ON ACTIVE SERVICE SERIES
THE TALE OF A TROOPER
BY CLUTHA N. MACKENZIE
TROOPER, WELLINGTON MOUNTED RIFLES, N.Z.E.F.
LONDON: JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEAD
NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY
Printed in Great Britain by Ebenezer Baylis & Son,
Trinity Works, Worcester.
I MAC BECOMES A TROOPER II MAC EMBARKS FOR OVERSEAS III SORROWS AND JOYS IN A TROOPSHIP IV LAZY SHIPBOARD LIFE V ASHORE AGAIN VI DAYS IN THE DESERT VII MAC GOES TO CAIRO VIII MAC TOURS IN COMFORT IX MAC LUNCHES WITH THE SULTAN X MAC DISAPPROVES OF BEING LEFT XI MAC LEAVES FOR ACTIVE SERVICE XII GALLIPOLI AT LAST XIII MAC JOINS IN THE WAR XIV A WEARY DAY XV MAC IS SLEEPY XVI VARIOUS MISFORTUNES XVII AN OUTPOST AFFAIR XVIII SUMMER DRAGS ON XIX MAC TAKES A CHANGE XX ANZAC AWAKES XXI NO. 3, TABLE TOP AND SUVLA BAY XXII THE NIGHT BATTLE ON CHANAK BAIR XXIII MAC IS WOUNDED XXIV THE END OF MAC'S CAMPAIGNING DAYS XXV HOMEWARD
THE TALE OF A TROOPER
MAC BECOMES A TROOPER
A winter storm raged across the ridges and tore in violent gusts down the gullies, carrying great squalls of fleecy snow. The wind swept the flakes horizontally through the gap where the station track ran an irregular course through the bush; and, though but a short hour had passed since the ominous mass of black cloud had swept over the early morning sky, the ground was already thickly powdered.
A ramshackle hut stood beside the track where it entered the bush, and in a rough lean-to, where firewood, tools and saddlery were piled more or less indiscriminately, two unkempt station ponies, saddled and bridled, stood in somnolent attitudes. Huddled hens sheltered from the searching blasts, which swept in eddies of snow, ruffling the feathers of the hens and driving the tails of the horses between their legs.
Charley and Mac had come thus far on their way out to have a look at the stock in the big paddocks higher in the hills, before the thickening snow had made purposeless their going further. So they had dropped in to see old George, the rouseabout, and have a yarn with him, or, if there were no signs of the weather clearing, to consider the question of work in the wool-shed.
"Hullo, boys!" mumbled George. "I reckon as thar' ain't no use us gittin' art jist now. I thinks the fire's the best place ter day. Squat yerself in that thar cheer, Mac, me boy. Jinny! get some tea," he roared hospitably through the wall towards the wee kitchen where his hard-working little wife was making bread for her large family of children who were away at school. "And I'll give yer a toon on the grammephone."
Nothing averse, the two stockmen settled down before the big log fire in George's den, aromatically smoky from firewood and tobacco, with its walls papered from odd paperhangers' samples and prints from Victorian journals, and with domestic odds and ends lying here and there. The good lady speedily produced the tea and added cakes and scones, while George brought into action his cheap American machine and its hoary old records; vague, scratching echoes here in the depths of the bush of the gay sparkling life of Piccadilly and Leicester Square by night, laughing theatre crowds and wonderful women—a life worlds away from George and his rough, but hospitable hearth. He laughed where sometimes there were jokes, more frequently where there were not, and the other two laughed good-naturedly in concert, for the machine scratched so badly that they could not distinguish a word, though George, remembering them in the freshness of their youth, was blind to their growing infirmities. If the two laughed heartily, or expressed in words the good qualities of a record, those, in addition to George's particular cronies, were given a second or a third run.
They grew rather tired of this entertainment, and turned their attention to the domestic bookshelf and the family treasures which adorned the walls and the mantelpiece. In a glass frame was an army biscuit of army hardness on which Mrs. George's brother had written a letter on a distant Christmas Day in South Africa and had posted to her. They deserted other relics for a large book of Boer War pictures, whose leaves they turned together, while the old gramophone ran unfalteringly onwards through its extensive repertoire.
"Those times must have been great," said Charley.
"Don't those chaps look as if they're enjoying themselves?"
"Not half. Cripes! I wish I had been there."
"Why in the devil didn't that bloomin' war come in our time?"
* * * * *
"Not our luck. You know, Mac, if we'd been the same age we're now, we'd have been there."
Another month passed on that station, and the two stockmen, alone on their beats, rode day after day across the wild ranges and down in the ravines. Along the whole of the east ran a range of mountains, more than a hundred miles of them, their lower slopes clothed in heavy bush, and their serrated summits deep in winter snow. Standing in the north, grand and solitary, was the massive blue-white shape of old Ruapehu, his fires quenched these many years, and, near him, the active cone of Ngaruahoe, whose angry, ominous smoke-clouds rained ashes sometimes on the surrounding country, but more often his wisp of yellowy-white smoke trailed lazily to leeward, or mounted heavenwards in cumulous shape. Occasionally, on his rounds, Mac dismounted on the summit of a ridge, threw the rein over a stump and settled down for a smoke, his back against a log, his dogs at his feet, a wild ravine below him, then ridge after ridge, bush-topped or strewn with charred trunks and rotting stumps, and, away beyond, the two great snow volcanoes. They were his friends, and, of all times, he loved most these moments spent in contemplation of those grim reminders of the strength of Nature, of the untamed fires which burnt beneath and of the smallness of man. He revelled in the changing colour tones of the rugged ice cliffs, of the mountain mists and of the rolling deliberate smoke-cloud. Grand, too, was the space of it all, wonderful the air, and here, high on this ridge, human selfishness scarce seemed to be of this world. Sometimes, when he had been out here ready to start mustering at dawn, he had watched the first glow of coming daylight on the summit of Ruapehu, and again, at the end of a long summer day when the smoke of many bush-fires was in the air, he had watched for an hour or more the delicate lilacs, the greens and blues, reds and golds, the shadows deepening beneath the buttresses, and the slow melting of the last warm glow into the cold steely colour of night.
He knew of no happier life than this of his—dodging along most days on his station pony with his dogs following; always on the alert to discover anything amiss with an odd sheep or a cattle-beast; sometimes working with the sheep in the yards, dipping, crutching and such like, or going off on jaunts to neighbouring stations or distant townships. It was a life where there was opportunity for the whole of a man's skill and wit, and where monotony and loneliness were not. After the day's work he and Charley took turns in cooking the dinner, while the other went for the mail. The several-day-old paper lost nothing by its age. The meal finished, they smoked and read the news, had a game of cards, perhaps, with some one who had ridden over, and turned into bunk for sleep that was never sounder.
Thus dawned the early days of August with Mac and Charley. There had been Balkan rumblings, which, it hardly seemed possible, could echo in these distant hills, but speedily the shadow on Europe darkened, and they rode out to the cross-road to get the mail as soon as the coach arrived. And then, through the long spun-out wire which connected many scattered homesteads with the outer world, came the great news—War with Germany.
Mac and Charley piled up the great logs that night and sat before the glowing timber until five in the morning, talking over the probabilities and the possibilities of the moment. Already the old station life seemed behind them. What mattered it if the sheep got on their backs or the cattle broke their silly necks? And of the future they had a vague apprehension—a terrible sinking that there might not be a military force required from New Zealand, and, if there was one formed, it was scarcely likely to reach Europe before the war was over. That the Dominion would wish to send a force, they never doubted, but whether England would want it was another question.
They drew out their military kits from beneath their bunks, emptied their contents on the floor and investigated them keenly with an increased interest. They donned the tunics. Charley's body was shortly garbed as that of a lieutenant of the West Coast Infantry Regiment, but the rest of his figure was not in keeping with his wild red hair, his bristly jowls awaiting the week-end shave, his open shirt and his rough working trousers. Mac was in the Manawatu Mounted Rifles, but had not risen above the humble, though estimable rank of trooper, and his tunic fell far short of covering his lengthy arms. Between bursts of laughter, they chatted away on these eccentricities, and inspected the rest of the garments with a critical eye, commented on their fitness for the field, and hung them finally on nails in the wall. Regretfully they turned into bunk, and sank into sleep too deep for dreaming.
The next day Mac came across George at work on a break in a fence.
"Good mornin', Mac, me boy. How's things? This 'ere slip do be a fair devil."
"Oh, stock's all right. What d'you think of what's happening?"
"Aw, yer mean this 'ere row in Yourope? It's a bit of a business, ain't it?" George was contemplatively filling his well-seasoned cherry, and spoke of Europe as a sort of detached planet, and of its concerns as far from likely to set going eddies in these wild hills. "I reckon as they'll 'ave a bit of a go. Wot d'you think?"
"I'm off to it, George, by the first bloomin' boat that goes."
