The TS Louch Memoirs Continued – Part 1, Chapter 2
December 1914 – The 11th Battalion has just arrived in Egypt and making their way to Mena Camp in the shadow of the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
Chapter 2 1915 – Mena Camp – Training in Egypt – Lemnos
Corporal Louch takes up his story:
GHQ Egypt had had little warning of our arrival, and were under the impression that we would be bringing our camp equipment with us, so had made practically no arrangements for our reception.
On 10th December I wrote:
“We arrived here on Monday night after coming from Alexandria by train. For five hours we travelled along the Nile Delta… a wonderful place… every square yard is under cultivation. The places the Arabs live in beggar description: a few mud huts without windows or chimneys, no gardens or flowers, everything is absolutely squalid. The whole time we were passing Arabs on camels, donkeys, mules, horses – anything they could ride.
We arrived at Cairo at 6.30 p.m., but it was quite dark. We were given a cup of cocoa and some bread and cheese, and then we hung about outside the railway station till 9 o’clock. We then got on to tram cars and came out here – an hour’s ride.
After finding our place – no easy matter in a camp of 20,000 – we got to bed by moonlight. We have no tents, and sleep out in the open, though tonight Vic Cargeeg and I have built a humpy out of three blankets and some sticks, and I am writing this in here by the light of a candle.
The camp is right at the foot of the Pyramids. I haven’t been up them yet, but hope to do so soon.
Sand is everywhere – no vegetation at all.”
For the first few days we did little but march out into the desert, collect large white stones, and bring them back to mark the boundaries of the Brigade and Battalion lines. We got very bored with this; but it was probably the best sort of activity to get us fit after being cooped up for weeks on the troopship. On 20th December I wrote:
“To-day is the day of days and Cairo, at least outwardly, is en fete for at noon the British Protectorate was publicly proclaimed, and the new Sultan acknowledged. It happened to be my day for leave: but nearly every place is closed, and I could only walk about and look at the decorations. I had a talk with the interpreter (there is one to each Battalion) and he told me that he thought the British rule would be unpopular, but that our arrival had altogether over-awed the malcontents. One of our regiments came into town in case there should be any disturbance, but everything passed off quietly. I can’t tell you how much I am longing for letters; here it is seven weeks since we left Fremantle, and I haven’t had so much as a line from Australia. We have started training, and are out in the desert all day. The heat is awful and the sand very trying: but we manage to endure it somehow. The nights are frightfully cold, and the dew is like heavy rain. At first we slept out, but there were so many down with colds that they have now managed to scrape up a few tents.
On Wednesday last another chap and I (Puckle) had a guide and did the Pyramids and Sphinx thoroughly. We visited the tomb in the third Pyramid, which is some 80 feet underground and you have to crawl down a narrow passage on your hands and knees. You get down inside and then you have to pay a piastre for a candle to enable you to see your way; then when you get into the tomb of King Mycron (or some such name as that) you pay another five piastres (about 1/-d.) for the guide to light some magnesium wire, so that you can see the beautiful roof. Then you pay a boy one piastre to mind your boots which you have been obliged to discard, and finally another boy ½ piastre to pour water over your hands to wash them. We then went to the temple of the Sphinx – there is much to see. There are a lot of Lancashire Territorials here, and they do look a diminutive lot beside our fellows, but we got on very well with them – much better than we do amongst ourselves, for there is a lot of interstate jealousy.”
What really staggered us about the Tommies was their vocabulary, or lack of it. One four-letter word with variants provided verbs, nouns and adjectives – the staple of their conversation. The men in my section were not particularly strait-laced, but only swore in a mild way when exasperated. Our officers did not arrange any celebration for Christmas Day; but half the Battalion was given Cairo leave.
“Xmas Day was not very thrilling as far as I was concerned. After Church Parade all my pals got leave and went into Cairo; but my name was not on the leave list and I was obliged to stay in camp. After dinner, which consisted of tinned pineapple and bread and butter, I scraped up enough energy to do my week’s washing… Yesterday I climbed to the top of the highest Pyramid (Cheops). The view is magnificent, but the climb, both up and down, is rather tedious.”
