3 December 1914
Dear Girls, [the McPhee girls: Clytie, Doris & Jean]
Your very nice long interesting letter of the 1st of Nov came to hand yesterday. Thanks very much indeed for it. We needed tonic in the shape of Sydney news, very badly, & your letter has cheered us both up a whole lot. Am sorry now, that I didn’t write a longer letter to you before, but to tell the honest truth, I didn’t like to _ _ _. However, I will not offend in that manner again.
Yes, we have quite recovered from the effects of “mal de mer” (Is that quite correct Doris?) Was only sick on two different occasions. Considering how lovely the weather has been the whole of the way, we must have been very bad sailors to be sick at all. And as for the excitement of where we are going & what we are going for ___ more about that later. Yes thanks we have been having a good voyage, & judging by the way things are shaping we stand a pretty good chance of getting back in one piece. Don’t worry about not getting out to see us. You were very good & considerate indeed to come out at all & the state of the weather quite excused you that Sunday. Yes Mum did tell us about poor young Moffatt. I was so sorry to hear about it.
No you wouldn’t Clytie. If you were over them, the German prisoners would play up a treat. The only way you could get them to work would be to promise them some Clytie made pudding _ _ _. They’d work then.
Thanks so much Clytie for visiting Mum & the girls that is the only thing that hurt me. It nearly broke me up saying good bye that Sunday night. Mum started to cry as soon as she turned away. She did not mean Vernie & I to see her, but I couldn’t help seeing, & I felt horrible for a long while afterwards, & I could have comfortably scrunched the Kaisers neck for being the cause of it all.
I don’t remember the fair Dorothy mentioning your visit to Govt Hse. Am glad that you made such a good impression. I suppose that the Hqtr lady had a sour grapy taste in her mouth, when she was chipping you about your fair dress etc. But oh I say, it’s not true that you can take your hair off as you say is it? I’ll never believe that _ _ _. I know that, when occasion demands, you can get your hair off figuratively speaking, but I never thort that you could take it off in reality as you say you can _ _ _. If what is in your letter is “a lot of girl chatter”, then I’m very fond of “a lot of girl chatter”. It’s very interesting, & quite refreshing after what we have to listen to here. It would take a jolly lot of it to kill me. I’m very fond of light literature _ _ _.
Now then Clytie, you must not punish Vivie by giving him a short letter (oh I don’t mean that _ _ _.) when you write to us. It’s not fair to him. If a young lady that I loved wrote short letters to me, so that she could write long ones to my brothers at the front, I’d be quite annoyed. There now.
Next time you go to a social, don’t think that becos you poured out three cups of tea (& swamped the saucer doing it) that you have done your duty. You’ve not. Having a voice, & a good one too, you should use it, & give the public an extra special treat. This being indisposed is a common barrier that you women get behind, & fortify yourselves at every opportunity.
Jean, don’t imagine that becos I’m too shy to write, that I’d be too shy to read & appreciate a letter from you. You know letters are the only things that will keep us in the right direction. For instance, I was drifting downstream at 14 ½ knots per hour, when I bumped Clyties letter. I immediately dropped both anchors to read it. After its perusal I weighed both anchors, & sailed back upstream to where I started from. So you see the good that you can do with a few strokes of a pen. Of course if the cap doesn’t fit Doris she needn’t wear it too.
I got by the same mail as this a letter from Ida, Percy, & Mrs Richards. My old school teacher from Jd. The letter that I’ve been hanging out for, ever since we’ve left has not arrived. I suppose its gone on to England. Whenever you write, be sure to always give the full address for instance, if you omitted “ "F" Coy”, the chances are that we would never see it, as there are 8 coys in each battalion & they may not always be together. For the same reason if you didn’t put in “3rd battalion” it might wander about for months, going to all the battalions in the country. The same applies to the rest of the address.
You must excuse me writing on both sides of the paper, but as you will have to pay for this I want to write as long a letter as I can, on as little paper as possible.
As I will have to refer to my diary to a large extent to give you the news you must excuse the style. I think I wrote to you from Colombo, so I’ll give you a brief account of the happenings since then. Just before we go to the front, I intend posting the diary home. If you think it would interest you, you could borrow it.
