, in squadron column, first going by at the walk and afterwards at a hand gallop, which shrouded a square mile in dust.