"Haw! Haw! Haw!" roared the old boy, throwing his head back, and swaying with the fullness of his mirth. "What an 'ell of a joke." Mac, too, chuckled as he sat in the saddle.
"True, dink, George, I'm going."
"Go on! Yer can't kid me that. Why the bloomin' thing's in Yourope, an' it'll be all over in a couple o' shakes."
"Never mind. I'm off. And so's Charley."
But George was not to be persuaded, and Mac left him still enjoying the joke.
That night a distant voice on the telephone said it was probable that an overseas force would be despatched as soon as possible, and inquired if they would willingly volunteer.
"You bet your boots!" Mac shouted down the line.
"Good," said the voice. "The whole Regiment has so far volunteered."
Three or four days passed wearily by, for all interest had gone out of the old life and they were restless for the new. Disturbing rumours came vaguely from without of an overseas force ready and about to sail, and Charley and Mac unanimously decided that they were too far from the centre of things, and that they must proceed closer to civilization without delay. Finishing the day's work, they went through the Saturday overhaul and made themselves presentable in public, saddled the horses, and, in the refreshing spring evening, rode away down the narrow winding road through glades of bush and lonely valleys to the railway line. There they stayed at a neighbouring homestead, gathering round a great, crackling log-fire to talk over the wonderful days ahead.
Early in the morning they were again on the road for a small country town where lived Mac's Colonel. Pleasant indeed were those hours, riding ever over the glorious hills and down in the valleys, and as they rode along the world seemed a wonderful place.
The Colonel met Mac's anxious inquiries, as to whether there was any chance of his getting away, with a cheery laugh.
"No doubt about it, my boy. You'll be all right."
But he was not able to relieve Charley's anxiety as to what was taking place in infantry regiments. He told them of the Advance Guard which lay at anchor in Port Nicholson awaiting orders to sail at any moment for an unknown destination, but said it was no use trying to get away with it, as it was composed only of infantry regiments from the cities.
It was well towards midnight when they returned, Mac in absolute peace of mind, but Charley still unsettled. His headquarters were a hundred miles away, and their sport of a host spent the following day running them down in his car, so that Charley might have final satisfaction, and that night, as the car spun homeward hour after hour through the darkness, there was no marring thought in the minds of the two would-be campaigners.
Mac seized two hours' sleep on a sofa, and then crept away into the night to catch a mail train which, rumbling northwards through the hills in the small hours, sometimes stopped near here to water. Late the next afternoon he acquainted his relatives of his intentions, spent a day or two with them, wished them a cheery farewell, and early the next Sunday, ere the morning mists in the gullies had fled before the first rays, he was again riding up the hill to the old homestead. He slung his civilian clothes into his tin box, cast his eye rather sorrowfully over his agricultural books as he stowed them away in a kerosene case, and regarded his bare walls whimsically as he removed from them his few precious photos and one or two quaint sketches. He wondered vaguely while he donned his khaki breeches and puttees what strange lands he might wander in, what queer beds might be his, and what great adventures he might have ere he would again take that mufti from the tin trunk. And would this fine old station life ever be his again? In the evening he rode to neighbouring homesteads to bid farewell to many whose homes had been his, and whose thoughts would go with him on his unknown travels. Finally he parted with his dogs.
The next morning, no longer a stockman, but a soldier of the King, he turned his back on the station, a home of pleasant memories, and travelled slowly the long road to the camp. His mare had come straight from a long spell of grass, and it was late in the afternoon of the following day before he dismounted finally in his squadron lines. Here already, in the middle days of August, were several thousand splendid men—a battalion of infantry, a regiment of mounted rifles, a battery of artillery, medical corps, engineers, signallers and service corps; fine men all, accustomed to life in the open, strong of build, active of movement and infinitely amused with everything around—splendid comrades with whom to embark on a campaign.
Mac made his way to his tent, where he was straightway at home with mates of previous camps and station days.
MAC EMBARKS FOR OVERSEAS
Six weeks dragged slowly by. A few days after they came into camp, there were ten great transports ready to take overseas the Expeditionary Force of 8,500 men, horses, guns, limbers and stores, and always there had been orders to be ready for instant embarkation and that the probable date of departure was a week ahead. Constantly that day was put off, and again put off, delay followed delay, while the men speculated on the cause, condemned the authorities and blasphemed generally. The War would be over before they could get anywhere near the front, and they chafed vainly. The troopships lay in the harbours, the men were ready in camp, why not embark?
With the exception of this uneasiness of mind, nothing spoilt the full enjoyment of the spring days. All day the sun shone bright and strong from a blue sky, the warmth tempered by pleasant breezes from the sea or the mountains, and at night the stars stood out brilliantly in the great dome above. Used to many camps in the past, accustomed also to cooking and to battling generally for themselves, they were as much at home as ever they were in the lines of white tents, and for most of them these were lazy holidays after the hard life of the bush and the sheep-runs. The army was generous in its supply of food, and much good butter, jam, meat and bread, which would have been luxuries indeed in the months to come, went to waste in Awapuni incinerators. And day after day came cars from towns and farms and stations within two hundred miles, bringing tuck-box after tuck-box containing the choicest products of the home larders.
The red sun, lifting above the eastern hills, found long irregular lines of horses straggling across dewy fields to water at the rushing streams of the Manawatu River. On one bare-backed horse of every four sat a trooper, clad sketchily in shirt and breeches tugged on hastily, as a sergeant had called the roll. They played the fool as they passed, laughing and chattering, losing their horses in their madness, all making thorough nuisances of themselves and all atune with the fresh glory of the dawn. Usually, during the day, in independent troops of thirty or forty men, they wandered about the district, among the pleasant suburban homes of Palmerston, along shady country roads or up into the hills. They walked or cantered for an hour or so, and then, selecting a likely-looking homestead, they would unsaddle and unbridle their mounts and leave them to graze the succulent grass at the sides of the road, or roll if they wished, while a man was put at both ends of that stretch of road to prevent their straying. Then the others would lie in the shade or sun themselves on the bank opposite the homestead, sleeping, smoking, reading or playing cards. Scarcely ever did the oracle fail to work. The door of the house would open and a fair maid appear, anon, a mother and a sister. The first would come tripping down the path to the soldiers and inquire:
"Mother says would you like some tea?"
"Well," they would reply, "it wouldn't be a bad idea, would it? But, I say, wouldn't it be a lot of trouble?"
"Oh, not at all."
And she would skip away back to the house to the innards of which, mother and sister, regarding the preamble as a mere formality, had disappeared to get things under way. A brief interval was followed by the appearance of large trays of cups, the whole of the household crockery from the drawing-room, breakfast-room and kitchen, with scones and cakes, and all the luxuries of the storeroom, and, perhaps, apples from the barn. The good family, as is only in keeping with proper hospitality, would join in the feast; and the disappearance of two or three cheery troopers into the house to assist in washing up would end one of those irresponsible, warm-hearted little scenes which were so many in those far-away days of August '14. Another hour or so on the march in the middle afternoon, and they would return to camp, to "stables" and evening. Palmerston normally was never anything else than a quiet country town of sober habits and eminent respectability, but now the echoing emptiness of her streets was gone, the lights shone brilliantly across the Square, the air was full of the murmur of the crowd, the tread of heavy boots, the tinkling of spurs and glasses and the laughter of merry parties. Perspiring waiters and flustered waitresses fed the hordes in the hotels, while the baths worked overtime. The road to the camp lay like a searchlight beam across the landscape—the cloud of never-resting dust lit by the strong headlights of a thousand taxis which careered along the rough road, careless of life or of their own future. Happy and weary, the men came streaming back to camp, entering by the front if before "Lights Out," through the pine plantations if after.
At length embarkation orders became concrete and remained so.
The camp buzzed with excitement, and, when night came, all were busy getting the gear ready. No one slept, and, in the dark, silent hours before the dawn, the camp was struck. The neat lines of tents became merely small bundles and odd poles, while hundreds of figures passed hither and thither amid blazing fires of straw. In the early light the Regiment moved away from the pleasant camp of Awapuni, the first of many such abodes. In the middle of the morning, struggling engines creaked away with the long lines of horse-trucks and carriages of rowdy troopers who cheered wildly as they set out at last upon their adventures. They crawled along the low country of the Manawatu, then along the rough cliffs above the sea, over the hills, and at length down the rocky gorge to Wellington. The troops detrained, watered and fed the horses, hung about for a while, and eventually led the horses to the wharves. Four great grey transports lay alongside, and the sun shone down hotly on a scene of seething activity, a crowd of troops working with the energy of enthusiasm, long strings of horses filing up huge gangways and disappearing into lines of horse-boxes around the bulwarks, or swinging aloft singly by cranes to be lowered swiftly into the black depths of holds.
