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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter III Of the Muster in the Haven of Mudros

page 32

Chapter III Of the Muster in the Haven of Mudros

The land of Lemnos was beautiful with flowers at that season, in the brief Aegean spring, and to seawards always in the bay, were the ships, more ships perhaps than any port of modern times has known: they seemed like half the ships of the world. … No such gathering of fine ships has ever been seen upon this earth, and the beauty and the exultation of the youth upon them made them like sacred things as they moved away.

The battalions embarked on the Lutzow, the Annaberg, the Goslar and the Katuna; the first three were German vessels that had been captured early in the war, and had been lying since in the harbour at Alexandria. By ones and twos the transports made what speed they could across the Mediterranean running up through the isles of Greece to Lemnos, which, according to the stories of the Argonauts was the original home of the suffragettes. The approach to the haven of Mudros is singularly like the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour; bare cliffs higher on the right hand side, a narrow entrance that only shows as the boat heads directly towards it, rock bound shore and then a straight approach of some length to the inner harbour. At Mudros, though, a sudden bend to the right opened up a very great and commodious anchorage which had been selected page 33as the mustering place of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Long treeless slopes ran from the water's edge and rose to rugged looking hills in the background. The unfenced fields were green and in the springtime gay with flowers. Greek villages huddled here and there in hollows or on some sheltered level. It was a bare, naked-looking land, although at times when the sun was setting behind the harsh crests, there was a glow of dark colour that at times gave an effect of sombre beauty.

During the month of April there assembled in the harbour the most amazing assemblage of ships that has come together at any time in history. There was a great armada of fighting ships because the expedition had been first of all a naval one. Here were the pre-dreadnought battleships, the Majestic, Triumph, Nelson, London and others too antiquated to be of use in the North Sea, but good gun platforms for land bombardment; and with them were their attendant cruisers and destroyers. A few submarines waited to dare the desperate chance of passing the nets and mines of the Narrows. From the Ark Royal the seaplanes roared up to make reconnaissance, or the great yellow sausage of a captive balloon rose slowly to take a more leisurely survey. There were French men-of-war of peculiar construction and the Russian Askold whose row of funnels quickly earned for her the nickname of "Packet of Woodbines." And then marshalled in ranks behind the fighting ships were the transports. Day by day the concentration grew as the men of the five divisions who were to attempt the landing came page 34to swell the muster; some on luxury liners and some in dirty battered tramps, some on the vessels of the Cunard or the Castle Companies, some again on those of the Nord Deutscher Lloyd or on Hamburg and Bremen boats, or on the Turkish and Egyptian vessels that in times of peace had carried passengers from Alexandria to Constantinople. And besides all these, there were store-ships packed with food and ammunition, colliers and oil-tankers and water-tankers. Fast Channel packet boats lay ready to fetch and carry for the fleet; launches and tiny tugs like the Gaby Deslys buzzed busily round with mail and orders. Greek sailing boats of antique rig slipped in with cargoes of "sheep and goats and fish." But mightier far than any other ship upon the seas of the world, lay the Queen Elizabeth, super dreadnought, the most powerful engine of destruction that the mind of man had yet conceived. Long, low, broad, with clear decks fore and aft her vast size was not at first apparent but as one drew nearer her eight enormous guns seemed to dominate everything else with a suggestion of terrible power. She lay unquestioned "queen of the strange shipping there."

In this floating city were Australians and New Zealanders from the southern Pacific, the regulars of the 29th Division, battalions of English Territorials, long-haired bearded Sikhs, smiling Gurkhas, blue-coated Frenchmen and big, black Sinhalese. All of them were magnificently fit from the long months of hard training. Cramped and crowded on the ships their superb vitality demanded expres-page 35sion. They were full of a fierce discontent, a consuming restlessness. They longed for the fiery test of battle that would demonstrate their quality and give them the right to rank with the heroes of the Western Front. Day after day they practised disembarkation. Loaded up, not only with equipment and arms but with overcoats, packs, extra bandoliers of ammunition, rations for three days, bundles of firewood and all the odds and ends of company and battalion equipment, they fell in on the decks and clambered with difficulty down the swaying "Jacob's ladders." They packed into the boats and rowed toward the shore and then back again, and painfully ascended the precipitous sides. Night after night they slept jammed together on iron decks hoping that every night would be the last and that in the morning there would be a movement and that they would all go out "to attempt the wellnigh impossible" on the open beaches of which there was a growing rumour. Slowly the days passed, wearily, monotonously, until at last came Sir Ian Hamilton's Force Order:

Soldiers of France and of the King

Before us lies an adventure unprecedented in modern war. Together with our comrades of the fleet we are about to force a landing upon an open beach in face of positions vaunted by our enemy as impregnable. Let us prove ourselves worthy of the great feat of arms entrusted to us.

And now to all men it was plain that the hour had come. On the twenty-third there was a movement among the ships, and then during the afternoon of page 36the following day the Queen Elizabeth commenced to move. She steamed majestically away. The battleships followed in her wake and then came the transports line after line. The whole harbour rang with the exultant cheering, as these men who had come from the ends of the earth went out to fulfil their purpose in the face of death and bloody wounds.