On the 23rd of Nov they commenced holding lectures for N.C.O’s & embryo N.C.O’s & marked papers on the subjects lectured on. They gave us a detailed account of the fight between the Sydney & the Emden from the stratgetical(sic) point of view. There is no doubt at all, that it was the Sydney’s superior speed which allowed her to out maneuver the Emden that gave her such an easy victory. We are all very proud of our Sydney, & of our Melbourne. Both of them were after the Emden, & when Cocos Island sent out the S.O.S. the Sydney was the closest, so she dealt with the matter.
Vernie, Rixon from Narrandera, a chap from the 4th Bn & myself – all P.O. officials, were detailed to help with the mail at Aden, there being a heavy posting owing to xmas. We dealt with 15000 letters all posted on the Euripides. We had to double sort them too, as it would not do to risk a ## for say Wales in Eng, going to N.S.W. The delay would be too much to explain away.
I had quite a xmas mail to write I generally only send a card, but of course cards were unprocurable. Wrote 28 xmas letters, two of them being long ones so what with writing them & then working in the P.O. my xmas was much the same as other years.
While we were working on the mail a Capt came in & gave the chap from the 4th a letter to post & to compensate him for any trouble it might give him, passed him a sovereign as well. Not a bad tip was it? But we all dropped dead when the sorter coolly said he often tips me here like that. It appears that they were school boys together, & what is more to the point, the capt is sweet on this privates sister _ _ _.
About this time, my poor devoted overcoat, which in a fit of dejection wandered away & lost itself was discovered in the hospital after an absence of three weeks, & great was the rejoicings. Whenever I allowed myself to think of my absent friend, the shadowy form of ₤2.10 would rise up in front of my troubled eyes & I used to wonder in a vague sort of way how much of my salary would be left with ₤2.10 out of it.
We arrived at Aden very early on Wednesday the 25th of Nov. On rising from our couches in the grey dawn of the early morning, we found ourselves lying peacefully at anchor in the outer harbour outside Aden. Aden is a dreary looking hole. On both sides of the harbour are great rugged mountains, & behind the town a plain, & not a vestige of vegetation on either. Everything is as dried up as old maid suffragette’s heart. What appears to be a wireless station is situated on the top of one of the mountain peaks. Hope he (the operator) does not give way to the alcoholic craving, for I don’t think any man could either get up or down if he had even a spoonful of beer underneath his waistcoat without being divided into numerous pieces.
There were thousands of fish about 6 inches long, in shoals around the boat. You could discover their presence a good way off, by the effect they had on he water. They were pretty timid too, a piece of tin dropped into the water was enough to give them fits. There were also a few porpoises about.
We were all keenly disappointed in receiving no mail. Had been hoping to get some, but it was willed otherwise. We came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t get any till we reached England.
There were sixty transports altogether in the harbour. Besides ourselves there were Indians for Suez, & Territorials. The poor “Terriers” on their way to India, to relieve the permanent men there. It is rather hard luck for them isn’t it. They enlisted for service in Europe, & they are utilized to let other men go, where they wanted to go.
During the day we got news of an Anglo-Indian force landing & taking a Turkish fort. Unfortunately I can’t remember the details, but form what I remember, the troops were landed under cover of fire from the warship but not without losses. The fire of the warship was not as effective as it might have been, if they had had shrapnel instead of the ordinary shells. The Turks retreated when the fort was stormed.
We left Aden on Thursday the 26th of Nov after breakfast had the novelty of seeing two continents at once both quite close, Asia on our right & Africa on our left. The coast of both are very barren looking. Mountains were just visible in the distance on the Asian side. About 3:30 we drew opposite to a fort with a few buildings around it, on the Asian Coast. With our signaling telescope, could easily see the men there, tho they were invisible without it. They were sitting & lounging about in the shade at the end of one of the buildings. One of them had a wart on the side of his nose, & another freckled faced lad of about 18 had lost his little finger, while another having nothing better to do, was drawing beetles in the sand with a toothpick. They were quite 5 miles away. It was a good telescope.
Discovered on my weekly visit to the rifle rack, that my rifle & bayonet were missing. After a protracted search in the neighboring racks found the rifle. Another 10 minutes search brought the bayonet to light in still another rack. There are some real beauties in the shop – lifting[?] line on board with us. I’m sure that the shopkeepers must have noticed a difference since we left. Some of the chaps here would pinch the eye out of a needle while you were sewing, & you wouldn’t notice it until you went to thread it again _ _ _. Fact.
