Read CHAPTER XI of The 28th: A Record of War Service in the Australian Imperial Force‚ 1915-19‚ Vol. I, free online book, by Herbert Brayley Collett, on ReadCentral.com.

BACK TO EGYPT.

The Battalion disembarked at 10 a.m. on the 10th January and at once boarded a train. Little of Alexandria could be seen except the sea front and the southern and eastern portions which the railway skirted in its way out between the large shallow lakes, Mariut and Abukir, into the Libyan Desert. The route lay across the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile and through the railway junctions of Tanta, Benha, and Zagazig, to Tel-el-Kebir, a station on the Sweet Water Canal some 16 miles west of Zagazig. Here there was a large military siding and signs of an extensive camp.

Leaving the train the Battalion proceeded to its camp site eastwards for some distance along a new military road. There, standing conspicuously on a little knoll, the first object to catch the eye was a bulky figure which had last been seen at Blackboy Hill and was now recognised, with ironical cheers, as belonging to the Camp Provost Corporal the terror of all newly-joined recruits.

Near the camp site was parked the Regimental Transport which, under Lieut. T. D. Graham, had for over four months been impatiently awaiting orders to rejoin its parent unit. Men, horses, and vehicles were in fine condition and showed the benefit of the hard training that had been undertaken in anticipation of an advance after the enemy had been dislodged. In the care of the Transport were Australian mails, which had been accumulating for four weeks. These were very welcome.

Judging by the appearance of the lines of the neighbouring units, tents were not plentiful. Thanks, however, to a thoughtful Quartermaster and an unsuspecting Ordnance Officer at Alexandria, the Battalion had brought with it on the train a supply sufficient to house all ranks and allow a few over for the rest of the brigade. Beyond tents and a limited water supply, drawn from a neighbouring main, none of the ordinary conveniences, such as were found at Abbasia, were available. All these had to be provided by the Battalion’s own efforts.

The greatest difficulty was encountered in connection with the kitchens, which could not be satisfactorily constructed in mere sand and gravel without other aids. To some extent relief was obtained by secretly requisitioning some of the loose railway material. When, however, some newly wrought points, which were required for an additional siding, disappeared, the railway engineers and divisional staff descended in wrath upon the battalions and compelled the broken-hearted Sergeant-Cooks to dismantle their improvised establishments. Notwithstanding this discouragement, the cooks stuck to their tasks with that faithfulness which always characterised their attitude to the remainder of their comrades. They never let the men down.

At Tel-el-Kebir had been concentrated the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions. The N.Z. and A. Division was at Moascar (near Ismailia). The 8th Infantry Brigade, which had arrived in Egypt from Australia about the middle of December, was covering a wide front on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. The three brigades of Light Horse had recovered their mounts and were stationed near Cairo.

The camp of the 1st and 2nd Divisions ran for some two or three miles along the north bank of the Wady Tumilat, through which in ancient days had flowed the waters of the Nile to an outlet in the chain of lakes, of which Timsah was the nearest. The stream bed is some two miles wide and is dotted about with small villages and extensive cultivated tracts, whose edges are sharply defined by the sand and gravel of the Arabian Desert. On the south bank are traces of a canal excavated about 600 B.C., whilst on the north bank runs the Ismailia, or Sweet Water, Canal. This is also a work commenced in ancient times, re-opened some 60 years ago and continued to Suez originally for the purpose of supplying those engaged on Lesseps’ great work.

The camp backed on to the railway line and faced towards the open desert, to the north. The 28th was on the extreme right of the infantry, but still further to the right lay the three brigades of the artillery of the 2nd Division, which had recently arrived from Australia. The neighbouring ground was historical. On it had been camped Arabi Pasha’s rebel army of 25,000 Egyptians and 5,000 Bedouins to oppose Sir Garnet Wolseley’s flank march on Cairo from Ismailia. About 1,000 yards to the east of the 28th, was a line of earthworks ditch, rampart, bastion, and redoubt which, commencing at the Sweet Water Canal, extended about due north for nearly five miles. Other and smaller works lay to the west of this line. At dawn on the 13th September, 1882, the British, 17,000 strong with 61 guns, had attacked the Egyptian Army by storming the fortifications. Within an hour the enemy was routed with heavy loss, including 58 guns, and at the small cost to the assailants of 57 killed and 412 other casualties. The following night Cairo had been entered and the submission of Arabi Pasha and his followers received.

