‘Views of an Antique Land – Imaging Egypt and Palestine during the Great War’ Conference

I was recently invited to speak at the Heritage Lottery Funded Project ’Views of an Antique Land’ conference which was held at the University of Cardiff in May. My brief presentation focused on the logistical challenges of housing the EEF in Cairo during the Great War. 

I’m now looking forward to assisting with classifying the remaining donations.

For anyone wishing to view the slidepack please see the enclosed link:

 

 

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‘To collect or not to collect that is the question’ – The purchase of War Souvenirs

Evidence of looting (private property taken from a combatant or a third party, dead or alive, in war), and trophy taking (anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, or skill) on Egyptian territory can be found today in museums and archives all over Britain and its former dominion territories.

Attitudes to looting and trophy taking in 1882 were as complex as the socio-economic climate in which Britain found itself militarily engaged. In the face of a nationalist insurrection and a perceived threat to the Suez Canal, a British fleet first bombarded then captured Alexandria’s forts. Landing parties then pulled down Egyptian flags, which were taken as trophies. Less significant artefacts were looted by European sailors and soldiers on the ground.

Prior to the establishment of the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) in May 1917, the collection of war trophies and relics by Australian units was carried out in accordance with British War Office (BWO) regulations. In late 1916 BWO established a committee to deal with the disposal of trophies and relics: the best trophies would be selected for a British National War Museum (later to become the Imperial War Museum) and the remaining trophies distributed to the dominion countries. However, the Australian government, along with other dominion countries, resisted the idea, insisting trophies claimed by their troops should be made available to them. The AWRS was initially responsible for the collection, preservation, and classification of all official documents relating to the AIF. This was later expanded to include photographs, trench and regimental magazines, sketches, personal memoirs, relics, and war trophies. By the end of 1917 AWRS controlled the administration of all war trophies captured by Australian units.

In October 1917 Henry Gullett sailed for Egypt, where he established an office of the AWRS to coordinate the collection of trophies. Items were to be clearly labelled, contain the name of the unit that had captured the item, the town or area it was from, the time and place the item was found, and the unit’s wish for its ultimate disposal. The information was transferred to a history sheet or card for each item.

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‘Skull Fragment’ Image Source: The Australian War Memorial REL 33592 refers

This partial skull fragment was picked up by an Australian soldier, Trooper George David Burns* in Egypt during the Second World War. The year ‘1882’ has been carved into the top of the fragment with the place name ‘TEL EL KEBIR’ carved beneath. This indicates the origin of the skull is likely to be from the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. The carving is believed to have been done by an Egyptian and the later date ‘1916’ that is carved beneath the words ‘TEL EL KEBIR’, suggest that it was carved for, sold or passed on to, a British or Australian soldier during the First World War. How the skull fragment came into the possession of Trooper Burns during the Second World War is unknown.

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Acquisitive acts,  such as the taking of the spoils of war, were commonly regarded as an unexceptional aspect of armed conflict.  The different items people brought or sent home influenced the way Egypt and the Egyptian Soudan were perceived and laterly understood in Britain.

Sources & Notes:

Fox, Paul: Taking trophies and collecting loot: Cultures of acquisition on Egyptian territory during nineteenth century armed conflict (2015)

The Australian War Memorial, REL33592 refers

*Burns was born in Wondai, Queensland in 1916. Prior to his military service he worked as a farm labourer, enlisting in the army in November 1939. He embarked for the Middle East in January 1940, serving with 6 Australian Division Calvary Regiment in Egypt and Palestine (including Gaza). Trooper Burns was killed in action during the Battle of Bardia on 3 January 1941, age 25. He is buried in Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma in Libya.