Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter I. — In Khaki
With the outbreak of hostilities early in August, 1914, life began to take on a very different complexion. The news from France was far from being reassuring, and our armies had received a serious set-back at Mons. Hoping that the war would be over within the first six months (as prophesied by some of our leading men), I had never experienced any desire to be in the army, and it was not until the sinking of the Lusitania, early in May, 1915, that it occurred to me that, sooner or later, everyone would be wanted.
After passing medically fit, I was soon in camp with a good chance of getting on a boat for Gallipoli. At Awapuni, we of the prospective No. 3 Field Ambulance, were fortunate in having as our officer-commanding, an experienced campaigner who appreciated the importance of his men being able to put on their own entertainment, instead of having to go out and look for it.
Lt.-Col. J. Hardie Neil was so far-sighted as to collect a number of excellent orchestral players, many of them professionals; and these, men, with two of us as stage performers, and a scenic artist, formed the nucleus of what later became our Divisional Entertainers, "The Kiwis."
Our camp concerts and Sunday afternoon garden parties, when the orchestra, the pride of page 18the unit, played on the beautiful lawn at Awa-puni Racecourse, soon attracted the interest of the good people of Palmerston North, who enthusiastically took our two companies of raw recruits very much to their hearts and homes.
The daily routine of being up early in the morning, with physical jerks and elementary drill, was quite new to, and very much appreciated by, me.
I enjoyed those months spent in camp as, I feel, did everyone else; for, after the long days in the sun, finished off generally by a sing-song in the grandstand after tea, one went to sleep in the open air, comfortably tired and, as a rule, literally bursting with health. I think it can safely be said that none of us had ever been soldiering before, and of course there were many humorous incidents before the rough corners of civilian life were rubbed off.
An early example was when the orderly officer of the day came to the men's mess-room to ask were there "Any complaints," a demand which always brought a terrific din as each man banged his iron-ware down on the bare mess tables. I'm sure everyone, including the orderly officer, was astounded to hear someone call out, "Yes, the meat ain't none too good, mate!"
But, even in the army, camaraderie could scarcely be expected to stretch so far.
A rather amusing story told against the colonel is one relating to his groom, Reg. Pearson, who was one of the "dags" of the unit. Peo, as the latter was popularly known, was anything but robust-looking, and when on one occasion he complained of illness, the colonel said to him: page 19"Look, old man, a sick man like you should never have got through the medical examination at all; the doctor who passed you to serve overseas evidently didn't know his job; who was it passed you for active service, Pearson?"
I believe that the silence which followed Peo's shattering reply, "You did, sir," might have been cut with a knife; that is, of course, until the humour of the situation dawned.
The first thrill of putting up stripes, of parading Palmerston North in charge of the picquet, and of being in charge of the guard at the camp gates, can only be faintly remembered; but no doubt they were tremendously important then.
The colonel, who was a South African veteran, took a very keen interest in the company's drill, and our frequent church parades, which entailed a march from the camp to the city, were always a source of great pride to him, reflecting, as they did, the great care he had taken at all times to ensure the sound training and consequent soldierly bearing of his men.
Those mostly concerned in the carrying out of these training duties were: Sgt.-Major Joe Hesp, whose stentorian words of command were never to be taken lightly, though he was human enough to retain the respect and comradeship of everyone.
His duties were all on the military side of our preparation, ranging from physical exercises to parade-ground and company drill. On the technical side we were well instructed by a staff under Sgt-Major Fred. Rudd, a most efficient specialist at his job, and a thoroughly patient and helpful instructor, as was also his chief assistant, page 20Sgt.-Major Beconsall.
Sgts.-Major Capp and Chapman were in a slightly different category to the above-mentioned men, and were never taken too seriously, in spite of their rank.
Chappy was one of the lads of the village, and, it was said, once served with an English cavalry regiment. That he came from.'Ome was apparent one morning when, in chasing one of the stragglers on to the parade ground, he was heard to shout: "Shake it up, lad, don't 'ee know bleedin' bugle's been blew?"
He used to help us at our concerts with a couple of coster songs, one of which was: "Standing at the corner of the street." They were happy days, spent in the company of as fine a crowd of young fellows as you could hand-pick anywhere, and the usual, camp routine ambled along amicably until final leave, after which proceedings rushed swiftly to a climax.
