Impressions of the voyage—Sentry-go—Troopship— Limitations— Retrospect—St. Vincent—Forecasts—The Start—The Needles— Southampton Water—Landing— Paddington—A dream.
I am not going to describe the voyage in detail. Africa, with all it meant, was behind us, England was before, and the intervening time, monotonous though it was, passed quickly with that absorbing thought. My chief impression is that of living in an eternal jostle; forming interminable queues outside canteens, washing-places, and stuffy hammockrooms in narrow alleys, and of leisure hours spent on deck among a human carpet of khaki, playing euchre, or reading the advertisement columns of ancient halfpenny papers. There was physical exercise, and a parade every day, but the chief duty was that of sentry-go, which recurred to each of us every five days, and lasted for twenty-four hours. The ship teemed with sentries. To look out for fire was our principal function, and a very important one it was, but I have also vivid recollections of lonely vigils over water-tight doors in stifling little alley-ways, of directing streams of traffic up troop-deck ladders, and of drowsy sinecures, in the midnight hours, over deserted water-taps and empty wash-houses. These latter, which contained fourteen basins between fourteen hundred men, are a good illustration of the struggle for life in those days. That a sentry should guard them at night was not unreasonable on the face of it, since I calculated that if every man was to appear washed at the ten o’clock parade, the first would have had to begin washing about six o’clock the night before, allowing ten minutes for a toilet, but unfortunately for this theory, the basins were always locked up at night. Another grim pleasantry was an order that all should appear shaved at the morning parade. Luckily this cynical regulation was leniently interpreted, for the spectacle of fourteen hundred razors flashing together in those narrow limits of time and space was a prospect no humane person could view with anything but horror.
There was plenty of time to reflect over our experiences in the last nine months. Summing mine up, I found, and thinking over it at home find still, little but good in the retrospect. Physically and mentally, I, like many others, have found this short excursion into strict military life of enormous value. To those who have been lucky enough to escape sickness, the combination of open air and hard work will act as a lasting tonic against the less healthy conditions of town-life. It is something, bred up as we have been in a complex civilization, to have reduced living to its simplest terms and to have realized how little one really wants. It is much to have learnt the discipline, self-restraint, endurance and patience which soldiering demands. (For a driver, it is a liberal education in itself to have lived with and for two horses day and night for eight months!) Perhaps the best of all is to have given up newspaper reading for a time and have stepped one’s self into the region of open-air facts where history is made and the empire is moulded; to have met and mixed with on that ground, where all classes are fused, not only men of our blood from every quarter of the globe, but men of our own regular army who had fought that desperate struggle in the early stages of the war before we were thought of; to have lived their life, heard their grievances, sympathized with their needs, and admired their splendid qualities.
As to the Battery, it is not for a driver in the ranks to generalize on its work. But this one can say, that after a long and trying probation on the line of communications we did at length do a good deal of work and earn the confidence of our Brigadier. We have been fortunate enough to lose no lives through wounds and only one from sickness, a fact which speaks highly for our handling in the field by our officers, and for their general management of the Battery. Incidentally, we can fairly claim to have proved, or helped to prove, that Volunteer Artillery can be of use in war; though how much skill and labour is involved in its sudden mobilization only the few able men who organized ours in January last can know.
To return to the Aurania.
On the 19th of October we were anchored at St. Vincent, with the fruit-laden bum-boats swarming alongside, and the donkey-engines chattering, derricks clacking, and coal-dust pervading everything.
Here we read laconic telegrams from London, speaking of a great reception before us on Saturday the 27th, and thenceforward the talk was all of runs, and qualities of coal, and technical mysteries of the toiling engines, which were straining to bring us home by Friday night. Every steward, stoker, and cabin boy had his circle of disciples, who quoted and betted on his predictions as though they were the utterings of an oracle; but the pessimists gradually prevailed, for we met bad weather and heavy head-seas on entering the bay. It was not till sunrise on Friday itself that we sighted land, a white spur of cliff, with a faint suggestion of that long unseen colour, green, behind it, seen across some miles of wind-whipped foaming blue. The optimists said it was the Needles, the pessimists the Start; the latter were right, and we guessed we should have to wait till Monday before landing; but that did not lessen the delight of watching the familiar shores slide by till the Needles were reached, and then of feasting our eyes, long accustomed to the parched plains of Africa, on fields and hedges, and familiar signs of homely, peaceful life.
It was four o’clock when we dropped anchor in Southampton Water, and were shouting a thousand questions at the occupants of a tug which lay alongside, and learnt with wonder, emotion, and a strange sense of unworthiness, of the magnificent welcome that London had prepared for us.
The interminable day of waiting; the landing on the quay, with its cheering crowds; that wonderful journey to London, with its growing tumult of feelings, as station after station, with their ribboned and shouting throngs, flashed by; the meeting at Paddington with our comrades of the Honourable Artillery Company, bringing us their guns and horses; the mounting of a glossy, smartly-equipped steed, which made me laughingly recall my shaggy old pair, with their dusty, travel-worn harness; all this I see clearly enough. The rest seems a dream; a dream of miles of upturned faces, of dancing colours, of roaring voices, of a sudden dim hush in the great Cathedral, of more miles of faces under gaslight, of a voice in a packed hall saying, “London is proud of her—,” of disconnected confidences with policemen, work-people, street-arabs, and finally of the entry once more through the old grey gateway of the Armoury House. I expect the feelings of all of us were much the same; some honest pride in having helped to earn such a welcome; a sort of stunned bewilderment at its touching and passionate intensity; a deep wave of affection for our countrymen; and a thought in the background all the time of a dusty khaki figure still plodding the distant veldt—our friend and comrade, Atkins, who has done more and bloodier work than we, and who is not at the end of it yet.