A Little Nearer

In Egypt the 5th Royal Scots trained for nine days, and then left in three portions for the next stage.

In war – time the British soldier is well shepherded. All that can be done for his comfort and convenience is done, and done cordially. The officer must fend for himself a dozen times a day, which is all as it should be. I had very much to fend for myself when I reached the quay the day we left Alexandria. Finding our particular boat (her identification disc was not conspicuous) was rather a hunt-the-thimble sort of business in the crowded harbour mêlée. But at last I found it.

Seeing no signs of life on deck, I left my men ‘at ease, on the quay, and boarded (or bearded) the vessel alone. Roaming the deck, I discovered an individual in shirt-sleeves looking down upon me from a dark and perilous perch. Àt least, it appeared perilous to me. I inquired for the master (I believe that is the correct term for the skipper of such craft, but I usually said ‘captain’ – it came more naturally). He of the shirt-sleeves said that he was the master, and added, ‘Come along up the ladder’. I went up the ladder. Before my foot was off the top rung the master threw at my head, ‘Will you have a whisky-and -soda? ‘ From that moment I called the coatless one a gentleman. And so, indeed, he proved – a real treasure of the deep. There are many such afloat under the Union- Jack, and some of them in queer-looking boats.

Captain King was a charming chap. He made light of all war’s troubles, and of its perils nothing at all. Like most sailors, he had an unshakable faith in premonitions and in foresigns. He knew that he was predestined to die at home, on his bed, in the most orderly and orthodox manner. And this was quite a comfort, as there were rumours, and more than rumours, of enemy submarines in near waters.

While I drank my whisky the master stood and shook his head at me. ‘Have another! Oh yes, but do, for you ‘ve no business here – so drink to it. You ‘ve no right to arrive so soon. I’ve had no instructions to take you on, or about you at all’.  I produced my instructions,’ and, seeing that we were otherwise houseless and homeless, he consented to accept them in lieu of his own, and the men were allowed on board. That skipper was one of the very best. The steward was also a good sort, and almost before the last man was up and over the gang-plank, he had an excellent meal served out for them – piping hot, well cooked, abundant, and clean. It wasn’t a liner, this second ship of ours, but it was a most ‘comfy boat’, more home-like than I could have believed that a boat could be, and we settled down, grateful and glad.

In the morning an ammunition column of R.F.A. arrived, and I divided my detachment into fatigue-parties to help in loading. Forage and stores began to arrive also, and we were more than comfortably busy.

Next day the divisional ammunition column commander came with a few of his men and no end of munitions. My detachment consisted of about one hundred men of ‘all sorts’ – artists, students, clerks, tradesmen, skilled business men, &c., from Scotland. It was splendid to see how, without exception, they adapted themselves to these hard and bustling circumstances. Nothing seemed too stiff or` too dirty.

The derricks were the stumbling block in the proceedings. But I had a lance-corporal who had been a marine, and, as ‘Ubique’ is the marines’ motto, he took charge of derrick fatigues with a will and a rush. Under him the men played with that heavy ammunition – the heavier it was, the harder they played. They used to fling shell ammunition about in a way that would, I should think, have given a munition-factory foreman cerebrospinal meningitis. Yet nothing happened. The ‘stores’ they treated with more respect. If I remember rightly, one box of biscuits slipped to a salt and watery grave in the harbour. But not a drop of the rum ration was spilled or mislaid ; the very greatest care was taken of the rum ration. Our transport and officers’ chargers had come, so far, from England in other boats than I ours.

They linked up,with us now. As I  stood leaning on the rail, watching the loading and taking long last looks at Egypt, who should come walking down the quay but my own dainty dancer – the brute – led by his groom! I refused to recognise or claim the beast, but told the groom to let me know when the horrid quadruped was going to be slung on board. I wished to stand by and jeer at him. On my first day in the glory of O.C. Company, he had made me the laughing-stock of a regiment. I would curse him and gibe at him before the tombs of all the Ptolemies, in the very presence of the Sphinx, witnessed by as much of the British Army as was assembled together there on the Alexandrian quay. I did think of bribing the derrick Tommy to drop him hard, but it didn’t seem quite sporting to treat him so, for was not he, as well as I, faring forth, perhaps to die : and in the same great cause, for the same Greater Britain? As a matter of fact he came aboard gracefully, and got safely into his stall in the hold.

It was great fun watching the mules being shipped. You might have thought some had lived their lives in slings. Others had a rooted aversion to them. The saying as stubborn as a mule is a true saying. But I was convinced that some of these were proud, rather than stubborn. Some held up their head and looked truly martial. Some cocked an ear and held their head sideways, for all the world like a terrier pup. Some were jaunty ; some wept aloud. Some waved a humorous leg and some an angry one.  Some took it stoically, some all in good part, some in the worst possible spirit and taste. They lacked esprit de corps, those army mules en route to Gallipoli. They had no uniform standard of conduct or of carriage.

