The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter II. — Of the Training at Zeitoun
Of the Training at Zeitoun.
"How long are we to stay here?" was a question often asked, but nobody attempted to answer it, though there was intense disappointment at not getting to France.
"The powers that be" evidently decided that the Regiment knew nothing of what a soldier ought to know, and drill began again in a manner which demonstrated that training in New Zealand was "child's play" compared with the drill at Zeitoun. The horses were not fit to be ridden for a fortnight, and daily they were led out for exercise, and walking and leading a horse was also beneficial for the man, and hardened him during the four months' training. The work was grumbled at generally, and it was thought that not even men with cast iron constitutions could stand it; but the result was magnificent, for it is doubtful if there has ever been a fitter body of men than the New Zealanders by the middle of April.
Days were long and the usual programme read as follows: Reveille 5 a.m. Stables till 7. Wash, shave, and breakfast. Parade again 8.30. Drill till 11. Stables till 12. Dinner. Parade 2 p.m. till 4 p.m. Stables till 5.30 p.m. Then the time was your own if you were lucky enough to escape guard or horse picquet, which came one's way every third or fourth night.
Four or five hours a day spent grooming, handling and feeding a horse, seems a lot to the uninitiated, but the horses were a credit to the Regiment, who were justly proud of them, and the extraordinary endurance they showed later in the desert proved the wisdom of such treatment.
It may not be out of place to give some idea of the food horses get in the East. Barley, crushed if possible, but more often uncrushed, is mixed with a chaff of barley or wheat straw, known to us as "tibbin." Tibbin is made by dragging a rough wooden frame furnished with three or four knives, not unlike those of a disc harrow, over the straw laid out page 12on an earthen floor. This machine is hauled usually by cows or donkeys. The resulting mess consists of straws from half an inch upwards in length. Besides barley, Indian corn and a small hard grain (millet) fed to camels, was sometimes issued. The total amount of grain allowed was about 12 lbs. per day and as much tibbin as a horse would eat. The hay supplied was of first class quality. A small amount of green food was also issued. This was called "berseem," and is very like lucerne to look at, but is shallow rooted. It stands frequent cutting and requires a lot of water, but makes excellent hay, and later on was put up in small bales for camel transport and sent out to the Regiment in the desert.
The 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade had now been attached to the New Zealanders, forming, with the N.Z.M.R. Brigade, the N.Z. Infantry Brigade and the N.Z. batteries, the Australian and New Zealand Division under the command of Major-General Sir A. J. Godley, K.C.B., K.C.M.G.
Though work was hard there were compensations. Free leave was granted from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly, and every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. If one had any definite excursion in view it was possible to get away by 9 a.m. on page 13Sunday. Visits to the many surrounding places of interest filled in spare time. The Citadel with its glorious view of the surrounding city and country, Museum and Gardens, drew the men frequently, while the Pyramids and Sphinx were a never-ending source of interest. Visits to the "Mousky" and native bazaars took all spare money. At first, whilst the money which had accumulated on the voyage lasted, the trip to Cairo was taken in style, in "Gharrys," the native carriage, but it was soon discovered that trains and electric trams were much cheaper, faster and more comfortable. There was an excellent train service from Zeitoun to Cairo, a distance of about six miles, and the fare was one piastre (2½ d).
Ceremonial parades were frequently held. The first, and probably the most important, was the march through Cairo on December 23rd, the salute being taken by Lieut-General Sir John Maxwell, G.C.B., K.C.M.G., C.V.O., D.S.O., commanding the troops in Egypt. This parade was held to impress upon the native population the strength of the British Empire. There is no doubt it succeeded in its object and staved off the revolt that even then was threatening. A similar display of force would probably have squashed the revolt that broke out in later years.
Christmas passed quietly, and on December 30th the Division was inspected by Lieut.-General Sir W. R. Birdwood, K.C.S.I., K.C.M.G., C.I.E., D.S.O., who had taken over command of the Australian and New Zealand forces, now called The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or abbreviated A.&N.Z.A.C, from which came the word ANZAC. The Corps consisted of the following:—
|(1)||Australian Division, commanded by Major-General W. T. Bridges, C.M.G.
|(2)||New Zealand and Australian Division, commanded by Major-General Sir A. J. Godley, K.C.B., K.C.M.G.|
|(3)||Corps Troops (including 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade).|
On January 9th, 1915, a parade was held, and the men were addressed by the Hon. T. Mackenzie, High Commissioner for New Zealand, who came to Egypt to inspect the troops.
