The British 31st Division – of which the 11th East Lancashire Regt. (Accrington Pals) formed a part – was ordered to Egypt to join a strategic reserve formed to guard against the threat of a Turkish advance on the Suez Canal in the wake of the Allied withdrawal from the Gallipoli peninsula.
The Accrington Pals embarked onto troopships at Devonport on 19th December 1915 and left harbour that same day. Whereas the battalion transport was accompanied by 2 officers and 47 other ranks on board the SS Huanchaco, the bulk of the battalion – 29 officers and 956 other ranks – were transported on the SS Ionic. The Ionic pulled away from the dockside shortly after dusk with musical accompaniment being provided by the battalion band.
"We sailed out of harbour at 7 o'clock passing the lighthouse. Stayed on deck till 9.30. A glorious evening. Slept for the first time in a hammock; only the being crowded together prevented the lot of us from falling out, but had a good night's rest. A couple of destroyers escorted us through the night, one on each side of the ship, but they had disappeared by morning." (Diary of Percy Lund1, 19th December 1915)
After the briefest of stops at Gibraltar in the late evening of 23th December to send off mail and to collect orders, the Ionic left for Malta with two destroyers as escort. Malta was reached without incident on the morning of 27th December; no sooner had the Ionic come to anchor than it was assailed by local traders in dozens of small boats. Although the Ionic was anchored at Malta for two days, only the officers were allowed ashore, leaving the aggrieved men on board to find amusement as best they could. Much entertainment was derived from watching native boys dive in after coins thrown into the water: supposedly not a coin was lost.
The Ionic left Malta in the morning of 29th December. The absence of a destroyer escort was a source of anxiety for the troops on board:
"Left Malta this morning at 8.30 receiving a rousing farewell from the French warships. Although we are now entering the most dangerous stage of our journey and have received strict orders to always carry our lifebelts, we are unescorted. We haven't sighted a vessel all afternoon. Mount Etna was in sight for some time. There is a distinctly nervous feeling on board on account of the absence of the destroyers. Did not undress tonight." (Diary of Percy Lund, 29th December 1915)
During the day the sun continued to shine with a fierce intensity, and it is hardly surprising that there were cases of sunstroke among the East Lancashire men: an extreme case was that of 24-year-old James Clarence Wixted, an iron-moulder from Accrington, who died after a short illness in the evening. Wixted was buried at sea with full military honours at 6.30am on 30th December.2
Less than 24 hours ahead of the Ionic, the P&O steamship Persia was some 70 miles south of the east end of Crete when it was torpedoed by the German submarine U-38 shortly after 1pm on 30th December. Within 5 minutes the Persia had sunk with the loss of 334 lives.
As the Ionic steamed eastwards 60 miles south of Crete on the following day, her master and crew, forewarned by the fate of the Persia, were on the lookout for any evidence of submarine activity. At 9.40am an enemy submarine – possibly again U-38 – broke the surface about 500 yards off the port side. Percy Lund, who as a signaller with the Accrington Pals had watch duties on the ship's bridge, takes up the story:
"...the engine room bell on the bridge rang violently and the ship's course was changed with remarkable quickness. I was watching the compass at the time and it fairly did swing round. This was followed by the alarm. I made my way as quickly as possible to my raft and we remained standing to our position for an hour. My position was amidships so I did not see what really occurred, although we understood that a submarine was in the vicinity. A red flag was hoisted with a black ball arrangement underneath. When we got back to the bridge I heard the full story of what had taken place. It seems that just before the alarm sounded a torpedo was seen making for the ship and nothing but the prompt manoeuvring of the vessel saved us from being hit. The torpedo was clearly seen by numbers of our men who were aft at the time, and they saw it within 20 yards of the stern. It was a splendid piece of seamanship on the part of the captain who smoked a cigar all through what must have been a fearfully anxious time for him. Some of our signallers were near the wireless room and say we were sending the S.O.S. for half an hour. Whether in response to our calls I cannot say, but several vessels quickly appeared in sight. We had scarcely seen another vessel since we left Malta. We have had an armed guard mounted fore and aft since we left Malta, but after this morning's incident it has been quadrupled and men are now mounted all round the ship." (Diary of Percy Lund, 31st December 1915)
The torpedo attack against the Ionic on the last day of 1915 would later form the basis of repeatedly unsuccessful campaigns to see the Pals awarded the 1914–15 Star. The award was important not so much for indicating that the owner had entered a war zone before the end of 1915, but for confirming him as a volunteer for Army service; without it, there was no service medal to distinguish the volunteers of 1914 and 1915 from the conscripts of 1916 and later.
