CHAPTER Three. The, Early Days Abroad.
SOON afterwards the division received sudden orders to prepare for Egypt. Half the Battalion rushed off from Larkhill for a short farewell leave, while the other half marched back to Hurdcott, where leave was cancelled and everyone recalled. There was a hurricane of work and excitement, in which fever and influenza played apart. Eventually the Battalion embarked on December 21st, 1915, on board H.M.T. Nestor (Blue Funnel Line), anchored at Devonport. The Battalion was at full strength, the officers who also embarked being: Lieut-Colonel J. A. Crosthwaite, Major T . Carter Clough, V.D., Major A. Plackett, Major A. R. Hoette. Captains W. A. Colley, D. C. Allen, E. G. G. Woolhouse, R. E. J. Moore, A. N. Cousin, and W. S. Clark. Lieutenants J. L. Middleton, E. L. Moxey, C. Elam, G. H. J. Ingold, T. L. Ward, C. H. Woodhouse, H. W. Pearson, R. D. Berry, F. W. S. Storry, F. C. Earl, and S. J. Atkinson (Transport Officer). 2nd Lieutenants A. J. Beat, D. E. Grant, J. C. G. Bardsley, C. A. Jackson, R^ A. Beat, and J. C. Cowen. Captain and Adjutant N. L. Tunbridge. Hon. Lieut. and Quartermaster S. W. Maunder. Captain G. Mitchell, R.A.M.C. Captain J. F. Colquhoun, Chaplain. The departure was a memorable one, for as the ship left the dock the regimental band played "Auld Lang Syne " and other appropriate music, and there were constant salutations from the shore, right along to Plymouth Hoe. Small craft on the waters gave cheerful hoots, as everyone took a long last look at England's shores, and, with guardian destroyers on either side, the transport went to sea. Through the billowy Bay of Biscay, the Strait of Gibraltar was reached on the night of Christmas Day. The searchlight from the fortress struck the vessel like a sword. Boxing Day brought with it fair sunshine, lovely skies, and harmonious ripples of the gorgeous Mediterranean. The voyage now became most enjoyable, and with sports and concerts the troops were perfectly content. A brief stay was made at Valetta on December 29th, when the olive-coloured Maltese came in scores in their " bum " boats and youngsters dived continually for coins, dexterously catching them between their toes. Despite the vagaries of the course owing to the submarine alarms, the Nestor drew up at Alexandria on New Year's Day, 1916, and the notable port provided a splendid picture in the sunlight. In front of the magnificent buildings and mosques, with their eastern colour, were large docks which accommodated all kinds of vessels, from warships and transports to the miniature dhows of the Arabs-a great spectacle. On the quay side the men had rare fun at the expense of the jabbering natives, who fought among themselves for the odd pence thrown by the troops from the decks and who loudly lamented their treatment by the Egyptian Police, who heartily cuffed them with staves. After singing farewell to the Nestor the Battalion entrained for Port Said. It was a wearisome journey across the desert in a jolting train, and was of no interest until the dawn, when hundreds of drowsy Arabs emerged from the shelter of little square log huts built alongside the line. At Ismailia were strong bodies of troops, consisting of British, Australians, and Indians, with Camel and Cavalry Corps, anti then right along the line to Port Said were troops and camps. The palm trees and giant cacti at the various stations attracted considerable attention. Port Said was reached at 11 a.m. after a journey lasting thirteen and a half hours, and the Battalion encamped behind the town. Port Said is a remarkable town, even though it is called a sink of iniquity. Remarkable, indeed, in the contrasts of every kind. East jostles West, though East predominates. Close to the great railway stations and magnificent buildings are to be seen caravans arriving from or starting for the desert, the grave camels and the noisy locomotives being fully in keeping with the scene of contrasts. Not far away is Arab Town, a mere assemblage of " hutches," erected to the height of innumerable storeys above dark, dirty drinkingshops. All sorts of ugly rumours are associated with Arab Town; men are drugged with hasheesh in the wineshops and disappear; bodies of over-curious sightseers are discovered in "ginnels " at dawn. The stench, however, is no rumour. If a fire were to start at one end of the town the whole would be destroyed very quickly. For some unknown reason, visitors to Port Said's Arab Town always think of Sodom and Gomorrah. The natives, who hate water of any description, are rarely handsome, and when they grin the effect is wicked. They always chant when they work; possibly they are calling upon Allah, but invariably it sounds as if they are crying to "Ali, Ali, Baba "! Ten of them accomplish in two hours what one Englishman can do in one. The old water carriers, with skins on their backs, look picturesque at a distance, but close to they become