Mac led his terrified mare up the steep gangway and down into a hold where he left her with regret. Mac's squadron was to embark on another ship, except some men who were to look after the horses. This transport lay at Lyttleton. So Mac and his cobbers had a few hours' leave pending the departure of the southward ferry steamer at eight o'clock, and they, in the meantime, went up the town to have a good time and to turn out old friends. They did not waste these few short hours, the streets rang with their enthusiasm, and the departing steamer took away from the pier a singing, rollicking crowd of happy warriors. Mac slept soundly on a table, and awoke in the morning to find the vessel was berthing at Lyttleton.
Disembarking, they filed round the wharves to where two troopships lay opposite each other, and embarked again on H.M.N.Z.T. No. 4, the S.S. Tahiti. Mac grabbed what looked about the best bunk in the murky depths of the 'tween decks which was the Squadron's alloted space, and wrote his name in several places on the boards. The lucky ones got breakfast during the forenoon, those who were lazy dodged fatigues and slept in out-of-the-way corners in the sun, and so Mac and his cobber Bill might have been found comfortably dozing on a great pile of onions on the aft boat deck. They found such seclusion most satisfactory on these turbulent days of movement, except for occasional visits to see that no blighted trooper was trying to beat a fellow for his "possie" in the hold. Trains kept rumbling out of the tunnel beneath the great hills, bringing more troops, horses and stores, and all the afternoon the gangways were crowded with these coming on board. By four, embarkation was complete and a throng of people who had massed behind a barrier to see the last of the troops, flooded on to the wharf.
Secrecy had been strictly kept as to the time of departure, and so the public were few to what there might have been. Pretty girls were wildly enthusiastic and were not particular as to how many troopers they fondly took farewell of, women smiled and laughed, though there were often tears in their eyes, and the men were laboriously humorous. A band played airs which the bandmaster considered suitable to the occasion, the troops, swarming on the railings and the rigging, sang lustily snatches of song; and finally, amidst the fortissimo strains of the National Anthem, a wild holloing from every one, and a bellowing of fog-horns, the ships drew slowly away from the wharf. They manoeuvred awkwardly out through the moles, while the throng on shore became but one black shape beneath a sea of fluttering handkerchiefs.
That night the two ships steamed slowly to the north. Mac landed horse-picket, and for four hours he paced a length of the boat-deck up and down past fifty horses' heads, while the wind howled mournfully in the rigging and the ship swayed easily to the swell. Morning broke, with a dull sky, a dull sea and many miserable troopers. Towards midday they were joined by two vessels from the south with the Otago troops, and in the middle of the afternoon the whole four hove to in Cook Strait, awaiting the four transports from Wellington. But contrary orders came, and so, entering Wellington Harbour, they dropped anchor towards evening. A gale came down in gusts from the hills around, bringing furious squalls of rain; and Mac, in heavy oilskins, again paced the boat-deck. Dawn broke grey and drear, and the troops were in the depths of depression. It was not the ill weather which distressed them, but at the eleventh hour, in the middle of the night, a picket boat had brought unwelcome despatches and now all hope was gone, all faith lost. "Owing to unforeseen circumstances, the transports will not at present sail, and orders for disembarkation will be issued in due course." So ran the death sentence.
Most of the infantry remained on the transports, but the other branches of the service mournfully disembarked and trekked to the few more or less level places amid Wellington's hills, where they pitched camps. The Wellington Mounteds found a home on Trentham racecourse, and passed a fortnight there, riding along the valley roads and manoeuvring over the steep hills. It was not so bad either, for day after day passed with glorious sunshine and cooling breeze, and the city was in reach by a weary train. There was a grand review which no one particularly enjoyed, and Mac least of all, for he had an attack of influenza. All the long day he rode with a dizzy, aching head; and one of Wellington's very own tearing gales, which whirled upwards great clouds of yellow dust, served not at all to cool his heated brow. And when, late at night, he spread out his straw and lay down, the long day seemed to have been a vague, bad dream. But the fever had gone when morning came, which proves that there are more ways than one of curing influenza.
He had cut short the career of the same disease at Awapuni Camp when out on an extensive movement one night near Feilding. His officer had given him a goodly nip of strong Scotch whisky and had advised him to remain at the first bivouac, but Mac thought that influenza was as bad at one place as at another. So he successfully guarded a road all night, his horse picketed to a fence, and himself in a greatcoat stretched asleep in the middle of the road.
Once again, the bright stars long before dawn looked down upon the bustle of a breaking camp, looked down upon the flaring piles of burning straw, the collapsing tents and the happy laughing throng of busy troopers. Early in the dewy morning they clattered out of the race-course gates and away down the winding road in the valley bottom. Afternoon found them skirting the harbour beneath the great rocky escarpments of Wellington's hills, and from here Mac espied a sight which gladdened his soul and he lost no time in communicating his discovery to Bill and the others. Across a distant neck of land at the far side of the harbour, he had seen the tall tapering masts of two men-of-war, moving rapidly, and two murky streaks of smoke. This looked like business.
In an hour two great cruisers rounded the far point, and the boys welcomed them warmly as a sort of guarantee that there would be no humbug about this embarkation. Again came the animated scene as they shipped their horses, again a last night to roam streets, which echoed with mirth far into the night, and again the crowded piers aflutter with handkerchiefs, drawing away in the distance. The Tahiti passed close astern of the two cruisers, the Japanese Ibuki and the British Minotaur, and cheered their crews lustily as they came abeam. The whole fleet anchored in the stream. All night long the Morse lamps winked at the mastheads, the ships' lights twinkled on the water in long twisting lines, and the great glow of a million lamps of the city lit with fire the waters of the harbour, and the huge hills stood out black against the sky.
A day of squalls followed, and dragged slowly by. Why were the anchors not weighed? Pessimists said they might never leave, and all eagerly watched the warships for any signs of going to sea—an increasing volume of smoke from the funnels, activity on the bridge or more than an ordinary display of signal flags. But there was nothing to bring lasting satisfaction and the grey day ended with a colourless sunset. Towards midnight a tender bumped alongside, men shouted in the dark and packages were dropped with thuds upon the deck above.
SORROWS AND JOYS IN A TROOPSHIP
Mac dragged himself regretfully out of his bunk when a mournful "reveille" had finished echoing along the decks, and went above to see what might be doing. They were off, or, at least, they soon would be. Already the cruisers were coming steadily down the harbour, some transports had weighed, and were awkwardly pulling their heads round to seaward, others sent clouds of steam rumbling in a deafening roar from their safety-valves. The cruisers passed, and each transport followed in her appointed place.
Everyone neglected the work of the moment in that hour of putting to sea, and Mac, perched high on the roof of the wireless cabin, watched it with as much pride and rapture as might an emperor reviewing the grandest of fleets. In single line-ahead, the fourteen great grey ships, their smoke trailing away over the port quarter before a fresh wind, passed down the wild rocky gap of the entrance. The grey seas rolled in a long swell, grey, flying clouds hid the eastern mountain tops. The passengers of an in-bound steamer had hurried on deck, clad lightly against the chill wind, sent a faint cheer to each passing ship.
Hundreds of people waved vigorously from the western shore, having come far to see the last of the adventurers, and the garrisons of the forts looked like silhouetted maniacs above the fortress mounds. They, too, faded in the distance, and at length the reefs with their white surge, and Pencarrow Light high on the cliffs above the poor rusty remnants of a wreck, were far astern. The leading vessels had lifted their bows westward through the Strait, and each following ship was in turn changing course. At sea at last, Mac left his perch, and departed below to his work, a shower-bath and breakfast.
Later in the morning the weather cleared, the cliffs, the hills and the snowy mountains were glorious in the sunshine, and the troops basked at full length on deck while distant points took form far ahead, came on the beam and passed astern. Once through the Strait, the fleet took up its regular formation, the ten transports in two lines of five, with the two large cruisers ahead and the two small ones astern. Late at night, the Farewell Light passed into the blackness, and when dawn broke again, grey, chill and wet, no land was visible behind the reeling stern.
For five or six days—Mac lost count—the transports rolled and creaked and swayed up the grey, lumpy swell, lurched over the crests and plunged away down into the troughs. The spray lifted over the bows and swept along the decks, the wind howled dismally through the rigging, and the ship was wet and comfortless. All was grey—the ships, the sky, the sea and the long trails of smoke fleeing away to leeward. Mac had found a good job on board, together with Joe of the Canterbury Squadron and Jock of his own squadron, in charge of the fodder. Both were from the sheep country and real fine fellows, though Joe had had a college education, while Jock claimed only to have been dragged up in the bush. Three times a day, about an hour before their own meals, they weighed out for the horses the rations of chaff, oats, hay, linseed and so forth, and issued them to fatigues from the troops, the service corps and the mounted machine-gunners, who came slipping and sliding along the deck in heavy gum-boots.