Training went on just the same, usually in the desert, out sometimes through the cultivation that stretched for miles to the north. Everybody grew to hate the sight of Nos. 2 and 3 towers, the watch houses on the ancient Cairo-Suez road. But no matter where one went the dust was there. While on the move one could see perhaps three horse-lengths ahead, and everybody became thickly coated with a grey death-like mask of dust which clung to the skin. There is nothing in New Zealand to equal it. As a part of the training, drinking before mid-day was prohibited, and on long field days, when choked by dust and scorched by the sun, this seemed an unnecessary hardship. But there is no doubt it was a good training. Many would have finished the last drop in their water bottles during the first hour. As it was, the bodies of the men were trained to require a minimum amount of water.
Night work was also engaged in during this period.
A great deal of musketry was carried out, and the Machine Gun Section, under the fine training of Captain P. B. Henderson, grew daily more proficient, enlarging their target practice to include the tactical handling of the gun and night firing. On January 28th the whole Regiment spent some hours in the desert in a tactical exercise with ball cartridge, engaging targets at unknown ranges as the squadrons advanced, culminating in the repulse of an attack by cavalry.
On February 3rd news was received of the attack upon the Suez Canal by the Turks, in the repulse of which the N.Z. Infantry Brigade took part.page 16
After passing from the regimental drill to brigade and divisional manoeuvres the work became uninteresting, so far as the men in the ranks were concerned, but was of course necessary for the training of the officers. It must not be forgotten that many officers were unversed in active service conditions, though most of them had received a sound Territorial training which was invaluable to them and enabled them quickly to assimilate the higher training which these "dismal days" gave them. An average divisional day may be described as follows:—
Towards the end of February there was a four days "trek" under service conditions to Bilbeis via Nawa. About 25 miles was covered each day, and except for the dust the change from camp life was enjoyed, as the route lay through the rich green Delta. Leaving camp at 9.30 a.m. the Brigade marched through the green lanes of Matarieh, passing by that ancient well called the Virgin's Well, where tradition says Joseph and Mary and the Child rested after their flight into Egypt. Here were great banks of purple Bougainvillea climbing the shady trees arching over the road, which, leading out through the green fields, passes the ruins of On, that ancient seat of learning where Moses was educated. Here, still standing, is a solitary obelisk of red granite, close upon 100 feet in height, with its sides covered with clear sharp-cut hieroglyphics. This obelisk stands straight and tall as it stood when erected nearly 4000 years ago, but looking down now upon a country shorn of the glory of the Temple of the Run, whose high priest was the father-in-law of Joseph. And looking across the green fields over the city of Cairo, there one saw, even as Joseph and Moses looking towards Memphis had seen, the Pyramids in the distance against the western sky.
The route followed by the Brigade crossed the Ismailia Canal, which forcibly brought to mind the immense importance of England's hold upon Cairo, for a hostile force in possession of the city could with the greatest of ease cut off the fresh water supply of the whole Canal Zone, and so starve out Port Said, Ismailia and Suez.
At the end of the second day's march through the green and smiling Delta the force camped at Belbeis, on the very spot occupied by Lord Wolsley after the battle of Tel el Kebir. Two days were taken on the march back and the Brigade "fought" its way successfully into Zeitoun through a defence put up by the 1st L.H. Brigade.
After experiencing the khamsin it was decided to send each squadron in turn to the "Barrage," giving a complete change to men and horses, of green grass everywhere and the most glorious gardens and trees. The mosquitoes were annoying during the evenings, but the men could stand that. The Barrage itself claimed special attention. From it the whole of Lower Egypt is irrigated. The Nile divides here into two the Rosetta and Damietta branches, and both streams have been dammed. Bach dam is over 500 yards long. Two main canals run off these streams, and water is turned into them as required.
The whole water supply for the Delta is thus controlled, and lower down the rivers are again dammed, but naturally on a very much smaller scale. The Barrage Gardens are one of the show places of Egypt, and provide a wonderful illustration of what the Nile waters mean to this country. Advantage was taken of camping beside the Nile to practise swimming the horses across the river. A small party of men were rowed across taking with them the end of a long rope. This was then brought back to the starting bank about a chain away from where the rope entered the water. The ends were joined up and a party of men on each bank kept the rope moving, rotating it as it were in a circle. The horses were then brought down one by one, attached quickly to the moving rope and urged into the water. Led by its halter the animal had no option but to swim. A squadron's horses, by this simple means, were crossed safely over in 15 minutes.
