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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Strenuous Days in Egypt

Strenuous Days in Egypt.

The site chosen for the New Zealanders' camp was on the edge of the desert, about eight miles out from Cairo, on the outskirts, almost, of Heliopolis, a suburb built on modern ideas, with clean, broad, paved streets and substantial buildings. The camp was skirted by the main road that ran page 16out from Cairo, and within a mile was the railway. Pipes had been laid for the water supply, which was always plentiful, but nothing else had been done, and the first train loads of troops to arrive made shift as best they could. Although the express trains from Alexandria to Cairo did the journey in about three hours, the troop trains seldom took less than eight hours, and the first train load of troops, leaving Alexandria in the late afternoon, did not reach Zeitoun until somewhere about midnight. Arrived at the camping area the men threw themselves down to snatch a few hours of sleep before dawn, when the task of establishing the camp began in earnest The colonial's adaptability and faculty for making himself at home under any circumstances stood him in good stead, and units settled down very quickly after their arrival. Day and night trains continued to arrive at the stations, and within a week horses, vehicles, and men had all been transported from the fast-emptying transports at Alexandria to the rapidly growing camp on the desert. A road was constructed through the centre of the camp, dividing the areas of the Infantry Brigade, whose tents stood in serried rows on its left, and the lines of the Artillery and Mounted Brigades on the right. At the cross-roads in the centre of the camp stood the Supply Depot, where each day units drew their stores and forage for the animals.

Despite their seven weeks at sea in cramped and often ill-ventilated quarters, the horses came off the transports in very good condition. They were weak, of course, and uncertain on their legs, but they improved rapidly. For the first few days they were led out for a very modest spell of exercise, which was increased by progressive stages until within a fortnight they were pronounced fit for normal work. During this period manœuvres were out of the question, but the Brigade, in common with all other arms, had embarked without delay on a thorough course of training, which began at the most elementary stage. The drivers devoted the greater part of their time and energy to grooming and exercising their horses, and the gunners grew fit at standing gun-drill, and studied afresh the complexities of their pieces. This individual training, which was thorough and complete, was followed by page 17section and battery training, after which the batteries were exercised as a brigade. The country was not eminently suitable for artillery training, and the heavy sand made hard going for the horses, and heavy work for the gunners; but every disadvantage and every deficiency were overcome by the seriousness and determination with which all ranks faced their work. This spirit, which permeated the whole Force, was more than a transitory enthusiasm; it kept alive the keenness of the men through the long months of unremitting hard training, and the more trying period of waiting; and it was the foundation of the magnificent spirit which afterwards animated the New Zealand Division through all the long years of war.

In the evening, after their day's training on the desert, the Colonial soldiers poured into Cairo like a human tide—the New Zealanders from Zeitoun, and the Australians from their big camp at Mena, by the foot of the Pyramids, and the Light Horse Camp at Ma'adi. There was a sprinkling of English Territorials, but it was essentially a slouch-hatted invasion. Leave was general until a fairly late hour; and from six o'clock in the evening onwards the streets were filled with this moving, restless throng, to whom the life of the age-old city came as a revelation in many ways. They filled the eating houses and saloons; and in the variety houses where, in "Continental" style, they could sit at little tables and be served with refreshments during the performance, they formed such a large part of the audience that it was matter for wonder how those establishments had existed before the advent of the colonial. There was no by-way and no corner in the city itself which they did not explore, full of life and the buoyancy and insatiable curiosity of youth. It was scarcely a matter for surprise, and perhaps even less for stricture, if some lost their heads for a little, transported as they had been with the swiftness of modern magic from the decencies and orderliness of their remote homes and set down amidst the distractions of a city the life of which was as novel as it was unbounded in its license. The shops and the quaint native bazaars were a never-ceasing attraction; the soldiers disbursed freely, and the shopkeepers and itinerant vendors of "antiquities" and all manner page 18of trifles reaped a golden harvest. In the eating-houses business never languished; and when it was discovered what a source of revenue lay in the appetite of the soldier new establishments sprang up, mushroom like, on every hand. From the city wonderful excursions could be made cheaply and easily to the Pyramids at Ghizeh, to the Gardens or the Zoo at Ghezireh, or to the great Barrage, where were stored up the precious waters of the Nile; in the city itself were the Citadel, with its famous Mosque of Mahommed Ali, and the Museum. Everyone went first to the Pyramids as a matter of course; the more energetic climbed perspiring up their giant steps, or were led inside along the smooth-worn, narrow passageways to see "the tomb of the Pharoahs"; but the majority were content to gaze at their mighty dimensions in silent wonder.