The second-class dining saloon of peace days had descended to becoming a fodder room for the horses, and outside its door gathered the boys clamouring for their loads, laughing and swearing and generally hindering Mac and his cobbers at their work. Everything had gone like clockwork in port, but, for the first few days at sea, these practical sons of the bush and the sheep-stations were for the moment put out of their stride. Hefty men lay huddled helplessly on their bunks and others moped about searching for the drier, warmer corners. But the horses had to be fed, though many of them, too, hung their heads in the deepest dejection. The men who were not seasick turned to with a will, and many who were went to work with bold hearts, though feeling too utterly miserable for description when down below on the stuffy, reeling horse-decks.
Mac, in the foolishness of his abandonment, had flung himself at the first spasm of seasickness on to the top of some of his bales of hay; the sweet fragrance of the hay aggravated the evil effects of the rolling, and three days passed like an interminable nightmare. Sometimes the bales and bags slid about the place with the rolling of the ship, occasionally he made weak though desperate attempts to help Joe and Jock who struggled on nobly; but eventually Mac managed to drag himself and two blankets to the top of the horse-boxes high on the boat-deck. There lay rows of men like corpses in their blankets, with pinched white faces peeping out, which smiled pathetically with the bashfulness of returning spirits.
All were on their feet again by dawn of the sixth day, and in odd moments between work peered over the side to catch a glimpse of the low dim line of the Tasmanian coast. They kept along the land for a few hours, and then, forming single line-ahead, steamed slowly up the beautiful sunny waters of the Derwent, with white curving beaches and bush-clad hills on either side. Five ships berthed at once for fresh water. In the afternoon the troops were marched through the town, and the people cheered heartily and hurried in great excitement to see them, bringing cake and fruit and beer. Some of the boys, keen on adventure, slipped quietly out of the ranks and down side streets, and in the evening other hard cases garbed themselves as stokers, walked boldly past the guard and spent the merriest of evenings in Hobart, to return, perhaps, to a term of C.B. which the holiday was well worth. The other five vessels watered in the morning, and by evening the fleet was again at sea, steaming slowly southwards in a fog towards the southern point of Tasmania. In Morse code each ship in turn mournfully wailed her number, and endeavoured to keep station in the thick pall.
For day after day they swung over the long seas which always sweep across the Australian Bight, but the troops ran about the ships as if they had never been anywhere else, and the horses stamped and whinnied unanimously when the boys stood ready to feed, and looked eagerly for more than the martinet of a Vet would allow.
The Vet was a brusque man whose job was to look after the horses and not to concern himself with the fine points of military lore, distinctions of rank, or the airs of those officers who thought themselves not made of ordinary clay. He was impatient with people who were incompetent or who hindered him in his work. So on the occasions when Captain O'Grady violated the sanctity of the fodder-room by stowing there some of his infantry equipment, the Vet would angrily demand:
"Mac! What's that blanky stuff doing there? Is that some more of O'Grady's blanky rubbish?"
"Yes. He said you said he——"
"I don't care a blank what he said. Heave his blanky stuff out of here. O'Grady and his blanky stuff can go to hell. Next time he tries to bring his rubbish in here you tell him to get to blanky blazes with it! See?"
"Righto! I'll do that."
Mac was not soaked in military etiquette, but he rather hesitated, when the Captain-Quartermaster brought some gear to stow, to instruct him to go to blanky hell with his blanky, etc., etc. However, as soon as Captain O'Grady had disappeared he and Joe shoved his gear out on the wet deck and the Quartermaster constantly finding it there decided to seek other havens.
"I'll teach that blanky infantryman to stow his blanky stuff here," rumbled the Vet with satisfaction when there were no more signs of alien goods lumbering the fodder-room.
The first burial of a member of the force took place one stormy day in the Australian Bight. He had died the night before on the Ruapehu. In the middle of the afternoon the whole fleet lay to for ten minutes, the troops standing to attention on every ship. The vessels rolled heavily to the rushing silent seas, the troops with grim faces swayed in their long lines on the careening decks. There was no colour to the scene but grey. The greyness, the vast space, the haunting notes of the "Last Post" echoing along the troopdecks, the lonely body deserted on the wide sea, left a deep impression on those light-hearted adventurers. Death! And to be buried here in a lonely ocean grave! Mac wondered how many of these 8,500 men would see New Zealand's shores again, and how many would lie in foreign lands. But such speculations did not trouble him for long. "Carry On" sounded briskly, and Mac returned to his work in the fodder-room.
Like many others of that light-hearted crew, Mac had really not embarked upon these adventures on account of the "ruthless violation of the rights of small nations," with the desire "to crush once and for all the Prussian military despotism," and so forth. Had he given the question deep thought he might possibly have welcomed these reasons as additional charms; though the fact was that he had never worried much concerning why he had come. War, bloody war, romantic, glorious war raging in the Old World, and he obeyed the irresistible desire to join in it.
The whole atmosphere of the life appealed to him, the uncertainty of the future, the unknown destination, the company of all the boys, and the free, fresh life.
More than a week passed and then one morning against the pale blue of the dawn sky showed low dim outlines of deeper blue, and towards midday the fleet entered the wide waters of King George's Sound and cast anchor with the Tahiti nearest the sea. On the upper reaches of the Sound lay a great fleet of thirty or forty large vessels—the Australian fleet. Mac had not previously known that they were to fall in with them here. For four days they lay at anchor swinging to the tide, in the entrance, lonely and unvisited, while the eager, bare-footed, bare-legged and bare-chested men gazed longingly at the distant port and tried to persuade themselves that the vessel must go up there for coal and water. Several times the life-boat crews lowered the boats and raced clumsily with each other; and once the troops polished and cleaned all the morning for an inspection by the G.O.C. which never came off. Otherwise they drilled at odd times, groomed, fed and exercised the horses and basked in the sun. Rumours were unusually active, and the question of destination was fiercely argued—South-West Africa, India for garrison duty, or France by the Cape or Suez. The course the fleet set after leaving the Sound would partly decide the question.
The first daylight of Sunday, November 1st—a dawn of rare perfection, with the spacious Sound unruffled by any stray breeze, the wide blue heaven unbroken by any cloud—saw that purposeful activity among the ships which immediately precedes putting to sea. Smoke drifted upwards from many funnels, some ships were busy clearing their anchors, while others manoeuvred out of tight corners. First came the men-o'-war, sweeping majestically past the Tahiti and out to sea. Then, in single-line-ahead, followed the transports in grand procession past the Tahiti's bows, whose troops stood on the topmost perches to miss nothing of the glorious review. Everywhere to the upperworks of each passing vessel clung the Australians. As each vessel came abreast, wild, enraptured cheering broke out, and, with all the power of healthy lungs, with enthusiasm unreserved, with cooees and hakas and scrappy messages semaphored by the arms, the Australians and New Zealanders met in a deep friendship which was to last through years of campaigning and privation.
LAZY SHIPBOARD LIFE
The Tahiti fell in astern of the long line whose foremost ships were almost hull down, and left the Sound empty and deserted. When all were at sea, they took station, the thirty Australian ships in three lines ahead, with the ten New Zealand transports in two lines astern, their leading ships stationed between the three rearmost vessels of the Australian line. The men-o'-war took up positions far ahead on the horizon and on the flanks. Towards evening a nor'-west course was set, which the troops generally accepted as sufficient evidence that Colombo would be the next port of call.
For some days the fleet swung heavily to a considerable swell from the west; and Mac watched, from the boat deck, the long line of careering masts ahead, sliding about like so many drunken matches, spray flying from the bows, and the foaming wake seething from the labouring screws of the ship ahead. It amused him to cast his eyes aft along the boat deck, the full length of which stretched two lines of horse-boxes facing outwards.
With an even keel only the noses of the horses showed beyond the stalls; but, when the vessel rolled heavily to a beam swell, their heads swung in and out like the cuckoos of cuckoo clocks. One moment, as the ship lay well over into a trough, Mac could see nothing but a long line of posts; the next, as she lifted to a sea, out shot those eighty heads. They trod backwards and forwards in regular step, and were cursed constantly by the men whose bunks were immediately below the trampling hoofs. The horses settled down to the life in a wonderful fashion, and through the splendid attention of the troops appeared not a whit the worse for the first three weeks at sea. With the increasing heat and the lack of exercise some of them were growing a little short-tempered; and men, passing along the front of a line of boxes, had to be prepared for a horse occasionally making a grab at him.
Least of all to appreciate the presence of horses in the vessels were the officers of the ships accustomed to Royal Mails and jolly passengers. They now appeared in all the immaculate glory of white ducks; and it almost gave Mac the impression that the horses had taken a special dislike to them. Either they would frequently be bitten at, or else when one of them was standing comfortably on deck smoking, a horse would give a violent sneeze behind him, and he would disappear into his cabin, muttering wrathfully as he changed into a clean suit. And the Captain himself was no more pleased when he noticed the way in which the constant trampling of the horses was wearing ugly tracks in his best teak decks.
