Letters from the Front
Attribution: Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay
Letter No 1.
From 2nd Lieut A. A. Middleton RFA after being torpedoed (original written in pencil)
At Sea April 17 1915
My dearest Mother
Since my last letter we have gone through the most horrible experience of our lives and one that I should think could hardly be equalled whatever happens to us when we land. I don’t know whether it will get into the papers at home, but I should hardly think so as everyone on board is of the opinion that the Naval officials let us down very badly.
The whole thing started yesterday morning at about 10.10 when we sighted a torpedo boat making for us. No-one took the slightest interest in it as it never for a moment entered anyone’s head that she was anything but British or French. It wasn’t till she had run absolutely alongside that we troubled to go and look at her. I wouldn’t have gone at all only I was with the Colonel at the time and he went to see if there were any orders concerning the troops. I got up to the boat deck and looked over the railings just in time to hear the commander of the torpedo boat shout through his megaphone ‘Leave your ship’ and the same the time the Turkish flag was run up . Even then I couldn’t realize that anything was really wrong. I thought it was merely a scheme on behalf of the Navy to test our efficiency. The Colonel shouted back that we hadn’t enough boats and the answer was ‘I will give you three minutes’ (some people say ten, but the majority agree on three). Then things began to move. I dashed down to my cabin and got my lifebelt and flask and then came back to the boat deck to see what was doing.
Here I am afraid, one cannot help admitting, there was a lot of panic for ten minutes or so. There were eight boats capable of carrying three hundred people at a pinch and including the crew there were about seven hundred on board. Unfortunately there were very few officers there at first as most of them were down in the saloon working and knew nothing till the ship siren blew the alarm. A lot of the men seemed to loose their heads altogether and there was a wild rush for the boats which were absolutely crowded before anyone had had a chance of swinging them out. The result was when we tried to swing them out we couldn’t move them. Here fortunately most of the men began to pull themselves together. I called all the fellows in the 97c by name and told them to get out and not one refused and our BSM cleared out a lot of the others heaving them out by the scruff of the neck. When the boat was nearly empty we managed to swing her out and let her down with about fifty men in her and she got clear away as far as I know. The next boat was not so lucky. She must have had seventy men in her and the weight was too much for the davits which broke when the boat was half way down. She turned right over and fell on top of the men in her and must have outed about twenty of the poor devils straight away. I didn’t see her fall but I did see her about thirty seconds later and the sea all around was red with blood. Another overloaded boat was swamped as soon as she got down but the other six got away all right with I suppose four hundred people on board. When all the boats had gone, I joined a band that was wandering around the ship chucking overboard everything that would float. I was then beginning to wonder which would be the best place to go overboard from. I eventually decided on the forewell deck as being nearest to the water so I went down there and found nearly all the officers gathered there. I then discovered for the first time that two torpedoes had already been fired at us; the first, fired about four minutes after the first warning had been given, had gone about ten yards astern of us and the second had just missed our bows twenty minutes later. We all stood there for about ten minutes divesting ourselves of as many clothes as possible and arguing whether it was best to go off at once or to wait till the ship had actually been hit. Everyone was as cheery as anything and I personally never for a moment thought of being drowned or killed in any other way. S.O.S. messages had been sent and answered by cruisers not thirty miles away so we were all sure we would be picked up. Eventually the torpedo boat came right up close and plugged off a third torpedo and at short range which we could all see coming straight for us. At this point most of those who put any faith in their swimming powers shinned down ropes into the sea and made for the bits of wood we had chucked over. We hung about near the ship and waited for her to blow up but nothing happened and the torpedo boat started to make off. We were told afterwards that the third torpedo came straight for the ship and went clean under her and probably the Turks had no more though they may only have been frightened of British ships arriving on the scene. Anyway when we saw them making off we decided that it was time to get on board again and started to make for the ship. Just at the critical moment, though, the ship got up steam again and started moving and we were as near as a loucher (?) dragged under the screw, so we absolutely had to swim for our lives again. That was really the only time I felt a bit frightened. Two men on a raft were dragged in right under our eyes. The raft was smashed to atoms and the men must have been cut to pieces in a few seconds. When we eventually recovered our wits and began to sit up and take notice the ship was about four hundred yards away and we had no chance whatever of getting near her as the tide was taking us fast the other way. After a little splashing about we regained our pieces of wood and after a bit of a confab six of (us) decided to chuck away all our bits of wood except the biggest and hang onto it together. The others were Denison, Hancocks, two other subalterns of the 10th and a driver of the 10th. So we all collected on this bit of wood which was only a sort of trellis work flooring from one of the wash houses, four feet square, and hung on with one hard while we kicked out towards the ship. The thing was no earthly use for keeping us afloat, but I think that it served its purpose very effectively as it kept us all together and I think two of the fellows certainly wouldn’t have stuck it out by themselves. By this time ships were coming up from all sides