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Goods Yard of the Railway

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

Another fatigue, which was highly unpopular, took place in relays from 6 p.m. to 10, or from 10 to 2 a.m. The scene was the goods yard of the railway where trucks had to be loaded with great bales of forage, sacks of grain, or cases of bully and biscuit for the personnel at railhead. Snatched from the tender care of their officers, the men were delivered over to N.C.O.'s of an unknown breed, probably a cross between R.E. and A.S.C. and Ordnance Corps, with a highly technical jargon picked up in happier days in the goods yards of English railways. Great naphtha flares cast a blinding light, dispelling the friendly gloom on which every right-minded private relies, if unlucky enough to have to work at night. The still air is solid with dust, increased every moment as G.S. wagons, each drawn by a team of maddened mules, enter the yard at a hand gallop, scattering all in their path. The atmosphere is one of strenuous profanity, most uncongenial to the unhappy infantry. At last the officer in charge—ironic phrase—determines that time is up and raises a feeble outcry amid the din. Fortunately the sheep know their shepherd, and will hear his voice. The men fall in and he listens to complaints and soothes the indignant. One man laid his tunic down and a mule ate a great bit out of it. Another cannot get his arm straight "after lifting thae bales." A still, small voice asserts that a man has as much chance of doing what the R.E. wants, as a gnat has of fighting a —— aeroplane. The sergeant numbers them off. There is of course one missing; but the officer, being certain that he is either a mangled corpse among the mules, or far more probably triumphantly asleep on a stack of tibbin, declines to search for him, and the party steps out for home, are challenged by a pessimistic sentry, dismissed, and, stumbling over their recumbent comrades, find an unoccupied corner of their tents, and sleep the sleep of the just till réveillé—and after, if possible.

Such was life, broken by an occasional Sunday's rest with the Divisional Band, or at any rate two men with cornets to help with the singing at Church Parade. Services were often held under difficulties, but one has heard of no sadder case than that of the Padre who went off to hold a parade for some transport men stationed near the railway line. He had no hymn books but, being an optimist, chose well-known hymns and one of the officers present sang them with him. During the second hymn a train load of natives came up, and, the signal being against it, came to a halt in close proximity. The Egyptian is a kindly soul, and judging that the white men were making a very poor effort in their rejoicings, the whole lot of them broke into one of their insane chants, stamping their feet and clapping their hands in time to the music and smiling encouragement on the indignant Padre the while. Hastily breaking off the hymn, the latter commenced an eloquent address, but the engine driver, a godless man, whose small mind was fixed on getting home to his tent, suddenly opened out his whistle and kept it going as a hint to the forgetful signal-man who was holding him up, and the sorely tried Padre, losing his nerve at this final outrage, "washed out" the Parade, and retired defeated.

Only too often Sunday was chosen for some form of frightfulness, which could not logically be called a fatigue, but which was really far worse. It was on a Sunday that the whole Battalion, bearing on their backs every stitch of their kit, repaired to the E.S.R. station, and surrendered their belongings to be placed in wagons and subjected to superheated steam. Not only were successive volunteers almost boiled alive in premature efforts to enter the wagons after the doors were reopened; not only was everyone's kit mixed up with everyone else's and the garments, when recovered, found to be creased and mangled in incredible ways; not only was the whole Battalion left standing at ease, dressed solely in boots and sun helmets, while the Port Said express moved slowly past them; but, when all was over, it was found that our little friends had considered the sterilizer merely as a new form of incubator to help their offspring to hatch out.

The weather on the whole was passable. In March there were days of strong west wind which were really chilly. In April it began to warm up, and the thermometer in the tents—and a tent with flaps gave us the best shade temperature we could find—reached 100° before the end of the month. The "khamseen," a south wind, hot as the blast of a furnace, bringing with it clouds of dust and flying sand darkening the sun, and making a fog in which we could not see half across the parade ground, smote us at irregular intervals in April and May. No words are bad enough for the "khamseen." People who live in Cairo in good stone houses with blinds and lots of ice regard it with horror. In the desert it was infinitely worse. One day early in May an officer's tent was at 118°, while the crowded homes of the men must have been far hotter.

About this time H.R.H. The Prince of Wales paid a visit to the E.E.F. and was present as a member of the Staff of General Murray when the latter inspected the troops stationed at Kantara. Each battalion was drawn up by half-battalions in close columns of platoons in front of the camp, and although the inspection occupied a very short time, the delay was almost sufficient to cause three senior officers, the first of the battalion to be granted local leave, to miss the one o'clock luncheon express to Cairo. They caught it with difficulty and great effort, and it is reported that their lunch consisted largely of iced beer.

On April 23rd, Easter Sunday, the Turks raided the Katia oasis, twenty-five miles to the east of us, and cut up the Yeomanry who held it. Another body advanced to Dueidar, some ten miles nearer us, and were gallantly held off by a company of R.S.F. That evening the Brigade was moved out at short notice and marched to Hill 40 in the dark. Here we bivouacked, and spent a chilly night, while Anzac cavalry passed through us and moved on the threatened spot, which was far out of reach of infantry. The next day the rumors that reached us left little doubt that it was no more than a clever raid by the Turks, but we spent the day, and a very hot one it was, without shelter in the sand, disturbed firstly by the information that we should be fighting hard by dawn the next day, and again by the message that the Turks were seen advancing in large numbers. This proved to be the Egyptian Labor Corps in hasty retreat from the neighbourhood of Katia. On the 25th we returned to our camp, which we did not quit again until May 17th.

