The 1st Battalion The King's Royal Rifle Corps sailed from Bombay on 10th Dec 1896 bound for Mauritius via Capetown on the troopship RIMS Warren Hastings. It stopped at the Seychelles for coaling and arrived in Capetown on 28th Dec where half the battalion disembarked for service in South Africa; B D E and F Companies, for garrison duty in Wynburg. The remaining 4 companies, A C G and H and HQ were to sail on to Mauritius. The CO of the battalion, Lieut-Col MCB Forestier-Walker went with this half battalion along with 9 other officers, 2 WOs and 514 men.
The Warren Hastings left Capetown on 6th Jan 1897. As well as the 526 men of the KRRC the other troops on board were a half battalion of the 2nd York and Lancasters (410 men), a detachment of 2nd Middlesex Regiment (25 men) and two other officers. There were also 7 officers' wives, 13 other ranks' wives, and 10 children. The crew numbered 253 making a total of 1,244 people.
Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean, about 400 miles east of Madagascar. For the first week of the trip the weather was fine but on the 13th the wind shifted south and it rained. That night it was pitch black and the rain fell heavily. The ship was 8 miles off course when, at 2.20am on the 14th it hit a rock off the coast of Reunion. All aboard were awakened by the sound of heavy bumping and grating. The water flooded in and the ship was in danger of sinking. The ships captain, Commander Holland ordered that the men should fall in below decks. They were not fully dressed and could not see outside, but good discipline was maintained.
Two RIM officers went down over the bow to see if men could be landed on the rocks. Fortunately they found that it was possible and the troops were ordered to find boots and rifles. The King's Rifles formed up on the port side and the York and Lancasters and the Middlesex on the starboard, to use both forward companionways. The men slung rifles and moved forward to climb down the rope ladders. When the ship suddenly listed to starboard the waiting men were brought up on deck.
At first it was thought best to keep the women and children on board until daylight when it would be safer to get them off, but as the listing of the ship worsened they were brought to the bow and lowered onto the rocks. The men on the starboard side were up to their knees in water so they were told to discard their rifles and boots and move to the port side. Up until 4.35am the lights were still working but the electricity failed at that point and everything had to be done in complete darkness.
At around 5am, because it was taking so long to get men down the rope ladders those who could swim were allowed to make their own way to the rocks. The first to go was Rifleman McNamara who secured ropes for others to haul themselves ashore thus avoiding the sharp larva rocks. By 5.30am the evacuation of the ship was complete without loss of life apart from a ship's cook and an officer's servant. The last soldier to leave the ship was Lieut-Col Forestier-Walker. There were many acts of bravery that night and strenuous efforts were made to save the lives of two men who died when they jumped overboard. Some salvage work was carried out but only a little could be retrieved.
Commander Gerald Edward Holland of the Royal India Marine who was in charge of the evacuation was praised by the Viceroy of India for his work but had to attend a court martial where he was given a reprimand for the loss of his ship. The KRRC offered him honorary life membership of their officers mess. Everyone was subsequently conveyed 120 miles northeast to Mauritius on the British India SS Lalpoora and help was given to cloth the men and provide shoes for the 350 soldiers who had no boots. The Governor, Sir Charles King Harman gave a dinner for the officers who attended in various modes of dress 'which presented a most curious sight'.
The KRRC were garrisoned at Curepipe, Port Louis, Mauritius while the York and Lancasters and Middlesex carried on to India. The Rifles remained in Mauritius until 5th March 1899 when they sailed to Natal on the RIMS Clive.
George Hawes was captain and adjutant in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers when they were given a two year posting to Mauritius after serving in South Africa for three years. He and Edmund Malone, and officer in the 2nd Battalion, exchanged letters between 1900 and 1923 which were published in a book called 'EElegant Extracts - A Duobiography' (1935). This extract is based on two letters that he wrote in 1908 and 1910:
We have now moved on to this comic little island. We were all sorry to leave Maritzburg, and it was sad to have to sell all our [polo] ponies, for there is no use for them here. I sold one of mine very well and the other to a Dutch farmer for 19 pounds. I asked him 20 pounds, he offered me 18 and we sat in my room in silence until after 2am, until we clinched the bargain, a real Dutch 'opsit'. The sea journey was as offensive as usual, and the only amusing incident was the smuggling into the island of Wanda, my precious little dachshund, dressed in baby's long clothes with a veil over its face and carried by one of the sergeants' wives. She never budged, thus avoiding 6 months' misery in quarantine. Mauritius is an absurd place, and what they want with a whole regiment here beats me, unless it is to keep the very unsavoury locals in order. The island is about 40 miles by 30 miles, more or less round, and our barracks are at a place called Curepipe, somewhere about in the middle. It is very beautiful in an unhealthy sort of way, and the vegetation, owing to the fact that it is in the tropics and that it rains over 300 days in the year, magnificent. The main industry is sugar-growing, though the sugar one buys for the mess, owing to some trade nonsense, comes from England, 9,000 miles away.
