Monday 29 June 2015

"From the Utmost Ends of the Earth" - The Voyage of HMNZ Troopship No 106, Jun-Aug 1918 (Part One)

The 12,234 ton "R.M.S. Athenic"
[From my own collection]

This Blog  is based around actual excerpts of a very interesting and descriptive letter written by my Uncle who travelled with the 39th New Zealand Reinforcements on HMNZ Troopship No 106 half-way round the World from Wellington New Zealand to Liverpool England between June and August 1918. My apologies that the quality of the illustrations will vary. Hopefully, in this centenary year marking the commencement of The Great War (World War One), there may be family members of the 39th Regiment who will find this Blog interesting. It was certainly an eventful voyage!

A Bustling Queen's Wharf, Wellington
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

Their troop ship, the 12,234 ton "Athenic", departed Wellington on the 13th June 1918 with 783 troops on board. Accompanying the various Companys and Platoons of the 39th were the 30th Reinforcements of the Māori Contingent, Royal Flying Corps Cadets, Officers, three Chaplains and five female Nurses. Although these troops never got to fight - the Armistice was declared while they were undergoing final training in England - that does not lessen the significance of their long journey "From the Utmost Ends of the Earth" to fight a war on the other side of the World.

The crowded scene on the wharf at Wellington as a
Troopship departs, in this case the "TSS Maunganui"
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

The Voyage itself started inauspiciously when the troop train carrying the troops from Camp arrived late at the wharf prior to embarcation, thus time spent with family and loved ones was cut short. Although living in Southern New Zealand, my own Grandfather and Grandmother had travelled north to be able to personally farewell their son as their troopship, the 12,234 ton "RMS Athenic" steamed out of Wellington Harbour. By this stage in the war no one was under any illusion as to what may lie ahead.

The "R.M.S. Athenic", c. 1920's
In Military service the "R.M.S. Athenic"
was painted in Camouflage.
[Source : Internet]

"We left Wellton [Wellington] in a rotten mist so you would not see us sailing out... Did you get the note I wrote you just before the boat sailed, it was just a short bit of a note which I gave over the side to a Y.M.C.A. chap.... We had a very good spin on the 'Athenic'. The first night I had to sleep in a hammock down in the hold but the next day things were rearranged and Fordie [Martin Forde - a fellow soldier from his home town] and I scored a double cabin between us for the trip. It was very comfortable although it was only one bunk above another and a small mirror to shave by, but it was a big win compared with the poor beggars who had to sleep in hammocks down below."

New Zealand troops on sister ship, the 'SS Corinthic'
[Source: Presbyterian Research Centre]

"We were a bit squeamish at first and a lot were pretty bad and lay around the decks everywhere huddled together to keep warm and too crook to move and even if they did go below they got worse and had to come above again and lying there with two days growth on and no wash they looked pretty rough. Four or five days and they were all tiptop and we had started to do a bit of drill each day and if it didn't keep us fit it gave us good appetites."

Sister ship "SS Corinthic" smoking Room & Bar, now
 in the Blyth Masonic Club, Northumberland, England.
[Source :]

"The food was plain, very plain but wholesome and well cooked. We had pretty well the same routine for the whole three weeks till we reached Panama. We had a fairly well supplied canteen on board and apples lasted about a fortnight and when they were sold out we could buy tinned fruit, and tinned pineapples etc. "

A Map of the Panama Canal Zone
Balboa is at right and Colon top left
[Source : The Navy Dept Library]

"We got to Balboa on the sixth night, a Saturday evening and anchored out all night. It was very pretty here in the black darkness with the lights showing up in the distance and the big searchlight sweeping the sea every half minute. It settled on us a couple of times and after having a good screw at us it swing around and died down again for another minute or two when it would gradually brighten and sweep round the sea again , dying down again. When she was settled on us we could see about the ship as bright as daylight."

Images taken from the NZ Troopship "Tainui"
while passing through the Panama Canal, 1919.
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

"We sailed through the Panama canal on Sunday and it is indescribable. We sailed slowly through and pretty little motorboats came along-side with water-police officials, soldiers and [natives of Panama] in them, till we reached the docks where we were gradually raised from one lock to another and towed along by electric cars from the side with long ropes. Those locks are a marvel. When we got to the higher level we set off on our own steam and sailed all day through the canal, and it was magnificent."

A New Zealand Troopship passing through the Panama Canal, 1917
[Source : Bayou Renaissance Man

"On the banks we could see tropical vegetation of every kind with [natives] bobbing up here there and everywhere. Everything here seemed in good humour and every vessel we passed we yelled greetings across to each other and even the tubs exchanged greetings by long blasts with the whistle. Late afternoon we reached this side and were lowered down to sea level. We tied up here for over an hour alongside the locks and the people gave us a good hearing. The band turned out and gave some good selections and we exchanged cigarettes, coins, pugarees [cloth bands wrapped around the crown of a cap or hat] and addresses with the Yankee soldiers.

"We left there and got into Colon before dark. We coaled up here and left the next afternoon and I wasn't sorry for it is a rather dirty harbour - a dinkum coal show. We anchored out of the harbour a bit and took in fresh water and started to take on a supply of fruit to replenish the canteen but the Captain went sour on something and we steamed off leaving the fruit behind. We sailed off late in the afternoon and around here is the place to see aeroplanes and submarines all on guard."

Port Royal shown on a Harbour Map of Jamiaca
[Source : Google Maps]

"We were expecting to get to Kingston the capital of Jamaica late on Wednesday night and about 9 pm she ran ashore near Port Royal and not far from Kingston. It was dark and we were signalled to by flashlights but the signals seemed to be misunderstood and that's where we ended up. She churned very hard astern straight away and I thought we would get off but we were still there next morning when I got up and she was still churning hard astern."

The Garrison [Barracks] at Port Royal
[Source : Internet]

"On Friday morning a tug came round from Kingston and all the lifeboats were lowered and we went over the side, down a rope ladder into them and were towed off one boat behind the other by the tug, round to Port Royal. Here we landed and were garrisoned in big barracks which were stunner [of striking excellence] and were on the second floor and the walls were all lattice work which made the place [a] stunner and cool."

To view the second part of this Blog please click HERE.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Personal family papers and photographs [from my own collection]
  • Auckland War Memorial Museum Library / Te Pataka Matapuna
  • National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
  • "Lights Out - The Dark Doings of the Thirty Ninths", being published after arrival in England.
  • Various Internet Resources