Sister Selina Lily (Lil) Mackenzie – 1st Australian General Hospital (Heliopolis)

The Victoria Museum holds a small collection bequeathed by Rosemary McArthur in 2010 commemorating the life of Sister Selina Lily ‘Lil’ Mackenzie which provides an interesting insight into the role of women (in this instance nurses) serving in Egypt during World War I.

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 Portrait of Sister Lil Mackenzie with a Friend, Egypt, 1915-1917

Lil returned to her hometown after the outbreak of war, and on 5 October 1915 enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She was 33 years old, and despite 11 years nursing at a senior level, she was given the lowest rank: staff nurse. Lil embarked for Egypt shortly after enlistment, reporting for duty at the 1st Australian General Hospital (AGH) in Heliopolis, Egypt, on 9 December 1915.

The 1st AGH was housed in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, a grand building on the north-eastern edge of Cairo with rooms of marble and alabaster. Planned as a 520-bed hospital, by June 1915 it held nearly 2,500 patients. The hospital expanded into nearby buildings: the racecourse, the casino, the barracks of the Egyptian Army, and Luna Park where the ticket office became an operating theatre and the skating rink, bandstand and scenic railway became wards.

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A keen photographer, Lil took images of her time in Egypt; the photographs were carefully placed in albums, and chronicle the hospital at which she served and Luna Park Cairo. The camera on which the images were taken forms part of the Museum’s collection, the inside of the leather case bears Lil’s name with the date 1915 and location Cairo, Egypt. Also donated in the group are Lil’s nursing capes, one made of a very light-weight silk (necessary in the extreme heat of Egypt); buttons carefully removed from her uniforms and kept by the family; and souvenirs from Egypt.

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A Scarab ring bought by Sister Selina Lily (Lil) Mackenzie as a souvenir of her time in Egypt during World War I

In February 1916 the 1st and 2nd AGH moved to France, but Lil remained in Cairo for another 12 months with the 3rd AGH. In January 1917 the 3rd AGH moved to England, then France on 8 February 1917. On arrival in France Lil was transferred to the Imperial unit, the 13th General Hospital at Rouen. She would have been one of about 70 nurses.

Lil was transferred back to the 3rd AGH, now at Abbeville on the western part of the Somme River, on 6 July 1917. The 3rd AGH was one of the biggest hospitals in France, with 2,000 beds, 20 sisters and 60 staff nurses.

In November 1917 Lil was again transferred, this time to the 38th Stationary Hospital which had just opened at a boys’ school in Genoa, Italy. Lil served at this 520 bed hospital for British Troops until March 1918, when she was put in charge of the 24th Casualty Clearing Station, located north of Venice; she had 30 staff reporting to her.

Having served five months in the exhausting conditions of a Casuatly Clearing Station, Lil returned to the 38th Stationary Hospital in Genoa on 18 August 1918, and a week later left for England for three week’s leave. She returned to Genoa in September, and in October was notified she had been promoted to Sister. She served at the 38th Stationary Hospital until January 1919 when she was transferred to England.

She spent a month at the 3rd Australia Auxilliary Hospital in Dartford, Kent, and then took a few months leave during which time she attended lectures at the Royal Sanitary Institute in London. She qualified as an Inspector of Nuisances in June that year. Upon completion of her course, Lil returned to the 3rd Australia Auxilliary Hospital in Dartford for two months, and was then transferred to the 1st AGH which was now in Wiltshire. Just over a month later, on 18 October 1919, Lil embarked for Australia on the ‘Morea’, disembarking on 28 November. Her appointment as an army nurse was terminated on 17 February 1920.

In recognition of her service, Lil was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for her service in Italy. She also received the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victoria Medal. Lil passed away at the age of 90. In 2010 her family donated photographs and personal items associated with her service to Museum Victoria.

 

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Sources: 

Sister Selina Lily (Lil) McKenzie (1882-1972) Smith, C. (2010) Sister Selina Lily (Lil) McKenzie (1882-1972) in Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/3586
Accessed 02 July 2017

Wallet – Leather, Egypt, Sister Selina Lily (Lil) Mackenzie, 1915 – 1917  Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1584159
Accessed 01 July 2017

Scarab Ring Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1584148
Accessed 02 July 2017

Group Portrait of Nurses in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt 1915 – 17 Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1562607
Accessed 02 July 2017

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ethics of Collecting Medals – ‘Private James Tilbury’ of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment

Military medals are becoming increasingly valuable, but its the story of courage behind the award that ultimately counts. Whenever I  have seen personal medals for sale either at a dealers or for sale on sites such as eBay I have often wondered about the circumstances that brought them to be for sale.

