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Mudros, Cairo, Suez Canal and Hill 70 Line

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

In the early hours of the morning of 9th January the transports, which contained the troops which had left in the first party from Gallipoli the previous night, arrived at Mudros Bay. As explained in the last chapter the Battalion was scattered throughout several ships and the process of disembarkation was by no means easy. However, the Staff got busy and lighters were soon arriving alongside the transports disembarking the troops by divisions. The lighters then moved to different parts of the shore where each division had a place of rendezvous. The sorting out then commenced and with a certain amount of confusion the battalions were ultimately assembled.

The 52nd Division was allotted a camping ground on the south side of the bay, the camp being known as Sarpi camp. After the Battalion area had been pointed out, canvas was issued and the camp pitched. The only canvas available at the time consisted of a large number of hospital marquee tents which were to accommodate the men and about a dozen bell tents for the use of officers.

The baggage which had been sent off from Gallipoli a few days before the evacuation was found on our arrival at our camp, or rather a proportion of it. It was found that a considerable amount of it had been pilfered, and we were informed that the rest of the baggage had been sent direct to Alexandria.

Life at Mudros was a great change and a great relief after our months on the Peninsula. We were able to live above ground and walk about freely in the open without any fear of drawing the enemy's artillery fire. It was difficult at first to realize that we were out of the fighting for the time being, but it did not take long to accustom ourselves to this, as after all it is the more natural life.

The weather on the whole was good, the days being bright and warm but intensely cold at night, with a certain amount of frost. The opportunity was taken to issue new clothing and in connection with this it may be mentioned how the Army Ordnance Corps unconsciously gave us a little amusement. Two of the battalions in the Brigade were kilted, and the other battalions wore trews. The Ordnance people seemed to forget this and issued to all four battalions the usual winter under-clothing which, as far as the lower garments were concerned, was not exactly suited to a kilted battalion.

While on Gallipoli the Commander of the 8th Corps, General Sir Francis Davis, had organized a Football Tournament for teams representing all units in the corps. The Battalion had been very successful in the preliminary rounds and had reached the final by the time of the evacuation. The team which they had to meet in the deciding round represented the Anson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, and it was decided to play the tie while we were at Mudros. The day was an unfortunate one as it was blowing hard, with the result that the football was not of a very high order. The Battalion team did not succeed in beating the Anson Battalion, but it was a hard game and there is no doubt the better team won.

Those who played in the final match were, Pte. E. Hammil, "A" Company; Pte. J.B. Smith, "B" Company; Pte. A. Jardine, "D" Company; Sergt. D. Smith, "D" Company; Pte. J. M'Cann, "A" Company; Sergt. J. Logan "A" Company; Pte. J. Laird, "C" Company; Pte. T. Knight, "D" Company; Sergt. D. Calder, "C" Company; Corpl. E. Stevenson, "B" Company, and Sergt. A. Bain, "A" Company.

In connection with this tournament an incident occurred on the 19th December, during the Battalion's attack. Captain Campbell had charge of the football arrangements. In the middle of the battle, while sitting more or less triumphantly in a captured Turkish trench, he received by special messenger word from the Division that the Battalion team must play the 5th R.S.F. the following day or be struck out of the tournament. A triumph of departmental work.

While living in camp at Mudros efforts were made to improve generally the feeding of officers and men, and as there were more canteens on the island with greater variety of goods for sale than we had been accustomed to on Gallipoli, our efforts met with a certain amount of success. One day while Major Neilson was scouring the countryside he came across several turkeys in one of the Greek canteens. One of these was immediately purchased and brought back to camp. The next problem was to find some one sufficiently skilled to dress the bird and prepare it for the pot. Lieut. Graham volunteered to carry out the work and really made an excellent job of it. The cooking was done in the lid of a camp kettle over an open fire and everyone who tasted the turkey that night at dinner voted it a great success.

About a week after our arrival at Mudros, Major Findlay left in charge of the Brigade advance party for Alexandria, and about a fortnight later Captain Buchanan, Captain Campbell and Lieut. Barbé also went on in advance. The day after Major Findlay left, orders were issued that the Battalion was to embark the following day, but as was very often the case under similar circumstances, when the camp was struck these orders were cancelled and it was not until the last day of January that the Battalion embarked on H.M.T. Briton, which also carried the 7/8th Scottish Rifles and the 6th East Yorks with Colonel Morrison as O.C. troops.

Three days later the transport arrived at Alexandria, but did not dock until the following day late in the afternoon. About 8 o'clock that night disembarkation was carried out and a few hours later the Battalion had entrained and left Alexandria for Cairo.