The first necessity, after the arrival of the Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir, was to complete the refitting of the personnel where it left off at Lemnos Island. Here began in earnest the system of charging individuals for losses of Government property. Up to date, these losses had been attributed to active service conditions and considered almost inevitable. But now a kit inspection revealed a deficiency of over L1,000 worth of articles that had been delivered to members of the Battalion less than a month before. This condition of affairs could only be set down to carelessness, and as a corrective, those in authority ruled that the individual must pay. Then followed little debit entries in the Paybooks. These annoyed the owners, but had the desired effect.

The refitting was spread over many days, the greatest difficulty being experienced with hats, which were scarce, the requisite numbers not arriving until many weeks later.

The return to Egypt involved a reversion to conditions regarding rationing which were far from satisfactory. The 8-1/2d. per diem per man for groceries and extras was quite inadequate. Prices were higher and supplies more difficult to obtain. The soldiers could not be fed properly and grave trouble was threatening although all ranks were loyal and recognised that the best possible was being done to improve conditions. Eventually the Corps Commander, paying heed to the strong representations made, issued orders that the whole matter of supplies should be taken over by the Australian Army Service Corps and units provided direct with what was required. An immediate and vast improvement was the result.

The climate was found now to be very different from that of four months earlier. It closely resembled September in Western Australia, with occasional light showers of rain and nights cold enough to make at least two blankets desirable.

During the afternoon of the 15th January the 1st and 2nd Divisions were inspected by General Sir Archibald Murray, the Commander-in-Chief in Egypt. The Brigade was drawn up in a line of battalions in mass and mustered some 3,000 of all ranks. The General rode along the front of the Brigade and commented in very favourable terms on the appearance and steadiness of the Western Australians. In connection with this parade the Divisional Commander (General Legge had by now returned to duty) had been emphatic in regard to the dress of the troops. As a consequence company commanders were instructed to take especial pains to see that their men were correctly “turned out.” When the unit was assembled the C.O. also inspected them and apparently found nothing to complain of. However, when the distinguished visitor arrived at the front of the 28th, there, standing in the centre of the front rank, could be seen a soldier wearing on his head nothing less than a yellow cap comforter. After the parade was over the Divisional Commander said what he had to say to the Colonel and, in accordance with the custom of the service, the Colonel passed the good words on.

At Tel-el-Kebir camp visits were exchanged between the various W.A. units. Members of the newly-arrived 32nd Battalion also called in on their way to Cairo. Brig.-General, J. J. T. Hobbs, from the 1st Division, found time to look in on his fellow-countrymen.

Leave to visit Cairo was now granted to a percentage of all ranks. As the majority of the pay accounts were substantially in credit this privilege was made use of freely, and a very pleasant and well-earned holiday of two or three days’ duration spent in the city. Some men could not wait for their turn. They evaded the police for the time being, only to return later on, perhaps under escort, and face “Orderly room.” There they usually pleaded guilty to the charge against them convinced that in this instance the game had been worth the candle.

For some months past many complaints had been made at the front, and in Australia, in regard to the parcel post. Parcels intended for soldiers or their relatives had failed to reach their destinations. Where the leakage was occurring it was impossible to say. However, about the beginning of 1916 a change and reorganisation took place in the Army Postal Service and a tremendous improvement resulted. That this change was not viewed altogether without apprehension may be gathered from the remark attributed to some individual “Everybody but the rightful owners has now been supplied with woollen underclothing, socks, pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes for the next twelve months, as well as with cigarette holders and wristlet watches. Why should we again have to go without whilst a new lot of people are being equipped?”

Training was resumed immediately the Battalion had settled down into its new camp. The General Staff still, apparently, held the opinion that the Turk, reinforced by the German, would advance on Egypt. In consequence, exercises in defence and in desert and night operations were constantly practised. The Battalion also studied those portions of the textbooks relating to savage warfare, to movements in echelon of companies, to the formation of squares to resist hordes of barbarian cavalry, and to suitable dispositions to counter the effects of artillery fire. During the dark hours movements on astral and compass bearings were tried and met with uniform success. Once a route march to an oasis some six miles to the north-east was attempted, and the hard smooth gravel in the desert in these parts made the “going” comparatively easy. Usually the training was carried out on the scene of the battle of 1882 and the feet, or inquisitive entrenching implement, of the soldier displaced many relics of that engagement which was sometimes referred to in short talks given when resting.