Every morning and afternoon, when the vessels were not rolling too heavily, long strips of cocoa-nut matting were laid round the boat deck and the length of the upper deck; and the horses were led round and round for a little, though valuable, exercise. Men spread awnings from the front of the boxes, and watered them steadily from above, so that the horses might be as cool as possible. All of this was hard, hot work, to which the men stuck splendidly. Mac, however, had none of it, for, his turn in the fodder-room being over, he was sent to the bridge as a signaller. He knew little about the work, but another signaller was wanted, and he was sent to learn. It was the best of work, clean, cool and interesting. He did his watches on the bridge, looking down on everything from that exalted position, swept the fleet constantly with his glasses, and did what was told him. He peered into the log book, and closely examined the charts in spare moments when the officer of the watch was not noticing. He examined everything that was to be examined, instruments, code books and distant ships, and altogether thoroughly approved of being a signaller. Often there was work to be done, in daylight by semaphore arms, or international flag code; and at night by morse lamps, carefully shaded. Mac fumbled about and fell over himself at times before he mastered the mysteries of flag signals—the knots, the halyards and the nautical language.
"AJP tackline J," the Skipper would roar; and two of the signallers would fall over each other in a hurried attempt to get it all tied together. And something usually went wrong—the tackline missed out, two J's put on by mistake, or an M instead of a J. Once Mac failed to make fast the two ends, and one hoist of flags went trailing out over the beam. He let them down into the water, so that the weight might swing them inboard, while the other signaller struggled manfully with a hayrake to grapple them; and the Captain cursed and Mac flushed all over, knowing that every ship in the fleet was grinning at them.
Two days out from King George's Sound the fleet was joined by two more transports with Australian troops from Fremantle. A week later H.M.S. Minotaur passed down the lines between the ships, and soon after disappeared over the eastern horizon. The fleet had been sailing with carefully screened lights, and now precautions were to be doubled, no dynamos to be run, and navigation lights to be further dulled by several thicknesses of signal flags across the glass. Various small happenings left the troops with a sort of impression that there might be something in the wind. When, therefore, early one tropic morning the three remaining men-o'-war moved nervously from their stations, rolled great black-brown coils of smoke from their funnels, and nosed suspiciously out towards the western horizon, like three dogs seeking a scent, it was evident the day would not be without interest. Within a few minutes H.M.A.S. Sydney set a definite course, and with a foaming wake and a trail of heavy smoke, went off at full speed to the sou'-west. Mac went below for breakfast in the steamy saloon. Word went round that the Emden was at the bottom of the business; and men gathered in groups, talking with animation, and gazing occasionally towards the south-west. Later in the morning the Japanese cruiser went off in that direction, leaving only H.M.A.S. Melbourne with the fleet.
At about eleven the great news came; and great enthusiasm welcomed it. In the Tahiti it leaked out before it was officially announced; and the poor signallers were blamed in consequence. At any rate it was true. About ten thirty the Sydney had reported the Emden beached and blazing; and that she had gone off in pursuit of another vessel. The Maunganui had offered to take the Sydney's wounded; but she replied that there were only twelve casualties, sent her thanks, and said there was no need. That was all the troops heard of the fight for some days, though later the Empress of Russia passed on her way to pick up the many wounded from the wrecked Emden.
Then came the crossing of the Line; and in all ships Father Neptunes were busy lathering, dosing and abusing unlucky troops who tried to escape their gentle hands. Crowds of men splashed rowdily about in great sails of water. But a medical officer unfortunately lost his life over these proceedings, and a momentary sadness settled over the fleet.
The New Zealand section went ahead of the main fleet a day or two before reaching Colombo in order to proceed with coaling and watering. Early on a Sunday morning the mist-covered hills of Ceylon took form on the starboard bow; and, later on, a palm-grown shore and natives in catamarans. Then the house-tops, the breakwater and the shipping of Colombo emerged from the luxurious forest and curving shores. About the middle of the forenoon the New Zealand vessels in two lines of five were about to enter the harbour, when the Sydney and the Empress of Russia were signalled coming up astern; and the New Zealand ships lay to to give way to the men-o'-war. In deep, impressive silence, they passed down between the lines, while the bluejackets and the troops stood at rigid attention, salute after salute sounded from each ship in turn, and ensigns dipped.
Two days at Colombo passed merrily enough with forty-five shipfuls of light-hearted troops exploring that Oriental city for the first time; and at the end of it the Cingalees were left in a dazed condition. Bazaars, wineshops, native quarters and Gal Face all rang with the delighted shouts of irresponsible troops making the best of a short time; and rickshaws were raced against each other with great effect. Before many hours had passed the Staff announced their disapproval of such unmilitary conduct, and stopped leave; but the men were not overawed by the thunder of the heads, and those who could swarmed ashore from the ships, leave or no leave. At length the vessels went to the outer anchorage, at a safe distance from Oriental seductions. Next morning a tug brought from the shore a washed-out collection of adventurers, and distributed them to their ships. Under way again, the fleet steered a west-nor'-westerly course for Aden, and the men, none the worse for a little joy in Colombo, settled again to ship routine. Six German sailors from the Emden had been placed on board the Tahiti at Colombo; and from them Mac heard something of the battle—how the Sydney had surprised them when they had some boats' crews away destroying the wireless and cable stations at Cocos Islands; how the Emden had been beached and raked by the Sydney's terrible broadsides; and the sufferings of the wounded before they were taken off. Mac was interested to notice through the dome of the officers' dining saloon, which projected through the bridge deck, that a German naval officer prisoner drank the King's health along with the rest of the mess.
Several days dragged drowsily by in sweet procession.
Mac was doing the afternoon watch. Between noon and one o'clock the signallers were usually fairly busy while latitudes and longitudes were hoisted and the staff disposed of the last of the morning's work. Then peace reigned for three hours, while the fleet dozed through the hot afternoon, and Mac could see through his glasses lazy figures stretched in deck-chairs beneath shady awnings. He leaned over the starboard light, neglected his lookout, and gazed far down at the swishing water which ran the ship's length at a lazy ten knots. The fathomless blue of the midday sea, with the white marblings from the bow wave, never ceased to draw Mac's gaze. Down in its depths the red jelly-fish went sailing past, and from there, too, came the terrified flying-fish, which went winging away out to the beam, glittering in the bright sun. The rumbling of the ship's engines filled the air with a sleepy monotone; and Mac was hard put to keep awake. From his cool perch he looked down on snowy awnings stretching fore and aft, though here and there through openings he caught glimpses of mens' bare bodies as they lay sleeping on deck, and of horses' heads hanging low with half-closed eyes. The other signaller on duty was buried behind the flag-locker, probably intending that it should be thought that he was busy putting away the flags used in the last hoists, though that might have been finished a full hour ago. The officer of the watch took an occasional turn the length of the bridge, and now and then rang down to the engine-room for one more or one less revolution per minute; while the quartermaster periodically put the wheel a few spokes this way or that to keep the ship in station with the vessel ahead.
Mac had certainly drifted away to places other than the bridge of a ship in the Indian Ocean, when he was speedily brought back to the present by a vigorous poke in his ribs. He turned hurriedly; and the officer of the watch with perfect clearness conveyed to him by a jerk of his thumb, and a quizzical expression, that the flagship was making a general signal. Mac shoved up the answering pennant, roused the other drowsy signaller, and elicited the information that the New Zealand ships would anchor 1 1/2 miles S.S.E. of Ras Marshag at 17.50.
Mac looked ahead and saw the jagged blue outline of land above the horizon. Towards four o'clock the heads awoke from their siestas, and the signallers were kept busy. The forms on the decks below also commenced to stir, whistles sounded, and soon hoses and brooms were busy cleaning the horse-boxes. Half-naked men were at work with brushes and combs in the narrow spaces between the animals; and others poured cooling streams of water about their legs. Feeding time came with an excited whinnying, snorting and trampling, while the men stood along the deck in front with a long line of feed boxes. Then there was a whistle and a chorus of neighing. The men went forward and attached the boxes. Comparative silence followed, while the horses in deep content poked their muzzles down into the feed and blew showers of chaff into the air. For a time the satisfied munching went on quietly; but at length the horses which had finished first stamped their feet, and tugged at their halter chains, in attempts to get at their neighbours' feeds.
Mac finished his watch, and went below for a salt shower, and after that the evening meal, which was never much to boast about. He went up to the bridge again to investigate Aden from the best standpoint. The evening lights were colouring splendidly the rocky heights of the range above the port. The anchored fleet spread far across the bay, the Tahiti being close to the desert shore several miles from the port. It was an evening of perfect calm. The last glow faded from the topmost pinnacles, the stars came out with the brightness of the desert, Morse signals winked from the mastheads, and the mooring lights cast reflections on the calm water. For a time Mac joined a four for a rubber or so in the cool night air, and then, collecting his blankets from below, went away forward to sleep on top of the horse-boxes with nothing but stars overhead.
