The part which our first-class merchant steamers will probably play in the exigencies of a great war is a subject of considerable public interest. My little experience in the transport service may be regarded as a practical experiment.
In 1882, my steamer was chartered by the Indian Government for the conveyance of Indian troops to the Egyptian War, and I had the honour of carrying the 2nd Belooches, some 750 strong, from Karachi to Ismalia,
The harbour of Karachi is a very fine one, and encloses about half-a-dozen miles of smooth water. It probably never looked better or gayer than it did the morning we embarked our men and mules. Of the latter we had 280, chiefly intended for the transport of baggage. Europeans and natives in thousands were afloat early to bid us farewell. The appearance of the Belooches on the Mereweather Pier, as they stood with their arms at the order, just as the sun rose that morning, was as pretty a sight as I had ever seen. In their blue tunics and red breeches they made a grand picture.
Long before noon, every man and mule were in their places, baggage stowed away, and the officers waiting for the final inspection of the Brigadier-General. He came, and having gone the round of the ship, expressed his gratification at the smart and orderly manner in which they had embarked. Just as he was about to bid us farewell, a party of the officers of the law stepped on board, and in the Queen’s name served us with arrests for the detention of nearly half the regiment. Every one from the Brigadier-General downwards appeared nonplussed, perplexed, disappointed. The Belooches, we learned from the officers of the law, some time previous to this had been stationed at Karachi for a year or so, and considered that they had been cheated by the bazaar merchants who supplied their provisions the discovery of the alleged roguery practised upon them being made only the night before they received orders to march up country. They had not forgotten the butchers and bakers of Karachi – indeed, they appear to have been nursing their wrath against them, and looked upon the troubles in Egypt as a providential interference, whereby they could pay off old scores against their enemies. Accordingly about 300 of them asked and obtained leave the previous evening to visit the bazaar on the pretence of buying a few necessaries for their journey. Reaching the bazaar, they found their victims, all unconscious of approaching danger, sitting humbly at the receipt of custom. The Belooches made a furious attack upon them, and the bazaar became a scene of violent disorder. The result of it all was that some thirty of the bazaar merchants had to be carried to hospital, and the Belooches made off with enormous booty, amply sufficient to cover any former losses which they had unjustly sustained at the bazaar.
After a brief consultation by the Brigadier-General, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal and myself, the following resolution was formally adopted -” That the officers of justice having duly performed their duty, be informed that as the Regiment is under sailing orders for the seat of the war in Egypt, no civil process can be recognised!”
The Belooches were once more free! The band struck up “Should auld acquaintance be forgot!” (a little ironically in the circumstances) and in a few minutes we were steaming gaily down the harbour, We were nearing the pier head; the pilot had just left us, and the band was playing “My love she’s but a lassie yet” I gave the order full steam ahead . Three minutes later we were struck by a heavy beam sea, and were going right in the teeth of a furious gale. (The S.W. monsoon was at its height.) It was amusing to see the effect on the gallant warriors. Every instrument in the band seemed to choke in the middle of a note. The sweet sounds terminated abruptly, and the bandsmen, most of them afloat for the first time, lay where they fell. The English officer whose duty it was to go the round of the sentries, for several days had to report finding the guards over open hatches and powder magazines in serious default – they were discovered time after time lying behind a spar, unable to stand. In short, the 2nd Regiment of Belooches had collapsed. I must say, however, the weather was exceedingly rough, and continued so for some eight days, but there was nothing for it but to go ahead full speed across the Arabian Sea. Our cook-houses were on deck, but no fires were lit for over a week. The cooks could not be found, but I really think there was not a single request or desire for warm food all the time. A handful of dry rice and a mouthful of water sufficed for the keenest appetites amongst them. In fact the great majority of them were helplessly ill. With the advent of fine weather, however, they swarmed like bees, and the blue smoke curled once more from the neglected cooking depôts. The cooks were found, and double rations dispensed all round. The bandsmen recovered and refreshed, polished their instruments, and gave us two hours of excellent music each evening. The change was a pleasant one to all of us, and during the passage up the Red Sea we began to prepare our arms and to anticipate the glorious victories that awaited the Indian Contingent in the Egyptian desert.