On December 18th Egypt was proclaimed a British Protectorate; the Khedive, who had made open avowal of his sympathies with Turkey on the declaration of war with that country, was deposed, and a new Sultan of Egypt in the person of Prince Hussein Kamel Pasha, was proclaimed at the Abdin Palace, Cairo, on December 20th. Three days later the New Zealand Expeditionary Force marched in strength through the streets of the city, such a display of force being rightly regarded as at once the most prompt and efficacious argument that could be addressed at the moment to the disturbed native mind. It was the first occasion on which the whole force had been publicly paraded since its arrival; and men and horses made a display worthy of the force. The field batteries turned out with their guns and wagons, and gave an impression of smartness and efficiency. The horses had completely recovered from the effects of the long voyage, and their smooth, well-groomed coats literally shone in the sun. In the Opera Square, in the centre of the city, the General Officer Commanding the British Forces in Egypt took the salute as the long column went by, and everywhere along the route the populace applauded the spectacle; but the average Egyptian is no mean dissembler. Christmas Day, two days later, passed quietly, but with due observance in the matter of Christmas fare.

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By the New Year the camp was beginning to wear a more habitable air. Messing huts were erected in all the lines; wet canteens were properly established, and a big hall had been erected, where picture entertainments, lectures, and boxing competitions were held almost every night. These healthy distractions were of very great benefit in helping to keep the men in camp in the evenings, and served considerably to brighten the routine of the soldier's life. There was little or no sickness in camp; beyond the troublesome bouts of sand colic which afflicted all the newcomers, the process of acclimatisation was easy and rapid. The mid-day heat was trying, but the early mornings and the evenings were delightfully cool. The chief annoyance was the occasional khamseen, when for a space the wind lifted the face off the desert, blotting out the sky with great clouds of fine sand that penetrated everything and everywhere.

As the first Expeditionary Force fell considerably short of the establishment of a complete division it was decided to incorporate with the New Zealanders two brigades of Australian troops—the 1st Light Horse Brigade, and the 4th Infantry Brigade; at the time this policy was decided on the 4th Brigade was on its way from Australia, and was due to arrive in Egypt about the end of January, 1915. The composite division thus formed was styled "The New Zealand and Australian Division." There was a shortage of Divisional troops; but one company of Field Engineers and two companies of the Divisional Train were formed as reinforcements became available. Two Small Arm Ammunition Columns were also formed, and a section of Divisional Ammunition Column, which was sent out from England, was temporarily attached to the Division.

At the end of January the Artillery was strengthened by the arrival, with the 2nd Reinforcements, of the 4th (Howitzer) Battery. The transports carrying the 2nd Reinforcements arrived at Suez a couple of days after the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been ordered to the Canal to assist in its defence against the Turkish attack, and at the time when the attack was being almost momentarily expected. The page 20Battery, on the Knight of the Garter, passed through the Canal, on January 28th; the vessel had anchored overnight in the Bitter Lakes, and before proceeding the guns were brought up on deck and lashed ready for action; but the precaution proved unnecessary. The gunners saw only the Indian and Colonial troops, who lined the banks as they steamed past, and with whom they exchanged enthusiastic greetings. The Battery disembarked at Alexandria, and on arrival at Zeitoun occupied lines adjoining those of the 18pr. Batteries. The gunners at once devoted their energies to training and the drivers to getting their horses into condition. The majority of the men had had no previous experience of practical artillery work, but they had received some sound elementary training in New Zealand, and once the horses were available for work the Battery grew daily more efficient. The flat country was not very suitable for howitzer work, and no live shell practice could be permitted owing to the great scarcity of ammunition. Beyond the 800 odd rounds brought from New Zealand there was no other 4.5in. howitzer ammunition in Egypt until shortly before the opening of the Gallipoli campaign. The Battery had reason to be proud of its weapons, which were of the very latest pattern, and the only guns of their kind in Egypt at that time. It is beyond question that had the howitzer batteries of the New Zealand Terriorial Force not been in possession of these very modern guns before the outbreak of war they would not have been available in Egypt, and the colonial troops would not have had the benefit of their protection on Gallipoli. Before the Brigade left Zeitoun a Howitzer Battery Ammunition Column was formed from personnel available in Egypt.

Right through February and on into March the Brigade persevered untiringly with its training out on the desert. The work was sufficiently strenuous to try to the utmost the stamina and endurance of the men; no constitutional or physical weakness could withstand such a searching test, and the few unfit were rapidly discovered. Training became much more interesting as it progressed, and the keenest interest was taken in the tactical evolutions in which the Brigade was exercised. On night operations with the Division, batteries marched out page 21and bivouacked under the stars, the gunners digging their gun-pits and preparing their positions during the hours of darkness, and then carefully filling them in again at dawn, before the weary trek back to camp.

