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From Mobilization to the East

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The period from the date of mobilization to the date on which we began our active service experiences we propose to pass over quickly, as the events which happened then seem now of small interest to those coming later.

With orders prepared carefully in peace time, mobilization went smoothly. The Normal School, Glasgow, became a barracks and a place for the busy public of the New City Road to gaze at with interest.

Within a week our Brigade found itself at Dunfermline, and a few days later we were at Leven, with two companies on duty at the docks at Methil. The Leven companies did uninterrupted training, the Methil companies uninterrupted guards, and to the credit of the latter no one was drowned on these inky nights in the docks. It was there one night a small but gallant officer was going his rounds. One sentry was posted in mid-air on a coal shute, and to challenge persons approaching his post was one of his duties. On the approach of the officer there was no challenge, so to find the reason of this the officer climbed up the ladder and found the sentry, who explained he had seen something "right enuff," but thought it was "one of them things they tie ships to"—in other words a bollard.

The Army authorities had not then become prolific publishers of training pamphlets; training therefore was in accordance with the Red Books previously published, which meant that we trained for open warfare. Bombs, Trench Mortars or Rifle Grenades we never saw, still the training was invaluable and we became a very fit battalion.

All ranks have happy memories of the many kindnesses shown there by the good people of Leven and Methil, but in spite of the pleasures of home soldiering, being then enthusiasts, we thought we had been forgotten and longed for orders to proceed overseas.

Early in May, 1915, we gathered that we would soon be going abroad. It was then we heard that our Division would be known as the 52nd (Lowland) Division, and our Brigade, consisting of ourselves, the 6th and 7th H.L.I., and the 5th A. & S.H., as the 157th Infantry Brigade. Anticipating our move, the G.O.C. Division, General Egerton, lectured the officers at Markinch on warfare in France. He referred to us embarking on the greatest adventure of our lives; to many attending the lecture it was also their last. In spite of the lecture we found ourselves bound for the East.

On May 19th, Major T.L. Jowitt, Captain J.D. Black and eight subalterns with their trusty batmen left Leven for the South and they were lost to us for a month. This was owing to limited boat accommodation. The Battalion, under command of Colonel F.L. Morrison, moved from Leven on May 24th, with, we think we can say, the best wishes of the inhabitants. The next day found us at Plymouth boarding the Transylvania for her first voyage as a troopship. The transport section under Lieut. W.L. Buchanan sailed by another steamer. In addition to ourselves the Transylvania carried the 6th and 7th H.L.I. and about 100 unattached officers. It was a tight fit.

The ship was detained from sailing until our pith helmets arrived on the 26th, when, at 10 o'clock on a clear moonlight night, we steamed away escorted by two T.B.Ds. The Bay was crossed in calm weather. Gibraltar passed on the 30th and Malta reached on the 2nd June. Our clothing, consisting of the ordinary drab khaki, now began to prove unsuitable for a hot climate.

At Malta parties were allowed ashore while the ship coaled. The Maltese methods of coaling are worth seeing. A goodly proportion of the coal is dropped intentionally into the sea, as it is being carried from the lighters to the bunkers. After coaling is finished, a fleet of rowing boats with dragnets collect the ill-gotten coal from the bottom of the sea. It was our introduction to the oriental mind.

On the 5th June we entered the harbor of Alexandria, threading our way through a fleet of transports and other vessels such as the place had never known in peace time. Disembarking we entrained to Aboukir some ten miles away on the Bay of that name. A camp was pitched near the sea, where abounded scorpions, snakes, flies, beetles and mosquitos. Leave was given to visit Alexandria, and this, to those visiting the East for the first time, afforded endless interest. It was there we learned to scatter the unfortunate natives with "imshi" or stronger, and what "mafeesh" meant.

The officers were fortunate in securing for their mess the cool verandah of a solitary house round which the camp was pitched. The house, which was unoccupied, was said to be owned by a Frenchman in Cairo. He arrived one day with a bride on his arm—he had just been married—not knowing that the district was now crowded with troops. He had intended to spend the honeymoon at his seaside residence. With all a French gentleman's courtesy he made the officers welcome to his house and sought his honeymoon elsewhere.

We found ourselves aboard the Transylvania again on the 12th June, and sailed at dusk. Our course was Northwards, so now, we thought, we were in for the real thing. Gallipoli and the Turk would know us in a few days time. To travel hopefully, reflected R.L. Stevenson, is better than to arrive. Ere Crete was passed the ship put about and steamed for Alexandria again. A wireless had been received recalling us to Egypt, the reason for this volte face being, we understand, congestion at Mudros, the advanced base.


