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The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919

Chapter I. — On the Formation of the Regiment, its Embarkation and Voyage to Egypt

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Chapter I.
On the Formation of the Regiment, its Embarkation and Voyage to Egypt.

The history of "The Canterbury Mounted Rifle Regiment" commences on August 12th, 1914, when the first men reported to the Mobilisation Camp at the Addington Showgrounds. This Camp included all branches of the service in the Canterbury Military District. The Regiment when formed consisted of three squadrons, one from each of the three mounted rifle regiments in the Canterbury Military District—the 1st M.R. (Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry), 8th (South Canterbury) M.R., and 10th (Nelson) M.R. A machine-gun section drawn from these regiments was also included, and sufficient trained signallers to form the Regimental Signal Section.

The squadrons wore their own regimental badges and were known throughout their service as the 1st, 8th and 10th squadrons. In later days reinforcements reaching Egypt were drafted to the squadrons representing the districts from which they came.

The ease and celerity with which the Regiment was formed, and the high standard of training it quickly developed, demonstrated in no uncertain manner the value of the Territorial training. The majority of the officers and men first accepted were Territorials, with a sprinkling of old volunteers and South African War veterans. Lieut.-Colonel J. Findlay (Reserve of Officers), who had a fine record in the South African War, was appointed to the command of the Regiment, with Major P. J. Overton, also a South African veteran, as his second in command.

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The squadron leaders were Majors P. M. Acton Adams, P. J. Wain and G. H. Hutton of the 1st, 8th and 10th Squadrons respectively.

During this same period regiments were being mobilised on similar lines in Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin. The Wellington and Auckland Regiments, with the Canterbury Regiment, formed the N.Z. Mounted Brigade, under the command of Colonel A. H. Russell,* who at the outbreak of war was in command of the Territorial Mounted Brigade in the Wellington Military District, and who had served in the British Army.

From the 12th to the 16th August men came pouring into Camp from all parts of the Canterbury Military District, all creeds and walks of life being represented. The medical examination was the cause of many being disappointed in their endeavour to enlist. The one fixed idea of every man was to get away with the force now being mobilised, and by the end of the first week the Regiment was over-strength and had a waiting list that could have formed another regiment.

Equipment was at first a stumbling block, and to equip the force it was necessary to call in all the uniforms and rifles from the Territorial units. Horses were the next item. Many men had ridden in on their own horses; and, if suitable, these were taken over by the Government and re-issued to their former owners. Other horses were given, though many people had a vague idea only of what a troop horse should be. The remount portion of the camp could show anything from a draught horse to an unbroken outlaw. But in a week or ten days it was doubtful if any regiment had ever been better mounted. The C.M.R. horses from the very beginning were good, and the envy of other units.

With the issuing of all necessary equipment, training began in earnest. The Permanent Staff N.C.Os worked us till we dreamt of drill and rifle exercises, and they performed wonders in the short time at their disposal. The keenness and natural ability of the men helped, and they became a fairly efficient machine instead of a disorderly mob. Few page 3people have given much thought to what these few regular soldiers meant to New Zealand in those days. Most assuredly they trained us and fitted us for the great task that lay overseas. Discipline was strict, but there was no crime nor even minor offences. The warning that "anybody slacking or not playing the game will be left behind" was sufficient. We all knew there were numbers of good fellows waiting and hoping for a chance to join.

Addington proving an unsuitable place for so many men and animals, on September 6th camp was moved to the Plumpton Park Trotting Club Course at Sockburn; the ground here, being of a shingly formation, was more suitable for a camp and did not cut up with the continual traffic.

On September 14th the Regiment was inspected by Sir James Allen, the Minister of Defence, who was evidently impressed by the steadiness and soldier-like bearing of all ranks.

During this period there had been daily expectation of departure, but now, a month after entering camp, it seemed farther off than ever. Day after day the old routine was gone through, and then suddenly the news came that the transports were in Lyttelton Harbour. All was now orderly confusion. Kits were packed and re-packed. It was marvellous the amount that could be crammed into a kit bag. Finally the baggage was got rid of and forwarded by train to the transports.

Early in the morning of September 23rd the Regiment rode out of camp for the last time, taking the road through Sumner to the ships at Lyttelton, and embarked immediately on arrival—Headquarters and the 1st Squadron on H.M.N.Z. Transport No. 4, Tahiti; the 8th and 10th Squadrons on H.M.N.Z. Transport No. 11, Athenic. Owing to there being insufficient accommodation on the transport Tahiti, about forty men and horses were sent to Dunedin to embark with the Otago Mounted Rifles. These forty men were drafted from each squadron and Captain H. H. Hammond of the 8th (South Canterbury M.R.) was placed in charge. The horses took to their confined quarters quietly. Some were on deck but the majority were down in the holds.

