Harry Biles’ Diary : Sailing East, 27 February – 7 March 1915.

Saturday 27 February, 1915: Left Blandford 12 midnight. Cycled to Shillingstone accompanied by Webb (1) and Loweth (2).

Sunday 28 February, 1915: Arrived Shillingstone 1.30am. Entrained at 3.30 am for Avonmouth arriving there 8.00 am. Embarked on board Union Castle Line SS “Grantully Castle”. Left Avonmouth 5.00 pm for Malta, escorted by 2 destroyers who departed early next morning. Harry Biles (Malta postcard 1915)

Monday 1 March, 1915: At sea.

Tuesday 2 March, 1915: At sea.

Wednesday 3 March, 1915: At sea. Received first inoculation for typhoid fever.

Thursday 4 March, 1915: At sea.

Friday 5 March, 1915: Passed Gibraltar about 6.00 am.

Saturday 6 March, 1915: At sea. Had some revolver practice over stern.

Sunday 7 March, 1915: At sea.

(The next excerpt from ‘Gallipoli Dispatches 1915 – Harry Biles’ War Diary’ will be posted here around March 8, 2015. You can read the original handwritten diary by following this link: MANUSCRIPTS)

  1. William Sydney Webb, Acting Petty Officer, Chief Writer
  2. Arthur James Loweth, Acting Chief Writer

The Grantully Castle sails east into the Mediterranean : Feb 28-Mar 7, 1915. Map by Gordon Smith


    Three days before their departure, the Royal Naval Division (approx 8,000 men) had assembled at Blandford for an inspection, first by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and then by the King. In his history of the Royal Naval Division published in 1923, Douglas Jerrold describes the inspection as “unusually detailed”. This was the end of the Division’s training.(1) However, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Naval Brigade, Commodore Oliver Backhouse, offered this description of King George V: “Disappointed in his appearance as he looks much older and grey and was also very glum. He only asked three questions”.(2)

So that weekend, Harry Biles’ journey to war began on a bike, riding with friends across the North Dorset Downs from Blandford to Shillingstone, to catch a train in the early hours of a Sunday morning. Less fortunate were the four RND battalions who left the camp in pouring rain and marched ten miles to Shillingstone Station.

After embarkation at Avonmouth Docks, Harry Biles’ brief diary entries on the first leg of the voyage to the Mediterranean reveal almost nothing about conditions aboard the troop carrier, the Grantully Castle. But author Leonard Sellers, in ‘The Hood Battalion’, quotes seaman Joseph Murray who was plainly unhappy: “The food was rotten, the tea was weak, and we were only given one slice of bread with tea for breakfast. But there was porridge.…on deck there was a small cabin used as a canteen where during the day you could get biscuits, three of them and a portion of cheese for three pence”.(3) Sellers notes the officers fared better: their food was good. According to Murray, “sleeping arrangements for the men were very cramped: hammocks were provided, but it got so hot below decks that many took blankets and slept on deck.”(4) As the Grantully Castle had prepared to set sail, Commodore Backhouse’s mood was also less than cheerful. “Not impressed with the ship which is small and crowded. My cabin no better than anyone else’s. Visited the Royal George where officers and men are in great luxury,”(5), said Backhouse.

After a week of boredom at sea, Harry Biles and the members of the RND were about to reach Malta.

  1.   Douglas Jerrold, The Royal Naval Division, Naval & Military Press, p59
  2.   Private Papers of Admiral Backhouse, Imperial War Museum, London
  3.   Leonard Sellers, The Hood Battalion, Leo Cooper 1995, p53
  4.   ibid
  5.   Backhouse op cit

©PeterBiles 2015

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