‘News from the Nile’

6044419

In 1915 Private Tom Dalton sent two letters to the Leader, a newspaper published in Orange, New South Wales. In the first, dated four days before Christmas Day he wrote about his arrival and first impressions of life in Cairo:

“I received a letter of yours dated October 19. It is lovely weather here, nice warm days, and cool nights. We are about 12 miles out of Cairo. The train runs right past the camp, and it only takes about 25 minutes to run to the capital. We can see the Pyramids from here. I was out there last Sunday, and had a grand time. I saw young Lane, of Orange, who is encamped there with the infantry. All the light horse, except the New Zealanders, are encamped here, the men from the Dominion being out at the Pyramids. The Pyramids afford a great panorama of the camps, troops and horses down on the flat, with wire entanglements everywhere.

We left Alexandria by train in the morning at 11 a.m., and reached Cairo at 5 p.m. We got to eat a cup of cocoa, a bun, and a lump of cheese, and then we led our horses through Cairo out to here. I will never forget the walk—the horses were all mad with excitement, and being on the boat so long were very nervous. As we went through the streets of Cairo donkeys, Egyptians, cabs and motor cars made all the horses plunge all over us. When we got into the middle of Cairo the crowds started to cheer and throw flowers, flags, and in fact anything at all, at us. Our horses nearly went mad. The reception made a great sight, crowds swarming about the most beautiful buildings that one might ever see.

Sheppard’s Hotel is a magnificent building, and has a beautiful garden, with tables, running right into the street. When we passed the hotel the territorial band struck up “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” The people all sprang from their garden seats and rushed into the streets. The horses went in every direction. We got out to Maadi at 11.30 p.m., and then we had to picket the horses, put down lines, and put in heel pegs, which we finished by about 1 a.m. Then I had to go on duty for about two hours with another chap to mind the horses. We never had so much trouble with the horses before, for when a horse lay down to roll he would pull up his heel peg, and during the two hours we were replacing these in the ground. When we came off I was very tired. Then I curled up in my blankets on the sands for the tents weren’t pitched. I was no sooner asleep than a rain cloud broke, but while it rained I never woke. It was the first rain for three months. My luck was plainly out. Now there are about 32 of us in a tent which was made to hold about 20 men. My word, there are some pretty lively nights in it.

The Australians have taken Cairo. Everywhere you go the places are packed with them, and no place closes before 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Sunday is the same as any other day. We have great fun when on guard, keeping the natives out of the lines. They are not so persistent now since a few of them got a prick in the back with a bayonet point. Baba-Louk is another town very close to us, and at this place are two of the prettiest sights I have seen. We have rides on the camels here every day, and races on the donkeys. The white people here are mostly French, but there are a lot of English too. Carriage horses are the best I have seen’

Flies, Filth and Desert Soldiering …

It has often been repeated that the daily existence of Commonwealth soldiers during the Great War campaigns across the Middle East was extremely arduous. The soldiers accounts and recent archaeological surveys of the better preserved battlefields illustrate just how inhumane and gruelling the conditions were for both the Allied and Turkish Forces alike. Many factors contributed to making the desert battlefield an almost unendurable place for soldiers. The constant noise, terrible food, cramped unsanitary conditions, disease, stenches, daily death of comrades, lack of rest and thirst all contributed to the most arduous of conditions.

A typical Desert ‘Bivvy’ tent which provided some protection from the searing heat, heavy rainstorms and ‘khamsin’ winds

The logistics of supplying fresh food whilst on campaign was a major challenge. The rations issued to the soldiers provided very poor nutrition due to the unvarying diet of processed foods: canned meat, hard tack biscuits and watery jam. These rations were intended to be lived on for only short periods of time by British army divisions, not for extended periods as proved to be the case on the Gallipoli peninsula. Living on these rations caused major health problems for the soldiers due to their poor nutritional content. An unappetising and unvaried diet affected morale and increased susceptibility to disease which spread rapidly during the summer months of a campaign.