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The ships sailed in the evening, and after a quiet trip arrived in Wellington the following afternoon, where it was learnt, to the general disappointment, that all troops were to disembark. No reason was given at the time, for this hitch in the arrangements. Afterwards it was learnt that it was due to the presence of German cruisers in the South Pacific.

The Tahiti just before leaving Lyttelton.

The Tahiti just before leaving Lyttelton.

On the 25th the Tahiti men went into camp at Lyall Bay, and those from the Athenic to Trentham, there to await the arrival of an escort capable of protecting the fleet of transports.

The time was fully occupied in looking after the horses, in some tactical training and in speculating on the probable date of departure. On October 14th the escort arrived—H.M.S.Minotaur and the Japanese warship Ibuki. By 3 p.m. the Regiment was again on board the ships, which immediately pulled out into the stream to await departure the following morning.

The fleet weighed anchor at 6 o'clock, the Minotaur leading, closely followed by the Ibuki. Some little time elapsed before the first of the transports followed. Then one by one at about five minutes intervals the other boats joined page 5in, following the leader in single file. Not until clearing land, at about 4 p.m. in the afternoon, was this formation altered; then the ships gradually formed up in two lines about half a mile apart and about three hundred and fifty yards between the stern and bow of each vessel. The escort also changed formation, the Minotaur being now about six miles ahead, with the Ibuki about the same distance on the right. The two small ships Psyche and Philomel of the New Zealand station of the Royal Navy, also joined the convoy, the former taking up a position on the left and the latter acting as rear guard. All the escorting ships closed in to about three miles at dusk. The first evening at sea showed the transports in the following formation:—

Arawa Maunganui
Athenic Hawke's Bay
Orari Star of India
Ruapehu Limerick
Waimana Tahiti.
Horses on troopship.

Horses on troopship.

A heavy swell was running, and all the vessels rolled considerably. Many men were suffering from sea sickness, but it was wonderful how they stuck to the work of looking page 6after their horses. The latter, poor brutes, had a bad time for a day or two, till they became used to the motion of the vessel.

Hobart was reached on October 21st, and left again on the afternoon of the 22nd. A route march was held through the town. Everybody was glad of this chance of exercise, as the quarters on board ship, to put it mildly, were a bit cramped; and the warm welcome given by the people of Hobart as they flocked in their hundreds to the wharves will long remain a happy memory.

The next Port of call was not known, but the probability pointed to Albany or Fremantle. It proved to be Albany, where the convoy arrived on the 28th. Here were the Australian transports.

Wherever one looked there seemed to be troopships, and all were packed with men in khaki. The New Zealand ships sailed again on November 1st, following immediately after the Australians whose great fleet of 28 transports passed out of the harbour first. The combined fleets now numbered 38 transports, and in addition to the warships which had accompanied the New Zealanders the escort was now increased by the addition of the two Australian cruisers Melbourne and Sydney.

A foreign tramp left just before the convoy sailed, but was stopped by H.M.A.S. Melbourne. A short conversation between the two boats followed, and the tramp returned to port. She was still there when the Regiment left.

All hands soon settled down again and had very little time to think of their troubles, if they had any, for looking after horses on shipboard is a never-ending job, and as the tropics were being entered the horses required even more particular care.

The food was good, and small luxuries could be bought at the canteen on board. There was sufficient fresh water for drinking purposes, but the habit of drinking water was not encouraged. Fresh water is always a serious question on a horse boat, owing to the quantity carried being limited, a ship's daily consumption being roughly 26 tons a day. For all washing and bathing purposes salt water was available, and soap, to lather page 7in salt water, was provided, but it was not very cleansing, and one always had a sticky feeling afterwards. Big canvas baths filled with sea water were erected on deck and full advantage was taken of them.

As all port holes were sealed at night to prevent the appearance of any lights, the atmosphere in the sleeping quarters became so stuffy, that as many men as were able slept on deck. Wind-sails to divert the air below decks were made use of, but in a following wind they were useless. From the time of leaving Albany to the port of disembarkation, the temperature between decks was seldom below 80 degrees, and in the Red Sea reached 98.

On November 9th came word of the battle between the Sydney and the Emden. As the news had been received the previous day by wireless of the destruction of Admiral Cradock's squadron at Coronel, the Sydney's brilliant success was specially acceptable.