About 7am on the 27th Nov, we passed “The twelve Apostles”. In case you do not know who the twelve apostles are, I’ll tell you. They are a group of TWELVE (12) islands, all grouped close together. Very rugged & composed of rock, with as much vegetation as you’d find on a healthy billiard ball. No doubt the word “twelve” is because the are 12 of them, tho why the Apostles is added, I’m at a loss to say.
The weather had been getting warm & on this date was particularly trying. As we signallers are compelled to dine below, (our table is screwed down & so are the stools) we feel it pretty badly. One poor fellow was complaining of salt in his tea, & blamed several, until it was discovered that as quick as he drank, the perspiration ran out of his face into the cup. It quite broke him up.
On Saty the 28th Nov. the Euripides which up to now had the leading of all the N.S.W boats on the right flank, had the honor of leading the whole fleet thrust upon her by the “Orvieto” clearing out. She bore the distinction with becoming grace & dignity & under her capable leading nothing very serious happened.
I am very sorry that our voyage was on this date, marred by a ghastly tragedy. We were all sitting down having dinner, never dreaming of any disasters, when suddenly an awful explosion took place right in our midst. As soon as the smoke had cleared away, we could see distorted figures lying about groaning in awful pain. The ship was rocking terribly, & for awhile we were afraid that we were sinking. Luckily tho the explosion occurred with 10 feet of us, neither Vernie or I were hurt, only a little dazed. Two young fellows alongside of me & one right in front of me were lying half on & half off the table, the faces of two of them working convulsively, while the other face of the other was quite calm. Curiously enough the table escaped injury. The most horrible part however, was a young fellow directly over the place were the explosion occurred. He was not killed but was badly hurt, & was rolling about on the floor in awful pain & distress. It was pitiful to watch him. Luckily tho 15 were seriously injured none were killed, tho at this stage it is hard to say if the more seriously hurt will recover. The explosion was caused by a bomb, & was dropped by the colonel as he was carrying it. It fell 8 feet before it struck the floor. The bomb was the news that we were going to Cairo, instead of to England _ _ _. After the first effects had passed off the Col told us he thort it was a good move, & that we could train very well there & get plenty of rifle practice & would probably go on to the front from there in the Spring.
During the afternoon the signallers had a memory test. We had to receive a semaphore message & write it down afterwards from memory. It was won by Vernie. The prize was a pipe & a tin of tobacco.
Saw a whole lot of dolphins. They are very much like porpoises, tho they are considerably smaller. They live in the water & seem quite at home in it. They can swim very well indeed.
On Sunday the 29th, we again came in sight of land about dinner time, tho it was very indistinct, & on the same afternoon the wind rose a good bit, but not enough to make our boat roll.
On Monday, the honor of leading the fleet evidently palled on the Euripides for she slackened speed & allowed the whole fleet to pass her, then she tailed them up. During the morning there was an inspection of equipment. As my belt was stolen the day after I came on board I was not complete, but thank goodness had two companions in misery. We were told that all persons that were unable to make up their equipment would have to go back with the boat. With this dire threat eating my heart out I bucked around examining every bodies belt in my neighborhood, & of course the owners didn’t like it. Anyone seeing you looking at his belt would either order you to get “ to ___ ___ out of his” _ _ _ . or else would push the lot over & ask you if you wouldn’t like a tenner or a piece of Berlin as well _ _ _. Luckily a corporal seeing me looking round, told me he had a spare one that I could have if none of his coy claimed it up to 6p. I was there sharp on 6 & got it & so saved myself from an ignominious return.
During the afternoon the first part of the signaling corporals exam was held. Made a couple of silly mistakes, otherwise thort I did well. Heard unofficially that Vernie & another chap were about level for best.
Reached the mouth of the Suez about 2p on Tuesday & found the rest of the fleet anchored there. The N. Z boats had commenced to go throu, & those that had gone some distance did look queer you’d swear that they were sailing throu the sand.
The town of Suez is divided into two distinct parts. One part, which appears to have some fine buildings in it, is clustered around the mouth of the canal. The rest of the town is a good mile to the left & is I think the business portion. The two portions are connected by rail, & we actually had the pleasure of seeing a real train running on the aforementioned railway.
