Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 122
Publication Date: 1919
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It was at Taranto that we embarked for Mesopotamia. Reinforcements were sent out from England in one of two ways—either all the way round the Cape of Good Hope, or by train through France and Italy down to the desolate little seaport of Taranto, and thence by transport over to Egypt, through the Suez Canal, and on down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The latter method was by far the shorter, but the submarine situation in the Mediterranean was such that convoying troops was a matter of great difficulty. Taranto is an ancient Greek town, situated at the mouth of a landlocked harbor, the entrance to which is a narrow channel, certainly not more than two hundred yards across. The old part of the town is built on a hill, and the alleys and runways winding among the great stone dwellings serve as streets. As is the case with maritime towns, it is along the wharfs that the most interest centres. During one afternoon I wandered through the old town and listened to the fisherfolk singing as they overhauled and mended their nets. Grouped around a stone archway sat six or seven women and girls. They were evidently members of one family—a grandmother, her daughters, and their children. The old woman, wild, dark, and hawk-featured, was blind, and as she knitted she chanted some verses. I could only understand occasional words and phrases, but it was evidently a long epic. At intervals her listeners would break out in comments as they worked, but, like "Othere, the old sea-captain," she "neither paused nor stirred."
There are few things more desolate than even the best situated "rest-camps"—the long lines of tents set out with military precision, the trampled grass, and the board walks; but the one at Taranto where we awaited embarkation was peculiarly dismal even for a rest-camp. So it happened that when Admiral Mark Kerr, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, invited me to be his guest aboard H.M.S. Queen until the transport should sail, it was in every way an opportunity to be appreciated. In the British Empire the navy is the "senior service," and I soon found that the tradition for the hospitality and cultivation of its officers was more than justified. The admiral had travelled, and read, and written, and no more pleasant evenings could be imagined than those spent in listening to his stories of the famous writers, statesmen, and artists who were numbered among his friends. He had always been a great enthusiast for the development of aerial warfare, and he was recently in Nova Scotia in command of the giant Handley-Page machine which was awaiting favorable weather conditions in order to attempt the nonstop transatlantic flight. Among his poems stands out the "Prayer of Empire," which, oddly enough, the former German Emperor greatly admired, ordering it distributed throughout the imperial navy! The Kaiser's feelings toward the admiral have suffered an abrupt change, but they would have been even more hostile had England profited by his warnings:
"There's no menace in preparedness, no threat in being strong,
If the people's brain be healthy and they think no thought of wrong."
After four or five most agreeable days aboard the Queen the word came to embark, and I was duly transferred to the Saxon, an old Union Castle liner that was to run us straight through to Busra.
As we steamed out of the harbor we were joined by two diminutive Japanese destroyers which were to convoy us. The menace of the submarine being particularly felt in the Adriatic, the transports travelled only by night during the first part of the voyage. To a landsman it was incomprehensible how it was possible for us to pursue our zigzag course in the inky blackness and avoid collisions, particularly when it was borne in mind that our ship was English and our convoyers were Japanese. During the afternoon we were drilled in the method of abandoning ship, and I was put in charge of a lifeboat and a certain section of the ropes that were to be used in our descent over the side into the water. Between twelve and one o'clock that night we were awakened by three blasts, the preconcerted danger-signal. Slipping into my life-jacket, I groped my way to my station on deck. The men were filing up in perfect order and with no show of excitement. A ship's officer passed and said he had heard that we had been torpedoed and were taking in water. For fifteen or twenty minutes we knew nothing further. A Scotch captain who had charge of the next boat to me came over and whispered: "It looks as if we'd go down. I have just seen a rat run out along the ropes into my boat!" That particular rat had not been properly brought up, for shortly afterward we were told that we were not sinking. We had been rammed amidships by one of the escorting destroyers, but the breach was above the water-line. We heard later that the destroyer, though badly smashed up, managed to make land in safety.
We laid up two days in a harbor on the Albanian coast, spending the time pleasantly enough in swimming and sailing, while we waited for a new escort. Another night's run put us in Navarino Bay. The grandfather of Lieutenant Finch Hatton, one of the officers on board, commanded the Allied forces in the famous battle fought here in 1827, when the Turkish fleet was vanquished and the independence of Greece assured.
Several days more brought us to Port Said, and after a short delay we pushed on through the canal and into the Red Sea. It was August, and when one talks of the Red Sea in August there is no further need for comment. The Saxon had not been built for the tropics. She had no fans, nor ventilating system such as we have on the United Fruit boats. Some unusually intelligent stokers had deserted at Port Said, and as we were in consequence short-handed, it was suggested that any volunteers would be given a try. Finch Hatton and I felt that our years in the tropics should qualify us, and that the exercise would improve our dispositions. We got the exercise. Never have I felt anything as hot, and I have spent August in Yuma, Arizona, and been in Italian Somaliland and the Amazon Valley. The shovels and the handles of the wheelbarrows blistered our hands.