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Gallipoli Continued

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Battalion remained in "Rest Camp" for twenty-one days.

The words "Rest Camp" conjure up a mental picture of shady trees and green, close-cropped meadows sloping to a winding river, of ordered rows of tents or huts, of a place where the horrors of the trenches can be forgotten and war-jangled nerves re-attuned in a placid atmosphere of peace and innocent recreation—not to mention baths and long cool drinks. Nothing could be more unlike this ideal than the reality of a Rest Camp on the Peninsula. We used often to exercise our imaginations in seeking the reason for christening these delectable abiding places Rest Camps. Was it in a fine spirit of official irony, or on the lucus a non lucendo principle, or was it in respectful but rather slavish imitation of the organization of the Expeditionary Force in France? They had Bomb Schools, Training Camps, Rest Camps and all sorts of luxuries. We on Gallipoli must therefore have the same. So we instituted Bomb Schools on the Peninsula and a Training Camp at Mudros to which our weak battalions had regularly to send parties of officers and men who could ill be spared from duty in the trenches. We must therefore also have Rest Camps in name if not in actuality. They were not camps, and were not conspicuously restful, but we knew them officially as Rest Camps. At the time of which we are writing they were sometimes referred to as Rest Trenches. This was, if anything, less appropriate. In no military sense could they be regarded as trenches.

Having explained what a Rest Camp was not, let us now attempt to convey some idea of what it was by describing the fairly typical example in which we found ourselves planted. Imagine then, a bare expanse of clayey soil from which all signs of vegetation—if there ever was any—have been obliterated. The surface is trodden fairly hard and is powdered with a thin layer of heavy dust, which the slightest shower of rain converts into mud tenacious as tar. The "Camp" is bounded on the North (i.e. the extremity nearest the enemy) by the remains of a ragged hedge, in the thickest clumps of which an intrepid explorer may discover a few dusty, juiceless, brambles. The previous tenants have been superficial in their methods of tidying up their lines, for the hedge also shelters a miscellaneous assortment of discarded clothing, empty meat and jam-tins and all the odd items of rubbish which, in a well disciplined unit, disappear in the incinerator. South of the hedge the ground falls with a very gradual slope for perhaps 200 yards, to the dry bed of a ditch or streamlet just beyond which a row of trees serves to conceal partially the dug-outs in which our Divisional Staff have their permanent quarters. Beyond this again the surface is almost level for a space, then it rises again with increasing gradient, past the lines of the 1st Lowland Field Ambulance, to the ridge half a mile away, behind which it drops precipitously to the sea.

In one of his earlier dispatches, Sir Ian Hamilton very aptly likens the configuration of the Peninsula between Achi Baba and Cape Helles to the bowl of a huge spoon, with Achi Baba at the heel of the bowl and the Cape at its toe. This Rest Camp of ours was near the toe and rather to the left of the centre line; in full view of Achi Baba itself, but screened to some extent from its lower slopes by an insignificant intermediate crest-line about 200 yards to our front.

The so-called "trenches" as we found them, bore more resemblance to hastily constructed strings of golf bunkers than to anything else on earth. They did not appear to have been laid out on any definite plan. Speaking generally they ran in long irregular lines from East to West, the narrow strips of pathway between being broken here and there by detached experimental efforts. The excavations were of all shapes and sizes. They varied in depth from two to about six feet according to the caprice of the designers and the energy of the most recent occupants. One could not walk five yards in the dark without stepping or falling into some sort of hole and drawing lurid language from an abruptly wakened sleeper. The parapets were ragged, irregular, and rarely bullet-proof. There was no suggestion of reverting; probably there were not more than twenty sandbags in the area allotted to the Battalion. Sandbags were scarce enough in all conscience in the fighting trenches, and it was not surprising that none could be spared for the troops in the back lines; any which might be available being required for such semi-permanent works as Divisional and Brigade Headquarters and the trenches occupied by the R.E. and other Divisional troops. Nor was there any form of overhead cover. In some places the dangerous expedient of under-cutting the sides had been resorted to to secure a little shelter. Fortunately the undersoil was stiff, the sides of the trenches could be cut quite perpendicular and in fine weather there was slight risk of the under-cutting causing subsidence's. Shade from the sun's heat could only be obtained by stretching ground sheets or blankets overhead. These also served to keep off the night dews.

