Churchill's British Resistance - The Auxiliary Units

 

While Memory Lasts by Major Malcolm Ernest Hancock MC

   

Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he described, in the prologue to the second Act of Henry V, the intense patriotism which sprang into being when the King was gathering his army to invade France and which was to lead to the battle of Agincourt  in 1415:-

Now all the youth of England are on fire
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;
Now thrive the armourers and honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man;
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse ......

499 years later those stirring words were brought vividly to mind when just such another surge of patriotism swept through the country and I found myself one of “the youth of England”.

Looking back to that time it does seem strange to think how intense was the wish to “join up”, to do something to help one’s country.  It was a completely spontaneous movement and it resulted, to some extent, in much waste of energy and talent.

One such instance was the formation of the famous “Sportsman’s Battalion”, every member of which was probably a potential officer and existed for it, but in those days the thinking of the hierarchy was based largely on the Boer War.

To the end of the summer term of 1914 found me at the end of my school days, aged 17 and hoping to go to University, but the war put a stop to that and I hurriedly found myself a job as a schoolmaster.  What a nerve!  The two terms I spent at King’s School, Gloucester was an education for me in themselves, but it was only a stop-gap for me until I could join the army at 18.  I well remember being self-conscious of the fact that I was a civilian and longed for the day when I could put on the uniform and thus try to justify my `existence as it was.

Well, I did not have very long to wait as, in April 1915, two days after my eighteenth birthday, I received my Commission.

This was all very well for me whose one idea was to get in the army and satisfy what I now realise was a rather selfish ambition.  I had no thought for my parents at all.  Only years later did I stop to think how they must have suffered at my rushing off to do what I thought was so vital.

The daily casualty lists in those days were appalling, but youth doesn’t think of that but only of the pressing need to be “doing one’s bit”.  For anyone who was in any way suspected of not doing so, life was made very unpleasant, and I now understand the terrible ordeal it must have been for the genuine conscientious objector to refuse to join any of the service.

But none of this occurred to me then, and so it was that in my vanity of youth, with a tremendous feeling of having at last got going, that I went off to Norwich to join a Territorial Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

After the rush of getting fitted out with a uniform – the Government allowance for which was woefully inadequate – it was a great moment for me joining my Regiment and starting out on a new life and drawing a second lieutenant’s princely pay of five and threepence a day.

Much of the detail of my experience in those early days has been lost but I shall never forget arriving at Norwich that first evening to be told that, next morning, there was to be a Battalion inspection and being given some rather sketchy instructions as to how I was to march past at the head of my platoon.  The fact that I had never even seen that undoubtedly gallant body of men nor done any march past before probably didn’t occur to my superior officers.  However in the event, although I was almost a complete stranger, I must have done enough things right not to have incurred the wrath of my company commander.

In the battalion there were a number of officers who had been at my public school, which was my  main reason for joining it.  All of them were older than I was, but it gave me some feeling of confidence especially as two of them were platoon commanders in my company.  The whole atmosphere at that time was one of intense activity, doing what one hoped was right of volunteers, sometimes called “half-holiday soldiers”, who had given up their holidays and week-ends for what they say as their duty and now their training as such was being put to the test.  The only training I had had of course was with the school O.T.C.  In which I had risen to the dizzy height of Lance-Corporal.

Routine training was now concentrated mostly on route marching in full kit and early morning P. T.  It soon began to bring us together into a very fit unit and I was also given a good deal of special training in drill, together with other newly joined young officers and being taught the ability to take charge of our platoons and to begin to earn our pay.

Time passed quickly as I began to find myself getting used to the new adult life.
After a few weeks, the battalion moved to St. Albans where we were brigaded into three other battalions, thus forming part of the 54th East Anglian Division.  As we were to find out later, this was one of the preliminary moves toward providing troops to take part in a big new offensive in the Dardanelles campaign and our role was to carry out a fresh landing at Suvla Bay, although we did not know this until the last moment.

Training now took on a more intensive character with frequent tactical exercises, including night operations (my pet abomination) and longer route marches.  Regular shooting practice was possible now that we were of our war machine, which included mule transport, seemed to fall into place and with this case a sense of belonging to a fighting unit with a definite purpose in the general war effort.