By the middle of March it was apparent that the long days—and nights—of training had brought the ample reward in the success which had attended the training of the Division, which from being merely a collection of units, had become a coherent, disciplined, and perfectly efficient force. Individually, the men were in perfect physical condition, and were full of eager anticipation when it became whispered about that the Division might not remain much longer training on the desert. The end of the month drew near, and it became definitely known that both the 1st Australian Division and the New Zealand and Australian Division, which constituted the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, were shortly to be given an opportunity of proving their mettle in an actual theatre of war. The men were not told what their destination was to be, but the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was then in process of formation; for what purpose it was not difficult to conjecture. The spectacular but costly naval attacks on the forts guarding the Dardanelles had failed, and the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force hoped to accomplish what had been found impossible for the Navy.

On 29th March the whole Division paraded on the desert to the north of the camp for inspection by Sir Ian Hamilton, Commanding the M.E.F. There had been other inspections and parades which had savoured more of the ceremonial; now they were to march past under the critical eye of the soldier who was to lead them on the Great Adventure. There was a wind blowing, and the movement of such large bodies of troops raised great clouds of dust which almost obscured the sky; but that was of no moment to men who for months had made the desert their element. The guns of the Artillery Brigade had already been prepared for war by coats of "camouflage" paint, which somehow gave them a strikingly business-like appearance; and, as the batteries went by the saluting base in succession they gave an undeniable assurance of strength and fitness.

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By Easter definite orders were issued for the movement of the Division, less the Mounted Rifles and Light Horse Brigades, to Alexandria for embarkation. Preparatory embarkation parades were held by ships, and during the last few days all batteries devoted much time and energy to completing their equipment. With such a tremendous influx of troops into the country, the ordinary sources of supply had been strained beyond their limits, and the complete equipping of batteries became a matter of much concern. The appointment of a commissioned officer as Brigade Quartermaster proved a considerable help, and gradually every difficulty was overcome. On the night of April 9th the first train load of guns, horses, and men moved out from the main Cairo station on its way to Alexandria. The harbour and the wharves were crowded with transports and men-of-war, and the tremendous accumulation of stores and material of every description on the waterfront gave the New Zealanders some idea of the magnitude of the preparations involved in the great venture on which they were about to embark.

The Artillery sailed on four transports, Headquarters and 1st Battery being on the Katuna, the 2nd Battery on the Surada, the 3rd Battery on the Californian, and the 4th (How.) Battery on the Australind. These practised hands made light work of loading the horses and slinging the guns and vehicles, and once their loading was complete transports sailed away independently and without escort. The waters of the Mediterranean had not at that time the evil reputation which the activities of German submarines earned for them in later days. There was a risk of attack from Turkish torpedo boats, however, and there was some alarm on the Surada when S.O.S. signals were received from an English transport which was being attacked by a Turkish destroyer only some fifty or sixty miles away. With some effort one of the 18prs. was got up on deck ready to open fire; but in the meantime the Navy had gone to the scene of the attack and the Turkish destroyer was driven ashore on a neighbouring island.

On all the transports the soldiers were busy during the trip to Lemnos perfecting the arrangements for a speedy disembarkation. In every battery there were men who at sea or page 23elsewhere had learnt the trick of handling ropes and slinging a load with safety and despatch, and in most cases batteries were able to improve materially the existing facilities for unloading. This was particularly the case on the Katuna, where the gunners were so dubious as to the ability of the Lascar crew to do the job decently that they did everything themselves. One by one the transports made their way through the island-studied Ægean, and were escorted through the narrow entrance to Lemnos harbour by the destroyers cruising about in the outside waters. The big land-locked harbour presented an unforgettable spectacle. Close at hand were the fighting ships, the battle cruisers of France, England, and Russia, and stretching away in the background were the long lanes of crowded transports. Of greatest interest to the colonials was the big Queen Elizabeth, of whose formidable strength romantic minds had woven many a fanciful story. There was much to interest the eye and stir the imagination in the big harbour, where there was never a quiet moment, but always the coming and going of patrolling destroyers, the buzzing of an occasional 'plane bent on a reconnaissance, and the incessant flitting to and fro of naval cutters and despatch boats.

During the week or more that they lay waiting the fateful day of the attack, gunners and drivers assiduously practised unloading the guns and wagons on to pontoons, and slinging the horses fully harnessed. The final plans for the landing were being concerted; maps were issued, and the great scheme was unfolded to the soldiers. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was to force a landing on the coast of the Peninsula to the north of the headland known as Gaba Tepe, and endeavour to force a way across to the Narrows. The remaining three divisions of the M.E.F. were to operate at the southern end of the Peninsula. The 29th Division, the last of the British regular divisions to take the field, was to land with the Royal Naval Division at Cape Helles; the French Division was to land at Kum Kale, and after destroying the forts at that spot on the Asiatic shore was to join the two British Divisions at Helles.