The Incomparable 29th and the “River Clyde”

The Incomparable 29th and the “River Clyde”

George Davidson
George Davidson

Author: Davidson, George
Great Britain. Army. Infantry Division
29th — History
World War
1914-1918 — Regimental histories — Great Britain
1914-1918 — Medical care — Great Britain
The Incomparable 29th and the “River Clyde”

Transcriber’s Note:

Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. This document has unusual spelling that has been preserved.
Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document.
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Major, R.A.M.C.







I had not the slightest intention of ever publishing these notes in book form while jotting them down for the sole purpose of giving my wife some connected idea of how we at the Front were spending our time. I found, to my surprise, that keeping a diary was a great pleasure, and I rarely missed the opportunity of taking notes at odd times—and often in odd places.
Several of my friends read the parts as I sent them home, and it is on the valued advice of one in particular that I now offer these scraps to the public. I make practically no change on the original, but in a few places, for the sake of sequence, or more fulness, I have made additions. These are always in brackets.
Some of the remarks in the original might safely be published fifty years hence, but at present the war is too recent for these to see the light of print.
Torphins, Aberdeenshire,
June, 1919.


March 16th, 1915.—After serving for five months as a lieutenant in what was at first known as the 1st Highland Field Ambulance, and afterwards, as the 89th Field Ambulance, I left Coventry, our last station, to do my little bit in the great European War, our destination being unknown. We had heard well-founded rumours that we were going to the Dardanelles, or somewhere in the Levant, and our being deprived of our horses and receiving mules instead, and helmets (presumably cork) being ordered for the officers, all pointed to our being sent to a warmer climate than France or Belgium, where the war is raging on the west side of the great drama.
Leaving Coventry at 1.50 p.m. we reached Avonmouth about 5, to find that our boat was not in. The men were put up in a cold, draughty shed for the night, where they had little sleep, while the officers took train to Bristol, nine miles off, where we dined excellently at the Royal Hotel, but, there being no vacant rooms, we went to the St. Vincent’s Rocks Hotel, overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the great gorge of the Avon.

March 17th.—Returned to Avonmouth and wandered about inspecting the huge transports lying in the docks, and H.M.S. “Cornwall,” just returned for repairs from the fight at Falkland Islands. She had received three shell holes in her hull, one under the water line, and a large number of perforations in one of her funnels.
We then got on board our boat, the “Marquette,” of the Red Star Line, built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow, of over 8000 tons, and said to be a good sailer. We lunched with the captain, a Scotchman of course, hailing from Montrose. At 5.30 we got the men on board, and all spent the night in our new quarters.

March 18th.—After getting numerous details on board during last night and to-day, amounting to about 1300 men, 60 officers, about 700 horses and mules; besides 20 tons of explosives and 50 tons of barbed wire, and wagons by the hundred, we set sail at 10 p.m. under sealed orders. No lights were allowed owing to the danger from submarines which had been busy within the last few days in the Bristol Channel and about the Scilly Islands. As escort we had two torpedo-boat destroyers, one on each side and slightly ahead. These left us after twelve hours, when we were in less danger, and 100 miles west of the usual course, sailing W.S.W. into the Atlantic.

