‘News from the Nile’

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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’

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A.S.T.E.N.E Conference – University of East Anglia (21 – 24th July 2017)

The Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East will hold its twelfth biennial conference at the University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norwich, from Friday 21 July to Monday 24 July, 2017.

I’ll be speaking on Sunday 23rd of July during session 10 Tourism and Perceptions of the Other on Soldiering In Egypt. My paper will aim to provide an overview surrounding the shared experiences of soldiers serving in Egypt during the period 1914 – 18 with their apparent and well documented interest in the history and archaeology of Egypt. For many young men and women, most of whom had never travelled beyond their home towns, it must have been an incredible experience to look upon the Pyramids at Giza. Troops arriving in Egypt were amazed by the sights and sounds of Cairo and plenty of spare time enabled the opportunity for sightseeing and travel. Their photographs, letters and souvenirs provide a record of life in Egypt during the Great War, an experience which appeared to have left an indelible mark on all who visited. 

For further information on the conference please visit: http://www.astene.org.uk/

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‘Now, as this place is 450ft high, it took us a good while to reach the top. Of course, steps 2ft and 2ft 6″ apart make the progress fairly easy. However, we reached it somehow. The top is a level of about 20ft by 20ft so there is heaps of room to walk about. The most  beautiful panoramic view imaginable greeted us on arrival. On one side, we got a splendid view of our camp, which if the people of Australia could only see on paper, would be worth thousands. On another side are the remains of an ancient city, and natives are excavating for hidden treasure, also a number of tombs, which were a wonderful sight’ 

Private Jack Colless, A.I.F, Giza, c.1914

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Views of an Antique Land’ Project Conference (20th May 2017)

I was so pleased to be invited to speak at the closing ‘Views of an Antique Land’ project conference which is being held on the 20th May at Cardiff University.

My paper ‘Recollections and Representations of Cairo (1914/18) – The Egyptian Expeditionary Force’ will include a brief overview of the strategic importance of Egypt and the logistical challenge of housing, feeding and caring for the large numbers of Commonwealth troops involved throughout Egypt. I’ll be talking about leisure and recreation in Great War Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria and how this ‘friendly invasion’ affected life in Cairo for the Egyptian people. I find this ‘social history of soldiering’ enormously entertaining, their reminiscences are at times ribald but they display an intense fascination with the culture and history of Egypt.

For further information on the project please visit:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ww1imagesegypt/

Web link: http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/ww1imagesegypt/

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‘We are camped in the Valley of the Pyramids with two of the big Pyramids in sight. They are an enormous size … a wonderful piece of work … All of the Australian troops except the Light Horse are camped here. The Light Horse are camped on the other side of town. The New Zealanders are with them … The camp is like a huge town. It is laid out in streets and blocks and each battalion has a block. We have been making rifles ranges, building latrines, making roads, building mess rooms and a thousand and one jobs which are required in a camp like this’ 

Sapper Ernest Charles Tubbenhauer, 1st Division Engineers, Mena Camp, Cairo, c.1915

Military History and Colonialism: The Pigeons of Denshawai

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The Denshawai Incident is the name given to a dispute which occurred in 1906 between British Military officers and the locals villagers of Denshawai, Egypt. Denshawai was one of many small cruelties of colonialism, but the arrogance of the British response gave a new impetus to the growing sense of Egyptian nationalism. Though the incident itself was fairly small in terms of the number of casualties and injuries, the British officers’ response to the incident, and its grave consequences, were what led to its lasting impact.

Like many villagers in the Delta, the villagers of Denshawai raised pigeons in conical pigeon-cotes, primarily for food. A year before, in 1905, British officers had come to the village shooting pigeons, A local man named Hasan Mahfuz had resisted them, and the British Army banned further hunting there. On 13 June 1906  a party of five British officers, with an Egyptian policeman and interpreter,  returned to Denshawai.  The ranking officer in the group was Major John Edward Pine-Coffin, a Boer War veteran and whose son would later serve with the Airborne forces during the Normandy invasion had reportedly hunted at Denshawai before.

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Major John Edward Pine-Coffin (1866 – 1919)

When Mahfuz and other villagers again resisted, the British shooting party agreed to retreat a few hundred yards from the village. The exact distance they moved back is disputed. As they started shooting birds, a threshing floor in the village caught fire. The villagers, already infuriated by the pigeon shooters, attacked the soldiers with stones and sticks. Somehow in the confusion the wife of the prayer leader of the local mosque was shot. In the fight that ensued one British officer, a Captain Bull, was injured. He and another officer escaped, and Bull, running for help, collapsed and died. British troops arriving on the scene found a local peasant who had sought to help Bull, saw that Bull was dead,  quickly assumed the peasant had killed him, and beat the fellah to death.

Concerned about growing Egyptian nationalism, officials responded swiftly and harshly to the Denshawai Incident. The next day, the British army arrived, arresting fifty-two men in the village identified as members of the mob, including Abd-el-Nebi, Hassan Mahfouz, a man called Darweesh, and Zahran. At a summary trial, with both Egyptian and British judges, responsibility for the incident was determined. Hassan, Darweesh, Zahran, and one other man, were convicted of murdering the officer who had died of sunstroke, since their actions had put him in that deadly position. They were sentenced to death. Abd-el-Nebi and another villager were given life sentences of penal servitude; twenty-six villagers were given various terms of hard labour and ordered to be flogged. Giving evidence in court the officers stated that they had been “guests” of the villagers and had done nothing deliberately wrong.

Hassan was hanged in front of his own house, which was uncharacteristic of the usual protocol in capital punishment. This action by the Egyptian and British officials was portrayed by the nationalist press as especially cruel and an outright symbol of dominance over the Egyptians. Darweesh said from the gallows: “May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”

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The Egyptian police official who had accompanied the soldiers to the village did not confirm their story. He testified in court that after Abd-el-Nebi’s wife had been shot, the alarmed officers had fired twice more on the surging mob. For his testimony, he was dismissed, and a court of discipline sentenced him to two years imprisonment and fifty lashes.

George Bernard Shaw gave an assessment of the incident, much criticised in Britain as biased and inflammatory:

“Instead of showing understanding for the peasants’ self-defence against the officer’s tactless blundering, the colonial administrators viewed the natives’ actions as a dangerous popular insurgency that had to be dealt with harshly.”

In the long run, this incident, and the resulting rise in nationalism, led to an anti-colonial struggle in Egypt during the Great War. During the war, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (E.E.F) was stationed in Egypt. Its presence resulted in the major expenditure of food and resources to fight Turkish forces. Ironically, this had been a long time goal of Egyptian nationalists. As the war continued, the unrest sparked by the Denshawai Incident was further aggravated by inflation and food shortages which led to cases of starvation within Egypt’s borders. By 1919, Egypt was ripe for revolt and the drive for change was gathering pace. While the Allies were attempting to reach a post-war agreement, the Egyptian leaders, known as the Wafd, which later gave its name to the major political party, were denied entrance to France to attend the conference at Versailles. Among other things, the Wafd wanted a greater share in the Sudan,  Egypt’s joint colony with Britain. The Versailles refusal led to most of the Egyptian government resigning, and resulted in mass demonstrations leading to riots. These riots, and the grievances that triggered them, provided nationalists with both a focus for unified action, and a base of support that was wider than any they had attracted in the prewar decades.