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March 4th 1916 - Letter from Cyril Sladden to his fiancée, Mela Brown Constable

4th March 1916
Correspondence From
Cyril Sladden
Correspondence To
Mela Brown Constable, Seward House, Badsey; redirected to c/o Mrs Money, 1 Kingsnorth Gardens, Folkestone
Relationship to Letter Addressee
Text of Letter

March 4th 1916

My own darling Mela

Today we have started transferring our cargo on to a steamer of smaller displacement. It will take some time and I expect we shall move ourselves about the day after tomorrow, and go a short trip to the place we have really been expecting to reach all the time. Meanwhile I started a new chapter in the history of my travels yesterday by going ashore for a few hours and looking around. Several parties went making quite a big number. It was really most entertaining, as the place is utterly devoid of western influence, apart from the use of imported commodities that bear a Birmingham stamp about them. There were just sufficient in number to show in strong contrast against the perfectly eastern background. The town is a very fair size, report says the population number 85,000, an estimate that seems reasonable enough. There are two white people there, the British Resident and his wife. There lives there also a sheikh, reported to be a man of very great wealth, derived mainly from pearls. We saw his palace, a well-built collection of buildings standing on the sea shore and taking one's breath away by a showing a private installation of electric light fittings.

There is quite a fair little harbour, built with an artificial breakwater. We landed from our little native sailing boat just opposite the residency, a fair-sized building, quite local in type, and not appearing in any way conspicuous among a lot of very solid buildings.

Drawn up on the beach for a long way on either side were a very large number of boats of various sizes. They looked very seaworthy, and we're almost all ornamented with more or less carving, much of it very well done. In one place was a curious old battery of guns that looked at least a hundred years old, and may well have been more; I doubt whether they would now be used even to fire a salute. This was erected near the sheikh's palace, and a few other guns of similar kind were lying dismounted in the sand. The chief street is long, and covered in with a roof of matting to keep out the sun. All the way along on either side are little shops, built very regularly, all very similar, and small. Many were shut, Friday standing more or less for sabbath in these parts I understand. The wares laid out in those that were open did not hold very much attraction, though a few people purchased old knives, powder horns and some little things of the sort. We were sufficiently exceptional a sight to attract a fair-sized crowd who followed us about and thronged round every time we came to a standstill. It became rather a nuisance after a bit, especially when we reached at the far end of the street a big open space like a sort of market square. The people were perhaps the most interesting part of all. They struck me on the whole as superior to natives one sees in big, semi-European towns, handsome, cleaner and better dressed. There was a very high proportion of men who appeared to be me of good social standing in the place and well-to-do. The costumes were very fine with their blending of rich colours, and many wore a sort of turban made of reams of skeins of brown wool, a form of head-dress quite new to me, and rather effective in conjunction with eastern robes. The usual odour of course pervaded the place, and there was the customary tendency to confuse highways and refuse heaps. However the whole place was remarkably cleaner than I had expected; the smell was rarely offensively bad, and the people were a great improvement upon the inhabitants of the lesser streets of Alexandria or Port Said in their personal cleanliness, the only really repulsive thing about them being their eyes which were horrible in a very large proportion, while blind men swarmed. Luckily they worried us very little with begging, not having learnt those evil ways, which we carefully avoided encouraging.

The capacity of the man of the east for assuming garments from the west, and at the same time not diminishing his exotic appearance is astounding. I have seen our boatman in the remnants of a British warm officer's coat; our boatman yesterday had adopted a Tommy's pattern brown cardigan jacket. But the limit was reached by a small boy in the town yesterday. He showed the features of an African nigger, thick lips and woolly hair, with skin almost as black as your hat, which is a type that seems fairly numerous. Over his rest of nightgown robe that they all wear was a shiny, buttonless clan jacket, absolutely unmistakeable the world over!

One striking point about the place was the five massive carved doors, mostly big heavy double doors, with which almost every house was fitted. There was also a good deal of carving in other woodwork such as pillars and window shutters.

We stayed ashore two or three hours. There naturally was not a lot to do there, after once taking a good look round. Our boatman took us ashore by rowing, as it was practically a dead calm; but we sailed back, ripping through the water at great speed. He was an entertaining man, an we contrived to carry on quite a lot of conversation although we had no language at all in common. He had knowledge of two, having travelled a bit in his time. With some effort of memory you might have helped us a little in one of them. Had Arthur been with us he might have been a useful interpreter in the other - unless local dialects differ too much.

March 5th - Sunday again, but it doesn't feel very much like it. We are too busy, and the continuous unloading prevents possibility of a church parade chiefly because there is nowhere to hold it. I went to the usual early service held in the saloon before breakfast. The tactic seems successful in getting the men to come a little better, as their numbers, though small, show a decided tendency to increase - though I am glad to get the chance to attend frequently at any sort of service the conditions allow, and often wish for the old services in church at those which are so much nicer.