March 19th.—Beautiful day with slight breeze, but biting cold at first; ship pitching and rolling moderately, a few officers a little sick early, and about 80 per cent of the men, the latter suffering badly from the close atmosphere in their deck, in which their hammocks are slung as close as sardines in a tin and all port holes closed. The electric light had been shut off so that no one might be able to show a light.
Dr. K——, the ship’s ancient doctor, is a curious customer, full of stories and quaint remarks. Captain Findlay is very communicative but will not reveal any private orders. He is directed to steer for the Mediterranean by a certain course. About 5 p.m. to-day he altered his course from W.S.W. to S. At 5 an order was issued to have the iron shutters put over the port holes, otherwise no lights to be allowed.
Very little shipping has been seen to-day, although several ships of a small size have passed at a long distance on our port side. One of the reasons for choosing this course was to avoid ships that might carry a wireless installation and signal our movements to the enemy.
The captain, when swearing at the head steward about some forgetfulness, gave what he considered proof of the superiority of the memory of the lower animals over the human in a little story. He had carried Barnum and Bailey’s menagerie once from America and occasionally fed a young elephant, Ruth by name, after President Cleveland’s daughter, she taking apples from his pocket. After three years he came across her again, and calling her by name, she came up and put her trunk into the same pocket as of old. On the trip over he carried 1200 animals, only two dying, one being the giraffe which fell down a hatchway and broke his neck in two places—somehow a very fitting death for a giraffe.
Saw several porpoises playing and jumping beside the boat. A wireless message to the captain tells of the appearance of a German submarine at Dover last night.
Towards 6.30 two very large steamers crossed our bows, coming out of the west, while we went slowly to avoid them. One carried no lights and was probably carrying troops from Canada.
Had an amusing talk on the boat deck with the old doctor. He was telling us about three padres who left our boat just before we started, preferring to go by another as they did not like travelling with so many animals. There being no parson for the coming Sundays they requested him to hold the services, but he replied that there was no use asking him, he could not pray worth a damn. He explained that a ship rang eight bells at 12, four at 8, and one for each half-hour after these, as one bell at 4.30, two at 5, three at 5.30, and so on.
Beautiful night, stars clear, and sea very smooth for the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay, where we now are. The equinoctial gales usually begin on March 20 (to-morrow), so the captain says. We have averaged 12½ knots since we left Avonmouth. A small bucketfull of water is taken from the sea every two hours, and its temperature taken to see if we are near ice.

March 20th.—Weather to-day typical of the Bay of Biscay, half a gale all day, and blowing furiously at 7 o’clock, bottles, glasses, etc., flying off the dinner-table. Sea-sickness very rife, almost every one suffering more or less. Saw only two passing ships to-day. The captain prophesies warmer weather to-morrow if the wind remains in the east as at present. It will then be off the land, we being opposite Finisterre about 8 a.m. to-morrow.
The orders to the captain are to remain sixty miles off land while skirting Spain and Portugal. By wireless we hear the Allies still gain ground in Flanders, and of a railway collision in Lancashire.

March 21st.—Sunday.—Good news by wireless of the progress of the war. Wind changed to S.E., showery in the morning, and pleasantly warm. Church parade at 10. “Old Hundred” by the congregation, led by Serg. Gibb, the Lord’s Prayer by Serg. Gaskin—as much of it as he could remember—a chapter of Matthew by Capt. Stephen followed by some words of advice, when the attempts of the audience to look solemn were all in vain—then off to the deck with “The Innocents Abroad”.
During the day the weather has been very variable, occasionally very heavy rain showers, but very mild; strong gale all day right in our teeth which must retard our progress. At dinner—7 p.m.—the captain said we were not quite opposite Lisbon, but nearly. With a few exceptions all have found their sea legs.

March 22nd.—Being Orderly Officer I was up at 6.45 and inspected our unit’s breakfast at 7.15, expecting a repetition of the grousing about their food which has gone on since we came on board, but to-day all are satisfied for the first time. They began with porridge which looked palatable, though sloppy for a Scotchman’s taste, and was said to be without salt, which would certainly be the case were the cook an Englishman. Then each had a cup of coffee which looked fair enough and smelt good to a hungry man like myself, with two thick slices of bread with salt butter and jam. I feel as fit as a fiddle, and believe the equinoctial gales at their worst would be none too much for me. The feeling that I am to sink to the bottom of the ocean when the boat pitches has entirely gone.
Stephen and I are wondering what our folks at home are doing, and if they are always looking for letters from us by the next post. If so they will be disappointed for many days yet. A good many of our horses are sick, and two died yesterday and were thrown overboard. The poor brutes have very cramped quarters.
The sea was fairly rough during daylight and the ship rolled so badly that at lunch and dinner “fiddles” had to be put along the tables to keep the dishes in their places. In the evening the wind fell to a very gentle, balmy breeze, when a number of us spent some time on the boat deck watching the phosphorescence of the jelly fish, which we saw in many hundreds.