Training in Egypt
At the New Year our Battalion was re-organised to bring the War Establishment into line with that of the British Army. Hitherto there had been eight companies, each with a company commander, two half-company commanders, a Colour Sergeant, and four sections. Under the new establishment there were four companies, each with a company commander, a second in command, four subaltern platoon commanders, a CSM, a CQSM, four platoon sergeants and sixteen section commanders, some of whom were sergeants and some corporals. G and H companies were amalgamated, Major Denton became company commander and Croly second in command. My section, No. 16, was part of No. 16 platoon; and we still marched in rear of the Battalion. But from now on I had as companions on the march Croly, and the pack mule laden with two boxes of s.a.a. The mule suffered from Halitosis and Hay Fever and constantly sneezed over us, which brought forth highly coloured tit-bits from Croly’s repertoire.
Route marching was no longer the dull business it had been. We had no band, but there was a lot of singing on the march: each section taking it in turns to provide the music. The leit-motif of our section was the chorus from ‘Cock Robin’ – “All the birds of the air went a-sighing and a-sobbing when they heard of the death of poor Cock Robin, etc.” a good marching tune. Ray Clarke would have had to battle to get into a Bach choir; but his stentorian baritone carried us along many weary miles on the march. Two other sections in our platoon had their own tunes, and the fourth provided mouth organ music.
We now became aware that we belonged to the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Australian Division, which formed part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – later abbreviated to ANZAC. But to us these were little more than names. We hear of General Birdwood; but he lived in Cairo. Divisional Headquarters occupied the palatial Mena House Hotel – the swimming pool of which was our only means of bathing. It was allotted out day by day, and if we were lucky we got our turn about once in three weeks. We occasionally got a glimpse of Col. Brudenell White, the GSO 1, but General Bridges and the rest of his staff might never have existed so far as we were concerned. However we saw a lot of our Brigade Commander, Col. Sinclair MacLagan, who had served at the Boer War, and looked and was every inch a soldier. Before the war he had been Director of Drills at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, on loan from the British Army. His Staff Captain, also a British army officer on loan to Duntroon where he had been Instructor in Tactics, was Capt A.M. Ross. The Brigade Major, C.H. Brand, a regular Australian officer – a bit of an old woman and a martinet – was mainly interested in spit-and-polish and administration work; so they changed their duties round; Brand did the Staff Captain’s work, and Ross that of the Brigade Major.
The other Battalions in the 3rd Brigade were the 9th from Queensland, the 10th from South Australia, and the 12th containing men from Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. Australian soldiers are very clannish, and we had little to do with the other Battalions which we rarely saw except at Brigade Church parades. But we kept in touch with our personal friends in A company of the 10th whose tent lines adjoined ours. Major Brand had a passion for tent inspections, and woe betide the tent that could not produce its wash bowl, bucket, hurricane lamp, and tent mallet. Bt pinching was rife, and a tent rarely had all that it should have had, unless it had recently made up its complement at someone else’s expense. The 10th and 11th never had tent inspections at the same time: so in case of need we got a temporary loan of any equipment of which we were short from our South Australian friends, and if they were short they borrowed from us – a satisfactory working arrangement.
Our 11th Bn officers were mostly from the Militia or the Senior Cadets; some had been Area officers and other school teachers. Two had been at the Boer War, but few, if any, had ever served in the ranks. Not all were popular at that time, and anyone who had given particular cause for dislike might find himself ‘mentioned’ in the early morning despatches. Newsboys arrived with the daily paper at reveille, and for a piastre or two they could be induced and tutored to go up and down the lnes calling “Egyptian Tim-ez, very good news. Major X (or as the case might be) Dead.” Sometimes the personal announcement was in terms that could hardly be repeated in a drawing room. The newsboys were excellent mimics, though they had no idea of the meaning of what they were paid to say. The officers kept very much to themselves, and did not joke or mix with the men when off duty. Croly was an exception. This was according to the book, and we were prepared to accept it. However, one day I got a surprise. I was washing a pair of socks when Capt Ross of the Brigade staff, sat down and chatted to me about Cairo, the conditions in camp, and the training programme ahead. Here, I thought, is an officer after my own heart under whom it would be a privilege to serve: and I little guess that within two years he would be my Battalion commander, and I his adjutant. After Peck, the dominant personality amongst our officers was Capt Leane. He had in his company from the Goldfields a lot of tough characters, and a few bad hats; but in his eyes all these geese were swans, and he would hear nothing against them. He was as brave as a lion, and a good man to serve under; but he was not always generous in giving due credit to people outside his company for their work alongside. The officers in the other AIF Bns were much like ours. Some of the more senior ones were unable to stand the strain of active service, or too old to learn new tricks; but the majority of the younger ones, profiting by experience and learning to look after their men, made good.
