21st Battalion History
We arrived at Tel-el-kebir in the midst of the first rain storm we had experienced in Egypt and found that the few tents on our camping ground were occupied by our 4th, 5th and part of our 6th reinforcements. After a few days when we had sorted ourselves out we found that we were in camp alongside the 1st Division. Both Divisions were complete with artillery, engineers and all division troops for the first time, our own divisional artillery and engineers having arrived from Australia to join us.
The Battalion stayed at Tel-el-kebir training till the 25th January when the Division moved out to take over the Canal Zone defences. We travelled by train to Ismailia---Moasar and marched to Ferry Post. Next day we marched from Ferry Post to our defensive position near Hog' Back, ten miles in a straight line. After consultation with some who took part in most of our marches, the writer unhesitatingly puts this down as the worst "promenade" we ever did. Every man was fully equipped with extra ammunition, rations and two blankets in addition to the ordinary Etceteras. When we reached the end the Q department had failed and we solaced ourselves on Bully beef, biscuits and very little water. And all this in the heat of the Egyptian sun; yes it was some march.
Routine on the Sinais Desert was strenuous. Training occupied our time by day, and one night in four each company had a run on outpost duty. We owed a great deal of our efficiency in France to the six weeks spent guarding the Canal. In February the Brigade Machine Gun Company was formed and the Battalion M.G. Officer and Sergeant attended a course of Lewis Gunnery at Ismailia.
Leaving the desert on 7th March, we went to camp at Moascar where we completed our divisional organisation for France, by the formation of a Pioneer Battalion and each unit trained its own Lewis Gun section with four guns to a Battalion. Among our new equipment was the P.H. gas helmet, which was substituted for the old smoke helmet and muslin respirator with which we were issued on the Peninsula. The Prince of Wales visited Moascar Camp at this time and the 6th Brigade was the first Australian unit reviewed by him.
The early hours of the 19th March found us in open trucks in the rain once more en route for Alexandria where next day we embarked on the "Minnewaska" for Marseilles. The voyage was pleasant as regards weather but nervy as regards submarines and we were glad to tie up safety alongside a French wharf in the afternoon of the 24th March. The 2nd Division was the first Australian unit in France except the Siege Artillery and the 1st Divisional Motor Transport. This being the case our reception was exceptionally enthusiastic. During our three days train journey from Marseilles to Aire. We were delighted by the sight of the green countryside, the broad sweep of the Rhone and the undoubted warmth of our welcome from the people.
We detrained at Aire on the 27th March and marched to our first billets in Glominghem; more rain. Thus early in our career we had established that the 21st Battalion moved either in the rain or on a Sunday. At Glomingheim we were practiced in route marching on hard roads again, a change from the desert and put through a gas cloud. The 6th Light Trench Mortar Battery, our friends throughout the war came into being at this time. Their little weapon, the Stokes Mortar at once took the fancy of us all and ever since when in trouble we have called for the little guns, and found them at their posts. During our stay at Glominghem, we were reviewed by Lord Kitchener.
On 4th April we marched towards the line at Fleurbaix staying the first night at Haverskerque (13 miles) and the second at Sailly (10 miles). The transport section accompanied the unit for the first time on this march. Previously they had been rather out of it, but from out arrival in France onwards they were our constant and trusted companions. Come good, come bad, if the rations were obtainable, the transport got them up to us and in the getting lost good men and horses too. This march to the line can be classed in the second flight of marches, in line, that is to say, with the Arneke to Ouest Mont performance (211/2 miles) in October 1916 (our longest one-day spin) and the Cappy to Doingt fracas in September 1918.
Once again the first Australian Infantry unit to take the plunge, we left Sailly for the front line on the evening of the 7th April to take over from the 10th Battalion, Lincoln Regt. But that is starting on the next stage of our story.
En passant it may be of interest to enumerate the various first performances we have to our credit.
Our first days in France were happy days. Glad to be free from the drag of the desert; satisfied with the thought that we were now to take part in a campaign in which there was a possibility of warfare of movement; fit as fiddles, trained to a hair and broken in to the sights and sounds of warfare. We were some Battalion. The idea of warfare of movement remained our dream for more than two years before we actually saw it. Not till the summer of 1918 did we know the joy of having the Hun on the run. Our dreams were then justified and as General Monash has said, we realised that there is no such tonic for weary troops as success.