After a run of twelve and a half days from Karachi, we arrived at Suez and were ordered into dock to disembark, which we set about as smartly as possible. Suez dock is a very commodious place, and is provided with every facility for dispatch. Our troops walked ashore with their accoutrements and baggage, ready for the campaign. As to the mules, they were perfectly astonished and overjoyed at the sudden change from the heated hold to the free air of the wharf, and expressed their delight by kicking out in all directions. They afforded great fun to the sailors. Jack is never happier than when among horses, mules, and donkeys, though there is nothing he knows less about than how to manage them. Next morning we received orders to re embark our troops again, and proceed with all despatch to Ismalia. We immediately carried out our instructions, and set about protecting our engine-room and other vulnerable parts of the ship with iron plates. We sailed the same day, and arrived at Ismalia the following afternoon, anchoring close inshore. After reporting our arrival at head-quarters, we were: ordered to disembark the troops, the Belooches in small steamers, and the mules, ten at a time, in a punt. The men landed all right, and could have lost no time in forming and marching to their quarters, as I dined with them under canvas that same evening. The mules, perhaps dreading another order to embark, after pawing the sand for an hour or two, made a general stampede, and were with difficulty collected by a sort of prairie hunt amongst the tents of the Guards and the Seaforth Highlanders.
One of the first Field Officers I met was General Herbert Macpherson, who was in command of the Indian Contingent. He had arrived on board the “Tenasserim” General Macpherson hailed from the same part of the country as I did. He left the Nairn Academy about the time I went to school, but the story of his having fired a small cannon in the playground and brought down a large piece of the wall, to the terror and alarm of the lieges, was often spoken of among the smaller boys, of which I was one. It was in consequence of that little incident that he left school The towne authorities took a serious view of the affair, and Herbert Macpherson was summoned to appear at the police court. His father thought it was time Herbert was’ engaged in business, and sent him to London to a merchant’s office. Learning that the 78th Highlanders had been decimated by cholera, he applied to Lord Raglan for a commission. Lord Raglan asked him if he knew what had happened to so many of the officers of that Regiment. He replied “I do, but it is my father’s old Regiment,” And Lord Raglan was só struck with the courageous but modest bearing of the young lad that he there and then gave him a commission in the 78th. I believe that in General Macpherson’s baggage at Ismalia were to be found his summons for firing the cannon on the playground and his first commission by Lord Raglan, tied together.
We both knew the same people, and it was interesting to recall old familiar names and personages. Both of us had happy memories of old General Williani Gordon, of Peninsular fame. I told him the story of how I had been appointed one of a deputation to wait on General Gordon, and ask him, for the satisfaction of the boys of the town, whether he had really shouted out in Gaelic to the Highlanders, “Shoulder to shoulder,” and plunged into the water at their head in the famous passage of the Nive. “I did, I did, but it was nothing, my boys ; you can all do greater things,” said the General, who patted me on the head, and gave me half-a-crown as the spokesman on the occasion. We spent the money on fireworks celebrating the passage of the Nive. General Macpherson appeared amused at my story, and remarked – ” But you did not fire any cannon!” “That feat,” said I, “was reserved for the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Contingent” He laughed good humouredly at the hit at his own youthful escapade.
We had some talk, in which several of the Anglo-Indian officers joined, as to the relative merits of the transport service from England and India, and Sir Herbert (as he afterwards became) appeared anxious to hear my opinion as an outsider. I said there was no comparison. All was in confusion on board the transports from England. The men were in one ship, their ammunition in another, and their stores packed away in some half-a-dozen vessels, whereas in the Indian transports each Regiment carried with it its complete outfit for field service, and could land at any point fully equipped for action at an hour’s notice. Within twenty- eight days from the order being received in India, we could have landed 10,000 good soldiers on Egyptian soil, and those that were here were peculiarly fitted by their provident habits, discipline, and adaptability to the climate for the duty on hand. “I quite agree with you,” said Sir Herbert.