One of my new duties at St. Albans was to pay the people on whom the arm of my company were billeted.  As to whether or not this was a pleasant duty, there were conflicting opinions.  On the one hand the money was obviously very welcome and so were you on that account, but the majority of the billets were in terrace houses in back streets and the atmosphere inside most of them was daunting to say the least.  It seemed the rule was that no window was ever opened so one took a deep breath and got the job over as soon as possible.

I have no recollection of there being any organised recreation for the men, consequently they must have been very much at liberty to find their own amusement and which, no doubt, they did to their own particular satisfaction.   Certainly the good townspeople were most hospitable and many valued friendships were made but the one over-riding feeling all the time was that the battalion was being welded into an efficient war machine as possible and as quickly as possible.  There was very little ‘scrinshanking’. (1)

I was fortunate in being able to see my parents frequently as they lived only a few miles away.  One of the highlights for me at that time was the acquisition of a 2-stroke New Hudson motor cycle.  What a thrill that was in those busy days!

Our tactical exercises, which now became increasingly important in our training, seemed to based on the experience of the Boer War, for we were taught to advance at the double, over open ground, then lie down, advance again in short rushes, all in full view of the enemy, presumable, fix bayonets and charge the last 50 yards or so shouting ‘hurrah’.  It was all very exhilarating and good exercise but must have been little short of suicidal had we been attacking a real enemy.

Then suddenly we were under orders for overseas service.  The only indication as to where this might be was the fact that we were issued with khaki drill, for use only in hot countries, so we knew it would not be France.  Shortly after this we were told to be ready to move at short notice, and then came the day when we started on our overseas journey. 

The battalion paraded in the main street in the late evening and began its march to the station.  The scene on route was extraordinary.  A huge crowd on each side of the street kept pace with us, friends, relatives and others who wanted to be in on the activities.  It was difficult to keep rank as wives and sweethearts pushed in, holding on to the men’s arms, carrying their rifles, packs and equipment.  There were sons really very touching scenes.  No doubt it was all quite contrary to ‘good order and military discipline’ but impossible to prevent.   What sort of reaction this would have on the top brass of today scarcely bears thinking about but, after all, no harm had been done.  In a way, it was a demonstration of affection by the civilian population for the troops whom they saw as their defenders against the menace of the Kaisers Armies, and everyone knew it.  They were doing their best to give then a good send off.

At last we got on to the platform, order was restored and we were off.  It was sometime before I could shake off the rather unnerving experience of parting with my parents, who were at the station, but, at last, most of us dozed off as the train wound its tortuous way to Devonport docks without a stop.

The excitement of getting the battalion untrained and an all-night journey had been tiring so we were glad to have a few hours of comparative quiet before embarking.  The transport vessel a merchantman, the Royal George, was waiting for us alongside the quay.  Here, we felt, was the real start to our adventures and we were anxious to get on board.  The full compliment of the battalion was about 1000 and we found quarters cramped.  I have a lasting memory of the strong and very objectionable smell of a particular disinfectant used freely in the lower decks, which were verminous and which, later on, became stiflingly hot, but, to compensate this to some extent, the food was excellent and plenty of it.

For the first day out only we were escorted by a cruiser after leaving port and from then on we were entirely on our own.  In our ignorance we probably didn’t think much about the danger of enemy submarines and were kept busy exercising on, doing boot drill and P.T. and making what preparations we could to meet anything the future might hold.

I can’t help thinking that our voyage was undertaken in rather a leisurely manner, considering the urgency there should have been to get us to the scene of action as soon as possible.  But, of course, we had no idea of the vast over-all plans required for the war and could only understand and be concerned with our own particular points of view.

With the welcome warmth of the Mediterranean we were glad to change into drill uniform and we made our first port of call at Malta.  We stayed 34 hours and made for Alexandria to take in coal.  The C. O. Received orders to leave one company there together with the rest of the battalion’s heavy kit, all vehicles and the machine guns, but as there was only two of these almost prehistoric weapons for the whole battalion, we didn’t think much about it – until afterwards.  During the voyage the machine guns had some practice at an empty barrel towed aft.  It met with indifferent success, but this didn’t lessen our confidence in their ability to deal destruction to the enemy in the coming conflict – but still, we couldn’t quite see the sense of leaving them behind.