The post at Dueidar was an isolated detachment garrisoning an oasis in which the Bedouin were in the habit of holding a weekly market. These gentry were rounded up after the Easter day disaster, but the oasis still needed a guard, because in the desert an area where drinkable water can be found is more valuable than Alsace Lorraine and the Saar Valley put together. The true infantry line of defense however was still further back. About eight miles from the Canal a line of redoubts had been built, spanning the gap between protective inundations and barring the way to Kantara. Half a mile further out lay a marvelous trench, the work of forgotten heroes, since transferred to France, a straight line of carefully sand-bagged fire bays and traverses which it would have taken a small army to hold, running as if laid down with a ruler across the desert without either support line or communication trenches. The redoubt system was far more economical in men and each separate redoubt formed a strong point well supplied with ammunition and water, which could give a very good account of itself.

To this line the Battalion moved on May 17th, taking over at dawn next morning from the K.O.S.B. The two main redoubts were at Hill 70 itself, where Battalion Headquarters lived with "A" Company and half of "C," and at Turk Top garrisoned by "B" Company. Three smaller redoubts were held by "D" and the other half of "C," and there were intermediate posts occupied by small detachments only at night. Life was more pleasant out here. We still had tents outside the wire in which we lived by day, manning the trenches at night. There was a good deal of work to be done on the redoubts, but it was work with an obvious purpose, and we were glad to be on our own and free from the clutches of those obscure magnates who detail divisional fatigues. Our digging we got through between stand down and breakfasts in the cool of the morning, or else in the late afternoon. At night we posted sentries and went on long adventurous patrols from post to post. There was no enemy; but the desert itself still had a certain amount of mystery and romance about it. It was less flat than round Kantara and dotted here and there with coarse, green scrub, while a mile to the south of Hill 70 stood a little group of seven palms. Away to the east rose great hills of golden sand, very beautiful when the rays of the setting sun struck upon them. To show our unsophisticated attitude at this time, it may be admitted that when a credulous machine gunner informed us—doubtless on Australian authority—that the trails of two "Arabian" lions had been found not a mile away, we more than half believed him.

The flies were bad, but we were getting used to the heat—the tent temperature was usually between 100° and 110° during the hotter hours,—and a northerly wind helped to keep us going. On the 20th a pair of 18 pounders were put into Hill 70 and another pair into the Turk Top Redoubt, and their gunners, of the 2nd Lowland Brigade R.F.A., came to live with us. The guns were well dug in, but there was a general feeling that if they fired, most of the trenches, which were only a few feet away, would inevitably collapse. At Hill 70 Captain Wightman and Captain Moir joined the Battalion, with very little to say in favour of the Egyptian climate and obviously feeling the extreme heat.

Early in June astonishing rumors began to reach us about a "change of air" camp at Alexandria, and soon it came to be known that the whole Brigade were for a week's holiday there. The cynics scoffed, and the few who were anxious to display the fruits of a classical education could quote a line about "fearing the Greeks even when they bear gifts in their hands," the Greeks to us being that inveterate foe of every right-minded infantry man, until he gets a chance of putting up red tabs himself,—the Staff. But for once the cynics were wrong, and on June 13th the 11th Manchesters arrived to relieve us, and we marched gaily back to Kantara—at any rate if not gaily—it was getting on for 130° in the sun quite early in the day—still with a good heart. We were even complaisant when we found ourselves crowded into one camp area with the 7th, and with most of the tents to put up. As the afternoon wore on—(we had been up since 3 a.m. and were still hard at it in different fatigues)—a tendency to disparage holidays was noticed in some quarters, and when the next day we found ourselves in for a resumption of training pending further orders, the cynics had their innings. It lasted a fortnight—of crowded tents and extreme heat—the thermometer failing to fall much below 90° all night. Réveillé was at 4 a.m. and after three hours training, we came in for an eight o'clock breakfast, drenched in sweat, and regarding salt bacon with loathing. To add to the trials of the climate the entire Battalion was roused one night about midnight with orders to make all tents as secure as possible, hammer in tent pegs, etc., as the following message had just been received, "Typhoon proceeding north passed Suez 9 p.m." Few if any of us had ever experienced a typhoon and with thoughts of very shortly being blown here and there like the sand we set to work with a will, but unnecessarily. The great wind never came, and we learnt in the morning that the "Typhoon" that passed Suez was a tramp steamer homeward bound. But the optimists were not to be disappointed. On the 26th an advance party left us, and on the evening of the 28th the whole Battalion, with the exception of some few of the later drafts, entrained and reached Sidi Bishr next morning, smutty but hopeful.

Sidi Bishr rest camp was unlike anything that the oldest soldier can remember. It was run with the sole desire of making everybody happy. The tents were in the desert east of the town, half a mile from the sea. The men had no duties of any kind. No parades were allowed and there were special cooks and orderly men attached to each camp. On arrival the camp staff took the men over from their officers, who were told that they had no further responsibilities and could go off and enjoy themselves for a week. Every man was then given a pass into Alexandria, good up to 11 p.m. every night of the week, while for those whose finances could not stand this strain there were free concerts and cinemas in the camp itself, and a whole village of enticing restaurants and shops where fruit, drinks and souvenirs could be obtained. One need hardly say that the Battalion, keenly appreciating the kindness shown and the confidence reposed in them, repaid it by exemplary behavior. There was hardly a case of drunkenness throughout our stay—no bad record for men who had been teetotal, through necessity and not through choice, for months—and were now exposed to the dangers of the vile though seductive liquor sold in the native bars.

Our holiday came to an end all too soon and we returned to Kantara in excellent form for whatever might be demanded of us. A draft joined us a few days after our return with Lieut. Girvan and our Quartermaster, Lieut. Clark. Plainly the days of sitting on the banks of the Canal and waiting till Turkey chose to attack us were gone for ever. The whole force was pushing slowly but surely to the east, and it was high time for us to help them push.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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