The Brigade advance party had made all the arrangements for the camp at Cairo, which was pitched on the ground near the Egyptian Army Barracks at Abbassieh. Life there was very pleasant and the joys of a town were very much appreciated by every one after our months of exile.

We were not left long however to enjoy ourselves, and after about a fortnight at Cairo we again entrained for a station on the Suez Canal. Little did we then think it was the first move in our long trek into Palestine.

We arrived at Ballah West on the 17th February and got our first impression of what our life in the desert was to be like. The weather was very broken and not too warm, but moving about constantly in the sand was very tiring and depressing. We had had the experience of sand at Aboukir, but that was at the side of the sea where one is quite prepared for it, but at Ballah it seemed to be different. There was nothing but sand on every side except for the thin strip of water, the Suez Canal running north and south.

After about a week in camp on the west side of the Canal we received orders to move to the other bank and relieve the 31st Division, who at that time were occupying the canal defenses. After some confusion which arose through the orders which had been given to us not having been issued to the 31st Division, relief was carried out and we saw the "Great Wall of China." This was a trench riveted by sand bags, running some miles to the east of and running parallel to the Canal. Its tactical uses we never could understand. Days were spent trying to clean up Ballah East; had Hercules been with us he would have diverted the Canal through the Augean camp.

On March 2nd the Battalion took over posts from Ballah to Kantara; the work was not arduous, being mainly to see that no unauthorized persons visited the Canal to put mines therein. Everyone bathed and one officer caught a mullet on a white sea fly, but no more; he always felt sure if he were to fish at the right time he would get a good basket, but his dreams were never realized.

Several officers who had been wounded or sick now rejoined us, including Captains Brand and Beckett and Lieut. MacLellan, also a draft of officers from the 3rd and 4th H.L.I., consisting of Lieuts. Parr, Strachan, T.B. Clark, Burleigh, Grey, Buchanan, A. Le G. Campbell.

On Sunday, March 12th, the Battalion was transferred in barges up the Canal to El Kantara, where "A" Company was already on detachment. Kantara was the starting-point for the advance across the Sinai desert into Palestine, which was to occupy us for the next twelve months. During this year we had no fighting to do, but it would be a mistake to suppose that we had an easy or a pleasant life. Undoubtedly people at home considered that we were much to be envied, and comparing our lot with that of those fighting in France, we willingly agree. But it is a mistake to suppose that we were simply having a good time. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force was associated in the mind of the average citizen with the idea of Pyramids and flesh pots. For the first, symbolic pictures were largely to blame. There never was a design representing "Britain's far flung battle line," which did not show a comfortable man in a sun helmet with a Pyramid in the background. Pyramids are so easy to draw. The artists were beaten by the flesh pot—because they had no very clear conception of what a flesh pot looks like. But the old Biblical phrase rose irresistibly to the mind mingled perhaps with recollections of some globe-trotter's stories of the delights of shepherds. Both ideas are quite false. Our flesh pot was the dixie—and there was a great deal less to put into it than there was on other, more canteen-blessed, fronts—while many a man who joined us early in 1916 left for France in 1918 without ever having set eyes on a Pyramid. Egypt west of the Canal and Egypt east of it are two very different countries, and when transports took to hooking up beside the Canal banks at Kantara, and discharging their defrauded drafts there, it was only the lucky ones, who got a week's leave or a cushy wound, who ever visited the true land of the Pharaohs at all.

Until the evacuation the defense of the Canal and of the eastern frontier of Egypt had depended almost entirely on the waterless nature of the 130 miles of country which separated it from Palestine. There were troops on the Canal, but their numbers and equipment forced them to remain strictly on the defensive, and Kitchener's alleged question—"Are you defending the Canal or is the Canal defending you?" was a truthful, if rather an unfair, way of summing up the situation. There was no mobile force, no supply of baggage camels, and the desert, as it faded into the mirage to the east, was an unknown country in which Turkish patrols moved unmolested. One of "A" Company's jobs as late as March 1916 was to accompany every evening along the Canal bank a camel dragging a heavy baulk of wood in such a way as to sweep and flatten a track in the sand, so broad that an agile Turk could not be expected to jump over it. In the morning this track was carefully scrutinized, and it was possible to see whether anybody besides the ants and beetles, who had a right of way, had gone across it during the night, and if so steps would be taken, as required.

But General Murray with troops at his disposal did not propose to allow this state of affairs to continue. The routes by which a hostile force could advance on Egypt from the east were limited, and the southern ones, through very difficult mountainous country, were unlikely if not impossible, especially when raiders or aeroplanes had destroyed the stores of water in the rock cisterns. The northern route lay close along the sea coast, through a desert of heavy sand, in which at many places water, which most horses refused, but which seemed good enough for a Turk, could be obtained by digging wells. This route bent south-westward from Romani and reached the Canal at Kantara, and it was this route that he determined to block by advancing eastward along it himself.

