With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter XXV — An Ex-Camelier as Educationist
An Ex-Camelier as Educationist
"I have had a peculiar experience in the war, Major," said an Australian officer to the writer one morning early in 1919, as we were strolling through the camp at Kantara on the Suez Canal, while waiting for the express train from Port Said to Cairo. "I left Australia with the Main Body as a Major in the Light Horse; I have been through the whole war from Gal-lipoli to the Armistice, and I am going back to Australia with the same rank as I had when I left. I don’t think there is another senior officer who has not had promotion." "What was the matter with your O.C.? Would he not get in the road of a bullet or go sick?" I asked. "Yes, he was away several times, and I then had command of the regiment, but he always returned, and I had to revert to my original rank." "That is hard luck," I replied. "I can appreciate your feelings, as I have had rather a unique experience myself." "What was that?" asked the Australian. "At this time yesterday I was a trooper in the ranks." "Go to Hell," retorted the Aussie hotly. "But it is a fact," I said. "You are pulling my leg," he replied. "Oh no, I wouldn’t try to pull your leg in the daylight." "How the devil did you do it ?" he asked. "Just by pure merit," I replied. "Let me in on the joke," said he, so I explained. "By gad, that’s the best thing I have heard of in the war. Good luck to you, old man," he exclaimed as he held out his hand. Two extremes in promotion in the E.E.F. had met by accident.
Towards the end of November, 1918, while convalescing in the N.Z. Detail Camp at Ismailia, I read in a New Zealand paper an account of the proposals for page 233the education of the New Zealand troops in England and France. I asked a padre if anything was proposed to be done in this respect for our men in Egypt and Palestine. He had not heard of the proposals, and borrowed the paper. The next day the O.C. of the camp sent for me, and when he found that I was an Inspector of Schools in civil life, he asked me to outline a scheme for the men in the camp. A committee was set up by him, representing the various units, and the scheme was put before them and adopted. It was sent to N.Z. Headquarters for authority to finance it and put it into operation.
On December 11 the O.C. Camp received from Anzac Mounted Divisional H.Q. a telegram, "Forward Trooper Robertson, Second M.G.S., here for interview with G.O.C." On reaching Richon le Zion where the Division was camped, I found everything in a state of unrest as a result of the sacking of the neighbouring Bedouin village of Surafend as revenge for the murder of a New Zealand Machine-gunner. Following an interview with Major-General Chaytor, I returned to Ismailia, and organized educational classes there while the Division moved south to an uninhabited district near Rafa in the south of Palestine. At Richon there was a large wine factory, Christmas was drawing near, and after the incident at Surafend, and General Allenby’s remarks thereon, it was considered advisable to remove the Australians and New Zealanders from the danger zone.
In the Detail Camp at Chevalier Island, Ismailia, sixteen different classes were provided. Attendance at lectures on economics, civics and hygiene was compulsory for all ranks; in other subjects a choice was allowed. The most popular classes were motor mechanics, wool-classing, stock-breeding, veterinary lectures, and bookkeeping. Other subjects were English, arithmetic, page 234electricity, commercial correspondence, shorthand, agriculture, farriery, building trade, and fruit-farming. No illiterate individuals were found in the ranks requiring elementary instruction.
When the Anzac Division was settled in its camp at Rafa on the exact site from which the New Zealand Mounted Brigade had launched its successful attack on the Turkish redoubt on January 9, 1917, I proceeded there by night train, arriving in the early morning. I was refused a lift either for myself or my kit by the driver of a motor lorry from H.Q., so had to tramp the two miles through the sand to the camp. Reporting at D.H.Q. Orderly tent, I was told by the D.A.A.G. to get badges and a Sam Browne belt, as I would be made a Sergeant-major.
At 10 a.m. I waited on General Chaytor who approved of the programme suggested for the N.Z. Brigade, and agreed to the appointment of the instructors recommended. Amongst these were university graduates, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, veterinary surgeons, accountants, engineers, and successful stock breeders. He informed me he would give me the rank of Major while I acted as Assistant Director of the Education Department of the N.Z.E.F.