I was placed on one draft of eighteen men who were sent for from Gallipoli, only to find, after all good-byes had been said, my name was removed at the very last minute. However, our promised sea trip was not to be long delayed, though the unit was to be split: the main portion leaving from Auckland, while I, together with one officer and eight other ranks, was to sail by Troopship No. 42, the old Ulimaroa, from Wellington. The colonel had arranged for the unit to give a farewell concert on the eve of its departure from Auckland, and so as to be able to appear at this performance, which took place in His Majesty's Theatre, I made a special trip to the Queen City, returning to Wellington just page 21in time for our own departure.
I was not particularly happy on that, my first voyage overseas, as apart from the sea-sickness I experienced throughout practically the whole of the trip, our newly-painted quarters being directly over the propeller, we were unduly harrassed by a little book-worm of an officer who had never before had charge of, nor knew how to handle men.
The bright spots of the voyage were our calls at Albany and Colombo, where we made contact with our Main Body, and our joy was complete when they arrived at the point of disembarkation, Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal, on the day following our appearance in that harbour. The unit entrained immediately on landing, and I, who had to stand by at the port for a few days, thinking their train would stop at Suez station, got aboard to have just a little longer chat with the pals I had not seen since leaving Colombo.
Much to my dismay, the train continued on past Suez, and as it was making something like 20 miles an hour, it took me some time to pluck up courage enough to jump off, which I eventually did.
I was lucky not to have been killed, and can remember hearing a Maori shout, as I lay still while the trucks sped past: "A bloke's fell of te train!"
I didn't know whether I was hurt or not, having bowled over and over several times, but on picking myself up was glad to find the only damage I had sustained was to have split the palm of my left hand, and broken my wristlet watch.page 22
However, as I have inferred, I was not too popular with our jumped-up little officer, and just had to be on duty in the morning.
That three-mile walk back to Port Tewfik, on a pitch-black night, in a strange country, was an eerie experience for me.
I passed through several Arab encampments ranged alongside the railway, and had no idea as to whether they were friendly or not, so I decided to give them as wide a berth as possible; though these detours from the straight and narrow of the railway line often caused me to drop into holes, or stumble over heaps of sand, until I decided it was better to hug the rails and chance any interference from the natives. They all looked like Achi Baba and his thieves, in the flares of their fires, and I was very pleased to be back at the wharf, where the old Ulimarca was tied up.
However, my troubles were not over by a long chalk, for I was challenged by an armed sentry, and came within an inch of being run through with a bayonet. I couldn't give any pasword, and was arrested and held until I could be identified and released some hours later.
My first night in the actual desert served to convince me of the utter stupidity of the title of the well-known song, "Till the sands of the desert grow cold."
It had been a perfect day, and though we were without blankets, no one felt any qualms about stretching out on the warm sands to sleep.
However, it wasn't long before we were forced to be up and moving round to get the blood in circulation, for the night turned in-page 23tensely cold, and so did those much-vaunted sands.
I couldn't help thinking that any man who was to be trusted only until the sands of the desert grew cold, was not to be trusted very far.
That damned sand was one of the worst things we had to contend with in Egypt; it gets in everywhere, and the sand-storm—I mean the worst one—we struck over there when half our big square Egyptian tents were blown down, and you couldn't see a yard in front of you, was a most trying experience, the worst result of all being that every mouthful of food contained its full quota of grit.
Being always as dry as a bone, this part of the Great Sahara is very much like any other part, one imagines, and the loose sand made walking difficult, so that the indignation of the old hands at anyone at all with the audacity, after the troops had spent all day exercising on such an unstable surface, to ask that they be made run, whether by Alec. or anyone else, was thoroughly understood by us new chums.
The march past the Prince of Wales and Sir Archibald Murray was an unforgettable affair, and though we were absolutely the last unit in that very first review of a complete New Zealand Division, we all felt the thrill of the occasion and had the arms swinging and our chests well out, when the long awaited "Eyes Right" came.
Prior to this, the N.Z.E.F. had consisted of only two and a-half Brigades, but with the arrival of the 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Earl of Liverpool's own, the 3rd Brigade was completed, thus enabling New Zealand to be represented for page 24the first time overseas by a full Division.
The sobriquet for the 3rd Brigade had many variants from the original "Dinks;" one of the Battalions being known as the "Square Dinks" and another as the "Fair Dinks."
It is amusing to reflect now, that when we arrived in Egypt, just after the boys came off the Peninsula, we felt instinctively that we were regarded by the old hands as being far too late on the job, in spite of the fact that the ballot was not instituted until some time later.
However, it is quite probable that we, too, later on, developed the same superiority complex towards the later reinforcements to arrive, as we had found so trying when it had been applied to us.
