This is the nineth in a series of articles highlighting the experiences of Private John Denholm of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) during the First World War. Articles will be published on or near the 100th anniversary of each event and will feature photos and ephemera from an amazing scrapbook that he compiled shortly after the war.
On February 11, 1915 the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) left Lark Hill for Avonmouth Docks and the H.M.T Maidan, a 152-metre cargo steam ship turned troop transport. When they departed in the early morning hours of February 12th they did so under fair skies, however by evening the weather had turned and before long a heavy gale tossed the Maidan and its occupants around on the Bay of Biscay.
In addition to the 16th the ship carried one section each of the 9th and 10th Batteries of the Canadian Field Artillery. The 16th and CFA horses were stabled on top of the deck while the men were packed into open holds in such numbers that it was impossible to lie down. The conditions down below deteriorated rapidly once heavy seas forced the hatches closed but regardless of this the men were routinely drenched by breaking waves. One such wave broke over the ship with such force that it swept away the starboard horse shelter and two horses. A second wave deposited the horses back on deck but they and two others were injured to such an extent that they had to be shot. An officer and four men were also seriously injured while trying to care for the horses during the storm.
By midday on February 14th the storm had passed and later that afternoon the Maidan anchored off St. Nazaire. The History of the 16 Battalion (The Canadian Scottish) describes the scene as follows:
“The evening was still and spring-like; the full Pipe Band assembled on the upper deck and played marches and reels; groups of French people in their Sunday attire could be seen standing beside the white houses and walking along the roads bordering the trim, cultivated fields, gazing curiously seawards, whilst the troops, entirely recovered from their misery of yesterday, crowded every available space on deck and gazed just as intently on the pleasant landscape of the long-looked-for France.”
The Maidan docked early next morning and at 9am the battalion had disembarked. They were greeted by French military officers and a large pile of “hairy, smelly goatskin coats“.
Company Sergeant-Major Henry Vincent Ramsay, pictured on the left, is proudly modelling his new goatskin jacket. Sadly CSM Ramsay was killed in action during the Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood on the night of April 22/23, 1915. The body of the 22 year-old soldier was never recovered and as such he is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
The 16th marched through the streets of St. Nazaire and were greeted with great enthusiasm:
“Crowds of civilians, and French soldiers back at the rest camps, lined the streets. They seemed overjoyed to welcome the newcomers and everywhere gave them a great ovation. The French children, in swarms, followed the Battalion clamouring for the water bottles of the men to get them filled with wine.”
In the afternoon they made their way to the railway station where they clambered aboard box cars, each holding 36 to 45 men. At 4:45 the troop train pulled out of the station at St. Nazaire, their ultimate destination still a mystery to most of the men on board. Rumours abounded that they could be headed to Egypt or India but when the train turned northward after a long stop at Nantes the battalion knew they were headed for the Western Front.
Footnote: in June 1923 the Maidan struck a reef in the Red Sea and sank. Fortunately there were no fatalities. Today the ship is a popular diving destination. Check out this amazing colour footage of a diver exploring the wreck of S/S Maidan.