With news of the sinking of the Persia having reached East Lancashire, there was great relief throughout Accrington when a cablegram was received to report the battalion’s safe arrival at Alexandria on the morning of New Year’s Day 1916.
Three days later, the Ionic left for Port Said. The 16-hour final leg of the voyage witnessed a sharp change in the weather: the calm that had prevailed throughout the voyage from Devonport was exchanged for rough and stormy seas, and most of the Pals suffered from seasickness:
"Left Alexandria unexpectedly about 2 o'clock. There was a gale blowing and the sea was very heavy. The ship, having been lightened by several hundred tons of cargo discharged at Alexandria, pitched and tossed in the most distressing manner. The scenes on deck were simply awful. Hundreds of fellows were sick. Whilst at tea an unusually heavy sea came swilling though one of the port-holes in our hatchway. Began to feel a bit seedy myself before long and got worse and worse. Retired about 6.30 but only had a poor night, though I was not actually sick. Three troopships sailed from Alexandria including ourselves with a destroyer as escort. We narrowly escaped colliding with one of them during the night." (Diary of Percy Lund, 4th January 1916)
After docking at Port Said in the midst of a violent thunderstorm at 7.30am on 5th January, the Pals disembarked during the afternoon and went under canvas at No. 5 Camp.
The battalion remained at No. 5 Camp for almost three weeks, during which time the battalion war diary recorded little apart from the provision of parties to act as guards, most usually for neutral ships passing along the Suez Canal. Although the battalion’s duties while at Port Said were comparatively light, and the men were able to enjoy the freedom to go into the town between the 2pm parade and 8pm, there was still cause for dissatisfaction: the men had had no pay for three weeks and their rations had been considerably reduced. On 13th January, Richard Ormerod noted that his tea that day had consisted of dry bread and five dates; another week would pass before he enjoyed his "best dinner since arrival" of stew, boiled rice and stewed dates.3
Even by the time the battalion moved 40 miles southward along the Suez Canal to El Ferdan (present-day Al Firdan) on 25th January the men had had only one pay day since arriving in Egypt. Nor was the weather during the journey conducive to high spirits as the Pals, travelling in open rail wagons, were exposed to alternating bouts of torrential rain and hailstorms.
"Entrained at 8.30. A wretched morning. We proceeded in open trucks to El Ferdan, beyond Kantara. We got across by means of a lighter. Went across immediately on arrival with a fatigue party to pitch tents and then returned for tea to the opposite bank. We did not get across again until midnight and killed time as best we could till then. The country is desolate in the extreme – not a habitation for miles. Our camp is up against a line of trenches. The view across the desert is thoroughly Eastern. Lines of camels can be seen passing to and fro. In the distance is an encampment of the Y & L Regt. The only diversion we shall get here seems to be watching boats pass up and down the Canal. I never felt more homesick than I do tonight." (Diary of Percy Lund, 25th January 1916)On the day after its arrival at El Ferdan, the battalion took over all garrison guard and picquet duties but was mostly occupied over the next days with transporting stores across to the east bank of the canal. It was a time that was to be chiefly remembered for the heavy flat-bottomed ferry which, until the Royal Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge, was the only means of crossing the water and needed considerable manpower for its operation:
"The chief reminder of ancient Egypt was the slavery, for if ever the East Lancs felt the shackles, it was at El Ferdan. Who will forget the varied fatigues – the hauling of those two massive chains which were the primitive means of propelling the giant punt across the canal, carrying men, horses and stores to the Arabian side where the Turks had been, but were to be no more. Ships came alongside to be unloaded, and out of the holds long single files of Lancashire lads brought massive quantities of timber, compressed horse and camel fodder, sacks of dates, raisins, immense quantities of bully beef and biscuits, ammunition and various other stores. NCOs were posted every ten yards or so and apart from the fact that they had no whips, the feeling from the Tommies’ point of view, was exactly as those of the slaves of old." (History of Z Company5)
On 9th February, W and Z companies moved about 6 miles forward to Bir Abu Aruk where for the following nine days they dug trenches to form an outpost line. The march out into the desert was particularly exhausting:
"On the 9th February Z Company left the Battalion and struck out into the desert for a long dreary march, with full pack, and any extras from under the sand6 that one cared to carry. The start was at sunrise and by 4 o’clock the Company must have been a mile long. Most of the fellows were exhausted and when the halt was called, everybody flopped down on their tummies, and some were too tired to slip off their packs, for some time. The desert proved to be very hilly and the sand soft and difficult to the tread. Boots sank ankle deep in many places, especially when on rising ground, and seemed to drag one’s sinews until they stretched like elastic bands. Abu Aruk was the spot chosen for the defence works Z Coy were to construct. It was on high ground and in the wilderness, away from all civilization." (History of Z Company)
Under a hot sun, it was exhausting work to dig a defensive line in the soft, shifting sand using only small GS shovels. An initial excavation to a width of 24ft was necessary in order to create a trench 5ft in width at the top; the trench then had to be lined with hurdle fences covered by grass matting or canvas in order to prevent the sand from sifting through. Water was short, such that even the briefest of rain showers came as welcome relief:
"A small black cloud appeared, to be followed by a shower of rain. Instantaneously, as if by command, every man was stark naked, standing there, awaiting nature’s bath, with his face turned upwards and mouth wide open, hoping that a few drops would cool his parched tongue. On the 19th the trenches were handed over to another division and Z Company had a tough march back to El Ferdan." (History of Z Company)
Battalion Lewis gun teams in Egypt. 18048 Pte. Stanley Bewsher is sat on the far right of the front row. Photograph by kind courtesy of John Garwood.