It was a ’top-hole’ voyage. We were a merry mess of eight officers, four of whom were Regulars. The O.C. troops was a gunner. The adjutant, Lieutenant W. D. Hislop, a clever artist, was one of my subalterns. Though our boat was a ‘tramp’ (I apologise to the captain, if ever he reads this and recognises his ship), personally I enjoyed the voyage much better than I had that on the liner. The men also were very much more comfortable. They had sports every day and singsongs every night, and were as jolly and contented a lot as you could wish to see.

On the forenoon we were sailing a mail arrived. Home letters! This was just the one thing needed to enhance our already very high spirits. I know how eagerly letters from the front are coveted and read and kept at home. But I think that home letters are even more to us at the front. How much they are their writers can scarcely suspect. There is no telling it. 

Just before we cast off, one of my men came to me, anxious and hurried, with a War Office letter requesting him to report at Nigg, Rossshire, Scotland, he having been given a commission. The letter had just missed him before his going overseas, and had been chasing him ever since. There was little time to think it over and decide what should be done. I suppose, technically, he ought to have left us then and there, and found his way back to Scotland. But he begged to stay with the company, now so near the fighting line, I agreed, and promised to lay the little tangle before the C.O. when we linked up again with the regiment. I fancied the C.O. would attach him as an officer, pending Whitehall instructions as to his disposal. And to take him with us seemed the sane, as well as the kind, thing to do, as, should he go back to Scotland, by the time he got there he almost certainly would find that his regiment was in some other and far-distant theatre of war, and would have to spend the rest of the war chasing it about the globe – chasing always, but never quite catching up. ‘I came out to see this show, and I want to see it first at any rate’, he pleaded, far keener to get into the fight than to take up his commission. Before instructions about him reached us he was wounded and sent back to hospital at Alexandria. Through an error he was reported in the casualty list as killed, and read of his own death in papers sent to Egypt to him from home. A number of soldiers do that. When this one was well again he came back to the peninsula as an officer, and there, alas fell gallantly leading his men.

We sailed in the early forenoon, escorted (as we were all the way) by T.B.D.’s, for submarines were all about us on the voyage. A second transport started at the same time with another of our detachments. This was a much faster boat than ours, and soon left us behind and out of sight. But the race is not always to the swift, especially in war, and we reached Gallipoli before she did! For two days the men had a nice, lazy time. With the exception of just enough physical exercise to keep them in training, we gave them no work, as they had been working more than hard for some time now. The better the soldier, the wiser and the more necessary it is to let (or, if need be, make) him rest now and then. Like every other fine instrument, he loses his edge and his power if not laid on a shelf to rest from time to time. All that our men had to do now most of the time was to watch the gunners at stables and exercising their horses. It is wonderful how you can exercise a horse on board ship, and well worth seeing. Watching it one day, I thought of my own animal, and, relenting, went down to the hold to see it. I took a pocketful of lump-sugar with me. But it would have none of me, nor a lump of my offering. A pretty, friendly mare in the next stall got the benefit of my dancer’s evil temper. I know that beast hated me. I never saw it again – nor wished to.

Our third day out, at one in the morning, of all unkind hours, I was rudely waked by a voice shouting through a megaphone, ‘What ship is this?: I immediately pictured a fleet of enemy submarines, and thought grimly of all the ammunition in the hold, and what a rotten end it might be to our Mediterranean errand. I climbed out of my berth and took a look through my port-hole. I saw one of our own destroyers. It was a comforting sight. It lay very close to us – so close that seemed as if I might almost touch it. I heard the commander give an order to change our course several degrees, and then I curled again to complete my interrupted repose. was very sleepy – one usually is at sea – and at that ungodly hour was not particularly interested to know why we were changing our course.

We had an event on board ship the next morning, an addition to the strength of the ship’s company arriving in the shape of a foal. The mother lived all right, but the little raw recruit stayed but a day. It was a pretty beastie, and every one of us was sorry when it died.

A little later, when we had almost reached our destination – Mudros Bay, as we all knew now (though to quite a few of us that didn’t mean as much as it might have done) – we spied a ship on the horizon. She turned out to be the faster transport, which, with one of our detachments aboard, had left Alexandria when we did. We beat her by a short head going into the bay, much to our delight. We Cheered. There are no greater children than British soldiers on active service – between the volleys – except British soldiers afloat. The changing of our course to avoid submarines had saved us a great many miles. Our old craft sailed into Mudros Bay as slowly and as leisurely as she had sailed away from Egypt. But still we cheered and cheered and cheered, officers as well as men. We were all boys together on many of those taut, grim, early days.

We dropped anchor in the outer harbour.

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