Soon, we left Alexandria, which I was to get to know only too well later, and set out for the island of Lemnos (Limnos on Gmaps) off the coast of Gallipoli peninsular.  We dropped anchor outside the harbour of Mudros (Mudros on Gmaps).  We must have very lucky to have got there at all as we were told as soon as we arrived that our sister ship, the Royal Edward, had been sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 800 lives.  We must have been very lucky to have got there safely as the Royal Edward was sailing only a few hours behind.  It was a depressing piece of news.  We were then told that we should be landed at Suvla Bay the next day, Sunday, and preparations were made for this last part of our journey by the issuing of ‘iron rations’ for the next two days and seeing that all water bottles were filled.  (‘Iron rations’ consisted of an issue of biscuits much like dog biscuits, quite as hard but probably a bit tastier, a tin of bully beef and a tin containing tea, sugar and Oxo cubes).  Each man was given two such rations together with the rest of Sunday’s ration which was carried in their haversacks after breakfast.  At dawn we were transferred to the destroyers and were soon in sight of the uninviting looking coast along the ridge of which we could see and hear shells exploding and continuous gunfire.  This was it we thought and I must admit to a slight feeling of doubt as to whether I might not have been a bit too enthusiastic in getting myself involved but, thankfully, this was soon forgotten as we landed on the beach and waded ashore.

None of us, of course, knew what to expect when we landed at ‘A’ beach, a storm of opposition perhaps.  We didn’t know that the first landing just previously had been made with very little opposition, quite unexpectedly, and for the moment was successful.

Those first troops had got inland a short distance and had established a somewhat precarious foothold, but without having made anything like a definite line of advance.

Our first movement was to form up a few hundred yards inland from which we could see something of the lie of the land and there we stayed for most of the day.  Later in the afternoon we were told to take up a position further toward ready to push on in support of the advance troop. Here we came face to face with the grim reality for, as we went forward up slightly rising ground towards Kiretch Tepe Hill, men from the front line were streaming back, many of them wounded and dying.  It was a terribly disconcerting foretaste of what we might be heading for.  Most of them were the Bedfordshire Regiment, one of the battalions in our brigade.  Towards the evening, after passing some of our artillery blazing away, we followed the direction in which they had been firing and found what shelter we could out of sight of the enemy and got what rest we could.  This did not last long as, in an effort to get to grips with the enemy, the C.O. ordered us to take up position beyond some rising ground from beyond which we seemed to be getting fired on.  This we did and managed to keep out of sight until it was dark.  As soon as it was light my company was sent forward and although we were under considerable fire we still could see no sign of where it was coming from and were, no doubt, in a very vulnerable situation.  One of my platoon N.C.O’s was hit and seriously wounded, I sent for a stretcher bearer and when they came one of them, when I found out afterwards was aged 15, was shot through both legs as he stood beside me.  It sounded like the crack of a whip.  Although the force of the bullet had knocked him over, it seemed to be only a flesh wound and I somehow got him undercover and got the stretcher bearer back too, at that point the C.O. told us to retire back to a small ridge as our position was obviously vulnerable and we gained a little respite.  It all seemed rather unreal, but I am sure we had just been in far greater danger than we knew at this time.  The Turks held all the high ground in front of us and kept themselves well hidden.  All the time we were well within rifle range, and were getting a certain amount of shelling, but that didn’t worry us so much now as we began to make use of what cover we could from view amongst the scrub and rocks.

After that baptism of fire, many of the details of which are fixed indelibly in my mind, much of what we did in the next few days had been forgotten, except that we moved frequently from one position to another and that we now began to experience a serious shortage of water.  This all had to be fetched from the beach at night.  The intense heat, the necessity of having to dig in for cover in the daytime and the helpless of not knowing what we were trying to do and the fatigue, those things remain in my mind.  When Brigadiers, at that time, could not be certain of the whereabouts of their battalions.
The initial advantage of a surprise landing had now gone and we found ourselves having to move in the direction of Anzac.  The first stage of this was a nightmare march along the seashore, at night, in deep sand and, no doubt, none of us suffered a feeling of depression.  By daylight we got to a series of shallow trenches on the edge of the now dry Salt Lake, a wide stretch of sand between Sulva Bay and the low hills on the left of the Anzac front. 