There is a clump of trees on our right in which there is a spring, supposed to be the identical spring Moses caused to flow out of the rock.
The country is a barren as usual. There are rugged mountains on either side while directly in front the land is level. Except for one or two clumps of trees. There does not appear to be any timber about & as for grass, well there simply isn’t any.
The second part of our exam was held this arvo, & consisted in reading, sending & general knowledge. Did well in the latter two, but no good in the first, owing to the speed at which the test was sent. However no one else did any good either. They say that the reading test had been cancelled & that another will be held.
On rising from our couches early next morning we found that we were in the canal. It appears that they had weighed anchor at 11pm Tuesday night. During the night we were fired on by small parties but no damage was done. All our sentries were given 45 rounds in case of emergency. Just after I got up I saw a shot fired towards the boat ahead of us. It was from a point about 300 yds inland. It couldn’t have hit anyone as it was not replied to. Of course I didn’t see the man, only the jet of flame.
At intervals along the canal Indian troops were posted. Some of these had strongly fortified themselves with entrenchments & barbed wire entanglements. The country along the canal is for the most part barren.
We arrived at Port Said about 1pm. The town is quite pretty tho the streets are very narrow. We were anchored quite close to the street, not 25 yds from it.
The men amused themselves by throwing coins to the coal lumpers, for the fun of seeing about a dozen pulling each other about. Of course while they were fighting for the coins they were not loading the coal, & their overseer would rush at them with a thick rope & belt them like a fury. Once a coin fell near his feet & he grabbed it himself. We tried to get one of them to accidently push the old villain into the water for 2/- but they were not game. During the afternoon several shots were fired into the water near natives who came too close in boats.
We got a mail at Aden. As I think I told you before & of course your interesting letter was among it.
My word the natives are horribly filthy & degraded. I have always had a feeling of compassion towards the colored races, but it has now turned to disgust. You have to see them to fully realize the immense superiority of the whites. They fairly cringe & fawn in front of a white man.
Our eyes made sore by seeing so many niggers, were healed up a little later by having the pleasure of seeing some white men & women. The men on board cheered the girls a treat as they walked down the street.
A French warship at anchor in the harbour gave us three ringing English cheers as we passed her when coming in & we returned the compliment with interest.
Two N.Z. lads who broke away from their boat, & on their return found it gone, were taken by our guard & placed under open arrest.
A lot of men hustled some natives who were on board hawking, & during the crush robbed them of nearly ₤60 worth of silk etc. The missing stuff was found in one of F coys kit bags.
We left Port Said about 8pm same day.
At present there are a large number of the 4th men down with severe internal pains. A few days before 100 odd men were taken suddenly ill during the night & there was a great to-do about it. The cooks were all roused out of bed about 1pm & an inquiry held. The A.M.C. & all the officers were up all night trying to ease the men sufferings.
Had a very lucky escape from being badly scalded on the 3rd of Dec. was mess orderly & was carrying two buckets of hot water downstairs when I slipped & wet myself to the skin nearly all over. Luckily contrary to usual, the water was only hot instead of boiling. Both buckets were dented into uselessness.
We reached Alexandria early in the forenoon of the same day. There are a lot of ships in the harbour, including a few German merchantmen captured by the British. The town is pretty big & looks rather pretty. There are very few white people about. One gets so tired of seeing niggers. Both the men & women dress alike & it is very hard to distinguish them.
During the afternoon the horses & the hospital patients were landed. The operation in both cases was alike. They were hitched to a crane & swung over. The “Tommies” took charge of the patients, some of the poor beggars looked pretty bad. Most of them had pneumonia. Others were the aftermath of cookhouse errors.