repulsive. In pictures and afar off the flowing robes of the people of the East appear to be superb, but at short range the beauty disappears. One finds that these robes are made of remnants, bits of cloth, which in Britain the housekeeper turns into dusters and patchwork quilts. Men's breeches often are soldiers' pants. Arabs wrap any old thing round their heads and walk about barefooted. There are several fine buildings in the streets of the European quarter. Each street possesses numerous cafes, which boast minstrel parties from various climes. Amusing, indeed, were the attempts of these alleged musicians to render British popular airs in 1916. The manner in which an Italian girl endeavoured to sing " It's a long, long way to Tipperary " (supported by violinists) was painful and far worse than the melody churned out in the streets of England by the Italian organist on his barrel organ. Soldiers obtain good lessons in bargaining at Port Said, for they barter with Arabs for souvenirs, and usually bring the price of it fancy brooch from five shillings to one shilling. The shops, including the curiosity shops, are very costly in their goods, and the salesmen ask exceptionally high prices for spears scarabs stones, sword-sticks, and other well-known souvenirs of the East. The city is always full of gaiety and entertainment. A noteworthy figure is the Egyptian " wizard " in the long flowing robes, who smiles all the time so that you may see his beautiful teeth and calls for his whisky just like ---de Inglees." He sits at your tables and performs remarkable feats with three iron cups. You see little chickens come inside the cups and jump on to the tables, jump back, and disappear. The doubling of coins in your clasped hands is comparatively easy. One penny becomes two every time, except in real life. Port Said is indeed a strange mixture. For nearly three months the Battalion worked on the defences of the Suez Canal, owing to threats of the Turks at that time. Truly, the Canal is something more than an Egyptian waterway. It is indeed the Gateway of the East-our ready way to India, China, and Australia. Its total length is about 100 miles, and its width varies from 144 feet to 420 feet, though it passes through what are now five lakes, but what formerly were valleys or depressions. Its depth is now about 31 feet, the bottom being much narrower than the top. The desert fringes practically the whole course of the Canal. The " half-way house " is Ismailia, a really flourishing town and the headquarters of the Canal officers. In older times it was merely a small Arab village, but now it possesses fine hotels, clubs, restaurants, theatres, and so on. Every vessel in the Canal is controlled from Ismailia. The Canal has a remarkable history, and is a much older undertaking than is generally known. Rameses II., the ancient Egyptian monarch, originally constructed a waterway connecting the Nile Delta with the Red Sea. In the course of long years the waterway filled up, so that it had been forgotten, save for legend, when it was taken in hand by Darius 1. of Persia. 22 History of The Sheffield City Battalion. It is impossible to describe fully the hundred and one things concerning the Battalion's life in the East. Enough has been said of Port Said and the Canal, and rough outlines must suffice for the rest. The movements of the Battalion were: January 1, 1916-Alexandria. January 2 to 25-Port Said and Salt Works. (January 6 to 18, " D---Company at Tineh and Ras-el-Esh; January 19 to 25, " B " Company at Tineh and Ras-el-Esh). January 26 to February 20-El Ferdan. February 21 to February 22-Kantara. February 23 to February 26-Hill 80. Off Kantara. February 27 to March 7-Kantara. March 8 to March 10-Port Said. The whole period was more or less a time of training in which the Battalion put-theory into practice in the matter of building strong points in the desert, and patrol work on the banks of the Canal. The importance of the business was that the troops were ready at hand if the Turk ventured to seize the waterway. Everyone took the times very seriously, as more than one officer could testify by personal adventure, and good work was done. For instance, the Battalion received special praise for the excellent assistance it gave in laying a Decauville line out to the desert when stationed at E1 Ferdan. Each day brought its rumour, and there was a wide range of subjects, too. The Kaiser died several times, and Kut was regularly surrendered by General Townshend. Bulgaria and Austria desired peace every five minutes, while riots in Constantinople were common. The Turks were usually massing in the desert, preparatory to an advance on El Ferdan, Ballah, and Kantara, points which they touched in 1915; and the Battalion was going to sail to France practically every week, though sometimes it might have been India. In administration naturally there were irksome incidents. At