What a fine sight the Highland Regiments presented as they started for the front. The other regiments were landed helter-skelter on shore, and lay under canvas or trees, but the Highlanders were kept on board ship until wanted for the front, coming ashore merely in companies for fatigue duty. Now they mustered in full force and marched proudly along to the station, the pipes playing, “The Campbell’s are Coming.” The gallant 42nd led the van, with the pioneers with axes in front. The drummer with his tiger’s skin on, as if it were mid- winter in the far north, beat his drum with great energy, as if he intended each rap for Arabi’s head. A few of the soldiers wore the blue veil and goggles, but somehow these things looked a little effeminate with the kilt, and the majority of the men seemed to think so too by not wearing them. There were several companies of cavalry along with the infantry, and General Alison and General Hamley, both one-armed men, if I mistake not, accompanied them. Each man carried two days’ rations and 100 rounds of ammunition, which with their rugs, coats, water flask, &c., seemed quite a load. But they marched as steadily and proudly as if on review at Hyde Park. The rear was brought up by the pets of the regiment – two little dogs – a poodle and a Skye terrier, led by a string.
I met Sir Garnet Wolseley frequently. He usually slept on board one of the ships, that is, when he did sleep, for he seemed ever on the move. He is the very ideal of a commanding officer – cool and calm in appearance, but active and determined, and ever on the alert to expedite matters. He has only one eye, but the glass one which serves as a substitute for the lost one appears as if it shone with preternatural intelligence and zeal. He was unstinted in his expressions of commendation of the way in which the Indian troops had been transported, and remarked that it was an object lesson to the War Office authorities at home. I have no doubt the Indian method will in future be adopted throughout the whole transport service. The nu ber of gunboats going ashore through unskilful management was a matter of unfavourable remark.
The conditions of life amidst all the bustle and excitement of landing were very trying. Not a drop of rain had fallen for a month, nor had there been any wind beyond a gentle air in the afternoon since we arrived. These little breezes would be refreshing did they not bring a tainted breath from the ghastly remains they have passed over. The sun is very strong during the day, and the sand retains the heat during the night. There had not been a single degree of difference of temperature throughout the long month ; not a cloud visible – the clear silvery sky shining over the white glaring hot sands ; there is no sound to break the death-like stillness, save the voices of those who have intruded into the desert. You see ridge after ridge of blown sand reaching to the very edge of the horizon. Occasionally it assumes the most fantastic forms. You perceive something like a broad lake, rippling like a sea, and on its bosom you see ships and steamers, castles, huge forts and armies, when suddenly, as if by enchantment, the scene changes ; the lake vanishes, the ships and steamers drop into a huge sand mound, and the men and the castles take the form of spectres and recede into the ghostly distance. It was but a mirage. It was in a scene like this that our British soldiers were encamped waiting for the morrow to begin the attack.
I applied for leave to visit the front, and had taken my seat in one of the Fresh Water Canal boats, but just as we were casting off our moorings we were recalled by an order of the same officer who granted us permission, and instructed to get up steam on board our vessels in case of a surprise. One of our number, however, had got into a steam launch, and was off before the order reached, and found himself at the front the following morning. Finding that he was a sailor and not a soldier, he was supplied with a donkey and ordered to go to the rear. The donkey took charge, and went in the opposite direction, carrying him right into Arabi’s camp. His story was that he shook hands with the sentry, and had a drink with Arabi, and started afresh for Ismalia, where he arrived two days after the battle of Tel-el- Kebir had been fought and won.
In anticipation of the result of the battle, we were: ordered to Suez, and a few days later got ready to embark natives, invalids and wounded, for Bombay, with a few prisoners for Aden. “Start at once” was the order. Fires were lighted and steam got up, and we proceeded out of dock and down the Red Sea. How different was the home-coming! The poor fellows were the saddest lot of passengers it had ever been my lot to carry. Although we had a native doctor and an apothecary on board attending them, they died and were buried in the Red Sea at the rate of half-a-dozen per day. When these natives are invalided their case is hopeless. Nothing seems to rally them. They will not, or cannot, eat or drink, and will die rather than take anything outside what their caste permits. A little wine even they will refuse, if offered them in a glass. They are faithful even unto death to their beliefs. Sickness amongst them on board ship is therefore merely a question of how long the body will withstand the disease. The heat in the Red Sea was almost unbearable, as it always is in September, and they had but a poor time of it.