On the 22nd and 30th January, the whole Battalion, under Major Davies, crossed the neighbouring canal and the Wady Tumilat and, in conjunction with the 27th Battalion, engaged in a tactical exercise in which ball ammunition was used. The enemy was represented by tiles suitably arranged in the desert to the south.

Shortly after its arrival at Tel-el-Kebir the Battalion was notified that volunteers were required for a new unit the Imperial Camel Corps which was to be formed for operations in the desert. A number of names were given in, and a few days later Lieuts. T. D. Graham, H. R. Denson, and J. F. Quilty, with a goodly party of men, took train to Abbasia to report to the I.C.C. Depot. Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant R. G. Sexty was promoted to fill the vacancy caused by Lieut. Graham’s transfer.

Inquiries in regard to reinforcements revealed that several hundred men, intended for the 28th, were in Zeitun Camp, where they were being trained on a system intended to fit them to take their place in the ranks of the parent unit. Sir Archibald Murray had promised that these should be sent to join the Battalion. On the 19th January 281 men arrived. This number included 53 sick and wounded returned to duty.

The 27th January brought the news that Colonel Paton, for his services during the Evacuation, had been rewarded with the rank of Brigadier-General. This promotion, apart from being popular, brought additional prestige to the 7th Brigade.

Notwithstanding the improved conditions of climate and surroundings, the 28th still suffered a few casualties from sickness. During the first month of the year three officers and 56 other ranks were sent to hospital. Shower baths were badly needed, and although the waters of the adjacent canal looked attractive they were reported to be infested with the bilharzia worm and bathing was forbidden.

The last day of January was spent in brigade work in close formation. This was not quite a success and, beyond traversing a considerable area of ground and raising a great deal of dust and sweat, secured little result. On the following day an exercise in the brigade in defence, and the occupation of a position by night, were more practical and interesting.

About this time it was decided, owing to the increasing number of Turks in the Sinai Peninsula, to strengthen the defences of the Suez Canal. The orders which followed directed that the 1st and 2nd Divisions should cross the waterway and establish a new line of defence in the desert on the east side. The 8th Brigade was to be relieved.

On the evening of the 3rd February, the Battalion, now 17 officers and 891 other ranks strong, climbed into a rake of trucks and was hauled down to Ismailia a journey of some 30 odd miles. Detraining at Moascar, on the west side of the town, a march of some four miles, along a first-class road, brought the 28th to the bank of the Suez Canal. A crossing was effected by means of a pontoon bridge constructed by the Engineers. As the east bank was reached, Signaller Yeldon was heard to exclaim in tones of great satisfaction, “Well, this is another bally country I can say I’ve been in.” The march continued for another mile to a camp (Staging Camp) in which the remainder of the Brigade was already assembled.

For the comparative ease and order with which this move was carried out, the Battalion was specially mentioned by the Divisional Commander. Some two months later, on the return march, General Legge held up the discipline of the 28th Battalion to the rest of the units in the Division as an example for them to follow. This is not to imply that the marches were enjoyed by anybody. No march with full equipment up ever is, and when dust and heat are added to weight and distance, there is little reason to rejoice.

The 7th Brigade was now a reserve for the 5th and 6th Brigades. A reconnaissance of the route to the front line was therefore made. A military road under construction had already run some miles out into the desert. On this were working numerous gangs of Egyptian labourers and many strings of camels. These animals in this part of the country seemed to be as numerous as cattle in Australia. Quarries had been opened at the few places near by. A pipe to carry water to the advanced positions was also being laid alongside the road at the rate of over a mile a day.

The desert is almost pure sand, and very trying for man and beast. Numerous hills, some of which are over 300 feet high, make the going difficult. The summits of these hills present a razor-like edge, and the wind keeps the sand continuously in motion in the form of a miniature cascade stretching along the whole of the crest.