March 23rd.—Got up early and on going on deck at 7.30 found we were making straight for the sun. Most glorious morning, sun bright, sea, except for the eternal swell, perfectly calm. We had changed our course and were heading 8 degrees S. of E., making for the Straits of Gibraltar. At 8 the captain, wishing to be sure of his longitude, began bawling out to some unseen person, “Mark 23, 22; mark 23, 19, add another 1; mark 23, 25”. He explained that he took the reading three times then struck an average.
In time land hove in sight, faint at first, but gradually the rocky coast of Spain, north of Cape Trafalgar, became distinct, then this cape itself came out of the mist as white as snow—so white that the purser said he believed it actually was snow. Then higher hills beyond appeared with others of a similar nature on the African coast. All looked forbidding and barren. Swallows were flitting about, and would have meant summer at home, but I fancy they are here all winter. The heat of the sun was intense, and I observed that his altitude seemed as high as I was accustomed to see him in midsummer.
The captain soon pointed out “The Rock,” and after passing the white town of Tarifa on the Spanish main it got clearer and clearer, but to our disgust our boat kept towards the south side of the Straits, and all were disappointed we were not to have a chance to post letters here as we expected. Tangier in the outer part of the Straits was invisible from mist. The Rock was not quite as impressive as I expected, nor could I with certainty make out more than one gun position, although I saw several black spots where guns may have frowned at us.
A gunboat came after us and made us turn about in a circle till she was satisfied of our identity, the ship’s number being invisible through the mist to those on shore. Ceuta with its snow-white houses lay on the south coast almost opposite Gibraltar. Some large buildings could be plainly seen, and between the town and the sea, on the north-east side the fortified hill held by the Spaniards since they lost Gibraltar.
Later I found we sailed directly east, our next halt being as yet unknown. All roll has entirely departed from our ship, which almost seems unnatural after the tossing we have had. What struck me most to-day was the rocky nature of both sides of the Straits—we might have been among the rugged mountains of Ross-shire. Apes Head seemed to be made of rugged and split masses of limestone. The rocks with their bright colours were a great relief to our eyes which had rested on nothing but water for five days.

March 24th.—A quiet uneventful day; colder than yesterday in the Atlantic. I find that all along we have sailed with only two lights showing, both faint, one on either end of the bridge, red to port and green to starboard. In the last twenty-four hours we covered 286 miles, and going east fast, the clock being now advanced twenty-three minutes daily. We left Avonmouth with 1500 tons of coal on board, and we use sixty-five tons daily. We carry a poultry yard and get fresh eggs for breakfast, one some one had to-day was so fresh that according to the date written on it it was laid to-morrow (25/3/15). We have a lot of Irishmen on board which explains this Irishism. We had a concert in the evening, got up by Col. O’Hagan, the O.C. the West Lancashire Field Ambulance, when we had many amusing songs and tales. The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond all day. Towards night the wind rose, strong enough to cause a big pitch had we been still in the Atlantic, but here it is hardly noticeable. The south-east corner of Spain was seen in the morning and a peep of Africa got in the afternoon.

March 25th.—Just returned from the engine room, having made up to the chief engineer, who took me over the machinery and stokehole. The three cylinders develop 4500 horse-power. The largest is 96 inches in diameter.
All day we have been in sight of the African coast, the Atlas Mountains making one continuous range. They reminded me strongly of Ross-shire, the whole outline being rough and rugged. Mount Atlas, which we did not see, is 14,740 feet high. About 9 a.m. we were said to be near the town of Algiers. Great snowfields were visible on most of the highest mountains. These were very picturesque with the sun shining on the snow. We have seen little shipping, one large oil boat passed west. All are taking the lack of news philosophically, nothing, as far as I can make out, being heard to-day. Code messages from battleships speaking to each other are received but are unreadable.
Helmets were issued to the officers to-day, but the wind is too cold to make these necessary.
As Sanitary Officer for the day I had to go over the whole of the horse decks with the Military Officer of the ship, Lt.-Col. Hingston, R.E. The alleys between the horse lines, all of which had to be traversed, must be nearly half a mile in length, all the heads of the horses projecting in double lines into the narrow passages, which makes tramping along these dark ways anything but pleasant. The close stench is very sickening, and I was glad when our journey came to an end. We have lost four horses so far. The mules are hardier and have stood the voyage well. They are besides accustomed to the sea, all having come lately from the Argentine.