It appears that at 6.30 a.m. the operator in charge of the British Wireless Station on the Cocos Islands sent out a message "strange warship approaching"; this message was picked up by the signallers on duty on many of the ships and passed on by the Arawa to the Melbourne, which was now the senior ship in the escort, as the Minotaur had been ordered away the day before. Further messages were jammed by German wireless. But the senior Naval Officer on the Melbourne evidently guessed who the strange warship was, and by 7 a.m. the Sydney was steaming full speed for the Cocos Islands, which had been passed just before daylight. A period of intense waiting ensued, accentuated by the movements of the Japanese warship Ibuki, which came across from the right flank, around the head of the convoy at full speed, ploughing through the long blue swell with white foam leaping from her coal black sides and her great battle flags streaming in the breeze. No sound could be heard and nothing could be seen, for the Sydney was soon beyond the horizon. Hour after hour passed by, and then the tension was relaxed when at 11.30 a.m. came the message, "enemy beached herself to prevent sinking." Cheer after cheer went from ship to ship, and as the "Emden beached page break
Orinigal Officers Canterbury Mounted Rifles, Addington Camp, August, 1914.Back row—Lts. L. Chaytor, Taylor, Barker, W. Deans, F. Gorton, Hayter, D. S. Murchison.Second Row—Lt. Marchant, Capt. Talbot, Lt. Blackett, Capt. Hurst. Capt. Hammond, Lt. Free, Lt. Bruce.Sitting—Major Wain (O.C. 8th Sqd.), Capt. Cody (Q.M.), Major Overton (2nd in Command), Lt. Colonel Findlay (C.O.), Capt. Blair (Adjutant), Major Acton-Adams (O.C. 1st Sqd.), Major Hutton (O.C. 10th Sqd.).Front Row—Lt. Gibbs (Signalling Officer), Lt. Davison (Machine Gun Officer), Lt. G. DaileyG. Dailey.

Orinigal Officers Canterbury Mounted Rifles, Addington Camp, August, 1914.
Back row—Lts. L. Chaytor, Taylor, Barker, W. Deans, F. Gorton, Hayter, D. S. Murchison.
Second Row—Lt. Marchant, Capt. Talbot, Lt. Blackett, Capt. Hurst. Capt. Hammond, Lt. Free, Lt. Bruce.
Sitting—Major Wain (O.C. 8th Sqd.), Capt. Cody (Q.M.), Major Overton (2nd in Command), Lt. Colonel Findlay (C.O.), Capt. Blair (Adjutant), Major Acton-Adams (O.C. 1st Sqd.), Major Hutton (O.C. 10th Sqd.).
Front Row—Lt. Gibbs (Signalling Officer), Lt. Davison (Machine Gun Officer), Lt. G. Dailey.

page 9and done for am chasing merchant collier" came in, it broke out in renewed enthusiasm with the reality of the identity of the "strange warship."

A few days later Colombo was reached, and here, as the ships lay at anchor, the gallant Sydney, filled with wounded German sailors, and bearing obvious marks of battle, was received with all ranks standing quietly at attention, out of respect to the enemy's gallant defenders.

No leave was given at Colombo, but a few lucky men got ashore to assist in getting stores for the canteen, and the 8th and 10th Squadrons landed for a route march; but no breaking of ranks was allowed.

Leaving here on the 17th, the Indian Ocean was traversed in beautiful weather advantage being taken to exercise the horses in many of the ships by leading them on the deck on cocoanut matting. Several large transports were passed loaded with Territorials from England, who were proceeding to India to complete their training and to replace British troops required elsewhere.

Aden was reached on November 24th, a most uninteresting place to look at from the ships. Nothing could be seen but a huge mass of yellow rock and sand shimmering in the intense heat.

Sailing on the following day the convoy arrived at Suez on December 1st. Here orders were received to disembark at Alexandria, orders which gave general disappointment, for nobody liked the thought of staying in Egypt on garrison duty. First impressions of the country as viewed from the ships were decidedly unfavourable, and later it was agreed that on a closer acquaintance there was no improvement. On arrival at Alexandria on December 3rd the Regiment quickly disembarked, the horses walking down long gangways to the quay. Many were very groggy on their legs, but their relief at finding themselves on land again was plain to all; it was impossible to stop them from rolling in the sand, kicking up their heels, and even breaking loose in their delight at being on land again.

Disembarkation completed, the Regiment entrained for Zeitoun, near Cairo. It was dark when the weary men and horses arrived, but as guides had been asked for, no anxiety page 10was felt as to quick arrival in camp. But all that could be found was sand and more sand, and, after much wandering, an iron fence to which the horses were tied. No baggage had arrived and it was bitterly cold. Men tried to sleep huddled up together, or walked about to keep warm. But everything was soon changed. Next day a few tents appeared, and in a week it seemed as though a new town had grown. Mess huts and canteens appeared as though by magic, and outside the camp area the ubiquitous Greek erected shops and stores of all descriptions, and the Egyptian native hawked his wares—"Oringies" and "Eggs-e-cook" to all and sundry.

* Afterwards Major-General Sir A. H. Russell, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., commanding the N.Z. Infantry Division in France.