On March 22nd the troops were reviewed by Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner for Egypt, and Sir John Maxwell, commanding the Army in Egypt. There was a frightful dust, and very few of the men saw the saluting point as they rode past. This day was the first on which locusts were experienced. The sight was an extraordinary one. Flying page 20about two feet above the ground, and reaching to a height that could not be estimated, these insects came from the desert, making towards the cultivations. When they met any obstacles to their flight they appeared confused and lost. Wherever one looked were locusts as far as the eye could see. One was given the impression that a huge dark veil hung over the earth. Once in cultivated ground they ate every growing thing. Crops are eaten to the roots, while trees are stripped bare to the branches. Not a vestige of anything green remains. It is impossible to explain the seriousness of an invasion of locusts and the comparative hopelessness of combating the pest. They come from the desert and pass on, leaving complete destruction in their path.
The native vendors of fruit and eggs were always a source of wonder. No matter where one might be, perhaps out in the desert twenty miles from any known habitation, as soon as a halt was called natives came running from all directions. With their "eggs-e-eook, two for a half" and the long drawn out cry of "orangies" they did a brisk trade. But where they came from and the source of their supplies, which seemed unlimited, was unknown and never found out. The newspaper boys were always the butt of the troopers. Unable to speak English, but born mimics, it was quite an easy matter for a trooper to use them to take a rise out of some unpopular member of his Regiment. One would tell the boy to call out "Very good page 21news, Sergeant———dead," and his papers would sell like hot cakes. The poor unfortunate boy never knew why he was kicked out of the lines by some irate N.C.O. And so life went on. There was growling and grumbling about being kept in Egypt, about the work and about the food. Yet the food was good, the work was necessary and the Regiment's presence in Egypt at this time probably helped to prevent a revolt against British rule, or an invasion by the Turks. It was a very good camp, and by the aid of regimental funds, the food supply was varied. Many of the necessary adjuncts to the camp had been supplied by regimental funds so kindly raised by good friends at home. The New Zealand Government was decidedly parsimonious in money matters, anything asked for was usually met by the cry of "But look what it will cost." In those days there was a mass of red tape to go through, and it was usually quicker and cheaper to do the work and then ask for the money.
On March 29th the troops were reviewed by General Sir Ian Hamilton, G.C.B., D.S.O., A.D.C.
Early in April it became fairly well known that the Infantry were moving to an unknown destination. From the end of the first week troops left daily. One knew nothing of their departure, but every night the camp grew smaller, and by the middle of the month only a few details remained besides the mounted men. Infantry, Artillery, Engineers and Transport had vanished.
With the departure of the infantry much hard drilling ceased, and the heat was too great for strenuous work. Ordinary fatigue duties still continued, but as much as possible was done in the cool of the morning and* evening.
The days were now something like this:—Reveille was at 5 a.m., stables 6.30 a.m., breakfast 7.30 a.m. to 9 a.m., route march on foot or dismounted drill. Then came mounted parade, and a leisurely ride out of camp to the cultivation, where musketry or drill was carried out for a short period. Followed a sleep in the shade of the palms, and baek to camp about 4 p.m.
Helmets were issued in place of slouch hats. What difficult and uncomfortable things they were for a mounted man! But G.H.Q. at Cairo had passed sentence on the slouch hat in the page 22Egyptian climate, and there was no appeal, so the helmet was worn until the departure for Gallipoli. In later years G.H.Q. was proved wrong by the wearing of the felt hat in the Sinai Desert and the Jordan Valley, showing that the hat was as good shelter from the sun as the helmet, and far more suitable to mounted work.
May 1st brought the news of the Gallipoli landing, but there was no sign yet of the Regiment moving. The men scanned the casualty lists posted at the orderly room and cursed their luck, but a change was coming. On May 5th orders were given to go to Gallipoli as infantry, the country there being unsuitable for mounted troops. Many were very sad at the thought of leaving their horses, but every man was glad of the chance of proving himself. For had not we all worked hard, and, on the whole, patiently, to fit ourselves? Now we were to be tested. We had been "standing by" long enough.
One cannot leave this period of intensive training without reference to the untiring, unselfish and capable work put in by Captain D. B. Blair*, Adjutant, and Sergeant-Major Norris†, Regimental Sergeant-Major.
Captain Blair had experienced considerable service in the South African War in mounted work, and was always ready at any time of the day or night to give a helping hand to those so eagerly learning the duties of an officer on active service.
And to Sergeant-Major Norris, with his wonderful knack of teaching drill, his fine soldierly presence and unrivalled knowledge of the mounted man's duties in the field, the Regiment owed a smartness and thoroughness that persisted until the end of the campaign.
During the night of the 7th-8th the Regiment entrained for Alexandria, leaving behind the latest reinforcements and such men as were not medically fit. These men. with the assistance of natives, were to look after the horses.
* Major D. B. Blair, New Zealand Staff Corps, Commanded M.G.Bn. N.Z. Div., France.
† Sergt.-Major (W.O.I.) F. 1-1. Norris, Royal Horse Guards (on loan from the British Army). Killed Gallipoli, August 21/15.