March 26th.—An ideal day and the sun delightfully warm. We had the African coast in sight the whole time till early afternoon. Passed Cape Blanco, which in the distance might have been part of Deeside, hills with stretches of verdure which looked like forest with brown spaces between which were probably sand.
Helmets were issued to the men to-day. These with their broad brims look very serviceable against the sun. One man coming on a friend who had just donned his, yelled: “Hello, man, come oot o’ that till I see yer feet”.
At the present speed we should reach Malta at 6 a.m. to-morrow where surely we’ll be able to post letters, but they have a long way to go to reach home. At 5 o’clock we were opposite Pantellaria, an Italian penal settlement, and about 140 miles from Malta. On the north coast of the island the settlement is visible, big white houses at different levels on its rocky face. There are very steep rocks on the east side rising straight out of the sea.

March 27th.—My first peep at the East—although it is perhaps not the East proper. I rose at 5.30 to find Malta right ahead, and Valetta only a mile or two distant. The sight was gorgeous, the rocky land all tints of yellow, and the houses of divers colours, flat-roofed, domed, and altogether Oriental.
Two warships, which turned out to be the “Prince of Wales” and the “Paris,” were steaming rapidly from the north-east, and we were ordered to lie to till they entered the harbour, then to follow. The scene on entering this harbour baffles description, with its cliffs, forts, and frowning guns and numerous warships. There were signs of war preparations everywhere. The entrance to the harbour was guarded by booms, only a small opening being left where they were folded back. A short way inside came another row of booms. Then came a French warship on our port side, coaling at its hardest, from which came shouts to our decks crowded with troops of “where are you going”? The reply had to be “We don’t know”. Immediately to starboard we had another French ship which turned out to be the largest in the harbour. All her crew and band were drawn up on deck, and the latter struck up “God save the King”. We at once stood at attention, all in silence, but when the strains ended every man hurrahed at the pitch of his voice. The band then gave us “It’s a long way to Tipperary”.
On going a little farther we were moored to a buoy in the middle of the waterway, with all sorts of shipping round us, mostly French warships, there being at least a dozen of that nationality, the only British men-of-war being the two we saw enter. The transparency and greenness of the water are remarkable. The whole harbour is dotted over with “bum boats” which are said to be peculiar to Malta, and have high boards at their stem and stern, and are worked by one or two men standing upright. Most sell fruits and odds and ends to those on board, while others convey passengers to and from the land. The houses about the harbour are largely forts or connected with the army and navy. They rise tier upon tier to the top of the surrounding rocks which may be about 150 feet high.
After lunch permission was given to the officers and N.C.O.’s to go ashore. There was great excitement of course, and all asked for leave forthwith. Being “Officer of the day,” whose duties applied to the whole ship, I decided not to remind the C.O.—Col. Hingston—of this, but our C.O. mentioning at lunch that I need not look for leave I could not sneak off as I had intended, and was to be permitted only if I found a substitute, which, of course, I failed to do. Every one has gone to stretch his legs on land except the “Captain of the day” and myself. Still I hope to get a short turn ashore before we sail at 6 p.m. which is announced as the hour of our departure—and our destination? we wish we knew.
8.30 p.m.—Fiddes very kindly returned early to relieve me and I spent two very enjoyable hours in Valetta, wandering about its narrow and stair-like streets. There were goats everywhere, many being milked on the doorsteps as I passed. I bought some pieces of Maltese lace, which is pretty much of one pattern, generally a Maltese cross surrounded by flowers. The inhabitants are plainly of Italian descent, but if you ask if that is their nationality, they always deny it and say they are Maltese. The shops are tota

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The Incomparable 29th and the “River Clyde”
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