The barracks are very luxurious, and well they may be, for there are no compensations in this exile. It is a wretched place to spend one's adjutancy in. There are about 50 different races in the island, the majority being Indians, who work on the sugar plantations. There is a toy railway from Curepipe to Port Louis, the capital, on the coast, and they tell how a train one day, coming from Curepipe, couldn't stop at Port Louis for some reason or other, so swung up the opposite incline, back again and back again, until it came to rest in Port Louis station. Quite possible. We play golf and tennis every single day with exactly the same people in the rain, which is a kind of thick Scotch mist, except in November and December and January when it is fine, and February and March, which is the cyclone season and is quite past description. It is impossible to go out because it is impossible to stand up against the gale, and it is hot and damp, and we have to burn charcoal in braziers all the time to keep our clothes dry. And then the electric light goes out. What a life!
There are a lot of old French families living here. The two principal professions are lawyers and doctors - lawyers because these people are always quarrelling, doctors because they are always getting abscesses on the liver from too much drink. It is the sort of place where any vice one had would be sure to be developed to the utmost. The governor is Sir Cavendish Boyle, whose hostess is his niece, Miss Lane, a rather sad little female with a grievance and a leaning towards religion. The General is one Macdonald, of the Royal Engineers. I got up a mock bull-fight the other day to amuse the troops, and invited Sir Cavendish to sit in the 'Royal Box' with the king and queen, ie two subalterns. I did so really because the governor had been to Spain, and so was interested in bull-fights. The General wrote afterwards officially for an explanation as to why he and his wife hadn't been invited to the box, and the whole matter went up to the War Office, where, I'm told, it caused the most unseemly hilarity. But at the same time it was most unpleasant, particularly for me.
The other day I went with a party of friends to the neighbouring island of Reunion, which belongs to France. Incidentally I suppose you know where we are - off the north coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Look at your map. The Isle of Reunion is almost completely round, with a diameter of about 50 miles. At equal intervals around the island are 12 small and insignificant towns named after the Apostles, and connected by a ridiculous toy railway. In the centre is an extinct volcano, with a sort of primitive spa in the middle of it called Cilaos, wither we were bound. We landed at St Paul, the capital, a perfect disgrace of a place, with ill-paved, grass-grown streets and a mass of dirty little cafes - such a complete contrast in every way to Mauritius. I understand that the French method of colonisation is to bag all the taxes and in return to allow the colony to send a representative to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, whose chief job is to get as much cash back as he can for his country. You may imagine how much he gets sometimes. The result is that an unimportant place like Reunion is left to stew in its own juice.
We went by train to another little town on the coast before making inland for Cilaos. On the way we were asked to leave the train, as there was a dead cow on the line, and to get into another train on the other side of the dead cow. From the look and smell of the cow I should say it had been there at least a week. Apparently it was being left to the crows to remove it. We continued our journey in deck chairs carried by natives through most lovely and picturesque scenery. Cilaos is nothing but a collection of little wooded houses with a so-called inn, in which we ate abominable food. We were lodged out in various houses and cottages - I was in the Mayor's - and we used to go out in our pyjamas to fetch our water for washing from the pump in the village street. There was a deep ravine behind the village with a crude bath installation at the bottom and with various hot-water baths and a cold douche. The water is impregnated with iron to a quite unusual degree, and is excellent for certain ailments. If any other nation but those stingy French owned the place they would have made something really good of it by now, and people from South Africa might well be coming there in crowds. However, it is impossible to expect any foresight from the French, or that they will invest in anything but certainties.
This second year is much the worst. We have all seen too much of each other, and these incessant tennis parties in the rain, the same dreary people, the same girls fishing for military alliances, the same bourgainvillias and oleanders are enough to drive one mad. There is something strangely unhealthy about this place. It is not that there is much illness. Since the draining of the marshes and other precautions there are few mosquitoes, and consequently next to no malaria, and the troops keep remarkebly well, but there seems to be something downright decadent in the atmosphere of this hot, over-fertile island. The smallness of it, too, and its remoteness - it is some 9,000 miles from England - add to this impression. Our mails arrive alternately at fortnightly and six-weekly intervals, and the local French papers, of which there are quantities, are beneath contempt and only, Frenchwise, concerned with the miserable local politics. I have been seriously studying French with a dirty old native, who is more negro than Frenchman, and who smells abominably, but he has the trick of teaching. Guy du Maurier, Jack Jefferson and I try to read decent books which we get out from England and at intervals meet to discuss. But it is difficult not to deteriorate mentally in this atmosphere. I think everyone has been on leave except myself, but I have stayed on obstinately because I am too fond of being Adjutant, and do not fancy a locum tenens playing ducks and drakes with my pet institutions during a six months' absence.
We gave a ball the other day in the Mess, and I organised it... Food is excellent, especially the local cameron, a freshwater prawn, and the palmiste - a small variety of palm tree, the heart of which makes salads and various other dishes. A tree dies as soon as it is used in this way, but the heart of one tree will make about 30 dishes - all delicious to eat. So, one way and another, we were able to supply a supper every bit as good as what you are eating any night in London. I thought I would pay a visit to the kitchen during the course of the day to see how things were getting on. I was struck on entering by a great deal of movement under the sink, always the filthiest corner of our very filthy kitchen. On further examination I saw a small completely naked black boy sitting in a large tin basin vigorously throwing lettuce leaves about, which were falling back on his body and covering him with oil. He was mixing the salad for the supper. The natives believe that throwing lettuce leaves lightens them. I did not eat any salad that evening. But neither did I give my secret away. I am credibly informed that native cooks make rissoles in their mouths. They certainly look like it - the rissole, I mean.