In the early morning, before the fresh charm of the desert dawn had fled before the tropic day, the fleet weighed anchor, and, with a great deal of signalling and manoeuvring, took steaming station again. Soon after midday Perim lay on the starboard, its desolate sands shimmering in the noon sun, shortly to disappear astern, veiled by the trailing smoke. It took the fleet five days to steam the length of the Red Sea; good days too, with cooling northerly breezes to air the stuffy horse decks, though the chill nights made the signallers shiver on watch. But, the day before they were due at Suez, the whole peaceful running of things was upset by wild rumours, and then by definite fact.
In late weeks it had been generally accepted by every one that England would be the destination of the Expeditionary Force, and they had settled comfortably to that point of view, and to the prospect of having nothing to worry them for three or four more weeks. Turkey, however, had declared war; and now, they heard, they were disembarking immediately in Egypt. The troops were undecided whether or not to be pleased. Most of them had hoped to see the Old Country and their relatives there. Mac did not care a straw, for he saw no delights in an English winter camp, and Egypt was said to be a fine interesting country. Every one set about telling wild tales of Egypt; and proceeded to walk more rapidly about the ship, collecting and putting in order shore-going clothes—so that the quiet shipboard life was at an end.
In the voyaging days of 1914 the New Zealand troops regarded their chances of actually joining in the campaign as being regrettably small. It was clear, they thought in their out-of-the-world way, that the enemy would be speedily overrun; that the New Zealand troops were only untrained, untried colonials; that they could therefore expect no more than garrison duty; and that every available Imperial soldier would be thrown into the field before the colonial troops were drawn upon. Consequently there was an uneasy feeling abroad that, should they once land in Egypt, they would be left there for the duration of the war.
The New Zealand transports, which had taken the lead, cast anchor in Suez bay just as the sun was rising over the desert; and Mac gazed appreciatively at the sweeping bay, the palms, the flat-topped houses, and the open desert, clear cut in the early light. Suez was not adapted for the disembarkation of large numbers of men and horses, and Alexandria was the only harbour with sufficient accommodation. In the early afternoon the Tahiti entered the Canal; and there were no dull moments for the next twelve hours. They were surprised to find, at frequent intervals along the Canal bank, strongly wired entrenchments occupied by Indian troops, with whom they exchanged cheers as they passed. At night a moon lit the silent desert in greater beauty; and Mac slept not a wink as the ship slid quietly past mile after mile of the queer waterway. At three in the morning, with a clatter of chains and a good deal of shouting, they moored in Port Said harbour.
Again there was a day full of interest—bartering with natives, watching the coolies coaling, cheering Australian transports as they entered the basin, and examining the mixture of shipping in the port.
Late in the same afternoon the New Zealand ships put to sea, under orders to steam individually at slow speed to meet off Alexandria at dawn. There was not a great deal of settled sleep that night, for all men were busy packing kit-bags and putting in order shore-going clothes. The days of decks, bare feet and semi-nakedness were at an end, and to-morrow would start again the life of boots and puttees, saddles and tents. Men stood in small groups along the deck, shown only by the embers of pipes and the occasional glow of a match. They watched the low line of the Egyptian shore, deep black against a sky which seemed vaster than usual and more brilliant with stars, and were exhilarated by the knowledge that they would disembark to-morrow in that queer old country. The mess room was filled for a while with a cheery, laughing crowd to hear words of warning from an old soldier concerning the joys and sorrows of Cairo and a few general instructions on life in Egypt.
The ships stood in towards the entrance to the port just as the rising sun gilded the houses and minarets of Alexandria. Soon the gangway was dropped for a pilot to come abroad, and shortly with much chattering that gentleman appeared on the bridge. The Captain gazed on the apparition with horror, and the signallers, in security behind the flag locket, were convulsed with mirth. A pale, underfed little Hebrew, not, apparently, the cleanest specimen of its race, clad in something like a dressing-gown and a pair of bath slippers, and topped off by a red tarboosh tilted well back and continuing the contour of its nose, it looked about as capable of piloting a ship as a waste-paper-basket. It chattered away cheerfully to every one on the bridge in a strange lingo, waved its hands alternately here, there and everywhere, and faced in all directions in the attitudes of ancient mural figures. It was serenely unheeding of the business in hand, of the fact that four ships, occupying the narrow fairway ahead, were slowing down, and that three others were coming rapidly up behind, promising trouble.
The skipper recovered from his astonishment.
"Which way?" he said, interrupting a friendly jabber to the third officer.
The figure raised its eyebrows, bared its rabbit teeth and, wildly waving its arms, poured a stream of unintelligible jargon in the skipper's direction.
"Shall I stop her?" yelled the skipper.
A wide, inclusive sweep of the arms was the only reply and the jabbering increased.
"To starboard—or port?" inquired the Captain, indicating each with his arm.
To both queries the figure energetically nodded assent.
The Captain flushed with anger. The figure looked crest-fallen.
Meanwhile the bows were getting dangerously near the stern of the vessel ahead, while the ship astern was overlapping the port quarter. Moles threatened destruction on either beam, and quantities of small Greek sailing vessels were in imminent danger.
The Captain seized the little fellow by the shoulder and shook him.
"Damn it, man!" he shouted. "What in hell——!"
The woebegone figure spread his hands in innocent protestation. Then the light of a bright idea suffused his countenance. He went to one side and craned over the rail, gazing first forward and then aft. He did the same on the other side. He repeated the action on both sides. Then a wild yell announced a discovery, and, following his gaze, Mac saw a launch which had appeared from behind one of the vessels ahead. Shrill shrieks from the figure at length drew its attention and a fortissimo of jabbering and arm-waving welcomed its nearer approach. A more business-like person came aboard, who took the vessel in charge, the while its late pilot muttered unhappily in the background.
The rest of the manoeuvres went smoothly enough. The only particular incident which amused Mac was watching a trio of Greek sailors tormenting a terrified Egyptian by holding him by the legs upside down over a ship's side, as if intending to drop him into the water.
It was not Mac's luck to disembark immediately on berthing, for his squadron were detailed to clean up the ship after all the men and horses had gone ashore. They stripped themselves of their shore kit, and with hoses and brooms scrubbed decks for hour after hour. In the afternoon Mac did a watch by himself on the bridge for any signals which might be sent. Few came, and it was a sad and lonely bridge deserted after what seemed years at sea. The evening brought unloading of the holds and by the light of great arc lamps stores of all sorts were piled high. It was past midnight before the winches were silent.
Before four in the morning the few remaining troops were again astir, and by daybreak were all on the quay with their equipment. The ship on which were the squadron's horses lay about two miles away, and they set out for her. Mac was very sick, probably for unwisely sampling Turkish delight sold him yesterday by an Egyptian at the ship's side. Unaccustomed boots, a cobbled street and a heavy load did not add to the pleasures of the march. They reached the other quay, and shivered for two hours in the chilly Mediterranean breeze until they were sent on board to unload stores. Hard work set Mac to rights, and the piles of oats, chaff and hay grew steadily as the forenoon advanced. They scratched up a meal in the depths of the ship, worked again, and then, in the middle of the afternoon, unshipped the horses. One by one they led them up the gangways from the holds, and then, sliding and slipping on their weak legs, down a steep gangway to the low quay. Once on firm ground, the horses threw up their heels, bucked and neighed in sheer delight. But they overestimated their strength and came sprawling to earth and soon, for lack of breath, quieted down. The squadron led its horses to a piece of waste sandy ground, removed their covers, and let them roll to their hearts' content. They were in excellent condition after so long a voyage in warm seas, and Mac was grateful to the fellows who had looked after them. His had been a pleasure voyage, but they had had no such luck. From 5 a.m. till 9 p.m. it had been groom, clean decks, feed, water and exercise; and then, more often than not, it was horse-picket for part of the night. The temperature of the horse-holes had for a long space never fallen below 110 deg. F.; and five horses had been each man's charge.
* * * * *
"Where are we going, d'you know, Bill?" asked Mac.
"Sure I don't know. Some fellers say it's Cairo. Others say it's a place called Zeitoun, and God only knows where that is. Anyhow I hope it's Cairo. Cobber of mine, who'd bin there, told me it was just a bit of all right. Said it was a reg'lar hot shop."
"No such luck, Bill," chipped in Jock. "You don't find the heads sending us anywhere decent like that. Afraid of givin' us too good a time."
"Yes. And the dear old wowser boys at home in N.Z. would get up on their hind legs an' say, 'Is it right that our dear boys should be let go free in such a dreadful city, what with the awful drink, and gamblin' and worse than that, dear brethren. No, we will petition the Minister of Defence to stop the dwedful catastrophe, to put the pubs outer bounds, an' ter never have any wet canteens in the camps. Oh, our poor innocent boys!'"
"Ha! Ha! Ha!" laughed Mac. "Anyway, it'll be a bit of a change. Wonder how long we'll be here?"
"Gawd only knows," answered Bill. "Mare looks well, Mac. Legs a bit puffed, that's all."