Disease swept through both the Commonwealth and Turkish forces at Gallipoli. Dysentery, tetanus and septic wounds plagued the soldiers and necessitated the evacuation of thousands of men from the battlefield to the hospitals in Egypt. Battlefield latrines were open and rudimentary which attracted the presence of flies. Flies spread diseases rapidly through the troops living in cramped, over-crowded trenches and inflicted utter misery on soldiers. Bertram George who served with the Dorset Yeomanry in Egypt, wrote home that the ‘sounds in Egypt never cease – the creaking of the waterwheels, the sound of frogs and the buzz of flies .. writing is an impossibility in the evening for as soon as the sun goes down if a lamp is lighted, the air all round is thick with the little grey sand flies which bite disgustingly’.   

Lice also became a major problem for soldiers during the summer months. Lice caused trench fever which resulted in headaches, aching muscles, skin sores and fever. Lice have an enormous capacity for infestation, a heavy infestation could involve literally thousands of insects and thousands of eggs. During the Great War, treatment of lice was by Naphthalene, usually in the form of “NCI” (Naphthalene, Creosote & Iodoform) powder or paste, and lice in the clothes were killed by the use of heat, either by dry heat, or steam.

As heating facilities were not available on the front lines the soldiers had to attempt to remove the lice as best they could. This removal, a procedure known as “chatting up” was usually by hand, picking out the lice from the clothes, or with the flame from lighted candles run up and down the seams of the clothes. (This was the origin of the verb “to chat” as the soldiers made the removal of their lice into a social event). These attempts at removal, unfortunately, only removed the lice temporarily and did nothing to halt the spread of trench fever because the infectious louse excreta was not sterilised; actual sterilisation of the clothes could only performed by washing in very hot water – and water was a scarce commodity in the desert.


De-lousing at Zeitoun in Egypt, 1915 or early 1916

Soldiers in front-line positions were issued only small amounts of water per day and the water quality was poor. The official ration, when it was met, was 4.5 litres/1 gallon of water per man per day.  Of this, the majority, five pints, went to the cookhouse for the preparation of meals and the steady supply of tea that the army required on a daily basis. Thirst and dehydration were common amongst the men.

‘A rare treat’ A member of the Australian Light Horse washing in the desert
Image Source: The Australian War Memorial

In February 1916 construction began on a railway line which would eventually stretch hundreds of miles to the Palestine border in order to support British forces. Further support was given by 170,000 Egyptian members of the Camel Transport Corps who between 1916 and the end of the Sinai and Palestine campaign in 1918 transported water on 72,500 camels to and from the British front lines. Each camel could carry between 50 and 70 litres of water, and though they were slow, they usually arrived on time.

Corporal Joseph Egerton with a train truck of water tanks in the Sinai Peninsula.
Image Source: National Army Museum 2002-05-1-110


So how did troops navigate their war effectively in a terrain largely devoid of markers? Gordon Harper, of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles used a wrist mounted compass to guide his men across the featureless plains and hillocks of the desert. Harper wrote ‘It is like being at sea out in the vast desert and it is not easy to see very far owing to the wavy formation of the sand.’The men were constantly on the move seeking out evidence of Ottoman forces. They were constantly on the lookout for brackish water for themselves and their horses. To know their position was vital. 

A wrist mounted compass from the Harper Collection
Image Source: https://ww100.govt.nz/objects-from-a-desert-war

In the end Gordon Harper summed up his thoughts on desert warfare succinctly when he decided that it was not the Ottomans, but ‘the desert which is our chief enemy. There is nothing so inscrutable as its changeless face; there is so little indication of the hidden enemy; and there is no warning of the scorching blast which rises from its red hot sands, and envelopes the unfortunate troops who are struggling in its grip.’ 

‘The problem is not an easy one’ … cemetery construction, horticultural schemes and the Egyptian climate

In 1948 Hubert Worthington, the Principal War Graves Commission  Architect for Egypt and North Africa was busy adding his comments to the sketch plans, estimates and reports for the new cemetery construction at Tel-el-Kebir. The war memorial cemetery at Tel-el-Kebir, 110 kilometres north-north-east of Cairo, was used from June 1915 to July 1920 and increased after the Armistice when graves were brought in from other sites, including 15 from the International Christian Cemetery at Zagazig. During the Second World War, Tel el Kebir was a hospital centre and the site of a great ordnance depot with workshops for the repair of armoured cars and other weapons of war.