The Kantara of the spring of 1916 was very different to the great town of camps and metalled roads, lines of sheds and pyramids of stores, canteens, and Y.M.C.A.s, lorry parks and hospitals, real nurses and a cinema, which became familiar to hundreds of thousands of troops on their way up to Palestine in 1917-1918. Even the cemetery was only wired off during our occupation, and one remembers being somewhat ribald at the pessimism of the authorities who provided sufficient consecrated ground to contain the bodies of all the troops then garrisoning the place. As usual the authorities scored in the long run.

Its pre-war amenities were distinctly limited. On the west side of the Canal ran the line from Ismalia to Port Said, with a station and some square plastered houses occupied by native officials of the E.S.R. and Canal services. The Sweet-Water Canal, an insignificant ditch full of dirty water, divided the line from the big Canal, and the low trees, which grew along its banks, gave the only pleasing view in a desolate land. The euphemistically named "sweet water" contained a large number of Bilharzia parasite, an interesting little creature, whose ancestors have been found embedded in the Egyptian mummies. It begins its life in a water snail, transfers itself through the mouth and skin to the body of any human being it can, and there makes hay of his or her internal arrangements in a peculiarly distressing manner. All Egyptians are bilharziotic and seem to thrive on it; but we were strictly forbidden in our own interests to give the little beast an entrée. Behind the line were salt marshes and sand. East of the Canal were two or three palm trees, a little mosque and a couple of Custom Houses—and that was all. The beginning of the offensive defensive had built a road running eastward for a mile or two with a light railway parallel to it, while a little further to the north was the terminus of the broad gauge railway, on which the whole scheme depended. On the plans of Kantara which were issued on arrival this railway line was marked Kantara-Jerusalem Railway, which caused many an amusing remark regarding the possibilities of its ever reaching there. Little did we then think that many of us would travel to and from Jerusalem and beyond on that very line.

Suez Canal At Ballah

Our camp was a mile or so from the Canal, to the north of the road—first the officers' lines, then a space for a parade ground, then the men's lines. The sand was very heavy, but of a coarse kind which did not blow about much. The tents were double and made a pleasant enough home for a couple of officers with camp beds, but were less attractive to from eight to a dozen men, lying in the sand with all their possessions. To the eastward was the cemetery and then the ground rose into one or two insignificant little bluffs, afterwards sinking to a small flat area of harder ground, on which most of our parades were held. Beyond this was the barbed wire and redoubt line of the Kantara defenses, of which more anon. To the north joining with the lakes and marshes round Pelusium, lay patches of shallow salt water, inundated by cuts from the Canal as part of the defensive scheme.

The strength of the Battalion on arrival was little over 300. "A" Company remained on detachment till 23rd of March a couple of miles off on the Canal bank, where they spent their nights in patrolling the eastern bank and their days in watching the shipping pass, bathing and attempting to catch fish from an ancient tub attached to the post. On one occasion they had the mild excitement of stopping a suspected tug which was reported from further south as steaming up at a time when it had no business to be out and refusing to answer signals. Furious commands to stop were disregarded, but a single rifle bullet across her bows had an almost magical effect, and the "boarding party" gallantly rowing out in the tub were harangued by a weeping Greek skipper in six different languages without a pause until the arrival of an official of the Water Transport Department, disguised as a very immaculate subaltern of Yeomanry. No one ever quite discovered what it was all about; but the skipper having at last become comparatively coherent in French, we put on board a prize crew in the person of the Yeoman, and let her go.

For the rest of the Battalion there were no such thrills. Parades were from 6.30 to 9.30 and for a couple of hours from 4.30 p.m. The companies were not large enough to be subdivided into platoons, and the nature of the country confined us chiefly to squad drill and musketry. The intervening leisure was spent in conversation—mercifully we have all got mouths and can continue to use them long after our stock of novel ideas is exhausted. There were also frequent bathing parades. The Suez Canal is not well adapted for bathing. It is extremely dirty, because every ship that passes drains into it, and after a few feet of rather muddy shallow, it drops suddenly out of a man's depth, so that the non-swimmer finds his range limited. But with a hot climate and very little washing water, one is not inclined to be exacting. Our drinking water was the less attractive for being so strongly chlorinated. It was supplied from the Sweet-Water Canal after a vigorous filtering, and we continued to patronize the same source right through the desert, and even when we were fighting in another continent in front of Gaza.