It was about this time when we were told something which I, and many others, will never forget and that was the news about the miners in England were on strike.  The language with which this was greeted was – well – predictable, picturesque and unprintable.  It referred, amongst other things, in some detail to the doubtful parentage of the strikers.

At last we got our first letters from home and how welcome that was.

Then began a period when our whole involvement with our particular bit of the war underwent a fundamental change from open waters to trench waters.  Within a few days of our landing at Sulva and just after we had been pulled out of front line fighting, we had witnessed a tremendous battle being fought all day at a place we came to know only too well later – Hill 60.  It was comparatively low, sloping hill below the rising ground beyond Anzac. Many casualties had been suffered by our attacking troops, many of them New Zealanders, and the defending Turks had lost a great number.  They occupied a series of trenches from which they were never completely dislodged.  By the time we came to occupy those hard won trenches we were beginning to feel the distressing effects of dysentery, which now accounted for more men being put out of action tan by the enemy.   The very small water ration was a constant worry, for a long time it was down to one pint per man, which had to do for everything, so too were the maddening masses for the disease carrying flies, which could not be kept from infecting any food they could touch.

The monotonous rations did nothing to improve conditions and the time when we might have been starry- eyed with the ambition to annihilate the Turks had now given way to a dour determination to survive.

After a night in a reasonably secure gully behind Hill 60, we moved up next day into the front line.  The sight that met us was indeed grisly.  Casualties in the fighting for the position had been very great and it had been impossible to recover many of the bodies for burial.  Consequently, although there still a number lying out in the open, some of the side trenches had been used as mass graves and were only partially covered with earth.  After the initial shock of this, we soon found we had no time to give way to susceptibilities but had to deepen the trenches we were in for our own protection.  With the enemy at such very close quarters, the instinct for self- preservation was an effective spur to our digging.
We now more or less settled down to a routine of watching for an enemy attack, of taking every opportunity to harass him, chiefly by bombing with hand grenades, and sniping at him whenever and wherever we could.   Along our front line, which extended, perhaps, for a matter of 200 yards, we were separated from the Turks by distance varying from 25 to 80 yards and we were constantly made aware of it.  It was apt to cause casualties before we learnt to take cover whenever we heard it open fire.
With alternative spells in the front line and the ‘rest’ area a few hundred yards to the rear, we got into a kind of stalemate with the occasional burst of bombing and sniping activity which was very easily started up at close range.

About this time the Brigade bombing officer was put out of action and, as I was already responsible for seeing that the supply of bombs, such as we had, was always available in the forward posts, I was appointed in his place.  This entailed my being responsible for bomb supplies to the next series of trenches on our right and it kept me very busy.  The various kinds of bombs we had were scarce and a pretty scratch lot but we augmented them by collecting some of the duds the Turks had thrown at us and had fallen short in the narrow bit of no-man’s land.  It was very much a night time job.  These duds I fitted up with a new length of fuse and a detonator and listened to the explosion on their return journey with great satisfaction.

It was now well late October and we had dug ourselves in sufficiently well to be fairly safe provided we took care not to be seen. We had the 1/5th Ghurkha Rifles on our immediate left, and what a splendid lot they were.  We felt our left flank to be much safer now than it had been for sometime.  On our right, which had been held previously by the Australians, we had the Norfolk Yeomanry recently arrived from Egypt.  They had had very little infantry training and it was one of my jobs to give them instruction in the use of bombs.  On Monday, 31st October, I was in their front line showing them how to use a newly acquired piece of apparatus for throwing bombs mechanically.  It was a kind of catapult contraption which had a container attached to a length of rubber.  This was wound down until there was sufficient tension and fixed with a catch.  The thing was to get the tension and the angle at which the catapult was aimed so that when the catch was released the bomb landed in the Turks front line.  It was anybody’s guess, of course, as to where the bomb landed but apparently it must have caused some concern as we soon began to be shelled by our old friend the enfilading gun.  After one or two had exploded harmlessly, the one with my name on it put a bullet through my leg and that was the end of the afternoon’s activities for me.