Orders that we were to proceed to France were received with enthusiasm, for we were all heartily sick of the sand, and of the everlasting flies which were everywhere. The natives never seemed to mind these pests, for it was a common sight to see the labourers at the wharf, asleep in the sun, and snoring loudly, with their mouths wide open, while their tongues, right to the roots, would be black with flies.
Any moisture at the corners of their eyes, or up their nostrils, was eagerly sought out by these always busy pests of the desert.
It was all very disgusting, and not at all an edifying sight—but it was Egypt.
Leave to Cairo was a milestone of our sojourn in the land of the Pharaohs, and I suppose almost everyone paid an early visit to the pyramids at Mena, there to essay the climb to the top of the largest one, that of Cheops; but perhaps page 25there were many like us who found the task much too strenuous, for they are mighty big blocks of stone, and the ascent is not easy. However, we did manage to squirm up on our stomachs, through the narrow passage inside the big Pyramid, into the Chamber of the Kings, there to marvel at the skill of those ancient Egyptian workmen, and how they were able to shape the corners of those huge blocks of stone to fit so exactly.
The guides were a shrewd-looking bunch, and must have done extremely well out of the Aussies and ourselves for, besides their legitimate fees, they contrived to sell us all sorts of alleged antique curious, including the ubiquitous scarabs, most of which, though green with the verdigris of seemingly countless ages, were nevertheless made in modern Birmingham.
The Esbekiah Gardens and the Markets were two of the most colourful haunts of those care-free days, though, of course, one just had to seek out the Wazir area to see where our fore-runners had made history. The numerous accounts of this now historic affaire were varied in the extreme, and from the look of things it must have been a terrifying experience for those unfortunates who lost everything in the out-break. However, the boys from "Down Under" made a very good job of clearing out at least one of the plague-spots to be found in Cairo; as, indeed, they can be seen, though to a lesser degree of sordid filth, in most of the older cities of the world, and to them our sincerest thanks are due. The few days' leave in Cairo were over all too soon, and the rickety little train, with its trum-page 26pet-blowing guard, saw us safely back in Moascar where "two-up" and "crown-and-anchor" held sway.
The arrival of our issue of army mules caused a great stir among the members of our A.S.C., who were unfortunate in all their endeavours to make friends with the outlaws.
Indeed, they seemed a particularly unruly lot, even for army mules, and quite decidedly a very different brand to those docile little beasts to be seen at all railhead and supply dumps in charge of the little Indian "Johnnies."
The newsboys were a never-ending source of amusement as they shouted their wares through the camp on their daily rounds, and many and weird were the cries heard as, for instance, "Very good news: Lord Roberts dead," and other, often insulting words of the most personal character, referring to the Sgt.-Major or Lady Godley, or some other well-known identity.
"Eggs-a-cook" and "Orin-ges two for one" were other well-known cries, while on the stations the most popular article for sale seemed to be "Limonaade," but it did not do to leave the purchase until the train was actually starting, for then you might receive anything but the drink named, for your piastres. We gave a concert one evening aboard the British Monitor, "Sir Thomas Picton" on the canal, and quite enjoyed the privilege of contacting with the boys in blue, and of seeing over their, to us, strange-looking ship.
Before we left for France, we were to experience the thrill of our first real active service overseas. The occasion was when a brigade of page 27Australians en route to Tel-el-Kebir got lost in the desert, and, being for a couple of days without water, they were in a very bad way.
When word reached our camp, the "heads" sprang to it to see how quickly we could bring those Aussies in, and I think we did quite a good job there for, besides rendering them a timely service, the incident served as a welcome bond between us, at a time when we had just won all the boxing contests between the two Expeditionary Forces.
However, these matches were part of a very healthy rivalry between us, which still exists into these days of peace; as indeed it did before the Great War served to bring us together in such close contact to appreciate the sporting characteristics of our common British heritage.
We left Moascar one dark night on a cold journey, in open horse-boxes, to Alexandria, and sailed by the American liner Minnewaska, which was sunk by a submarine shortly afterwards, for France. As I knew nothing at all about horses, besides being a very poor sailor, I was put in charge of the horse picquet.
It's a way they have in the army, and so here was I, who had never been inside a stable even, being moreover just a little afraid of horses, fated to walk round every night, attending to the sea-sick beasts, hauling them to their feet, and taking care to see that none was allowed to remain down on the deck.
Fortunately it was not a terribly rough trip, but those nights spent under such conditions on one of the lower decks of a troopship, were not at all to the liking of a poor sailor like myself.