first the men's rations were somewhat poor, and it took nearly all their pay to enliven the monotony of biscuits, bully beef, stew, jam, cheese, and a small portion of bread. At Tineh the men used to get up at 6 a. m. to purchase small Arab cakes from the natives-food seemed so limited. However, the seamy side was not the only side, and there were many pleasing experiences and sights. Foremost, perhaps, were the antics of the Arabs, to whom a hiding was part of the day's programme. Anything with a bade had a fatal fascination for the Arab. The older it was, the more attractive it was to him. By some means the natives discovered that the Battalion was from wonderful Sheffield, on the other side of the world, and they knew that everything in the blade line came from there. Consequently they haunted the men with awestruck adoration, and if asked what the blazes they wanted, the answer would be, " You give me ' jag-knife '; I give you good Inglees money." A marine-store dealer would make a colossal fortune in the environs of Kantara if he specialized in jaded jack knives and if he chained them to his person. The Arab is the most happy-go-lucky individual on earth. The only occasion upon which he wears a worried look is when he has been worsted in a bargain. In physique the Arab is a magnificent specimen, but he disdains toil when it is not for his immediate benefit. His bodily strength is immense, and I have seen an Arab walk on board a dhow, raise upon his shoulders a structure with sufficient space within to billet his wives and family, carry it tip a steep bank, plant it down, and start a canteen. On the other hand, a typical scene would be as follows: A gang of ten Arabs were unloading a limber. They were apparently putting forth every ounce of their strength, but the thing did not budge. The unpaid lance-corporal in charge of the party viewed the job with dismay, and the Arabs rolled their eyes and joined together in a dismal lament to Allah. At that moment a grizzled sergeant-major walked up unobserved and snarled out a sentence in Arabic. Throwing one startled glance at him, the toilers abruptly forgot Allah, and, rushing at the limber, sent it bounding over the sand like a toy. Then there were the adventures with the camel caravans. How could the Arabs prevent camels seizing trousers with their teeth when being loaded up? One of the most amusing sights in the world is to see a camel scrape its foreleg with a hind one. These caravans took stores some eight miles into the desert, where troops were preparing defensive lines. There were various ships passing through the Canal both day and night. Troopships always provided amusement by the repeated calls, "Who are yer? " On February 6th the Nestor passed, and the vessel was accorded a worthy reception. Dhows, ancient craft with faded colours and lateen sails were most picturesque. The growth of the stations on the Canal side was extraordinarily interesting. Immense stores were gradually collected, splendid roads made, and Decauville lines laid. The supply of water was one of the biggest problems. At the time in question water was brought up on barges and emptied into huge tanks on the bank side, but schemes were in progress for laying pipe-lines in various directions. In those days a man shaved and washed in a mugful of water taken from his ration of just over a pint. Happily, there were no restrictions on bathing in the beautiful Canal. The desert was by no means uninteresting, particularly from the view of the naturalist. In the morning the heavy dews provided pleasing contrasts in colours; while out among the gorse, sand, and palm trees beautiful species of creatures were to be seen. One rarely caught was the kangaroo rat, which burrows through the sands like the wild rabbit on the English common. There were locust, large black and golden beetles, ants, sand-jumpers, snakes, and sandworms (most delicately marked), and the nervous chameleon. The horrible-looking tarantulas inhabited the bulrushes on the bank of the Canal. The bleaching bones of camels gleaming in the sunshine reminded one of the historical side of the desert, and the religious students imagined the Children of Israel wandering for forty years and the Queen of Sheba journeying to King Solomon. The last week at Kantara was devoted to sport, and inter-battalion meetings with Barnsley battalions were keenly contested. Whilst here, numerous families of Armenian refugees arrived, and no one could possibly forget the abject misery of these poor folk as they struggled along with their children and goats. With the troops coming from Gallipoli and the threat from the Turks evaporating, there was no need for the division to #stay in Egypt any longer, and the 12th Battalion embarked at Port Said on March 10th on board H.M.T. Briton. Before leaving, the Battalion was thanked by the Army Commander for splendid work done on the defences of the Canal.