25th County of London Cyclist Battalion
The London Regiment

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Harry OKE

National Army Museum Catalogue

  • NAM. 2004-05-43 - 1
    Typed transcript of a letter written by Sgt Harry Oke, 1/25 London Cyclists from Baird Barracks, Bangalore, dated 1915 in error, should be 1916, later in manuscript. Describes the troopship journey to India on SS Ceramic, arrival in Bombay, Indian people and the journey to Bangalore. From a collection of items relating to Sgt Oke, World War One, India (1914-1918) and World War Two, Far East, prisoners of war (1941-1945).

c/o G.P.O. London 

or :-
Sgt. H. Oke
1/25th London Cyclists
Baird Barracks

Dearest Mother & Dad,

I wrote you a hurried note from Bombay just to give you an idea of the particular part of the globe my dainty feet had strayed in. But now we are safely ensconced in this delightful station at last I can more or less give you a detailed account of my travels since leaving Chisledon. Firstly, Doddy is here. He managed to wriggle out of hospital a few hours before we left and by leaning on my arm marched to the station past our officers seemingly a fit man.

We left Chisledon on Thursday morning February 3rd. Reville sounded at 2.30a.m. and after an excuse for a last breakfast on English soil, we bade Chiseldon a soldiers farewell, and entrained at the Camp station for Devonport. We puffed into Swindon and after shunting about for awhile got on to the main G.W.R. line.

Our first stop was Taunton for about hour, then Exeter for about as long, where we were all dished out with tea and cakes by ladies on the platform, the gift of the Mayoress of Exeter. We arrived at Plymouth in due course and I dropped a post card out of the carriage window addressed to Torville and eventually we detrained in Devonport Harbour and it poured with rain the whole time. With an Embarkation Officer directing affairs it was not long before we were installed on H. M. Transport No. 40. or in other words S.S. Ceramic, of the White Star Line, an intermediate Australian liner, a vessel of 18000 tons, 678 feet long and 72 ft. beam. Of course a transport does not cater for luxurious travelling, the holds and every available corner being turned into troop-decks, but we made the best of affairs and I personally was sorry when the journey ended. In normal times the vessel carried 800 passengers, 2nd class, and steerage, but when it pleased H. M. to turn it into a trooper, it carried 4000 besides crew.

We have three battalions on board, Hants, Sussex and 25th (all cyclists of yore). We were all stowed away by the afternoon and then we trooped up on deck to watch the loading of the vessel with artillery (for the Persian. Gulf) and aeroplanes (for East Africa) besides stores and coal for the voyage. We had enough of the two latter to last all the way to Australia and did not have to take fresh stores all the journey.

About three p.m. on Friday the pilot came aboard and the tugs hauled this way and that until we were in the Sound. As we passed, the boys on the training ships manned the riggings and cheered, and the battleships sounded the "Stand fast". It was dusk by this time and the towns were merely bundles of trinkling lights, which were soon all we could see of Dear Old England. I had one last look and then went below and slung my hammock for the night, my mind a maze of conflicting emotions. We were starting on a journey of many thousand miles and I was leaving England and all it meant to me for the first time in my life and I wondered.

I awoke next morning and felt rather funny, for after all I've slept in far more comfortable places than a hammock, the first thing I did was to step on to the floor which was several feet lower than I allowed for and the result was I found myself counting stars on the floor. On looking round I found everybody in funny attitudes holding their tummies and having a look at their last meal in various pails and bowls. I did not have any effects at all, and our little corner had a sweepstake. Doddy and were the only two left and I took the cash as on the second day he dribbled.

We had received orders by now that lifebelts were to be worn on all occasions on account of hostile submarines and I can tell you from experience that sleeping in a hammock "a la lifebelt" is d----d uncomfortable.

We were now of course in the Bay of Biscay and I was surprised at its calmness, having pictured it as being like a Scenic Railway, but all went well and during the night we passed Cape Finisterre. Our daily routine was being dropped into now, including Division, which is a parade that is adhered to throughout every boat in H. M. Service. All crew etc parade at their appointed places, whilst the Captain with his various satellites numbering about 50, walk round the ship and inspect things. This wasn't bad until we came into
tropical climate, when the sun blistered the pitch in the decks and burnt our feet, as Divisions meant standing still for at least an hour.

