Arriving at a dock in a troop-train at 1 A.M. on a beastly night in March is not conducive to good’ temper. But the experience had its points, and to most of us the novelty more than made up for all its little disagreeablenesses. But I still think (as I have thought for years) that the calendar would be greatly improved if we were to leave the month of March out of it. It’s an unmannerly month.
Our boat was a liner. I have not often gone down to the sea in ships. Hitherto my sole experience of boats had been in crossing to or from Ireland, a brief but most justly, celebrated form of sea-voyage, a voyage of which invariably spent the first half fearing I was going to die, and the last half fearing I was not. Naturally, to me, who had known only the little packets of the Irish Channel, this sea-going liner seemed huge.
Leaving my second in command to look after the company, I went on board to see where my men should go. The big boat was cold – clammy cold – and the big boat was dark ; and its interior seemed an endless network of low, narrow passages, all crossing and recrossing each other repeatedly, and all leading nowhere. I should say that 99 per cent. of that boat’s crew were asleep, and 1 per cent. nowhere in particular. When I came to think of it calmly, the crew were in their proper place at that hour in the morning, especially as we were not expected to come on board until six. But at the time it struck me as inhospitable, and I felt alone and neglected.
At long last I unearthed – or should I say ‘undecked’? – a quartermaster, a comfortable creature who listened to me kindly, and then said that if I ‘d get my men, in single file, to a certain spot (I don’t remember what he called it – ships will never be my strong point), hammocks would be issued in precisely ten minutes. I said that I would do so. He kept his word, and I kept mine. Companies may have been moved more prettily, but few, I think, more quickly, than I moved mine, in the dark on that nasty March night, from slushy dock to slippery deck.
I Ieft my senior subaltern to superintend the actual issuing of the hammocks, and went myself to find out, if I could, what quarters had been allotted to my men. I descended, almost without mishap, sundry flights of perpendicular and spiral stairs, and again penetrated the various catacombs below.
The liner was, of course, now fitted up as a troop-ship. The five decks where cargo would be in normal times were full of long, narrow tables and forms ; and from the roofs hung a battalion of big screwed-in hooks on which hammocks were to be fastened close in taut bundles by day, and to dangle soporifically at night.
The ship suddenly became a straining, struggling, man-and-hammock-infested scrum. I had never seen anything at all like it before. I have since. But I do not care how infrequently I repeat the experience.
The entire battalion had now detrained, and other company officers were in evidence with their men behind them. Officers and men came on board. That quartermaster was perfectly impartial. He issued hammocks to all comers alike, and, as far as possible, to all at once. The great ship’s highways and byways became a seething tangle of hammock-bearing men, all going in different directions, and doing it vigorously.
A game now commenced which might be called ‘Shove and Push’. The rules of the game. were very elastic. If two men going upstairs with hammocks met two men going downstairs with hammocks, what was the rule : I don’t know what the rule was, but the result depended upon which of the groups of two suddenly became a group of four, or, in military parlance, whose ‘supports’ arrived first. During the warmer phases of the game some of the hammocks were half in their assignees’ arms, half on the floor or stairs. This added variety to the play, and gave it spicy handicap, but it was detrimental to the hammocks. One company commander at least discovered this to his cost at the end of the voyage.
I eventually found where my men were to go, but another company had mistaken their pitch, and had to evacuate first. That was quite in order, because the referee of the game had got lost, and therefore the game could not stop. Well, there is one bit of sound advice I can offer: if ever you play this game at two in the morning, never lose your temper. It is fatal.
The game gradually ceased by dint of attrition, and I discovered that I had half my company right up in the bows or forecastle. The other haÌf were practically next door (that ‘s not a nautical expression, but it will have to do). I had had no luck in the game – though lots of fun. If you had been in that forecastle our third day out, you would have enjoyed yourself, subject to being a sailor. I am not. A number of the men were not.
Having discovered my company’s quarters, and herded the men into them, it struck me that I had been working hard, and without ‘supports’. I had my men settled. But where were my subalterns ? None was to be seen. I threaded the passages . I climbed the ladders. At last I discovered two of my aides – but no sign of the other two. They were not with my second in command. So I made tracks for the official quarters. These were easy to find, and on going along the corridor I saw that the name of each officer, clearly written, had been tacked on the door of the cabin he was to occupy. That quartermaster deserves to be ‘mentioned’.