and coming very slowly and the old Manitou herself was half a mile off. The sea got rather disturbed and waves kept breaking over our heads which didn’t add to our comfort, also after the first excitement we got horribly cold and I kept getting cramp. We found that it was absolutely necessary to keep swimming all the time or we would have been frozen to death in no time. We were certainly moving too as we passed a lot of people hanging onto bits of wood some of whom were cheery though others had seen their last of this world and were simply hanging in their life belts with their heads fallen forward into the water. At last after what seemed like an age a salvage boat called the Reclaimer came up close to us and raised a wild yell whereupon she made for us and we were hauled out of the sea over the bows with ropes. I thought I was fit for another hour in the sea at the time but as soon as I was clear of the water all my strength went absolutely and it was all I could do to hang onto the rope while I was being pulled up. When I got onto the deck I couldn’t stand, however they hit me and rubbed me all over and after about three minutes I managed to get up and stagger downstairs where I had about half a tumbler of near brandy poured down my throat which made me feel much better. The worst part was the shivering though that was hardly the name for it. I was quivering all over like a great jelly and that was just about what I felt like. However after about twenty minutes in a bed under six blankets I felt much better and got out and went on deck clothed in someone’s great coat to give any assistance I could. The whole deck was strewn with men being revived A boat load of men had got onto the Reclaimer and being dry and fit they were working like niggers bringing round the fellows pulled out of the water. There were only two men they couldn’t pull round, though one or two others took a long time to revive. I asked the time when I got up on deck and was told it was 1.30. My watch stopped at 11.15 so we much have been an hour and a half in the water altogether. It really felt more like six. We were eventually put back on the Manitou, which we need never have left, at three o’clock. The casualty list I am afraid has been pretty heavy. We have lost our QMS and two sergeants (very good men who we could ill spare) and thirteen men and the total losses are about fifty NCOs and men and fifteen of the crew including three of the ship’s officers. Fortunately none of our officers were lost chiefly I think because none of them tried to go off in the boats which must be where most of the men were lost. One or two of them however had narrow shaves. One of the 10c ? fellows with us was just going off his head when we were picked up and he was unconscious for some time before being taken out of the water. Personally I felt perfectly fit half an hour after the show was over except that I was rather tired and stiff.
It is very easy to be wise after the show is over, but there is one thing that amazed us all very much. The Naval Officers on the ships that came to our rescue told us that it was known that two torpedo boats had got out somewhere and were at large. Yet not the slightest effort was made to send us an escort or even to warn us. If we had even been warned we could have blown that rotten little boat sky high with one of our own guns. We had a couple of guns on the deck as it was to allow for quick unloading but we had no ammunition and couldn’t get any out for hours as all the hatches were fastened down and no-one knew how to open them. When we were first hailed, the Turks were within a hundred yards and one round of shrapnel couldn’t have helped sweeping their decks clear of every man on board while one round fired to hint (?) on percussion would have gone slick through the boat. We simply couldn’t have missed. It would have been like firing with a shot gun at a house twenty yards away.
Another thing that would have saved a lot of lives would have been the presence of more officers. It is not surprising that there was a bit of a rush for the boats when everyone heard they had three minutes to leave the ship, but if we had only had two officers to each boat we could have stopped that as the men obeyed orders to get out at once. As it was I didn’t see more than three more officers up there besides the Colonel who was working like a horse and swearing like a trooper. The others all sloped up as soon as they knew anything was up and the last couple of boats went down in perfect order. The ships officers were jolly good but the crew didn’t do much to help. Some of the N.C.O.s were very good too. One fellow stood at the top of a gangway armed with a six foot handspike and beat everyone on the head who tried to get up. One thing that struck me most was the difference between my sensations when I thought I was done for and what I expected they would be. My past misdeeds didn’t rise before me in succession. The chief thing I can remember is my wrath at the Turks for sending all my belongings to the bottom of the sea while my language was certainly not that of a man who expects to see the last of this earth within an hour or two. However as I said before I never did really expect that, so probably that is the reason. Certainly there is one thing I am quite sure of and that is that I never want to go through the experience of seeing torpedoes fired at me again. What really annoyed me was the way we were had for mugs in taking to the water practically after the last torpedo had already missed. I only wish we had known what we were told afterwards by the Naval Officers viz that the torpedoes very small and that even if we had been hit the ship would probably have taken over an hour to sink. I only hope that the shooting of the Turkish army will be as bad as that of their navy because for a 7,000 ton ship absolutely stationery in the water to be missed three times running is more than one could hope for in one’s wildest dreams. I don’t know whether the Master and crew of the Reclaimer will get any recognition for their services but if they don’t they jolly well ought to. Although they saw the Turkish boat they stood by to help us and then must have pulled two to three hundred fellows out. They gave us absolutely everything they had to their last drop of brandy and their last cigarette and every bunk was full of rescued men.