My section; No. 16, part of No. 16 platoon
My section was a mixed lot; but we got on well together. Tom Rose (25) and Ray Clarke (25) were farmers from Roelands. ‘Old Tom’ as he was known even then, and Ray were expert marksmen, and earned fame as snipers at Anzac. Ray, when in an expansive mood, would sing, or spout chunks of L’Allegro, which he had learned at school:
“But come thou Goddess fair and free,
In heaven yclept Euphrosyne etc. etc.”
Dick Clarke (21) was a younger brother of Ray, but lacked his exuberance. He and I were about the same age, and were good pals. “Bull”, W.C. Rose (21) – so called on account of his build – was a dairy farmer from Capel. He was not a near relative of Old Tom, and his friends were in another section, so we saw little of him when he was off duty. Vic Cargeeg (24) had also been farming in the South-West when the war broke out: but he really belonged to the city. His father was a wealthy Perth merchant, and they lived in a large house at Swanbourne. “Bannie”, R.G. Banfield (21) was a recent arrival in Australia. He was a bright, softly-spoken lad from the Scilly Isles, where he had grown daffodils for the London market. Bill Bevis (19) a timber worker, and Don Geddes (21) a fitter, were inseparable mates. The baby of the section was H.E.G. Barton (19) – the boy from the bush. He might have walked straight out of one of Steele Rudd’s stories. He had a number of high-sounding Christian names, but answered to “Joe”. He was born in Victoria, but had been brought up by a relative of whom he spoke as “M’uncle”. Joe rarely had any money, for as fast as he was paid he lost it at ‘Two-up’. When he first joined us we kept a fatherly eye on him to see that he did not get himself into trouble; but he did his work satisfactorily, and turned out to be no problem child. Life had not been very kind to him and we were sad when he died of wounds at Gallipoli – a Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
There were three other men. D.K. Crerar (27) a fitter, came from Canada, but was known as “Yank”. He claimed that he had been chauffeur to the Duke of Connaught, when Governor General of the Dominion. He lived ‘out’ because, though possessing no qualifications for the job he had been appointed company cook. Jack Spark (33) was born in America, but had been farming in W.A. He kept much to himself, and was something of an artist with pencil and crayon. He was inclined to get a bit testy with the younger men in the section. When he returned from embarkation leave at Blackboy Hill, he told us he had chased and bayoneted a sheep ‘in order to get the feel of it’. E.A. Bignell (36) a commercial traveller, though engaged to be married and of an age when he might well have stayed at home, enlisted from a keen sense of duty, and to him soldiering was a very serious business. I suppose the rest of us had enlisted from a sense of duty; but we also hoped to get some excitement, and possibly fun, out of it too. He was a very kindly man, and when I was down with influenza he used to get up before reveille and bring me a cup of hot coffee while I was still in bed. He and Crerar both lost their lives at the Landing.
When we got back to camp after a hot day’s work, one man would take the tent bucket to the canteen and get it filled with a shandy of beer and ginger beer, which we then shared. Otherwise we drank little, and few of us smoked. Leave was plentiful, and there was no need to over-stay it. There were no camp entertainments, so in the evenings we usually played half-penny poker in our tent, which annoyed Jack Spark, if he wanted to go to bed or write letters. Later we got mess huts with tables and forms, which eased the position. I don’t suggest that we were any better than the average, though perhaps more law-abiding, as we all had clean conduct sheets. Mena was not a good camp, but by and large we were fairly happy there.