The C.O.'s dug-out was the only one which boasted anything approaching a roof. It was burrowed into the bank under the hedge which has been already referred to. The floor space was about 8 feet by 4, entrance being obtained by going down two or three roughly cut steps. For about two thirds of its length—the furthest in two-thirds—it was roofed with branches and some old torn sacking, covered by 6 or 8 inches of loose earth. This roof was level with the bank of the hedge and gave about four feet of headroom. Living in—or rather below—the hedge, the C.O. soon discovered he had to share his quarters with a populous and flourishing colony of flies, which actively resented his intrusion at any time during the day, though by night they exhibited an admirable spirit of resigned toleration. Flies were inevitable, but when strange winged beasts and enormous centipedes developed the habit of dropping in casually at inconvenient hours, one felt that one's hospitable instincts were being over-taxed.

It was on the second or third day of our stay that the Divisional General, while making an informal inspection of the Camp, found the C.O.—or we should rather say, ran him to earth—in his den, and after sitting on the doorstep chatting for a few minutes, dropped a remark as he departed to the effect that he thought a C.O. should do himself better in the matter of a dug-out. The seeds of dissatisfaction thus soon ripened quickly, and came to full fruition when a snake about three feet long was discovered in the corner where his pillow usually rested. No doubt he was a harmless, well-meaning chap. Probably his visit was prompted by the most friendly motives; but when he was urged to clear out he lifted up his head and became vituperative. After that there was nothing for it but to cut him into convenient lengths with a shovel, upon which he was afterwards removed for interment. Shrinking from a possible interview with his widow the C.O. sought another resting-place, and a fairly roomy dug-out was excavated for him in the open ground a few yards north of the hedge. But when he removed to it a large party of the flies insisted on accompanying him and installing themselves in his new quarters.

At first the officers messed in the open in picnicky fashion. While this was pleasant enough there was always an element of uncertainty about it, for one could never foretell when a meal might be postponed or rudely interrupted by an outburst of "straffing" from Achi Baba or Asia. So Captain Simson applied himself to the construction of a dining saloon, at the digging of which the defaulters sweated for several days. The result was imposing, a large rectangular excavation not unlike an empty swimming bath, with a massive table of solid clay, and benches of the same simple design and material round the walls. Though, of course, roofless, it afforded a measure of safety from shells, but one shudders to think what would have been the effect had a high explosive landed on the table while a meal was in progress.

Captain Findlay had made a rapid recovery from his wound and was awaiting us when we arrived at Rest Camp. A fortnight later—on 31st July—we received a welcome reinforcement by the return to the Battalion of Captain V.P.B. Stewart and twenty-six other ranks from the Lowland Division Cyclist Company.

The climate, the flies, and the experiences of the preceding fortnight had already begun to tell upon the general health of the Battalion. Diarrhoea and dysentery were prevalent throughout all the troops on the Peninsula, and we suffered with the rest. One factor which contributed to, if indeed it was not—as many of us believed—the primary cause of, the prevalence of these diseases, was the unsuitability of bully-beef and hard biscuits as the basis of our diet under the weather and other conditions in which we were then living. This was quickly recognized by the medical authorities and important modifications were soon introduced in the scale of rations. The toothsome Maconochie, rather rich for the average digestion under a tropical sun, disappeared in the meantime from the menu. Fresh meat—or, to speak more strictly, frozen meat—of excellent quality was substituted for bully, which latter was only issued on the rare occasions when, owing to transport difficulties, no frozen was available. The hard biscuits gave place to good bread; the ration of desiccated vegetables was increased; an issue of rice was instituted; cheese was reduced and preserved milk increased. The only rations which were never quite sufficient to satisfy the men were those of tea and sugar—especially sugar. They liked their tea very strong and very sweet, and quickly tired of rice unless boiled with lots of sugar, which the limited rations of sugar did not run to. Jam was plentiful and popular; marmalade only appealed to a limited circle. Some uncharitably minded fighting men were wont to insinuate that the best beloved brands of jam, such as strawberry and raspberry, never got beyond the Beach, the A.S.C. who handled the supplies being suspected of a nefarious weakness for these varieties. One hesitates to listen to such calumnious suggestions, but it must be admitted that for many long weeks we received an overwhelming proportion of "Apricot Jam" with which, popular as it originally was, the men became so "fed up" that they changed its name to "Parapet Jam," because, they explained, it was so invariably thrown over the parapet instead of being eaten.