They wandered off in due course to water and feed. They rugged the horses, and at six o'clock entrained them, packing them tightly in the trucks. The men had a bit of a meal then themselves, bought oranges from the natives, and settled down in third-class carriages of a filthy and uncomfortable kind. Each horse truck bore a chalked date of when it had last been disinfected, but the carriages had no such reassuring legend. As darkness fell, the train started with a series of crashes, and clanked unpromisingly away into the gloom. It was a weary journey, and bitterly cold. Mac could not sleep and watched, by the silver light of the waning moon, a not displeasing vista of palm trees, crops, houses and villages which went jogging steadily by. Twice they crossed great rivers, and the whole carriage bestirred itself to see its first of what might be the Nile. Then there were many railway junctions and tall houses and a tram-car or two, and again country. At midnight the train jolted finally to a halt. They led their horses out into a sandy square surrounded by houses and palm-trees. Mac noticed that they were wandering unaware over what apparently were Nile mud bricks set out to dry in the sun. Some poor native, he thought, would curse the war next day.
The column of tired horses and tired men wandered vaguely off to find the camp, barracks or what-not which should prove to be their destination. No one knew who it was, where it was or what it was, and there was no guide. They took a turning to the right, passed a convent, took other turnings and found nothing but shuttered houses among trees peacefully asleep in the moonlight. There was no living thing, and the hollow echo of their own clatter was the only sound. They were all more or less asleep, and just wandered along, not caring a hang whether they walked or halted, or stood on their heads. In due course they passed the same old convent, which, in Mac's sleepy mind, did not seem to be quite the right thing to be doing, though he did not mind much. Eventually the column encountered a high iron railing barring its path—a great iron railing stretching for miles and inside it a camp. They found troughs and watered the horses, and picketed them along the railings. There was some one in the camp, and the squadron was told to stay by its horses till morning.
It was colder than Mac had ever felt it. A great stillness held everything, and the moon lit the sleeping camp with a clear soft light. But it was cold! After the warm tropic weeks, the keen Egyptian winter night went right to the marrow. Mac tried to bury himself in the sand by scooping a long hole, lying in it and shovelling the sand back over him. It was not a success, and there was nothing to do but pace up and down in a vain endeavour to get warm. Hours passed in a dreamy fashion until at length Mac's attention was drawn by signs of activity in the camp. He went there and found some cooks round their dixies and iron rails in the open just starting a fire. He immediately made friends, and speedily assisted the fire to become a respectable blaze. Others came from the squadron and soon the cooks were hospitably handing out mugs of tea and bread for toast. It was the camp of the Lancashire Artillery, Mac learned, who had arrived from England a month since. The sergeant-cook soon joined the great-coated circle round the fire.
"Yus," he said, with the confidence of a host to whom deference should be paid, "Yus. Hi 'eard as 'ow them Noo Zealanders wus comin', an' I says ter meself as 'ow it 'ud be another o' these 'ere lingos we'd 'av ter try an' parley. An' I think's as 'ow that don't suit us chaps zactly. But the fust of you fellers I sees this mornin' I says ter 'im like, 'Goo' mornin,' maate!' An' 'e says ter me 'Goo' mornin,' maate,' jest the same as meself! We thought as 'ow you'd talk some funny lingo, I tell yer I did. But yuse jest speak same's us, an' I wus glad."
Daylight revealed a scene as inspiring to an untravelled New Zealander as America to Columbus. Close at hand stood an oriental city of splendid architecture, the early light touching with romance its minarets and pillared galleries. Spread before him, and stretching away into the distance until lost in a soft blue mistiness, lay Cairo, its forest of minarets, its domes and its square-topped houses. Beyond, unmistakable in the blue distance, were the old familiar outlines of the great pyramids. Behind him, the great yellow desert spread away to the horizon and the rising sun, and was bordered on the other hand by a forest of palm trees, almost hiding many fine houses with shady courts and playing fountains.
The sun soon brought warmth into the troopers' frozen limbs, and they went to work watering and feeding the horses. Later in the morning they moved to the site of the camp to be, about a mile away. It was a wind-smoothed stretch of untouched desert, but speedily horse-lines and white tents broke its vastness. That night Mac, doing his turn of horse-picket while the tired camp slept, walked out a little way into the silver moonlit desert. In the utter stillness, with the cold pure air, the sands unmarked by any footstep, and the impression of unlimited space, the desert seemed a new world—a world far away from the old one.
But busy days followed, and the desert soon lost its first charm in the solid practical work of leading the horses across it on foot till they should be strong enough to be ridden again. It was hot dusty work in the midday sun, and Mac was thankful when the day came for him to hoist his lazy bones into the saddle. The camp grew, and became a place of importance with its great piles of stores, its roads and its rows of mean speedily-erected shops of Greek, Armenian and Egyptian cheapjacks. The troops quickly fell in with the life, and set out to make the most of Egypt and its pleasures. They were there until the end of April, and in those five months Mac saw most of the country one way or another, though all his journeyings are not chronicled in the pages to come. In the course of time he hated the place, and longed with the rest of the mounted men to pass to new fields and fresh adventures. But he looks back now on those Egyptian days as the jolliest days there ever were, and breathes a sigh of sorrow that they can never come again.
DAYS IN THE DESERT
Mac felt absolutely dejected, and looked it. His mare, too, appeared neither happy nor spirited. Except for some nebulous figures, indistinct in the yellow murk, little else was visible. Mac crouched scowling in the lee of the mare, who stood with drooping head and closed eyes, swaying occasionally to the violent buffetings of the desert storm, and patiently waiting for some move on the part of her master. The three squadrons and the transport had left camp independently just after dawn with instructions to bivouac together, at midday, at a certain spot known to the High Command by the enigmatical formula "No. 3. Tower, 105 deg.—Virgin's Breasts 45 deg.."
Mac, who carried the compass, had taken various bearings before the breaking of the storm, and had now halted where the Major and he considered angles, bearings, and letters indicated. There was no sign of the other units. Either they had sagaciously abandoned the expedition earlier or else they had other opinions regarding the trysting place. Anyhow, whether they were still wandering about the infernal desert or not, Mac was firmly convinced that camp was the place for him. Picking up his rein, he made in the direction of a blur he knew to be the Major, and told him so. The Major had visions of pleasant refuge in a Cairene hotel, a good dinner, and a cool bath, instead of a night trek in the desert as originally intended. So he agreed, and shrill whistling stirred to life more or less comatose troopers and horses.
Steering, nor'-nor'-west, each following close upon the next ahead, they rode in deep silence. They crossed wave after wave of sand-hills, monotonous and bewildering. The khamsin blew in hot, sandy spurts, and lulled; then came again in hotter, more shrivelling bursts "From Hell!" thought the troopers, one and all. Sand trickled down their necks, and filtered down to that place where it neither increased the comfort of their riding nor diminished the ardour of their revilings against the weather. With fiercer gusts, gravel rose and stung horse and rider, while the former stumbled frequently over unseen boulders.
In the latter half of the afternoon they struck the old railway embankment to Suez, lost it again, but soon found the edge of the irrigated land and followed it to the camp. Parched, red-eyed, headachy, and yellow with dust, they made for their lines, watered their horses, and set about making themselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed. The happiness of the trooper was not enhanced when he failed to find a misty blur representing his tent. It had chosen to give up the unequal contest and had departed down-wind. He followed, and joined the rest of the tent's company in recovering the tattered remnants, and towels, and personal property which had strayed into the domain of the next regiment.
Camp was not a healthy spot in the khamsin days, Mac decided. Coins to a piastreless cobber smoothed over a horse-picket difficulty, and he passed out of the camp by back ways. So, in the village of Helmieh, he spent the night. Gusts bellowed through the swaying date-palms overhead, and roared round the courtyard, but his bed was comfortable, and the house of his good French friends proof against the sand-laden blasts of the spring storm. He was awakened sufficiently early to allow of his appearance at roll-call next morning. It was not according to his nature to rise early from so pleasant a bed, but it was a matter of discretion.
Many days were passed in the desert, none worse and many better. Troop days were all right; squadron days were not bad; regimental days were tolerable at times; but brigade and divisional manoeuvres were inventions of the devil. On these latter occasions elusive white flags, the skeleton enemy, appeared and disappeared. Scouts reported them here, then there. The mounted men advanced in open order, all except the front line smothered in a fog of dust. Infantry toiled and sweated after them. The maligned staff viewed from afar the battle royal. Thankful men received wounds from galloping umpires, and lay down peacefully to await rescue by the attentive ambulance. Chastisements descended from great to lesser dignitaries. Why had not Colonel Macpherson managed to move his flank-guard three miles in two minutes? So a field day would pass, each rank being roundly condemned to everlasting perdition by the rank immediately below it, until the G.O.C., Egypt, and the British Empire, bore the brunt of the awful damnings. Bad-tempered and dishevelled, the troops would set off on their homeward march, the final straw being added to the annoyances of the infantry by the passage to windward of the mounted rifles. Shrouded in the dust, they levelled their final, terrible threats against those who would be home two hours before them.