Officers of the Battalion. Gailes Camp. July 1914.

Row 1: 2nd Lt. J.W. Main, 2nd Lt. Lewis MacLellan, 2nd Lt. J.W. Malcolm, 2nd Lt. E.T. Townsend.
Row 2: Capt. J.B. Neilson, Capt. H.C. Macdonald, Major A.M. Downie, Major D.A.C. Reid, C.F., Col. F.L. Morrison, V.D., Major T.L. Jowitt, Capt. J.R. Simson, Capt. John MacDonald, Capt. George Morton, Jr.
Row 3: 2nd Lt. R.M. Miller, 2nd Lt. T.A. Fyfe, Lt. and Q.-M. T. Clark, Lt. A.B. Currie, Lt. T.S.S. Wightman, Capt. D.E. Brand, 2nd Lt. E.M. Leith, Lt. N.R. Campbell, Lt. K. Macfarlane, 2nd Lt. J.F. Moir, 2nd Lt. J.E. Milne, Lt. R.H. Morrison.

Alexandria on our return was dimmed in the heat and choking in the sand clouds of a khamsin. This wind blows off the desert and man is almost prostrate in its scorching blast. We had met a particularly hot one—Alexandria had not known its like for years. The move back to Aboukir was therefore very trying. We were now rejoined by the Transport Section, and Major Jowitt and his party also returned. They had gone direct to Mudros in the Mauretania, where an attempt was made to post them to the 29th Division. The compliment was declined on the ground that their unit was in the offing. After transhipping to the Donaldson liner Saturnia, which was nearly hit by bombs from an aeroplane, they were sent to Alexandria by the Minnetonka.

About this time Colonel Morrison had the pleasure of dining with the Sultan of Egypt at his Palace near Alexandria, his tartan slacks attracting considerable notice.

On 28th June we again embarked for Gallipoli, this time on the Menominee. The Transport Section were left behind at Aboukir as there was no room for them in the small sector occupied by our troops in Gallipoli. We were all aboard and ready to sail by 4 p.m. All aboard did we say? Then where's the Padre? Last seen going through the town with the intention of making a few final purchases, he was now nowhere to be found. As the relentless ship cast off and moved down the harbor, his tall and for once dismayed figure came in sight on the quay. Too late. Too late. All ranks crowded to the side shouting advice and sympathetic cheers.

But the Padre was not to be denied. With the resource of the hero in the film play, he routed out a motor boat and came speeding after us. Down the ship's side hung a rope ladder to which clung a couple of natives in a small boat. Overtaking us in great style, the Padre leapt into this and essayed the ladder, but his pith helmet got in the way and his cane and parcel of purchases burdened his hands, so he threw the lot to one of the natives and began the precarious ascent. Half way up a swing of the ladder brought him under a shoot of water from the ship's side, and at the same moment an extra burst of cheering from the decks drew his attention to the native who, as the best way of carrying the helmet, had good humouredly donned it. It was a trying situation for any man, but the Padre did full justice to the occasion and was eventually hauled on board amid wild enthusiasm.

In spite of submarine scares the voyage up the Aegean Sea was a pleasant one. By day the succession of rocky islands (among these Patmos, where St. John was inspired to write his Revelation) shining in the sea like jewels in an azure setting, marked our progress and recalled their ancient story.

In the evening impromptu concerts were held, at one of which, on the fo'c'sle decks the pipers played "The 5th H.L.I.'s Farewell to Aboukir," composed by Pipe Major Thomson. Can its plaintive harmonies still be heard, or did they perish with him when he fell just ten days later?

At dawn on the 1st July we sighted Lemnos island. Soon we were lying in Mudros Bay among over 120 ships, British and French of all sizes and types, from battleships to submarines, and from great ocean liners to trawlers, all safely at anchor in this wonderful natural harbor. Now picks, shovels, rations and extra ammunition were issued, and in the afternoon of the next day the destroyer Racoon took off Brigade and Regimental Headquarters with A and B companies, followed by the sweeper Whitby Abbey, with C and D companies under Major Jowitt. Singing and cheering we passed down the long line of shipping to the harbor mouth, then into darkness and silence, bound at last to meet the enemy.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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