On arriving at Aden, we found a change of plan. Instead of conveying these poor invalids, dropping one here and another there in the ocean, our instructions were to tranship them to a steamer bound for Bombay, and to make preparations for receiving 975 men of the 4th Madras Infantry, who had been belated on their way to the seat of war. A few extra cooking galleys was all we required, for we had been provisioned at the start for four months, as were all the transports of the Indian Contingent. A day or two at Aden sufficed to see us underweigh, and we had an exceedingly pleasant passage across the Arabian Sea. We steamed gaily into Madras Harbour on a beautiful Sunday morning, the band playing “Johnnie Comes Marching Home.” And so ended my experiences in the Egyptian Expedition.
Before leaving, the officers of the Regiment presented me with an address conveying their thanks and best wishes, and along with it a handsome clock and bronzes. Two small gold flags crossed with a wreath of laurel and oak entwined, bore the one the officers’ names and the other the terms of the address. Such tokens of goodwill are an encouragement in midst of arduous duty.
On the 8th of September of the following year, I received intimation from the Admiralty that “Her Majesty the Queen having been graciously pleased to approve of the issue of a Medal and Bronze Star to such of her Land and Sea Forces as were employed in the Egyptian Expedition,” the Lords of the Admiralty had decided to grant the Medal and Bronze Star to the masters of Transports employed in connection with the operations in Egypt in recognition of the services of these officers in carrying out the transport duties. I accordingly received the Egyptian War Medal.
Although I had not the good luck to have come into close quarters with Arabi Pasha in Egypt, I had the pleasure of shaking hands with him a few months later at the sweet little retreat at Colombo to which he had been taken after the war. He spoke English perfectly. He acknowledged that he was most comfortably provided for, but he longed for liberty and the deliverance of his country. He had a small staff of officers with him, consisting mainly of those who had risked their lives in his cause. His wives, at least a certain number of them, were also with him. He told me that he liked the English very much, but hoped some day, perhaps not far distant, to get justice at their hands. The British Government did not understand the situation. The complications had arisen entirely, he said, through questions of finance, and from his refusing to truckle to the Turk.
Sir Herbert Macpherson I never met again. When he went home, amongst other honours conferred upon him was the freedom of the Burgh of Nairn. I was invited to be present at the banquet given on the occasion, but when I informed the Provost of the town that the date fixed for Sir Herbert’s installation as a burgess was the eve of my own wedding I was readily excused. I was at Rangoon a few days after Sir Herbert Macpherson had passed through on his way to Mandalay to suppress a rising of the Burmese, from which expedition he never returned, having died of malarial fever.
Once more I found myself in the Transport Service. We were chartered to carry 650 time-expired men from Bombay to Portsmouth. The housing of the Indian native troops was a comparatively easy matter, but very considerable structural alterations had to be made before the ‘tween decks were adapted for the carrying of so large a body of British soldiers. The whole responsibility of making the alterations was thrown upon me. We got on all right and passed inspection, and what was more, had not a single complaint from any one on the passage.
We landed our men at Portsmouth in capital health and spirits. I must say the conduct of these British soldiers was most exemplary. They were ashore, a good many of them, at Malta, but neither there or during the whole voyage did one of them misbehave. Colonel de Vetrie was in command, and amongst the junior officers was Lieut. Mackintosh, a young Invernessshire laird (Mackintosh of Balnespick). The world is small, and one is always rubbing up against some countryman or other. The officer who superintended our alterations at Bombay had played cricket with me on the Links of Nairn when we were boys!
One of the pleasant incidents of a subsequent trip was a visit we had from General Gordon (afterwards of Khartoum fame) at Suez. He inspected the ship and the troops, and had lunch with us. He impressed me as a very noble fellow. Finding I had been a good deal in China in my younger days, we had a long chat about the Treaty Ports and the ways and customs of the Chinese.
The conclusion I came to from my little experience in the conveyance of troops is that, in the event of a serious war, the steamers of the mercantile marine will be of immense service to the Navy in many ways. Most of the first-class liners can easily be transformed into troop ships, They have good speed, enormous carrying capacity, are easily handled, and could be sufficiently armed for their purpose at very little cost.