For the first few moments after being hit I didn’t realise what had happened.  It had felt as though a piece of rock had fallen on my leg and I was crouching down trying to get more cover from shelling.  I tried to stand up and promptly fell over, then unwinding my puttee I had a look to see what damage had been done and it seemed surprisingly little.  Stretcher bearers arrived fairly soon and I was carried off down the trenches to the rear of the front line.  It was too narrow for an ordinary stretcher to be used and I was lifted on to a sling between two poles.  It wasn’t exactly a joy ride as my leg by now had begun to complain and by the time we reached the advance dressing station it was distinctly troublesome.   Here I was transferred to an ordinary stretcher and the doctor had a look to see if anything was broken.  He decided there was and put on an extremely tight bandage and sent me off to the Casualty Clearing Station near Anzac Beach.  That night I stayed on the stretcher in a long tent with many other casualties and got no sleep.  Next morning I sent a note to the adjutant to tell him what had happened and sent him a complete list of all the bomb stores in our sector and also asked for my kit to be sent to me.  This arrived in the afternoon and I spent another night on the stretcher.  Although the doctor wasn’t very keen to do it, I got him to lessen the bandage slightly as it was causing me a great deal of pain by being so tight.  The next morning, Tuesday, he told me I was to go to Alexandria, the best bit of news I had had for a long time.  The hospital ship a small converted merchant navy vessel named Nevasa, was alongside a small jetty and it was quite exhilarating to be hoisted off the jetty on to the deck by crane.  I had a sense of great relief to feel that at last I should soon be out of range of the Turks.  The comfort of a bed was marvellous and so too was going off under the anaesthetic when the doctor did some tidying up of the wound caused by the bullet breaking a bone on its way through and taking with it bits of clothing.  In a few days we reached Alexandria.  The journey from the ship in an army ambulance was pretty tough over the cobbles but, fortunately, not a long one.  I was put in a ward of the old military hospital at Ras El Tin near the harbour.  It took a little time to get used to the peace and quiet after the never ending racket of the last few months, until I could relax.  For the next few weeks the worst part was the doctor’s morning and evening rounds, accompanied by the sister, with the trolley with the instruments and dressings and known as the agony wagon.  However, things began to improve for me, at last, I was able to get up and move about a little on crutches.  There was one occasion when I stupidly tried to go down some steps into the garden and lost my balance and went a purler.  Luckily I did nothing more than frighten myself but I got a smart ticking off by my nurses.

After some two months or so I was allowed to go out into the city, occasionally, and eventually some of us were sent to a particularly nice convalescence home at Luxor.  Then came the day when I was told that, as my recovery looked like being a long time, I was being sent back to England.  I felt myself to be very, very lucky.

It must have been sometime in February (1916) when I was given this wonderful news.  Again, it was in another small converted Merchant Navy Vessel, named Esquibo, that the first part of this journey home was made and this ship took those of us going to England as far as Naples.  Entering that magnificent bay we docked in the harbour and were then transferred to the huge liner Brittanic, at that time the largest ship afloat.  She was now fitted out as a hospital ship, but by a remarkable coincidence, I had seen her being built, shortly before being launched.  Little did I think I should see her next in such thrilling circumstances (Later, she was torpedoed).  The last we saw of Italy as we set sail for England was the plume of smoke from Vesuvius.

H.M.S. Brittanic Hospital Ship 1916

H.M.S. Brittanic Hospital Ship 1916

Although I had to spend more time than I should have liked in bed, the voyage was very pleasant and some of us were allowed on deck in the lovely Mediterranean sunshine.  My leg obstinately refused to heal properly, however I began to think I must be in for a long convalescence.  I can’t remember where we docked in England but my next recollection is of being sent to a private house in London which had been generously lent by the owner for the use by the hospital service for the duration of the war.  There I was to meet parents and friends and regain that feeling of security which had been missing for so long.  After about a month here the next stage was a period of leave after being discharged from hospital, and how welcome this was after a little time, however, my leg began to cause a good deal of trouble and I was sent to the 4th London General Hospital at Denmark Hill, for an operation,  why it was being so tiresome.  This was a set-back but it was during this time that a most exciting thing happened.  One day I received a letter from the War Office to say that I was to present myself at Buckingham Palace to receive the Military Cross and also to say that I had been mentioned in Despatches.  It was a wonderful experience and I have a very vivid recollection of the moment when King George V pinned the medal on my jacket.