It was now nothing else but open sea, with watches all round the ship, and the machine gunners sleeping at their guns ready for Submarines, a very arduous vigil, but with the usual result - nothing doing. On February 7th the order came out for all ranks to have
their heads shaved and we now resemble convicts. Early on the morning of the 8th Feb. we sighted land which proved to be Tangiers & it was really glorious - the rising sun striking the cliffs obliquely which rose sheer up from the sea for fully 300 or 400 ft. Gibraltar was passed at 7 a.m. and then we hugged the African Coast, and the more we saw the more magnificent it looked. After Breakfast we were again in the open sea (the Mediterranean). Next day, 9th, we had Algier in sight at 4 a.m. and maintained an even speed of 17 knots in sight of Africa all day. This day was our first - mucking about - inoculation against cholera.

Next day we continually passed through shoals of porpoises and dolphins. Cape Bon and the island of Pontalona were passed before sunset. We were now within 50 miles of Malta - only three hours - but we didn't anchor in Malta Harbour until 8 a.m. next
morning (going to bed).

I resume - We heard then that the ship's captain a naval, commander, had made a detour of 150 miles to avoid two Austrian Submarines which were waiting for us. Still nothing happened and we left Malta at 9 o'clock after sending ashore one of the Sussex men who had gone mad on the boat. A French transport bound presumably for the Mesopotamia, which was following in our wake was torpedoed and sunk the next morning. The next two days nothing happened except that it was getting warmer and as Doddy and I did not think a hammock "liken unto a feather bed" we slept on deck and trusted to luck for
the rain to hold off. But we had a rude surprise at 2.30 a.m. for the deck swillers came round and we were both badly swilled, and to use the words of the chronicler, "the best state or those men was worse than the first!" Still once bitten etc., so in future we "kipped" in one of the boats.

At 2 o'clock on the morning of the 14th, we were both awakened by a din of clanking chains etc. We had reached Port Said, the world famous town at the head of the Suez Canal, and as soon as dawn broke, we discovered we were anchored only a few yards from the Quayside. Nor of course the ship was infested with "wallahs" (pedlars) of all sorts, and the guard had quite a job to keep them off. Some managed to get permission to board, and naturally made us pay for everything "though the nose", but even then things were very cheap, especially cigarettes.

We stayed here a whole day and night, landing some of the artillery and taking on Canteen stuff. During the afternoon Officers and W.O.'s were allowed ashore, and they confirmed on their return what we had already heard, that Port Said was one of the filthiest end worst towns in the East. The actual quayside, however, is a fine place and it is there that you find all the agencies for European Commerce.

Band practices were now commenced as our danger from hostile craft was now over, and with a loud "War whoop" we discarded our life belts and settled down to enjoy ourselves.At 8. a.m. - 15th - our journey recommenced and we passed through a veritable forest of shipping of all sorts till we reached the canal, which is exactly the same, the whole of its 80 or 90 miles - just a sluggish ribbon of water bounded on either side by the arid and seemingly boundless desert.

We received strict injunctions to make no mention whatever of the Suez Canal fortifications, so I must be careful! All along either bank were troops - practically all Colonials, who flag-wagged us all good wishes. Apparently they don't get much in the way of luxuries, for when one of ours threw a tin of cigarettes into the water, about
doz dived in, with all their clothes on, after it! So we made a rush on the Canteen and skinned them of all cigarettes which duly went over the side, much to the enjoyment of the Colonials. At dusk we anchored in the first of the Bitter Lakes, for the night, accompanied by three French men-o-war, everywhere being oppressively hot. We had to stay here the night because as the canal is so narrow it was out of the question for a ship of our size to navigate in the dark.

Next morning we up-anchored and continued down the canal, passing many "dhows" those picturesque native boats which the Arabs use for all purposes. Port Suez was passed about 4 o'clock and the English battleships H.M.S. Gloria, Mincroa, and Jupiter. We were now in the Red Sea and were feeling the benefit of the awnings which had been rigged up at Port Said, for our journey lasted 4 days after passing Aden and the "Heat" was terrific. As there were no more guards and watches needed we had more leisure, and concerts and boxing competitions etc were got up, and we had some fine times. Aden was passed at 8 a.m. on the 20th and this meant we were now in the Indian Ocean. Sharks followed about 200 yards behind the boat, but as nobody was thrown overboard to appease them, they soon left us. Flying fish were also plentiful now. On the 21st we had our 2nd cholera inoculation. I'm supplimenting my own notes for this letter by reference to my diary, and this is what is written for the 21st :-
Paraded at 6.45 a.m. Again with full pack and all brass polished . Again at 11 o'clock. Again at 2 for drill. Again at 3 for pay. Prophecy!- Battn dead in 6 months.