When I retired the D.A.A.G. went in to see the General, and I waited till he returned. When he came back to the Orderly Tent he burst out, "Here’s a blinking joke. I was going to make you a Sergeant-major and the General has made you a Major. He wants you to dine with him to-night." "I can’t dine with a Major-General in a uniform like this," I objected. "Try on my tunic," he cried as he threw it off. "Fits you like a glove. I’ll borrow a pair of crowns from Hemphill. You can buy a collar and tie at the canteen. Everything else is all right. You’ll do."page break page break page 235
I was provided with a letter of introduction to Brigadier-General Meldrum whom I found in the afternoon, enjoying a cup of tea with two of his staff in the reed-walled messroom at Brigade H.Q. He read the letter solemnly, and then asked if I was Major Robertson. "I don’t know, sir," I replied gravely. "I was Trooper Robertson half an hour ago." "Well, what will you have to drink, Major?" he asked as he shook hands, and then introduced me to his astonished companions.
At 7 p.m. I presented myself with the D.A.A.G. at D.H.Q. messroom where I had difficulty in advancing through a heavy barrage of kindly intentioned offers of "spots" from nearly everyone present. But as I had to dine with the General and his senior staff officers, all colonels, I dare not become a casualty, so outflanked the barrage safely. A motor car had been ordered by the General to be ready at 9 p.m. to take me to catch the night train for Cairo, and rumour had it that the car was driven by the same driver that had refused me a lift in the morning.
Work similar to that carried on at the Detail Camp was started with the Brigade, but as no buildings were available, the classes were all held out in the open air, the Instructor standing on a slight mound, and the men sitting on the sand in front of him. What a contrast this scene in the year a.d. 1919 made to that when 1,900 years before the Birth of Christ, the flocks of Abraham grazed over this same spot, but the land itself was in nowise altered since that remote period. Perhaps one of his shepherds, or even Abraham himself had stood on the same mound of sand to keep watch over his sheep, where now stood a graduate of Lincoln College, lecturing, to an armed force, on sheep-breeding in New Zealand.page 236
These classes gave the men something to think and talk about, and took their minds off military matters, which they all hoped were things of the past. But on two half days every week lectures on such things as musketry, cleaning of arms, guard mounting, etc., were still carried on. The men did not take kindly to these but the General insisted. He said the Brigade was still a fighting force in the field, and might be called on again for active service, and he proved to be right.
The Nationalist party in Egypt under Zaglul Pasha had planned an insurrection against the authority of the British, and a date had been appointed for the outbreak, The military authorities were aware of what was being planned, and before the date fixed they suddenly arrested Zaglul, and deported him to Malta. When Zaglul’s arrest became known all Cairo was in an uproar. Mobs gathered in the streets and destroyed public and private property, and the whole country was put under martial law. All streets in Cairo except the principal ones were put out of bounds for all ranks, and the city was patrolled by mounted troops and armed motor lorries. In the country railway lines were broken up, stations were set on fire, telegraph lines destroyed, and a number of Europeans, including several British soldiers on leave up the Nile, were killed.
At midday on March 17, 1919, orders came to Rafa for the Anzac Mounted Division to proceed to Egypt, to help to quell the revolt. By 5 p.m. the N.Z. Brigade was entrained for the Canal, and as its various units were placed in towns scattered over the Delta from Cairo to the sea, it was impossible to carry on educational work with it. Lectures were still carried on at the Detail Camp until the troops were embarked for New Zealand in July, 1919. On the voyage home various classes were carried out on the transports Ulimaroa and Ellenga.page 237
All ranks were sorry to say farewell to old and tried comradeships they had formed in the British and Australian forces throughout the stirring times on Gallipoli, in the Sinai Peninsula, and in Palestine and Syria, but stronger attachments drew them back to the peaceful islands in the far south, and when in August the shores of New Zealand were sighted, they began to realize that their period of warfare was over, and they eagerly looked forward to the welcome awaiting them in their own homes, and to returning once more to their peaceful occupations in civil life.