After about another month more in hospital, I went to a nearby nursing home to convalesce, but there were complications to my leg and I had to go back for a second operation.  This time the somewhat elusive cause of the trouble was located and removed, in the shape of bits of bone and shrapnel splinters, and from then on things improved.

About this time I had the good luck to receive from the war office a warrant for an odd sum of money – something like £152.17.6d this I was told was a wound gratuity.  Now it was valued at that particular sum was not explained, but I didn’t enquire and didn’t take long to spend it.  I had never had so much money in my life and felt like a millionaire.  Sometime later another odd sum of money arrived and I found the two together added up to £250. How or why the War Office worked out this financial deal remained their secret.

After another short spell of sick leave I was posted on light duty, to the training Battalion.  It was stationed at Halton Camp near Aylesbury.  Later, this camp was to become an important Royal Air Force station, but at that time only a small sector was made by the Royal Flying Corp as it was them known.

The battalion’s job was to train recruits up to a point when they were ready to be drafted to battalions in the field and, in a way, this was rewarding work.  Except for route marching, I was able to cope with this pretty well and after making a number of friends in the neighbourhood, the daily routine was quite good.  Leopold de Rothschild owned a large estate about a mile from the Camp and he very kindly put part of his house, including a vast sun lounge, at the disposal of the officers.  Cricket matches figured in some of our spare time and life was once more on – comparatively even keel.   Then without warning, I started having trouble with my leg again and had to go to the Eastern General Hospital at Cambridge as that was the nearest place where suitable electrical treatment was available.  It appeared that in the course of the various operations the circulation had become very bad.  This was rather trying as I now began to feel too much of a passenger.  Time was moving on, it was now well into 1917, the country was fighting for its life and the outlook was bleak.  It was a month or so before I got out of hospital once more and was then posted to the Gloucesters at Sittingbourne in charge of a company of Pioneers.  This looked like a real dead-end but better things were just around the corner.

My period of duty with the Gloucesters taught me a great deal about regular Army life.  Up until now my experience of soldiering had been a matter of about eight weeks training in a Territorial unit, then being whisked off abroad and into action, here, at Sittingbourne, I found the whole atmosphere of a regular battalion a very different matter particularly as to discipline and the general outlook of regular officers.  My own job, in charge of a Pioneer unit attached to the Gloucester’s, was to keep them supplied with clothing, tools and equipment for the work they were doing and this meant little active work for me and the one officer under me.  None of us, of course, were fit for full duty.

Thinking of it afterwards, I suppose it must have been a bit galling for those of some of those regular officers that I should be one of the very men who wore a medal ribbon, when most of them must have had a good few years service, but I was never aware of any feeling about this and much enjoyed being a member of their mess.  Although the job wasn’t at all exciting, it had certain compensations one of which was being able to get to London occasionally for a theatre and to meet one’s friends.  Life at least was tolerable.

This lasted for two months when the Pioneer job came to an end, my next posting was to take charge of the personnel stationed at Stourton barracks at Guildford.  They were engaged, that summer of 1917, helping farmers with their hay and corn crops.  All of these men were in a low medical category and were probably quite glad to have been rated unfit for active service.  Again, it was neither an exciting nor exacting job but very much worthwhile in those days of enemy submarine activity, when so much of our food supply and, indeed, our very existence was threatened.  I had the use of a car by means of which I was able to get from farm to farm organising the work to the best of my ability.

One of the few incidents I remember was missing the last train from London to Guilford one night and only being able to get as far Woking.  I didn’t much fancy the walk from there to Guilford, had I been able to do it, but it looked as though there was no option.