Nothing happened now except our daily routine until the 24th, when Bombay our port was sighted. It is a very shallow harbour and in spite of a local pilot o n board, we stuck, and had to wait until next morn for the tide to rise and enable us to berth in our dock. The thing that struck me most as soon as we arrived was to hear the shrieking and yelling crowd of natives trying to sell their various wares.

After breakfast we had a shirt-sleeve parade and disembarked for a. route march round the town, just to give us an opportunity of seeing things. Bombay is like the Curates egg - fine in parts. The Public Buildings and European residences are fine, the streets wide - and electric lighting and tramways all over the town, but Oriental, you can't get away from that. Out here, every native professes some particular caste and each caste is represented by a mark on the forehead. Some have a spot, some streaks of paint, some circles and some squares, all kinds of colours. The stunt in Bangalore is to shave the front half of their heads and let the back grow into a bun. Oh! they are some knuts! and look like women. Another thing that is an education in itself are the womenfolk. It would teach the average English girl the lesson of her life. The great outstanding feature is their "carriage". They carry everything on their heads, and the result this has on their figures and their walk is obvious. They are stately in the extreme - but their faces - nuff said. They make themselves worse by wearing rings and ornaments through their nostrils. The kiddies are lovely little things, with lovely big eyes. Another funny thing is the modesty of the women, the heat bars all heavy apparel and their dress is some yards of coloured calico about 4 ft wide which they drape round themselves . Some wear a tiny bodice slip under this, but to the majority it is: their sole walking out, field service and mess dress -all in one. And whenever a white man passes they pull up the draping over their shoulders and arms. Its more or less futile, but it shows the instinct, and it is these little details to my mind which make travel a broadening and educating influence. But to resume - after our march through Bombay we returned to the ship and after dinner each Sergt. was given permission to take 25 men ashore on his own, and my party had a merry time.

English money is no good out here, so am enclosing some stamps which I brought with me, as you can probably find use for them. Well, we stayed on board that night the 25th - and rose at 4.30 the next morning and disembarked in full kit and blanket and boarded the Grand Indian Peninsular Railway train at the dock side en route for Bangalore 1000 miles away.

The journey from Bombay to Bangalore absolutely baffled description quite! We spent 3 days and 2 nights in the train, having our grub in a very "soldierly manner" at little way side stations and very tightly packed, our eyes and mouths opening wider and wider with astonishment as the journey continued. India is just as I had pictured it, but as Rudyard Kipling says, that's another story.

To cut things short and catch the mail, we arrived here at midnight February 28th. We were met be a native band known as the "Black Watch" who played us to the barracks, where a 5 course dinner awaited us in the Sergts Mess - arranged by the Sergts of the N. Lancs (whose Garrison this is) who are back wounded from the Persian Gulf.

Here we've stopped, just a week without budging outside (except over the wall) on account of the quarantine imposed on us through bringing measles in.

Well, Mother and Dad, I have given you a detailed account of our wanderings. It seems hardly credible that I'm all these miles from home. I don't know how long we are here for, or where they are going to send us. I will say that I've never been more comfortable since joining the Army. We've beds to sleep on, mattresses pillowes, and everything we require, and I have got 3 natives servants, so you can guess things are pretty easy. We expect to be sent up to the Persian Gulf but if the Turks are doing what we hear
rumoured, we shan't be wanted.

Don't worry about me, I'm all right, expect to get Sgt. Drummers Rank next week, 4 stripes and a drum on my arm. Have now got sash, mace and gloves on order so shall look some head, marching in front of the Battn. Eh what!

Love to Nellie and Horace, Uncle George, and in fact everybody.

Trusting you are both fit and well. Your everloving and affec. son,
Drum Major of the Band.


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