I discovered my own cabin, and then went in search of those of my subalterns. I found one with the names of the two boys I was hunting on its door. Well, probably I’d find them sometime, and in the meantime I might as well see how they were quartered, and if everything was nice and pretty for them – flowers on the dressing-table and plenty of logs on the fire. I went in. That was my moment of greatest astonishment. The cabin was occupied. Its owners were in bed, fast asleep.
Then there was trouble! It was three in the morning. My temper had been severely taxed for hours. I am quite sure those boys had never dressed so quickly before in their lives.
I went to bed. Next morning they both apologised humbly. Having had a splendid bath and an excellent breakfast, and feeling human once more, I reminded them of a certain ‘para’, in the Manual and closed the incident.
Poor boys! One has made ‘the supreme sacrifice’, and the other is out of the service, wounded in action too severely to fight again.
The next day we spent in settling down and the other regiment who were shipping with us came on board. They had one-half of the ship, and we the other. That night at dinner some one said suddenly, ‘We re off!’ and so we were. Our momentous voyage had begun.
At ten every morning we had ‘Ship’s Rounds’, a very earnest function. The captain, an absolute monarch, the two commanding officers, the adjutants, the sergeant-majors, the captain of the day, and various smaller fry went round and inspected the whole ship,barring the engine -room. It was a very minute inspection, and usually the adjutants collected a wonderful fund of information, which later on they dished up to various responsible persons, sometimes as a savoury, sometimes not.
I went round very minutely myself our first morning, going to the forecastle and inspecting my own men’s quarters before the general inspection. Ihad ten messes right in the bows, three decks down ; and I couldn’t go any farther ‘for ‘ard’ unless I went out with the anchor.
There was a sergeant who did nothing else but look after the company’s quarters. I picked him out for the job more by chance than anything else. It was a lucky leap in the dark. He was never once ‘sick’. Why he wasn’t and how he wasn’t I don’t know, for the scenes he must have witnessed beggar description.
The third day out was our test of good or bad sailorship. After Rounds we usually had ‘Physical Exercise.’ This soon after a big breakfast, at sea at least, is not always conducive to comfort. Now, in the army seasickness is not a disease, nor yet an illness. And unless you are ill you must go on parade. Fortunately for me, my mind triumphed over my body, but it was a near thing. Not always was every one else as lucky ; but then the men soon got their sea-legs, and ere long one started to enjoy himself. The other regiment had just come from India (viâ the Bay of Biscay), and were hardened.
Our third or fourth day out one of my men was found asleep while on sentry duty beside the water-tank. This was a very serious crime. He had to be brought before the C.O. for punishment. I ordered the company sergeant- major to have the prisoner at Orderly-Room in plenty of time. Having every confidence in my C.S.M., I myself ‘rolled up’ (the ship was rolling too) at the last moment. To my horror, there was neither sergeant-major, escort, nor prisoner present. I got hold of two of my men and sent them to hunt for the delinquents. They were not to be found. Orderly-Room time had passed. I went in, hardly able to keep my feet, but lurching as little as I could, and faced the adjutant. He cursed roundly, and I could say nothing, as I was the officer responsible. At that moment the sergeant-major staggered in – violently seasick. The escort and the prisoner had succumbed to the same malady, infected perhaps by the sight and other signs of his torture, and had disappeared. They were found half-an-hour later in a horrible plight. I had to put my sergeant-major under arrest. I was ordered to do so. This was his first default in over twenty years of service, and the next day he was admonished. I think he felt it. I know I did. I felt it bitterly, and felt that I was to blame. Officially there is no such thing as seasickness in the British forces. Assuredly discipline must be maintained – and should be. But the red-tape that takes no account of seasickness, one of the acutest discomforts the human body can know, seems to need cutting.
Our first stop was at Malta. Few of my men had been abroad before ; their interest was immense, and their comments were vastly original.
We left the next morning. No one knew where we were going. But every one thought he did, and I certainly heard a hundred or more places proclaimed in confidence as our destination. About two days out from Malta, Alexandria became hot favourite in the betting.
The voyage through the Mediterranean was delightful. We got to know well the officers of the other regiment aboard. I had wondered just how Regulars would regard us. These officers were charming. Most of them had had many years’ experience, and without exception they seemed eager to bestow (but never to impose) any advice and information they could on an amateur like myself. I shall always remember one thing that one of them, Major Summat, 1st Essex, said to me: ‘My boy, you are a soldier now, and are going into the real thing’. I have remembered that sentence on more occasions than one.
It soon became an open secret that it was Alexandria that we were making for, and on April 2, 1915, we arrived there.