After breakfast I was on duty superintending fatigues a large part of the morning, and I have another spell after dinner tonight. I think the men work splendidly, as it is awfully heavy work, and very hot in the holds. They only get two hours at it certainly, but that comes twice a day, and there is never occasion o check them for slacking about, and they do the job well. It gives me a bit of an idea of the work and cost of war to handle stuff in bulk like that. I have never seen anything like so much ammunition all together before. I anticipate that another two or three days will see us ashore now.

I was interested in the Captain's account of his experience in clearing wounded from Suvla during the August show. He was acting in place of Captain on the Euripides, which landed a lot of troops, and then like many transports had to take in wounded. They had 8 doctors and 72 nurses, I think the numbers were; also just a few RAMC. Of stores there were practically none beyond what the ship carried as normal supply. The wounded were poured on to them and put anywhere and everywhere, on deck and below. After some 700 had been taken on he protested that they could manage nor more; however when it was pointed out that there was no alternative between leaving men in hundreds on the beach in the sun and almost unattended and crowding the ship yet more he felt bound to take more on, and ultimately finished with 1300 odd. Every ship's officer had one man in his cabin. The captain himself, though in charge of the ship and doing his watches took charge of a few cases for dressing. The nurses you see had over 100 patients each, in every sort of condition, but all needing much attention. The very large majority were cot cases. They worked almost the 24 hours round, at night almost in the dark, for fear of submarines. The temperature below decks was anything up to 130 degrees. He said it was actually a fact that some of those nurses were compelled to discard portions of their clothes as they got soaked with blood from dressing bad artery wounds until they were actually working in the half dark stripped to the waist. Once can scarcely believe it, and yet I know how at a time like that every convention simply vanishes, and men come down to bedrock, and have no thought but for the urgent matter in hand. The Captain spoke with the greatest admiration of the way these women worked - but what an awful time for them. Before they reached Alexandria 86 had died on board; they had to have burials several times a day. He sailed right through the wreckage of the Royal Edward, while survivors were still being picked up. In accordance with orders he could not stop, nor could he possibly have done anything to help had there been no special orders.

This account all goes to convince me that nothing in France that we have experienced has ever come up to that August battle on the peninsula in general intensity and horror.

We have been able to use the ship's library again, so I finished my history. I have since read Silas Marner and two other stories in the same volume, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. I don't consider that Silas Marner comes up to Adam Bede or Mill on the Floss, though it shows a good deal of George Eliot's genius in character drawing. Reading The Lifted Veil is too reminiscent of a feverish nightmare, which is however evidence to its being written with power.

March 6th - I am now writing on board the "Edavana", one of the BI boats. We moved across this morning and (as I write this evening) have started our journey. I believe we shall have to disembark pretty soon of necessity, as they don't pretend to be able to retain a lot of men on board. We may be ashore therefore by this time tomorrow. This is a clean and airy boat with a lot of deck space, but the men are very crowded, so I am glad we shall not have long on it.

Inwood, with several more who went on leave, has rejoined today. The party of them got as far as Marseilles and then were stopped there, 36 hours journey from home! Then they waited there 5 days before returning, so could have had two days at home without losing a minute. It is difficult to imagine quite how sick they must all have been. It is really bad policy to do things like that. At the risk of losing the services of those few officers (only about 30 from a whole division) for an extra week or so they should have allowed a short leave after taking them so far. Treatment like that makes men furious, and takes the spirt out of them. Judging by appearances so far there does not seem to have been any urgent call for such great hurry after all.

I hear that Captain Gibbon has been awarded the DSO. This is an honour that will please everyone who knows him. He earned it well. He was slightly wounded on August 9th but didn't give up, and survived the next day to take command. And it was no fault of his that we failed on the night of the 12th. I cannot think of any man I ever met of whom I hold a higher opinion. I am afraid he was too badly damaged ever to rejoin us. He has been a master at Dulwich College for a long time, and fought through the Boer War in the ranks.

I am beginning to long for letters again, and am speculating on whether we may get some before next Sunday. I think there is fair hope of it.

March 8th - We are now anchored within view of the landing stage where we anticipate being put ashore, exactly when we do not of course know. I have just been told that letters will be taken off in a few minutes, so am adding a little to what I have written and will take the opportunity to post to you.

In case my last long letter should not have reached you I will repeat that my emergency address in case of being reported sick or wounded will be c/o Cox & Co, Bombay. From all I can gather there seems little doubt that with luck this will enable one to secure some letters. I should of course always cable home at the earliest opportunity, but that might not be for quite a long time.

I wish I could know more what you are doing and where you are all the time. I am getting very restless waiting for letters again now that there seems a chance of getting some again.

Very best love, dearest, as ever.

From your most affectionate
Cyril E Sladden

Type of Correspondence
Envelope containing 6 sheets of notepaper
Location of Document
Imperial War Museum
Record Office Reference