In his desire to keep the troops fit, our Divisional Commander issued instructions that the hottest and most trying hours of the afternoon were to be set aside as a period of rest similar to that which, he explained, is officially enforced in the Italian army under the name of "Riposo." Between two and four o'clock no work was to be done: fatigues unless vitally urgent were to be suspended: all ranks were to remain lying down quietly in their quarters: there was to be no moving about: noise of any kind—even conversation—was forbidden: nothing was to be allowed to interfere with our afternoon naps. "Redosso," as the men promptly dubbed it, bade fair to become an extremely popular institution. But the General had reckoned without the flies. They had not been consulted and their Union leaders were bitterly opposed to any form of compulsory repose. The hours which we were supposed to devote to refreshing sleep were those during which they were usually most active, and in vehement assertion of the rights of Fly Labor they worked harder than ever, with the result that our "Riposo" proved a period the very reverse of restful.

The effect of these reforms, medical and military, was to check to some extent the ravages of the diseases which most afflicted us; but to eradicate them entirely, even to prevent their spreading, was beyond human power. From the middle of July until we left Gallipoli for good, our effective strength was being continually reduced by dysentery, pyrexia, and jaundice. There were of course other forms of sickness and disease, but the number of cases was negligible. The wastage from the three mentioned was not uniform, but it was constant. The number sent to hospital during each month would range between 5 and 10 per cent. of our strength, as that strength decreased from month to month. These, it must be remembered, only represented the worst cases, a very small proportion of which returned to duty, although fatal cases were fortunately rare. A much larger percentage of those affected were able to remain with the Battalion and carry on their duties, though with temporarily impaired energy and efficiency. The older N.C.O.'s and men, and the very young ones, suffered most severely. The officers had no better fortunes than their comrades in the ranks, and we lost several during this stay in Rest Camp.

Lieuts. A.B. Currie and R.M. Miller had been sent to hospital while we were still up in the trenches. Three more were sent off on 20th July—Captain A. Dingwall Kennedy (our medical officer), Captain J.D. Black and Lieut. L. MacLellan. Scarcely one of those who remained was not affected to some extent. Captain Kennedy's duties were taken over by Lieut. Downes of the 1st Lowland Field Ambulance.

General P.W. Hendry, our Brigade Commander, had been in indifferent health since our arrival at Mudros on 1st July, but had struggled gamely to carry on his duties. By the end of the month, however, it had become obvious that his illness was gaining a firmer grip on him and the doctors ordered him off the Peninsula. He went most reluctantly, and we were sorry to part with him. We were exceptionally fortunate in the officer appointed to succeed him, General H.G. Casson, who had been in command of the 2nd South Wales Borderers (the old 24th) since the original landing on 25th April, and whose practical experience of fighting in Gallipoli was the best possible qualification for the command of the Brigade in the work which lay before it.

During all this time the various Beaches and Rest Camps were regularly shelled by the enemy's heavy guns on the reverse slopes of Achi Baba and—with even deadlier effect—from the Asiatic coast. The beaches and the roads leading to them over the ridge received most of this unpleasant attention. We used to watch the big shells bursting over the cliffs and wonder how life could be possible on the beaches below. Many tales reached us of casualties in the administrative and non-combatant services whose work lay there, and many of the marvelous escapes of individuals. For instance, at Gully Beach on one occasion a surgeon was blown to pieces, while the patient upon whom he was operating escaped untouched. The roads were exposed over their whole length but certain special points were usually selected as targets, and several high explosives would land at short intervals on one of these. The resulting casualties were extraordinarily few, but it was hair-raising to see—as we often did—a mounted man, or a gharry with its pair of mules and Indian driver, suddenly blotted out in the dust and smoke of a huge burst, to reappear, when the cloud cleared, moving on its way as unconcernedly as if nothing had happened. But the next rider or driver to pass this particular spot generally made a slight detour.

