The Roos That Went To War

In the shadow of the great pyramids amid the piles of kitbags and Lee-Enfield rifles, an iconic image held by the Australian War Memorial shows an Australian Imperial Force infantryman encountering a kangaroo.

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Image Credit: The Australian War Memorial

Members of the 9th and 10th Battalions regularly smuggled mascots from home aboard transport ships as reminders of home. The above photo, which was taken by Chaplain Ernest Merrington, shows the regard with which this soldier treated the marsupial. It’s believed it ate the same food as the British force’s horses and donkeys – a hay and chaff mix called ‘tibin’. It’s not known whether the Kangaroo had a name or whether he was allowed to roam around the divisional lines at Giza but he features prominently in a large selection of photographs prior to 1915 when the men left Mena for Gallipoli. The ‘roo was left in the care of the Cairo Zoological Gardens.

Kangaroos and wallabies were a common sight in the Australian camps at Mena, Heliopolis and Ma’adi in 1914/15. There were thought to be at least a dozen and they were frequently mentioned in letters home. Lieutenant Horace George Viney of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment (3LHR), describes “a very amusing incident” that occurred on his troopship, HMAT Port Lincoln, after local pilots came aboard to guide it up the Suez Canal in December 1914.

“The boy who looks after our kangaroos happened to be exercising the large one just at this time,” says Viney’s letter, which was published in the Adelaide Mail on January 23, 1915, “and he brought him along to where this Egyptian was standing and let him stand up against him.

“The Egyptian did not notice the ‘roo at first, but when the animal began sniffing at his feet he looked down and saw him. Just at that moment the kangaroo made a sound between a cough and a bark, and that settled things. The Egyptian gave one bound of about 6ft, knocked over a couple of men who happened to be in his way, and made a bolt for the other end of the ship ….. He swore that the kangaroo had bitten him on the foot where he knocked it, and he was quite satisfied that the animal was going to make a meal off him.”

Adelaide’s Chronicle newspaper of January 23, 1915 reported a similar frenzy when the 10th and 11th Battalion disembarked at Alexandria:

“During the evening large crowds assembled to view the newcomers, and our pet kangaroo created an amusing scene, refusing to budge on being placed on the wharf. For some time he was eyed by the natives with great curiosity, but suddenly he bounded forward. Then, with ear-splitting yells, some hundreds of Alexandrians made record time in seeking safety from the `ferocious’ beast.”

The 3 LHR’s kangaroos bob up again, at Ma’adi Camp in Cairo, in a letter written by Lance-Corporal Leonard Fawcett in late December 1914. He describes the “very funny” reaction of a monkey (the mascot of another regiment) to a 3 LHR kangaroo, and adds:

“The first week we were here crowds of local residents, mostly French and well-to-do English people, visited the camp to see the kangaroos. They seemed to be very taken with them, especially the kiddies.” To feed the kangaroos and other mascots (such as rabbits), the soldiers grew small patches of grass outside their tents.

A February 1915 letter by Lieutenant Albert Leslie Fitzpatrick, of the 1 LHR, confirms there were four 3 LHR kangaroos: “We have hundreds of visitors to the camp every afternoon, and hundreds flock round the enclosure wherein are four kangaroos belonging to the 3rd Light Horse Regiment (SA).

“They also have two kookaburras, which seem to do all right here, as I often hear them laughing. One of the roo’s got away into the desert last week, and it took an Egyptian all day to round him up. He had plenty of room to manoeuvre in out there, and the Egyptian wore his shoes out chasing the animal, and only succeeded in catching him with the aid of three mounted troopers.”

Cairo Zoo, he added, already had “a large collection of Australian birds, and a kangaroo which was presented by a field ambulance with our force”.

Ah yes, THAT kangaroo… The 1st Field Ambulance was a bit naughty there. Corporal Vercoe Paterson wrote on February 2, 1915 that he had just been to Cairo Zoo (a “simply grand” place), where he “saw the grey kangaroo presented by the 1st Field Ambulance and met a couple of South Australian infantry men who had been sent by Col. Weir to see it. It was the one that was presented to Col. Weir by Mr Ware of Ware’s Exchange, Adelaide. The Field Ambulance `pinched’ it and made a present of it to the Zoo. The Col. is going to try to get it back.” There are several newspaper mentions of how Lieutenant-Colonel Stanley Price Weir, commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, had been presented with a regimental mascot by Mr C. Boxer Ware, of the Adelaide watering hole Ware’s Exchange Hotel. Cairo Zoo apparently got to keep the `roo.

Private Hector Louis Marchant, of the Army Veterinary Section, wrote on March 23, 1915: “The Egyptians were highly delighted when some of our soldiers presented them with a kangaroo. They couldn’t make it out for a good while. I went to see the zoo; it is far ahead of the one in Melbourne.” Frank Isaac, of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, told his mother (in a letter published in the Goulburn Evening Penny in January 1915) that Cairo Zoo had no roos at the time of writing. However, “there are about a dozen pet ones here in camp which have all been given to the Zoo but they stay with us until we leave Egypt. George Wensor is going to take a photo of one of them on the Sphinx and send it to the Sydney Mail. You might happen to see it. I will be in it, of course…” He added: “An enormous number of European residents of Egypt visit the camp, and are all and always very taken up with the pet kangaroos.” One of those visitors was an Egyptian journalist, Tewfik Habib, who saw a soldier at Mena Camp fondling a kangaroo “as we fondle dogs”. Of the several kangaroos  donated to the Cairo Zoo before the Anzacs sailed off in April 1915 to Gallipoli many were still there the following year. They were still there in March, when Corporal Ralph Cracknell wrote to his mother saying he’d just visited the zoo: “I saw the kangaroos given by the Australian Light Horse. Plenty of other Australian native game there, too.”  Well after the Anzacs were evacuated off Gallipoli, where they’d spent eight disastrous months, there were still kangaroos hopping about Cairo – an enduring reminder of when the Australians came to Egypt.

 

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