I OFF FOR MESOPOTAMIA
It was at Taranto that we embarked for Mesopotamia. Reinforcements were sent out from England in one of two ways—either all the way round the Cape of Good Hope, or by train through France and Italy down to the desolate little seaport of Taranto, and thence by transport over to Egypt, through the Suez Canal, and on down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The latter method was by far the shorter, but the submarine situation in the Mediterranean was such that convoying troops was a matter of great difficulty. Taranto is an ancient Greek town, situated at the mouth of a landlocked harbor, the entrance to which is a narrow channel, certainly not more than two hundred yards across. The old part of the town is built on a hill, and the alleys and runways winding among the great stone dwellings serve as streets. As is the case with maritime towns, it is along the wharfs that the most interest centres. During one afternoon I wandered through the old town and listened to the fisherfolk singing as they overhauled and mended their nets. Grouped around a stone archway sat six or seven women and girls. They were evidently members of one family—a grandmother, her daughters, and their children. The old woman, wild, dark, and hawk-featured, was blind, and as she knitted she chanted some verses. I could only understand occasional words and phrases, but it was evidently a long epic. At intervals her listeners would break out in comments as they worked, but, like "Othere, the old sea-captain," she "neither paused nor stirred."
There are few things more desolate than even the best situated "rest-camps"—the long lines of tents set out with military precision, the trampled grass, and the board walks; but the one at Taranto where we awaited embarkation was peculiarly dismal even for a rest-camp. So it happened that when Admiral Mark Kerr, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, invited me to be his guest aboard H.M.S. Queen until the transport should sail, it was in every way an opportunity to be appreciated. In the British Empire the navy is the "senior service," and I soon found that the tradition for the hospitality and cultivation of its officers was more than justified. The admiral had travelled, and read, and written, and no more pleasant evenings could be imagined than those spent in listening to his stories of the famous writers, statesmen, and artists who were numbered among his friends. He had always been a great enthusiast for the development of aerial warfare, and he was recently in Nova Scotia in command of the giant Handley-Page machine which was awaiting favorable weather conditions in order to attempt the nonstop transatlantic flight. Among his poems stands out the "Prayer of Empire," which, oddly enough, the former German Emperor greatly admired, ordering it distributed throughout the imperial navy! The Kaiser's feelings toward the admiral have suffered an abrupt change, but they would have been even more hostile had England profited by his warnings:"There's no menace in preparedness, no threat in being strong,If the people's brain be healthy and they think no thought of wrong."
After four or five most agreeable days aboard the Queen the word came to embark, and I was duly transferred to the Saxon, an old Union Castle liner that was to run us straight through to Busra....