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

Chapter IV. "An Unknown Destination."

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Chapter IV. "An Unknown Destination."

A few weeks later an electric current went through the camp when the infantry received orders to prepare for embarkation at Alexandria for a secret destination. It was a sad blow to the mounted rifles again to stay behind while the infantry were sent to war. No one knew what the objective of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was to be, but there was not a soul in camp who did not sense the coming of stirring days. In the thrill which the departure of the infantry occasioned, there was an undercurrent of excitement as if the "whispering galleries" of the East had been awakened by prescient voices that spoke of romantic deeds of arms. On the night of the departure, troopers searched for friends along the ranks that loomed through the darkness, grasped hands they never were to touch again, and went back to the tame tiresome tasks of the horse lines. Junior officers of the mounted rifles cursed their luck, and having sat in dismal groups in the mess tent consuming strong waters, they went to bed to dream of anything but the route march ordered for the morrow. But their days went on in the same old way. It has been recorded by a painstaking adjutant that the A.M.R. moved in the direction of El Marg and carried out reconnaisance work, that it took part in operations against the A.L.H. Brigade in the vicinity of Ishkandar Shakir, and that on one sad morning when reveille sounded at 3.30 a.m. it marched against the enemy in the direction of Virgin's Breast.

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And while this mimic war went on the infantry were preparing for that audacious landing on Gallipoli.

When, on April 30, the news of the Landing came, the mounted rifles resembled dogs in leash in their anxiety to get away to the aid of the Force which had suffered so severely. A long, restless week went by, and then came the order for the mounted rifles to prepare to go to the front without their horses. The effect of this order on the spirits of the men was instantaneous. The "grousing" discontent that had developed gave place to the wildest exhilaration, which expressed itself in more or less tuneful song. The wave of minstrelsy that swept over the Regiment may not have added much to the art of singing, but it had a meaning which would have given pride to New Zealand, and on that account the fact is recorded. The only regret was that the horses, now trained to a very fine point, were not to share the honours of battle. But while the Regiment would have liked to be used for the purpose it had been trained, there was not a man who would have missed this chance of fighting as a foot slogger.

Unfortunately, no webb equipment was available for the troopers, but from somewhere were produced brown canvas packs which had two arm slings. These crude packs were probably the most "awkward" knapsack equipment ever issued to soldiers, and it was fortunate that they could be dispensed with as soon as the Gallipoli beach was reached. They had to be worn on top of the leather bandolier of the trooper, and they had neither fit, form, nor comeliness. There is page 29some co-ordination and singleness of purpose about the webb equipment of an infantryman, but the disconnected assortment of gear of these troopers—haversack, water bottle, bandolier, overcoat—were all at war with one another, and the result was sad. When ready for the train the men felt like badly-laden camels, and two of them were in such dire straits that they slipped away to the station in a "garry," to the indignation of a sergeant-major of the old school, who demanded to be informed if the men in the cab thought they were "spare colonels or generals or somethin'" and if they intended to drive right" into the trenches in their "blasted go-cart." He also wished to be informed if the "spare generals" desired him to send a fatigue party to carry their "luggage" to the train, and get them some wine and a roll and the bosom of a duck to sustain them until their cook got sober. The culprits were glad to escape to the obscurity of an unpleasant fatigue duty.

The strength of the Regiment for embarkation was: 26 officers, 482 other ranks, and 71 horses, the horses being included in the hope that wheeled transport might soon be possible, but they were never landed. The Regiment, with the exception of a small party travelling on the Kingstonian with the horses, embarked on the Grantully Castle, on which was also the 3rd Australian Light Horse, who, like the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, were to fight dismounted. Before the ship sailed, four stowaways were found and sent back to Zeitoun. These four, not quite so fortunate as some others who got to Anzac by stealth, and there were welcomed with joy to the strength of their units, reflected the general feelings of the farriers and reinforcement details left behind, although page 30they had a more irresponsible way of expressing their disappointment. As a matter of fact the farriers of the Regiment had contributed no small amount of gaiety to the camp on the day of departure by their competition for the two vacancies on the war establishment. Someone said that the manner in which the farriers "canvassed" every officer who might be able to support their claim for selection, reminded him of politics in the good old days of patronage.

The transports sailed on the evening of May 9, and after what seemed an endless passage of three days, arrived off Cape Helles, where lay a countless fleet of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, transports, colliers, and small craft of all descriptions. The sight of a "dummy" warship was a rare chance for a humourist, who called on heaven to witness the vanished might of the British Navy, declared his certain conviction that someone was certainly going to be hurt after all, and voiced his intention of going to no more wars until it was agreed that both sides were to fight with bladders on sticks. While the transports lay off Helles (the humorist called it "hell's point," and said he could quite understand why the "old dago" swam it), the men witnessed the Queen Elizabeth shelling, with her 15-inch guns, the Turkish defences on the southern slopes of Achi Baba, the eminence which dominates the southern end of the Peninsula, and they also saw the distant flashes of the field artillery ashore. In the afternoon the transports weighed anchor and sailed north to Fisherman's Hut, which seemed to be the general designation of the colonial position at that time.

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While the ships were passing up the coast, those on board were able to study the general outlines of the country. To the north of Achi Baba lay the Khilid Bahr Plateau, but this feature was more distant, some flat agricultural land extending from its base to the sea. North again of this plateau rose the forbidding tangle of ridges, gullies, and crags of Sari Bair, rising by stages to the height of 971 feet at the north end of the range. When the ships hove to off the Fisherman's Hut area, the men saw a sheer clay face rising almost from the beach, and into this ran gorges. In the distance beyond loomed the eminence of what was called Baby 700 and Chunuk Bair, the ground from which the Turk was to dominate the Anzac position—the ground which was to see the troops rise to undreamed of deeds of gallantry and heroism, but which in the end was to put the seal of failure upon an enterprise which will be the nation's pride for aye. At the distance the position seemed so peaceful and still that the mounted riflemen were inclined to believe the rumour that they would have to march some miles before they could smell powder. But they did not then know that birds could whistle in the still of No Man's Land while the trenches on either side bristled with bayonets, and countless eyes kept ceaseless watch, and snipers with fingers on their triggers waited without a movement in their lairs for the reckless or unwary head to show.