The line occupied by the troops was some 12,000 yards out from the Canal. Trenches, heavily revetted with sandbags and protected by barbed wire, had been dug and were thinly manned, the main portions of the garrisons being sheltered in tents pitched in convenient hollows. Here the Australians led a dolorous existence, without even the distraction of shell fire or an adjacent enemy. Away out in front detachments mounted on camels, and an occasional aeroplane, looked for signs of a Turkish approach.

The 28th did not remain long at Staging Camp. On the 6th February it moved back to the Canal bank near the crossing point Ferry Post and took over from the 30th Battalion the duties connected with the inner defences at this part.

The defences consisted of a bridgehead system, the earthworks of which had been constructed in the spoil taken out during the excavation and dredging of the Canal. The southern flank rested on the shore of Lake Timsah, whilst the northern flank terminated on the Canal bank some two miles above Ferry Post. At this extremity of the line “A” Company was located and had, with the support of the Machine Gun Section, to garrison two posts named Bench Mark and Ridge Post. Here they led a life of comparative ease. At night time the trenches were thinly manned, and at all times a guard was maintained on a neighbouring dredge. But for the rest, bathing and fishing were the main diversions of Captain Macrae’s men. A small pontoon, left by the Turks twelve months earlier, was on charge to the post. There was also considerable interest evinced in the passing vessels feluccas and barges carrying stone and stores to Ferry Post, transports, and steamers bound for or returning from Australia. With these last news was exchanged viva voce, and passengers sometimes threw ashore tins of cigarettes, tobacco, and chocolates.

Attached to the 28th was a section of the Hongkong-Singapore Royal Garrison Artillery, manned by Sikhs, and a detachment of the Bikanir Camel Corps a force composed of the subjects of India, which had been raised and was maintained in the field by the Maharajah of that State. An additional force was the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, under Captain Bracegirdle, which had been present at Suvla Bay and marched into Ferry Post a few days after the 2nd Division arrived in the vicinity. This unit was to assist in the management of the bridge and ferry traffic.

The Battalion was accommodated partly in tents and partly in wooden rush-roofed huts. Its duties were many. Training was almost impossible. A guard had to be furnished for a large Ordnance Depot located on the west bank. Men had to be found to work the ferry on which, when the pontoon bridge was drawn back, troops and horses were hauled across the Canal. Police to regulate the traffic over the bridge and maintain a check on the passes, without which no person was allowed to cross the waterway. Then again, the natives who fished the lake were not allowed to ply their trade except with a written permit and the presence in the boat of a soldier. This escort duty was not unpopular, for the reason that nearly every man who performed it returned to camp with several pounds’ weight of excellent fish.

But the foregoing were the light duties. Others, more arduous, were attached to the handling of the hundreds of tons of supplies which were daily dumped on the wharf at Ferry Post and taken away to the forward area by horse wagons. On Gallipoli the soldier became also a navvy. At Ferry Post he was changed into a wharf labourer. Few who were there will forget the task of handling the iron water mains which had to be cleared from the barges, without the aid of cranes, and which ruined the clothing by contact with the tar with which they were covered. Then again, the adjacent dump absorbed many men, and what clothing the pipes had failed to destroy was dealt with in moving coils of barbed wire and other material equally destructive. A light railway had been commenced for the purpose of supplying the front line with its needs. Here once more the Western Australian found his services in demand and he went along to do work which the native labourers could not be trusted with. Through it all he “groused,” but he applied himself earnestly to the task in hand and seriously complained only about his spoiled clothes. One Engineer officer said he had never had men who had worked so hard and effectively.

At the Headquarters of the Battalion was established an Examining Post. Through this passed numerous secret service agents employed by Army Headquarters for the purpose of gaining information within the enemy lines. Fierce-looking ruffians some of them were, and they responded none too willingly to the few questions put to them through the Syrian interpreter a graduate of an American college at Beyrout attached to the Post.

Traffic through the Canal was dependent to some extent also upon Battalion Headquarters. As has already been mentioned in an earlier chapter, one ship had been mined. Other mines had been located, and proof existed that enemy agents, under cover of darkness, were endeavouring to block the waterway. One method utilised to counter these measures was to sweep a track along the sand of the eastern bank. By means of a horse harnessed to logs and other material this was done daily before nightfall. At dawn patrols would examine the swept area, and if tracks of man or beast crossed it at any point these would be closely followed until their origin and purport had been explained. Reports were then sent to the Adjutant, and by 8 a.m. an “all clear” message went forward to Army Headquarters, which, in turn, informed the Canal officials that traffic could proceed without risk. Should, by any chance, this report be delayed the effect at Army Headquarters was remarkable, and the life of the responsible people at Ferry Post very unenviable for the next few hours.