Shortly after dinner on Friday 4th F & a few other coys disembarked & formed up alongside our train. I suppose we would have been standing there for a couple of hours only it started to rain so they rushed us into the train. And such a train. The carriages were of the suburban class. The seats were wooden. There are no luggage racks & everything is very rough. The train got off the mark at 3:30, & we were soon passing throu the suburbs to the accompaniment of cheers from the natives. A few minutes sufficed to take us out of Alexandria. We were soon passing throu miles of country, all under cultivation & irrigated by flood waters from the Nile which floods the country for miles inland the ground is so level. At intervals there were native villages, sometimes built on a rise, but more often on the level ground, with the mud & water right up to their doors. The houses are built of mud & are as close together as it is possible to get them. They looked for all the world like Martins nests. Every mile or so along the line, native soldiers were stationed to guard the line. We reached Cairo at 9.30pm, very hungry & a bit cold. We were all anxiously waiting for our tea, & had been hoping to get something to eat at Cairo. After a long dreary wait at Cairo, during which we studied all the many types of natives, the better class whose complexion is so light that they’d pass for Australians, & who dress exactly like Europeans with the exception that they wear a red cap, the well to do women who dress in black & cover their faces with veils, & others whose varied attires would make a fashionable paper tried to describe – we pulled out & after a two mile run we pulled up. A long wait & then we disembarked. Another long cold wait & we got some of the nicest bread, cheese, & cocoa that we’ve every tasted. Again another long wait & we were marched to barracks where we turned in & went to bed on the verandahs.
We were roused up at 5am & had a hasty meal off “twentyfivers” & tea, followed a half hour later by bread & cheese & cocoa. After another wait of sometime we were put into trains & taken to our camp. 10 miles from Cairo there were no tents ready for us, & we found, after instituting inquires that we would be tentless for a fortnight, & in the meantime we could make ourselves as comfortable as we liked. On 3 sides of us are low sandhills, & flat on the other side. The pyramids are about a quarter of a mile on our left. The ground in every direction is nothing but sand. Its just like a big beach without the ocean. Only the sand is very coarse. We have of course to sleep out in the open, & it’s as cold as anything at night & the dew is so heavy that it wets our top blanket through. In the middle of the day it is very hot.
I visited the pyramids on Sunday the 6th with the half coy. The guide wanted 2 Piastres (5) each to show us around & through. As there were 40 of us it would have amounted to a bit. But our Leiut was a horse dealer, & he started to take us up himself, swinging his field glasses around his head to keep the guide from coming too close. At last when the guide saw that we were determined to go, he offered to take us all for 15 piastres (3/1 ½). He didn’t come down much did he? On our way round we had our photos taken, the leiut sitting on a camel at the rear of us.
We are allowed an afternoon off from 4 to 11 every six days. Have not got mine yet. Owing to the splendid management of the trains, it takes 2 hours to reach Cairo from here, although the actual running time is less than an hour.
There are a lot of troops here about 30,000 Australians & 10000 “Terriers”. Altogether there are about 80000 British troops in Egypt. We are expecting trouble when the union jack is officially raised over all Egypt which will be on the 21st. It is rumoured that there are 100000 Turks drilling near Jerusalem & that is only a few days march from here. If the Turks came here, very likely a lot of the people here would side with them.
The Egyptian Herald remarked this morning that, incredible as it might appear, the Australian troops were getting 6/- per day, & judging by the lavish way in which they spent their money, they evidently came from good families.
And that the traders were taking advantage of us & charging extortionate prices for their goods. They appended a price list of common commodities, & my word the beggars had been putting it on.
The Regts have all brought new regimental pets with them. Our bull pup has now attained quite respectable proportions & looks fit for any German. There is also a lively Kangaroo hopping about, in surrounding which must seem novel to it. When its exercise is over it is kept chained up at the officers mess.
We are in a very bad way for light here. We have no light whatever after sunset. Of course the officers have plenty of lights but the men have not. We have to do out letters written by candle that is continually threatening to die a violent death.
On Tuesday night 9th Nov, we had a glorious time. It started to rain heavily about 8pm, & kept on pretty heavy till past midnight. I built a platform of sand about 9in high & 2 ft wide with a gutter round it. Made my bed on it & covered the lot with the water proof sheet. Was frightened to move all the time for fear of shifting the waterproof. Kept myself fairly dry but all the edges of the blankets got soaking wet with the drippings off the waterproof. The worst part was having to keep my head under the blanket. According to the natives we have had a phenomenal amount of rain. It very rarely rains sufficient to register.
A lot of the men, after their long confinement on board, have been playing up old Harry since coming here. Quite a lot of them took 3 & 4 days leave of absence. And the ones that took a day off exceeded the others by a lot. They all got punished, where it hurts most – in the purse, with pack drill thrown in.
Well I’m right up to date with the news now. It has taken me a few days to write this as you will no doubt notice. Hope you all are well & happy. Both Vernie & I are OK, & looking forward to a scrap soon. Yours sincerely Bert.