While W and Z companies were working on the outpost line, Y Company and battalion headquarters had left for the railhead on 10th February to take over the distribution of supplies and water to the advanced posts. X Company remained on fatigue duties at El Ferdan.
The battalion regrouped at El Ferdan on 19th February, and marched the following day 14 miles north along the canal to Kantara (present-day Al Qantarah). On arriving, there was neither a meal nor a camp to be found, and it was midnight before tents were pitched:
"Reveillé 3.30. Marched off at 5 and arrived Kantara about 11.45 after one of the most fatiguing marches I have ever experienced. Crossed the Canal and encamped about one mile inland. At first the intention was for us to march into the desert the following morning, but it was decided, to our great relief, to give us a day's rest. The tents did not arrive till 10 pm and we were afraid that we were going to have to spend the night in the open without either blankets or great-coats." (Diary of Percy Lund, 20th February 1916)
The first fatality among the battalion’s officers was that of 29-year-old Lt. Henry Harrison Mitchell, variously described as "a great favourite with the whole of the battalion" and "an officer who had won the hearts of his men by his quiet gentle manner and kindly helpful nature". Mitchell had been acting as Water Supply Officer at El Ferdan when on 20th February he suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia and fibula when hit by a railway truck; it was two days later before he was admitted to 31st General Hospital at Ismailia where his right leg was amputated, too late to prevent his dying of gas gangrene on 23th February.7
News of Mitchell’s death reached the battalion at Hill 108, the defensive system some 8 miles south-east of Kantara which the Pals had taken over from 18th Durham Light Infantry on 22nd February. The march to Hill 108 had been made on soft sand under a burning sun, and many men had fallen exhausted by the wayside.
"Our hopes of settling down here for a week or two were rudely dispelled this morning, as orders came through early that we had to return to Kantara tomorrow. Just as we had got about straight with the work and were looking forward to an easy time. In the afternoon we reeled in all the wire that had been so laboriously buried. There seems to be no doubt that we are leaving Egypt. Where for?" (Diary of Percy Lund, 27th February 1916)
Z Company group with camels. Photograph by kind courtesy of Mike Townend and Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Burnley.
During the month of February it had become clear that the threat to the Suez Canal had receded, making it possible to transfer nine divisions to the Western Front. Orders came through on 26th February for 31st Division to embark for France. The following day saw Z Company withdrawn from an outpost where it had been digging trenches, and a platoon of W Company under Lt. Ashworth brought back from guard duty at brigade headquarters; in the meantime, the men at Hill 108 were busily packing up to leave. First to depart on the return journey to Port Said were thirty-five NCOs and men of the battalion’s transport under Lt. Bury who entrained at Kantara in the early hours of 28th February; on the same day the remainder of the battalion made the long and tiring march from Hill 108 back to Kantara but then spent two days waiting for troopships to be arranged before leaving for Port Said by train at midday on 2nd March. With the exception of sixty-seven men of Y Company under 2/Lt. Kohn who travelled on another ship, practically the whole battalion embarked on the SS Llandovery Castle on arrival at Port Said and left for France at 10pm.
On 8th March 1916, the Llandovery Castle reached Marseilles. The Accrington Pals were at last in France.
© Andrew C Jackson 2013