The form A for Tel-el-Kebir lists 608 burials consisting of 497 British burials, 40 allied burials, 66 Polish burials and 5 civilians. The Deputy Director of Works estimated the total area of land required to be 6098 square meters – thereby allowing 10 square meters per internment at a cost of £22 . 12 shillings and 9 pence per grave* (which included the cost of the headstone). 

The remarks listed on the form A by Sir Hubert Worthington are interesting as they highlight the challenges of laying down a cemetery in the Egyptian terrain. He wrote:

‘The problem is not an easy one as four separate units have to be welded into the design. The 1882 cemetery with its magnificently grown trees makes a fine centre. New planting will continue existing palm trees with a Eucalyptus grove as a background to the East & close planting (as a screen on each side of the new main entrance to the 1914-18 cemetery) An entrance feature & gate on the road will prevent trespass and the unfortunate new native huts must be walled out with 8 foot walls as shown & be planted out’

default

A view of the 1882 Cemetery, Tel-el-Kebir as mentioned in Worthington’s 1948 notes               Image Source: The Welcome Collection (1910 – 45) 

Worthington worked with, rather than against the landscape to produce beautifully ordered cemeteries with sparse but careful planting in Egypt’s tough environment. One of Worthington’s toughest challenges proved to be the cemetery at El Alamein where seven thousand men are buried with over 8,500 soldiers and 3,000 airmen  commemorated on the Alamein memorial. He declared that he would endeavour to follow the brief to build and plant along the same lines as the cemeteries from the Western front however the climate in Egypt required modifications. He suggested high walls to keep out drifting sand and shady pergolas with cool terraces to provide shelter from the sun. Where grass could not be grown owing to the lack of water the earth would have to be panned and plants such as cacti and succulents would be used rather than the thirsty roses and shrubs grown in other parts of the world.

4211858

A photograph from the Australian War Memorial showing how difficult a task it was to provide a horticultural scheme for Egypt                                                                                            Image Source: The Australian War Memorial, MEA0953 refers 

The form A for the cemetery at Heliopolis, written in 1947,  lists 1630 British burials, 71 allied burials (inc: 28 Poles), 148 enemy burials  and 2 civilians. The Deputy Director of Works estimated the total area of land required to be 60357 square meters – thereby allowing 32.6 square meters per internment at a cost of £14 . 8 shillings and 0 pence per grave* (which included the cost of the headstone). After the war, 125 graves were moved into the cemetery from Mena Camp Military Cemetery where permanent maintenance was not possible due to sand movement. In all 1,742 Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War were buried or commemorated in the cemetery along with the 83 war graves of other nationalities reflecting the diverse make up of the Middle East Command in the World War Two. Worthington noted:

‘This cemetery is a very important one. Before my visit in 1943 the general layout had been made and most of the burials were completed. The result was very rigid and bleak. However with water and Nile mud available at the present design, depending for the most part on grass and trees should give a satisfactory result. The surroundings are ugly and the grooves and avenues of Eucalyptus trees will give the necessary seclusion and sense of peace. The war cross in a central position has avenues of cypress trees on its four sides and Ficus trees are arranged elsewhere to form arches and shady walks. The entrance is flanked by Rest Houses and within is a simple and dignified setting of the war stone. Much will depend on fine grass lawns and the use of trees and flowers’

Sometimes when we speak of Egypt our minds rarely move past the antiquities of Ancient Egypt however war has played a huge part in Egypt’s modern history. I cant help but consider how proud Worthington would be to see the horticultural work being conducted in the Egyptian cemeteries today where trees and flowers are being used to their fullest effect.

DchPhXjW0AA-nSZ

The cemetery at Heliopolis, Image Source: Twitter @walid_matrawy  CWGC Egypt 

The cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful resting place for hundreds who tragically lost their lives – carefully tended with immense pride by skilled Egyptian gardeners. In these cemeteries we have an overlooked monument to Egypt’s significance in the wider context of world history; one that will remain as important as any sarcophagus.

Please take a moment to consider visiting the cemeteries if your travelling to Egypt  – further information on visiting the cemeteries is available on the Commonwealth War Graves website https://www.cwgc.org/

32506457_10155387949921716_8809287681432354816_n

Photograph of Hubert Worthington from the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre    Reference: MR4/23/91/160

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.

Anzac_digger_kangaroo_mascot_1

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.

 

7345310-3x2-940x627