At the New Year I, with many others, caught the prevailing influenza. We were not sufficiently ill to go to hospital, but very sick. The M.O. marked us down each day for light duty. We should have been allowed to lie down in our tents; but to Major Brand light duty meant light duty, and he goaded on the Quartermaster (Capt McLennan) to have us out picking up paper or doing odd jobs the whole time the other men were out on parade. McLennan was a good sort and knew we were not malingering; so as soon as Brand had turned his back he would let us go to our tents. But Brand would return in no time to find something else for us to do, and we would be roused out again. It was inhuman treatment, and we hated him for it, though he was only doing his duty according to his understanding of the regulations.
Sir George Reid, a comic figure in a frock coat and silk hat, came out from England to inspect us, and tried to make a speech to a parade of 10,000 men, which was quite inaudible. On 10th January I wrote:
“To-day we had our Xmas pudding, which though late was much appreciated… I think the London Daily News supplied the puddings, or at any rate collected the money for them. We had an enormous piece each, equivalent to about six slices.”
It was after this that the Australian Comforts fund was started.
We now began field training, based on the supposed lessons of the Boer War. Day after day we made frontal attacks on an imaginary enemy supposed to be occupying some bit of desert which was impossible to identify unless it was marked by flags. From afar we approached in company column until we got within the supposed range of the enemy guns, when we broke down first into platoons and then into sections. When told that we were within rifle range, we did the old business of advancing in short rushes until about one hundred yards from our objective. We then fixed bayonets and lay down, firing lustily while reinforcements came from behind to thicken the attack. Units got intermingled and we frequently found that we were told off as part of the command of some new officer who had got in amongst us.
We liked our own platoon commander, Lt Buttle, and objected to being ordered about by some officer from another company; but so it was. When there were no more reinforcements to come from behind and the mystic moment arrived, someone carried away by the lust of battle would cry ‘Charge’ and all would thereupon dash forward making offensive noises until the enemy position was overrun. That accomplished we sorted ourselves out again into our proper sections, platoons and companies, and then marched home. But before we left the scene of battle, numerous small boys would miraculously appear from nowhere to sell us “Oringes – big wun – two for a half”. They were good value for the money, as a half piastre was worth about a penny farthing. The sad part of it was that all this was no sort of preparation for the kind of warfare we were to engage in at Gallipoli, or later on in France. There was one dreadful day when we went to Tiger’s Tooth for field firing exercises. A bitterly cold wind sprang up and raised a dust storm. After sitting for hours shrouded in our great coats we made our way back to camp with visibility almost nil. Only Croly was able to do justice to the occasion. I wrote on 30th January:
“This is strange weather. One day we are shivering with cold; the next we have to hide in our tents and shut up every space to keep out the dust, and then was are gasping with the heat. Yesterday was a real scorcher, and as luck would have it it was our day for a swim. Every other time we have struck icy cold days, and it has been a quick jump in, and run for your towel; but yesterday was ideal. The swimming bath is not very big, and with 200 men in it it is worse than a crowded ballroom… The day the mail arrives is most amusing. Everyone has letters, and they read out bits aloud. Thus we got local information about the price of potatoes at Capel, the starters for the Greenbushes Handicap, and the winner of the Pingelly Cup etc. etc.”
Charlie Puckle was the cousin of some friends in England who had been kind to me when I was at school there. He and a partner had come from Melbourne and were farming at Morawa when war broke out. They could not both leave so they tossed up to see which one should go to the war, and Puckle won the toss. He and I took our Cairo leaves together, and in the time available we managed to visit most of the places of interest in that fascinating city. After doing our sight-seeing for the day we would repair to Shepheards Hotel and bath, write letters and dine there before returning to camp; later this hotel was put out of bounds to other ranks. At this time applications were called for candidates for commissions in the British Army, and after a lot of discussion and hesitation we sent in our names. We were interviewed by the Brigadier and presumably approved because a fortnight later we had to undergo a medical examination. Fortunately nothing came of it; but thinking I might need some money my father sent me fifty pounds, and I carried this in a money belt around my waist. At the end of February I wrote:
“The great news is that we are off on our travels again, though where we are going I do not know. Before you get this I daresay it will have been cabled out to you. Meanwhile I may not be able to write for a few mails. The 3rd Bde and the W.A. Artillery are going – not the rest. I think we are going to England to show Lord Kitchener what the Australians are like, as the 3rd Bde is the best of the infantry, and the W.A. battery came out best in the Artillery tests.”