The Canal at Ferry Post was some 70 yards wide, and the depth believed to be something over 30 feet. Just below the ferry the water ran into Lake Timsah, which was irregular in form and measured about three miles from side to side. In this lake a few vessels were anchored, some of them being men-of-war French and British as auxiliary to the defence. On the bank opposite Ferry Post is a rocky plateau, upon which was a convent, or monastery, and some buildings used by the management of the Canal. Here, during February, Sir Archibald Murray established his headquarters.

The town of Ismailia is situated near the north-western edge of the lake, and in 1916 contained about 12,000 inhabitants, one-fourth of which were foreigners, mostly French and Italians. The Australians found the place quite attractive, taking especial delight in the gardens, some of which contained the familiar bougainvillaea in full bloom, and in the shade afforded by the fine avenues of lebboks and magnolias. The native bazaar attracted those who had money to spend on local manufactures; whilst a very fine clubhouse afforded means for rest and refreshment to those officers whom leave or duty brought across the Canal.

At varying times during the 24 hours vessels passed north and south along the waterway. Freighters, transports bringing reinforcements from Australia (including the 8th/28th), or troops to augment the army in Mesopotamia, and well known mail steamers such as the “Osterley,” all came into view and in a few minutes travelled beyond. Often news was exchanged with those on shore and sometimes occurred the mutual recognition of friends. At night time sleepers, awakened by the flash of a search light in their faces, sat up and observed the approach of the larger craft, with the assistance of powerful arc lights affixed to their bows, cautiously navigating the channels.

From the foregoing description of the life and environment of those who dwelt at Ferry Post, it may be gathered that, although their daily lot was a hard one, it was sufficiently full of incident to banish monotony. Without such incident existence would have been intolerable. Nature herself seemed to be almost somnolent in these parts, for, besides a few chameleon-like lizards, a stray jackal or hawk, and a plentiful supply of small black beetles which stood on their heads when interfered with, all other forms of life were absent. Even vegetation was reduced to a few rushes and a very occasional stunted bush.

At Tel-el-Kebir an increase in the popularity of gambling had been noted. Greater leisure and consequent opportunity probably accounted for this. At night time, when training was not in progress, numerous knots of men could be observed between the rear of the camp and the railway line gathered around two or three candles stuck in the ground. There “House” and some of the unlawful games were played with relatively high stakes. The military and regimental police broke up some of these “schools,” but this action had, apparently, no deterrent effect. After the move to Ferry Post the craze became even greater. A favourite haunt of the gamblers was on the ramparts of those parts of the defences which were not occupied by posts. There after dark some hundreds of men would assemble the illuminations spreading for half a mile down towards Lake Timsah. The authorities took action. Raids were made, plants confiscated, and some of the offenders punished. At other times the judiciously circulated rumour of an intended raid also had a desirable effect and the ramparts that night would be deserted. On the whole the spread of the evil was arrested but, as in civil communities, it was never possible to completely eradicate it.

Despite the severer conditions, the health of the Battalion was not materially affected during the month of February. There was a slight increase in the number sent to hospital the total reading one officer and 73 other ranks. Unfortunately two deaths from disease occurred, and with the loss of Company Sergt.-Major R. Wolstenholm and Private E. M. Edwards, Australia was deprived of two very promising and popular soldiers. Cerebro-spinal meningitis was reported to have broken out in Australia and, despite the precautions taken, a few cases made their appearance on the Canal. As a preventive against the threatened epidemic, the Regimental Medical Officer caused each company to parade daily and indulge in a little gargling exercise with a mouthful of Condy’s fluid.

The proximity of Army Headquarters and Corps Headquarters (at Ismailia) led to fairly frequent visits from Generals Murray, Birdwood, and Godley, and their staffs. Other visitors were Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner for Egypt, accompanied by Lady McMahon and members of the family. On one occasion the Commander-in-Chief was escorted by a number of frock-coated gentlemen, wearing tarbooshes, who constituted some of the “notables” of Egypt and had been invited to witness a display by the Air Service of the Army.