The Rest Camps were also favored with a few shells at all sorts of odd times. Some units lost quite a number of men in this way. In this respect we were more fortunate than most of our neighbors, for although we had several men hit while out on fatigue we had in the whole three weeks—if we are not mistaken—only one man wounded actually in Rest Camp. This comparative immunity we attributed to our lines being partly screened from the view of the enemy's observing stations by the low lying crest to the north. Still we had several thrilling half-hours when shrapnel spraying over our lines compelled us to lie low. Only once in these weeks were we treated to a dose of high explosives. This happened about seven one morning when most of the officers were at breakfast in the swimming-bath mess room. Six big "coal-boxes" were hurled on us in rapid succession. One exploded near our mule lines just beyond the Quartermaster's dump, doing no damage to speak of; a second landed and burst right inside a trench occupied by several of the Headquarters signallers. We thought they were all wiped out, but, miraculously, not a man was hurt. They were even laughing—somewhat nervously, it must be admitted—as they scrambled out of the ruined trench. Another shell exploded about 30 yards short of our mess, leaving a symmetrical saucer-shaped crater about 6 feet in diameter and a little over 2 feet deep in the centre. Its dust showered over us and covered our unfinished meal with a thick layer. It had been an unusually attractive breakfast too! The other three shells were "duds."

Training of any kind was impossible. There was no ground unswept by fire on which to train. Two or three men might move across the open with impunity, but the appearance at any point of even a small party, say a group standing or sitting in the pathways between the rest trenches, often drew fire. Still the men got plenty of exercise, though it was of a kind not exactly popular with the average infantryman. Day after day, the Battalion was called upon to supply from 400 to 600 men for fatigues. Sometimes these were day fatigues under the R.E.; more frequently for the A.S.C. or Ordnance at one or other of the beaches, unloading and stacking stores and ammunition; but most of our work was by night, when large parties were employed under the R.E. in the construction of main communication trenches to enable troops to be moved up to the various sectors of the firing line without using the exposed roads or crossing the open. Though the men never pretended to like this work it was carried out cheerily enough.

Facilities for personal cleanliness were rare on the Peninsula, but when in rest camp the men were encouraged to bathe, a portion of "X" Beach, which was within half a mile of our lines, being allotted for this purpose. Full advantage was taken of this. The cliff overlooking the beach was honeycombed with untidy dug-outs; the beach itself rough and dirty, the water still dirtier, clay-colored and coated with a thick scum of straw, grain, and other light debris from the barges that were unloading—all that could honestly be said in its favour was that it was wet. After a time the officers discovered that it was worth the forty-minutes walk to bathe at a cleaner and more attractive beach, Morto Bay, on the other side of the Peninsula. This lay within the French sphere. To reach it we had to pass through some of our allies Rest Lines, and it was interesting to have a peep at them and at their ways of doing things. The beach at Morto Bay was clean and sandy; the water clear, though very shallow for a long distance out. It was an ideal spot for a lazy floating bathe. But it had one drawback. The enemy's Asiatic batteries and their aircraft were rather addicted to landing shells and dropping bombs in its placid waters—shells and bombs intended, no doubt, for the camps near the shore, but none the less distracting to the bathers whose ablutions they disturbed. Two of the officers returned one evening with a thrilling tale of a huge bomb which had landed in the sea within fifty yards of them.

Our Church Parades, which were only possible when in rest camp, were peculiarly impressive. To assemble the men during daylight was out of the question; the services were therefore held under cover of darkness. Although attendance was voluntary there was almost invariably a good turn-out. None of us is likely ever to forget these little gatherings; the solemn quiet which the distant crackle of rifles seemed but to emphasize; the Psalms and Hymns, in which all joined devoutly but in tones muted and softened in harmony with the evening stillness; the short lesson, read by the light of a screened candle or electric torch; the simple prayers for our comrades facing death, for the sick, the wounded, and the dying, for the bereaved, and for the dear ones waiting for us at home; the brief, practical address; and—to finish—the National Anthem, which one sang with dimmed eyes and a lump in the throat—it seemed to mean so much. No service in the finest man-built place of worship, with pealing organ and highly-trained choir, with sermon earnest and inspired, could have such power to move and impress, to convey such certainty of the near presence of the Almighty and the Eternal, as did these humble, informal meetings under the stars, the congregation dimly visible as it clustered on the parapets of the nearest trenches or squatted on the ground at the Padre's feet.