Over the years many sets are bequeathed to Regimental Museums or Associations however this should always be done with care. In 2015 the Combined Military Services Museum came under fire for selling donated second world war medals. The medals, which belonged to the donor’s father,  were sold on eBay for £32. The Donor  had not given the museum permission to sell the medals and had donated them in the hope they would “be in safe keeping for generations to come”. The Museum had decided that as they had numerous similar items both on display and in storage the donated set would be passed onto a dealer for sale, and the proceeds used for the purchase of other artefacts for display.

We should consider the fact that as people age many tend to get less sentimental about physical objects. It may well be that the person in question had no relatives to leave them to, or that surviving relatives were genuinely not interested or would rather have had a monetary alternative. Perhaps this is where the private collector can play a viable role – if the medal in question is so old that its original owner is sure to be dead, I have less of an ethical issue regarding my purchase. Ive started to collect the medals of soldiers buried in Egypt. To date I have four partial sets which I have started to research and I’m looking forward to uncovering more of their stories. My latest purchase is the Victory Medal belonging to Private James Tilbury of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. James, an Upholster by profession, enlisted in Oxford and saw service with the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry before being transferred to the Garrison Battalion with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the Abbassia barracks on the outskirts of Cairo. The war diaries record that the regiment has recently been vaccinated against an outbreak of enteric fever (Typhoid) and this may have been how James lost his life, aged 34. James is remembered with honour in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Grave Ref: F. 254.

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Almost all of the collectors I know see themselves as the current custodian and treat the medal with the respect it deserves. The medals remind us of the extraordinary heroism of those who fight for their country and those who lie far from home.

To sew or not to sew? that is the question …Sewing Soldiers and Historical Textiles

The pocket sewing kit originated in the middle of the 18th century. The ‘housewife’ holdall or pouch was an essential component of a soldiers equipment. It contained all that he would require to carry out repairs to his clothing when necessary. Inside, it would contain a range of items such as a thimble, needles, balls of darning wool to repair socks, darning thread to repair his uniform, spare buttons and safety pins. The kits were often a gift from a significant woman in their life: their mother, sister, wife or sweetheart. From the latter part of the 19th century and for about a hundred years thereafter the British Army issued sewing kits to soldiers as part of their official equipment.

However, soldiers did not only sew to mend their clothes and maintain their equipment. Needlecraft was promoted by the Army as a worthwhile pastime to keep soldiers occupied during their hours of leisure time when confined to barracks. In postings such as Egypt, where life was often described as ‘monotonous’, engagement with crafts was perceived as a deterrent to drunkenness, unruly behaviour and the illicit attractions of Cairo.  It was also promoted as an activity to assist with the recovery of injured or bedridden soldiers. There are many wonderful examples of needlecraft in regimental museums around the world which attest to the creativity and skill of soldiers. 

In Cairo, soldiers were able to purchase local textiles or embroidered items known collectively as a ‘Souvenir of Egypt’. These items were extremely popular during the First world War due to their colourful nature and the fact they were easy to fold and post home as gifts for loved ones.

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Embroidered handkerchief  (Image Source: Wakefield Museum)

Very little is written or known about such pieces. The embroideries were machine chained stitched onto colourful cotton sateen, often sold as ‘silk’ by enterprising Egyptian salesmen, and usually bear the phrase ‘ A Souvenir of Egypt’ with a year date. Most have a distinctly Egyptian flavour and show the pyramids and sphinx, camels or date palms. Many show images associated with different armies or nations and have been fully customised by replicating unit colours as part of the overall design.

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Embroidered souvenir of Egypt with photograph : Sergeant R P Mills, 26 Battalion AIF (Image Source: The Australian War Memorial, REL28180 refers) 

A piece of Khayamiya or Tentmaker applique, purchased in 1916 by Nurse Jane McLennan in Egypt was recently exhibited as part of the Distant Lines: Queensland Voices of the First World War exhibition. She visited Egypt en route to Salonika where her journals detail the sparseness of her tented accommodation – this item would certainly have made a welcoming decoration in such difficult circumstances.

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Embroidered Khayamiya (Image Source: The State Library of Queensland) 

Objects collected by servicemen whilst serving during WW1 are held in many major museum collections. Pieces, such as these embroideries, function as repositories of memory and meaning, and for us today, form part of the material culture of warfare and the Commonwealth-Egyptian encounter of WW1. I look forward to exploring this area further during the course of my ongoing research.