Times there were, too, good times, when the troopers would trek across the Delta to the Barrage du Nil, a pleasant spot where the Nile divides into its delta streams and canals. Here they would bivouac for the night beneath shady plantations of lebbak trees in beautiful gardens. In the daytime they swam their horses in the river. A jolly form of amusement there was the blanket-tossing of intruding natives, who were rather prone to contract those things which did not belong to them; and no method of discouragement was so efficacious. The "Gyppies" were fleet of foot, but so were the troopers, and to see a lanky southerner pursuing a victim was good entertainment. Captured at length and shrieking in abject terror, they would go flying skyward from the tautened blanket. But, alas, the blankets were of Government manufacture, and occasionally, upon the victim's meteoric return, would split in two. Thus many blankets were rent in twain, and thus did many dusky ones learn that the belongings of the troopers were sacred property.
And so Egyptian days passed light-heartedly enough. That was before the serious times, before they had been involved in the real fierce thing. And now few of them ride together any longer. Many will ride no more, and others are scattered over the earth.
MAC GOES TO CAIRO
The camp lay listless in the glaring heat of high noon. Long rows of tents gleamed dazzlingly in the sun. Saddlery, horse-rugs, nose-bags and gear were untidily scattered about. Except for the sleepy figure of the horse-picket, attempting vainly to keep his lanky person within the shadow of the feed-trough, there was no one in sight. The horses needed little attention. With heads low and legs crooked, they dozed in every attitude of siesta. Within the open tents lay the human element, more or less replete after the seldom varying meal of sandy stew and bread. Most of the men slept, stretched full length upon rush matting on the shady sides of the tents. Some wore trousers, some shirts and some neither.
Stretched full length upon his back, his head supported upon his neighbour's chest, and his eyes idly following the ceaseless procession of flies round the tent pole, Mac smoked and pondered deeply: was it worth the fag to go to Cairo? Knowing full well that his last three weeks' shirts and socks awaited washing, he decidedly dutifully to remain at home, though possibly he might take the air, and probably the beer, of Heliopolis in the evening. However, his good intentions were ruthlessly upset, for at that moment the interior of his desert domicile was swiftly converted into a swirling tornado of dust and dirt. Blankets, towels and hay departed upwards, and all was turmoil. In five seconds the air was calm again, but not so the eight inhabitants of the canvas home.
Emerging from repose and a fog of grimy dust, they condemned Egypt and things Egyptian in no uncertain tones. They had washed and eaten, and had settled down comfortably for the afternoon, and why had this confounded blanky cyclone selected their blanky tent to blanky well empty itself upon! Often during the midday heat, "weary Willies," swirling spiral columns of sand 1,000 feet high, wandered in slow procession along the edge of the desert from the north-east, usually missing the camp, but sometimes crossing it, leaving a narrow trail of chaos and ill temper. Mac met the situation with admirable dignity and philosophy. This disturbance decided the Cairo question—he would go. Still muttering wrathfully, the tent's complement sought their individual towels and gravitated independently and sorrowfully towards the shower-baths.
Three-quarters of an hour later found Mac, suitably adorned, sitting on a bench at Helmeih Station having his boots and bandolier polished by four jabbering, disreputable "Gyppie" youngsters, who swore glibly the while the most lurid English oaths. Incidentally, they often terminated an exceptionally fluent flow with "Eh, Mistah Mickkenzie?" the usual mode of native address to New Zealanders after the High Commissioner's visit, which sometimes ruffled Mac's dignity, but more often amused him. His toilet was cut short by the arrival of the train, so, seizing bandolier and spurs and dropping a few coins, he jumped into a second-class compartment with but one boot clean of desert sand. Rattling through Palais de Koubbeh and Demerdache, he considered what he might do with himself now he had quitted camp. Money was not so plentiful as in those palmy days when they had set foot in this Orient land with two months' pay behind them. "Special prices," too, were quoted for these men from the south. However, it was a lot of trouble to think on such an afternoon; he would decide it later. At any rate a shave was felt to be the most overpowering necessity, though, really, the desert did make one thirsty! A shave would be the second item.
In a small inferior cafe near the Boulak Station, he discovered Jock, an artilleryman he knew, and together they satisfied their thirst; neither had formed any plan for the afternoon, so both welcomed the idea of spending it in company. They adjourned to the barber's. Shaving in Sahara sand appealed not to Mac's heart, and, failing visits to Cairo, mornings found him in an evil mood with a painful task before him.
Shaving over, and Mac's other boot cleaned, a little sight-seeing was suggested as a modest and inexpensive way of passing the afternoon. The Pyramids were stale, besides being a dickens of a distance off. The gunner voted for the Citadel, and Mac didn't mind, though he had been there once already. They made their way towards a gharry stand, and, spurning clamouring drivers from their path, comfortably seated themselves in the one which appeared to sport the best pair of Arab horses. Their feet supported upon the opposite seat, blue wisps of the best Egyptian tobacco smoke trailing over the hood behind, they set off. Scanning the Oriental life surging round them, criticizing Arab methods of dressing sheep, amused by the scribes and money-changers—dirty though prosperous-looking sharpers—and so on and so forth, they passed slowly down the long Sharia-Mahommed Ali, between the frowning walls of two great Mosques, where the cannon balls of Napoleon are still fast in the stone, and then up the sharp incline into the Citadel itself.
Leaving the Arab driver in a paroxysm of tears because he had received only one-third more than his lawful fare, Jock and Mac passed by the sentries, through the cavernous mouth of the main gate into the inner precincts of the Citadel. How powerful a fortress in days gone by it must have been, they thought, but how short lived and unavailing it would prove before modern artillery. They came to a halt before the great Mosque of Mahommed Ali, and the fine, tapering minarets met with their deepest approval. At the entrance they assumed the apologetic sandals and were taken in hand by an obtrusive dragoman, who, besides impressing them with his own importance, related with small appreciation of truth fabulous facts concerning the edifice. They duly noted his salient pronouncements, rewarded him with a few piastres and "imshi yallah'ed" in duet when he demanded more. Then, in the late afternoon sunlight, they stood on the edge of the cliff without. There they talked of many things while looking out over that weird, mysterious city, over its forests of graceful minarets, towards the green delta beyond; across the Nile to the west where the Pyramids of Gizeh stood silhouetted against the setting sun, and down into the gloom in the valley to the east, where, silent and deserted, lay the City of the Dead.
Stirred into activity once more by feelings of emptiness and thoughts of their weekly square meal, they turned their backs upon the glory of the Egyptian evening and wandered down to the depths again. They jostled their way through the throng, human and animal, which made progress difficult and the atmosphere strong. Spotting a couple of donkeys in the charge of one Arab donkey boy, they schemed with each other with a view to his undoing.
"Very gude, Noo Zealand," said the dusky one when approached. "Gib it twenty piastres for stashion."
"All right, ole sport. You'll get it at t'other end, and make your blanky bone-bags go. Savvy?"
They proceeded fairly satisfactorily at first, Ahmed only having to be occasionally reprimanded for not producing sufficient speed on the part of his donks. Then, while the Arab was in front of Mac, vainly endeavouring to persuade Jock's mount to proceed less swiftly, Mac quietly took a turning to the left. The Arab went twenty-five yards farther before he missed him. In violent excitement he tore after him and besought him to stop.
"All right, you black diamond," said Mac cheerfully, and remained standing in the street.
The Arab, his fears at rest, chased the other soldier, but as soon as the native had disappeared round the corner, Mac moved on again. The same thing happened in the case of the gunner, who halted immediately the Arab arrived. The latter wanted to lead the donkey in the direction of the trooper, but the gunner was obstinate and insisted that his was the correct way. In a frame of mind too horrible to contemplate, the Arab disappeared once more in pursuit of the trooper, only to find he had entirely evaporated. In the throes of the greatest dilemma of his life he returned, to learn that the worst had come to pass and the gunner and his donkey also were gone from his sight.
"Allah! Oh, Allah!" he wailed, and, burying his head in his long blue skirts, he dissolved into tears.
By devious ways Mac and Jock journeyed onwards, until, happy and laughing at having for once done a nigger in the eye, they rejoined at the Obelisk Restaurant, where they turned their borrowed steeds adrift. Coming weekly as it did, dinner in Cairo was an affair of some length, and, between shandies and cigarettes, it was already late when it was mafeesh. They strolled along the streets and were about to drop into the Cafe Egyptien, when they espied a fellow-countryman struggling with a donkey. They went to his assistance, to discover that the donk-man was, quite unnecessarily, attempting to stop a bottle of beer being poured down the donk's throat. This promised sport, so Jock quickly procured four more bottles of cheap beer and they joined the third soldier in his estimable effort. Abdul had secured an assistant against this vile outrage to his animal, but he was temporarily put out of action by having the reins made fast round his lower extremities.