Well I think that is about enough about that show. I will give you now what scraps of other news I have. We left Alexandria on the 14th after a very riotous and expensive ten days and jolly glad we were to get away. It isn’t a bad place but much to full of cafes and such like places for my taste. It’s all right for one night or perhaps two but after that it becomes distinctly monotonous. I suppose we shall be in action before long and from what I hear we are up against a pretty tough proposition. It would have been much worse for our brigade if it hadn’t been for yesterday’s show. Last night the G.O.C. of the Division told C.R.A. that the Manitou had been sunk with all hands and that he was to rewrite his orders leaving our brigade out altogether. So the whole thing was reorganized and our job which was the worst was handed over to another brigade, the result being that we have much less to do now so all’s well that ends well.
Well I really can’t write any more or this letter won’t go through the post.
Best love to all from
Your affect and thankful son
PS I forgot to ask you to send me some spare batteries for my torches last letter. I have only half used my last ones now. I should like 2 Ever- ready no 31
And 2 Ever-ready 7 inches long and 1.3 in. in diam approx.
Also I lost my cigarette case and flask on yesterday’s show. I should be eternally grateful if you could get me a ‘week-end’ aluminum cigarette case to hold 30 or more cigarettes. I expect you could get one at the stores. A flask would be very useful too.
Letter No. 2
No 1 Australian General Hospital Heliopolis Cairo
May 14th 1915
I hope Father got my cable. The lines are choked with official messages so it mayn’t have got through.
My dearest Mother
Here we are, settled down in hospital and as far as I am concerned, likely to remain there for some time I am afraid. For some reason best known to themselves the authorities sent ten of us here instead of to the British Hospital, much to the alarm of the people here, who didn’t know anything at all about us. However they took us in all right though they won’t have any too much room when all their own people arrive. I didn’t tell you anything about how I was hit in my last letter because I didn’t want to risk having the letter stopped by the Censor, but I think it will be all right now. I was supposed to be acting as artillery observer to the ships, and directing their fire according to the wishes of the O.C.(on?) the beach we landed on, and I was attached for the purpose to the infy rest (?) that was landing first of all to cover the landing of the rest of the troops on that particular beach. We were towed ashore in ordinary boats by the ships pinnaces, four boats to each tow. The pinnaces wouldn’t go right into the beach and we had to cast off and row the last fifty yards, and just about then the Turks began to let us have it. They had machine guns on each side of us and in front, all only two to three hundred yards away, and we had an absolute rain of bullets poured into the boats besides shrapnel bursting all round. No one could have wished for a better target, as the boats were practically stationary and how we weren’t all outed I don’t know. Everyone jumped into the water which was about waist deep and started wading on shore. I was hit in the boat while I was waiting for my signaler to get out, but I didn’t want to examine the wound then. I just skipped out as fast as I could and I was the last to leave the boat alive. The only other man alive was a major who was killed just as he was following me. I made for the shore as fast as I could, but it is rather difficult to move rapidly waist deep in the water, especially when one is carrying about forty pounds of stuff slung over one’s shoulder. The bullets were spattering on the water just like hail, but I was lucky and no more hit me though I afterwards found a bullet hole in my breeches just above the hip. What happened to the bullet I don’t know, but from the position of the hole I don’t know how on earth it didn’t go into me. Fortunately on the edge of the beach there was a bit of sandy cliff about eight feet high where we were, and we got cover under this. I had my first look at my arm then and hated it. The skin was neatly sliced for about four inches and the muscles were all bulging out like raw mutton and I was bleeding like a pig. I got it bound up more or less with my first field dressing, took two mouthfuls of brandy and then collapsed for about two hours. When I recovered I was feeling fairly all right, but the blood was still pouring out. I must have lost buckets of it. Our people were still in the same position as the Turks had an absolute network of barbed wire for about fifty yards covered with machine guns and it was impossible to advance a yard. We lay there the whole day from 6.30 am which was about the time we landed till it got dark about 7.30pm. We didn’t know what would happen to us as there weren’t enough sound men left to attack even at night and if the Turks attacked us by night we should be absolutely scuppered as there was no retreat. However when dark came down two more battalions landed and made a night attack and the Turks were driven back. Meanwhile the wounded were taken off in pinnaces. I was put first on a transport that had been converted temporarily into a hospital ship and was dressed there about fifteen hours after being wounded. I felt more or less all right except that I was frightfully weak from loss of blood. On Tuesday the cases that would take some time to recover were put into a proper hospital ship and on Thursday we sailed for Alexandria which we reached on Saturday being sent on ambulance train to Cairo on Sunday. I was wounded the previous Sunday (April 25). I am afraid this is not a very clear account, but to tell the truth I am not very clear myself.
My arm is much better I think. The swelling has gone down a lot more and the sisters say the wound is much cleaner, but I see no immediate prospect of getting it set. The doctor who is looking after us now, said I would have to have a long rest. I think that is because I wanted to hire a car and go and see the Pyramids. I have ordered all my new kit here – uniform, underclothing, cap etc . I think it is going to cost me about £12 altogether and I am afraid I shall get no insurance money this time, though I hope to get some compensation for loss of kit out of government.
Please send one of my big photos to Miss Mercer and another to Mrs. A.G. Frere (?) both St. Thomas M5 (?).
I can’t write any more now
Best love from
Your affect. son Alastair
What an awful scrawl