I was very lucky, however, for the driver of the train on which I had got thus far, told me, when I asked if there was another train on, that he was taking the engine only on to Guilford and I could have a lift with him, a great piece of good fortune, especially as he stopped at the point on the line not far from the barracks and I slithered down the embankment.  Some time later I told the Commandant about it but he must have forgotten what it was like to be young as he didn’t think it at all funny.

Again, with the winter coming on, the job came to an end and I was posted back to my training battalion, which was then at a very good camp at Crowborough.  Here there was plenty to do, just as there had been at Halton and I was again amongst a friendly group of officers of my own regiment and I felt myself to be fairly useful, but I was anxious to be doing something more active, though I was not yet passed as A1, so, when a call came for volunteers to go to the West African Regiment, another officer and myself applied and were accepted.  It was only for garrison duty certainly, but quite out of the ordinary military service.   We were seconded for duty with this regiment for a 12 months period and after embarkation leave and fitting out with the necessary uniform, we sailed on the Windsor Castle for Sierra Leone.

The regiment had been in action in German West Africa and when preparations came to an end there, it returned to its base at Freetown. For all practical purposes this was a peace time but the regiment had a good tradition and I felt this was better than near stagnation in England and I looked forward to the new experience.

After an uneventful voyage the ship landed us at Freetown and we reported to headquarters at Wilberforce Barracks.  The battalion was on manoeuvres and so proceeded to join it the next day.
They were engaged in what was known as ‘bush warfare’, that is to say fighting an enemy in wooded country.  For some reason or other this was said to require very special training, but it looked to me and the other officer who came with me that, and skilled as we were in that sort of country, very much what we had all been through for some years.  However, the chief concern for the first few days in this very hot country was to try to avoid too much sunburn and to make ourselves useful.  This sort of training didn’t last very long and after a few days the battalion returned to Wilberforce Barracks and settled down to normal work.

In addition to Headquarters, the battalion which consisted of eight companies, occupied two up-country stations, one at Mabanta, at the head of the Lokko River and the other at Wongat’u some 30 miles further inland. After a spell at Wilberforce I was posted to Mabanta where with one company we did routine work in the way of assisting the District Commissioners to maintain the Government of the country. Our camp just outside Mabanta consisted of well bult huts made of mud and wattle and thatched. There were about half a dozen officers including a M.O. and we were a very happy community with the occasional few days leave shooting or fishing.

I had one rather exciting experience when I was sent by my Commander to try and locate and capture one of the natives who was running amok and terrifying the district a few miles away.

I was allowed to pick a few men and an N.C.O and went to investigate.  The man hid up during the day in the bush and at night stole food from the small farms.  He was very illusive and this could have gone on for a long time but I got the headman of the district to order all food to be brought in at night in an effort to starve him out.  It worked, as he was forced to come out in the daytime to get food and he was eventually rounded up by my men and the local people and killed in the encounter but not before he had savagely attacked some of the villagers.  I still have the very nasty looking home made dagger he used.  Some days after this a woman was brought to camp who had been attacked by this man with a machete and our MO had to amputate a hand and a foot.  We heard afterwards that she made a complete recovery.

My spell of duty at Mabanta lasted until after Armistice Day on November 11th (we heard the news two days later) and I returned to Wilberforce with a bad go of Malaria.  My tour of 12 months service, which was the limit we were supposed to do, is what was known as ‘the white man’s grave’, had now stretched to nearly 18 months and at last I was put under orders to return to England.  Although, naturally, I was very glad to be home again and demobilised now that the war was over, it had been a most interesting and instructive time for me.

Thus came to an end my time in the army, which had taken a five year chunk out of my life after leaving school.  It left me with a certain amount of maturity but with no training of any kind for earning a living in civilian life, but, as it happened this problem was solved easily and satisfactorily.

West African Regiment

West African Regiment
Cap Badge 1889-1928

Note:
1. ‘Scrinshanking’:   Old military (Naval) slang for a person who avoids their responsibilities, or is work -shy. What may latterly be termed a "skiver".


“While Memory Lasts...” Lt Hancock’s own account of his time at Gallipoli & West Africa kindly supplied by Richard Hancock.