The authorities soon found us a job or two to occupy our leisure. The Egyptian Labor Corps had not yet arrived on the scenes and the digging of the Kantara defenses consequently devolved upon the white troops. This meant six hours' digging almost every day for almost every man, divided into a morning and an afternoon shift. Now sand is admittedly nice easy stuff to dig in, you do not need a pick, and can fill your shovel without exertion. But no trench in sand is the faintest use unless it is reveted. Our reverting material was matting on wooden frames, and these had to be anchored back to stakes driven in deep down, six feet clear of the parapet or parados, so that to produce a trench you had to take out six feet of sand extra on either side, hammer in your stakes and attach your anchoring wires to the matting and then fill in the whole again. Traverses had to be dug right out and then filled in again when the wall of matting was in position and secure. Progress was therefore not rapid, and especially on windy days when most of the sand was blown off your shovel before you had time to throw it and the wind silted it up in your excavation rather quicker than you could take it out. Still all this work, together with the wiring, was done thoroughly if slowly, and it was depressing to see next year that now that the war had been carried into the enemies' country, all our redoubts had been carefully filled in.

Other diversions provided for us took the form of unloading barges or loading trucks, and for some of these jobs it was necessary to cross to the western side of the Canal. On the outward journey there was never any difficulty about this, but on the homeward some such scene as the following was almost certain to occur. As the fatigue party—thirty men under an officer—reach the end of the pontoon bridge, after a hot afternoon in the ordnance depot, a cloud of natives hurl themselves upon it from either end and proceed to haul it in two halves under the whip-cracking of their own headman and the fatherly advice of an R.E. corporal. Looking up the Canal the fatigue party, already late for their dinners, perceive a P. & O. liner about four miles away majestically crawling south. Their only hope is now the horse-ferry, an aged flat-bottomed contrivance wound across by a squad of natives and a chain. With the assistance of a friendly military policeman, the headman of this gang is discovered some hundred of yards away lying asleep with his feet in the Sweet-Water Canal, Bilharziosis doubtless entering at every pore. When aroused he breaks into a voluble flood of Arabic—the M.P., an Argyle in disguise, addresses him in Scotch at a similar rate, while the O.C. fatigue party speaks very slowly in English, French, and what he believes to be modern Greek, successively. At this game the gippy always wins, and it is only when, confessing their defeat, the opposition resorts to personal violence that he goes off weeping to beat up his team, having been fully aware from the first that that was what was required. The officer in premature triumph embarks his party in the ferry, into which enter also some horses, two camels and a motor bike. The horses are naturally very frightened. The fatigue climbing to precarious footholds on the rails at the side, leave them the bottom of the boat to be frightened in. Then, screaming like a flock of sea gulls, the children of Pharaoh arrive, and their chief, looking wisely across the river, perceives a barge which he feels sure will be in our way. He therefore shouts to it, the officer—adding the voice of authority, shouts too—the men shout, the natives shout, everybody shouts. The barge crew shout back, but are finally out-shouted and haul clear. The foreman, seeing that he will now lose the game and have thus prematurely to take the party over, suddenly perceives the advancing P. & O., now not much more than a mile away. He draws the distracted officer's attention to the phenomenon and leads him to understand that to start now would lead to an inevitable collision and a watery grave. The polyglot argument waxes furious, the men taking it up in their turn, when their leader falls out exhausted, and the Arab is still keeping up his end triumphantly when the great ship reaches us and slowly steams by, while curious passengers eye us from her decks, their minds doubtless running enviously on flesh pots. After this, resort is again had to violence and the ill-assorted load slowly leaves the shore and commences its perilous journey, the horses still in paroxysms of terror and the camels supercilious and bored. Long before the other bank is reached all concerned have handsomely apologized to the headman for having doubted his statement that they could not have got across before the liner arrived. But at last they reach ground and so to their dinners, tired but cheerful still. The only time, by the way, that this accomplished Egyptian condescended to speak English was when a party of men returning at night from leave in Port Said, exasperated by his delays, had taken the matter into their own hands, and were working the ferry across themselves. He lifted up his voice and wept,—no one heeded him. Then again and again he cried the mystic words, "he drink water—he drink water." He was sternly adjured to be silent, until suddenly another voice was heard—"the —— thing's sinking." "Aiwa, aiwa," said the disregarded prophet—"he drink water"—and all hands pulled madly to get the boat back to the nearest side—of course the side from which it had started. Those who have studied the diplomatic wiles of our hero, are convinced that he had himself opened the sea-cocks—or taken what other steps were necessary to scuttle his craft and save his honor.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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