On 28th February we gathered together all our belongings, and marched to the Kasr-el-Nil barracks in Cairo, where we piled our rifles in the square and sat about until it was dark.
Then we marched to the station and entrained for Alexandria. There I posted a card to say that we had embarked on S.S. Suffolk – ‘a rotten old tub, not nearly as good as the Ascanius; but no doubt we shall survive’. It was to be our home for the next eight weeks. We sailed with three other ships carrying the rest of the 3rd Bde and arrived some days later at Mudros, on the island of Lemnos. There we found a very large harbour, with a narrow entrance; a suitable assembly place for a large fleet. But when we arrived it was empty except for one or two small naval vessels.
As we now know it, the plan was that the Navy unaided would force the passage of the Dardanelles, and that we should then land and mop up the Cape Helles area where the Turkish defences were situated. There were few Turks about then, and the plan might well have succeeded if the Navy had played its part. But the forcing of the Narrows proved to be a tougher job than had been anticipated. The Turkish guns were mobile, and the ships were unable to locate them and pick up the range; and the shelling was too hot for the crews of the minesweepers to do their task. Finally, on 18th March, when three battleships were lost through running into a minefield near the Asian shore, the Naval C-in-C much against the advice of his Flag Captain Keyes, decided that the Navy could not go on alone, and would have to wait until an army had landed and destroyed the Turkish batteries guarding the Straits.
There was then of necessity a long pause while the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was assembled to carry on the war by land. But at the time we knew little or nothing of this, we just sat on our troopship waiting for orders.
Suffolk was a small ship, but the 11th Bn had all the space to itself, and we were not as crowded as we had been on Ascanius. The winds were cold and bleak, and we rarely saw the sun. On fine days we rowed ashore in the ship’s boats and went for a march; but usually by the time we were ready to go back the wind had sprung up and rowing was difficult. As each boat had to make several trips it was often dark before the last loads reached the ship. Sometimes it was so rough that it was impossible to row the heavy lifeboats, and then we had to wait on the beach in the cold until the Navy sent picket boats to tow us back. The islanders lived in a very primitive manner; their hovels lacked windows and were devoid of comfort. Pasture was scarce, and each day they took out their goats and tethered them one by one at intervals so that they could only browse within the perimeter of the ropes by which they were tethered. When we marched into the interior of the island the inhabitants gathered and watched us shyly from a distance. But later, when they had got to know us better, they would offer for sale home made cheese, and bits of wood carving. I still have a small wooden ikon, evidently copied from some Byzantine relic, which is by no means devoid of artistic merit.
For some weeks we were the only troops at Mudros, but later more and more transports arrived bringing the rest of the Australians and New Zealanders, and the 29th British Division. The harbour was filled with ships of all sizes. GHQ was on S.S. Aragon, which never moved its position; it was said by the troops to be aground on bottles. When we saw this vast armada assembling we thought that to land on the Peninsula and march to Constantinople would be just like shelling peas… But it was a long and weary wait, and I was nearly always cold and hungry; the exception was one night when I changed places with Tom Stables, who had a permanent job in the bake house. There it was hot, and I was given as much bread and butter as I could eat.
Bull Rose died of pneumonia, and on 30th March I took my section ashore to give him a military funeral. The Navy provided transport and it was a bit of a break for us; but it was my twenty-first birthday, and it seemed a pretty gloomy way of celebrating it. However, when we got back to the ship we found that an Australian mail had come in and there were no less than 30 letters and parcels for me: so it wasn’t such a bad day after all. Later we all got food parcels from home, which we shared out. All the time we were at Lemnos there was strict censorship, and we could only send postcards or very short letters. At this time we were issued with Tommy caps, and removed the ‘Australias’ from our shoulder straps, to trick the Turks; we were then issued with 11th Bn colour patches – chocolate over Saxe blue – and I sent one home in a letter.
Towards the end of April Sir Ian Hamilton visited us on the Suffolk, and told us that we would very shortly be landing on the Peninsula.
To be continued - Part1, Chapter 3 (Coming soon)
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