While we were taking our leisure (!) in rear of the firing-line, things in front of us were comparatively quiet. There must have been times of anxiety for the higher commands, but we knew nothing of these or of what might be impending, except that everyone must have realized that our available force on the Peninsula was none too strong for the task which it would have to face if the enemy should make a determined effort to pierce our lines. At the end of the first week the Battalion was again placed at the disposal of the 29th Division, then holding the extreme left of the British line. The chief use they made of us was to call for large fatigues to construct terraced dug-outs for them in the sea-cliff, but for several successive nights we had to sleep in our boots with equipment and ammunition beside us, ready for an immediate move. We had also to link up all our lines of rest trenches with communication trenches to render movement possible under shell fire and to excavate at high pressure a communication leading up the west side of the Pink Farm Road into one of the main cross-cuts. We cannot recall the official designation of this trench; we always spoke of it as Armstrong Alley, in compliment to our Brigade Major who had driven us to the task of constructing it.

It happened one quiet forenoon that a batman was cleaning his officer's revolver. In rest camps revolvers are not supposed to be loaded, but this one was, and the batman was so unversed in the ways of revolvers that he failed to recognize the fact. A revolver in the hands of a novice is almost as dangerous as an automatic pistol. In fact it spells considerable danger to all in the vicinity. It was therefore scarcely surprising that the batman let off a round in his efforts to remove the cylinder. As ill luck would have it the Divisional General chanced at that moment to be passing through our lines preceded by an orderly. The bullet whizzed close past the General and brought down the orderly with a wound in the leg. The thing was, of course, a pure accident; but the possible consequences of carelessness in handling loaded fire-arms are so serious that the man who accidentally lets off a round is invariably punished for his negligence, even when no serious harm has resulted. In this particular instance the offender would have appeared in ordinary course at the regimental orderly room the following morning, when the circumstances would have been enquired into and the claims of justice satisfied. But the General, who was naturally annoyed—to put it mildly—departed from the normal procedure and, taking the matter into his own hands, sent for the culprit and interviewed him on the spot, whether for purposes of admonition or of punishment we know not. After an impassioned harangue in which, with many winged words, he fully expounded the enormity of the offence, he concluded dramatically somewhat in this fashion: "I hope you are satisfied with your morning's work! You see what you have done. You have wounded this poor fellow, and you very nearly hit me! Are you satisfied?" It was an awkward question to answer with due tact. Rattled as he was by the dressing down he had just received the man could hardly be blamed if his reply was ambiguous. At least it might have been more neatly expressed. It was "No, sir."

On 29th July a letter written by Lieut. J.G. Milne from hospital at Alexandria brought us the bad news that Major Jowitt had died of septic poisoning on the hospital ship Rewa on 17th July, while on the passage to Alexandria, and that Major Downie, who had been on the same ship, had succumbed to his wounds in hospital on the 20th—the day after being landed. The loss of two officers so deservedly popular was sincerely mourned throughout the battalion. Major Jowitt's death was wholly unexpected. His wounds had not been considered serious and the possibility of complications had not suggested itself to any of us. From the first we had known that Major Downie's case was a critical one, but our latest word of him before the hospital ship left Helles had been that "he was getting on better than could be expected," and all had been hoping for further news of good progress.

Before we left rest camp all ranks underwent two inoculations against cholera.

Early in August we learned that the Brigade would shortly take over the extreme left sector at Fusilier Bluff. After a reconnaissance of the position by Colonel Morrison and the Adjutant, a party of eight officers and sixteen N.C.O.'s went forward on August 6th to spend a night in the new firing line. On the way up, as they were passing along the west most sector of the Eski line, one of our most promising young N.C.O.'s—Corpl. W. Wood, "D" Company—was killed by a stray bullet.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918

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