‘The story of Nellie and Phil’ A Wedding Beneath The Pyramids of Giza

I spotted an interesting article on the Australian War Memorial this morning regarding an event which took place at the Giza Plateau in Cairo on the 17th January, 1915. Two men, on separate occasions, had regarded the event as newsworthy enough to record for posterity in their diaries and letters home. An Australian soldier at Mena Camp in Egypt, Private Arthur Adams, noted in his diary on the 17th: ‘Wedding in camp. Private of 10th marries a S.A. girl, who comes via England’. The same event was also recorded by another soldier, Private Frederick Muir, in a letter home to his mother on 2 February ‘There was a marriage in camp here a couple of Sundays back. Quite a romantic affair’.


Photographic negatives of the 10th Battalion, AIF at Mena Camp, Egypt, 1914-1915 / photographed by Victor Cromwell. Call number: ON 585 IE number: IE429351 File number: FL429782. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Intriguingly, neither man thought to mention the names of the couple involved. It was known that the man was a soldier in the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and that the bride had come out from England. Also, that it was the chaplain of the 3rd Brigade who had presided over the proceedings. And, of course, given the backdrop the event could not be anything but romantic.

But who were the bride and groom?

Private Philip de Quetteville Robin and Miss Nellie Irene Honeywill had known each other in Australia. Phil was an accountant at the Murray Bridge branch of the Union Bank before he enlisted in the AIF and joined the 10th Battalion. He was well known for his Australian Rules football skills, having played with the Norwood Football Club and represented South Australia in interstate games in Sydney and Melbourne.

Nellie was living in London at the time of the First World War, although she had formerly resided in Adelaide. She was the eldest daughter of William Honeywill, also residing in London, and appears to have been working as a volunteer nurse. Their plans of reuniting in England were disrupted when the AIF was diverted to Egypt while en route to Europe. A couple of weeks later, however, Nellie turned up in Cairo, and the two made what seems a spontaneous decision to get married. This had not been their intention,

‘but rumours regarding the movements of the contingent, and the fact that “Phil” might be engaged for many months, if not years, in assisting to fight his country’s enemies, decided the matter for them, and forthwith arrangements for the holding of the wedding were commenced’
“A soldier’s wedding: married in camp”, The Register, 16 February 1915

Special permission was granted for the wedding by the commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, Colonel Stanley Price Weir, and the necessary preparations were quickly made. The officers’ mess tent was handed over for the event, with the mess servants converting it so that it had the appearance of a church. The ceremony began at 11.30 am, with the Anglican chaplain E.H. Richards officiating. Cake, wine, and the obligatory showering of rice were all provided by the officers of the 10th Battalion. The speeches began with Colonel Weir’s toast to the couple:

‘But for the outbreak of the war this wedding would, no doubt, have been celebrated in Adelaide. But our surroundings, although strange, are such as to compensate for all might have been lost. In Adelaide there could not have been the romance and the novelty which attach to this wedding’
“A soldier’s wedding: married in camp”, The Register, 16 February 1915

After a short honeymoon, Nellie returned to England. A few months later Phil was among the men who landed on Gallipoli on 25 April. He is one of two soldiers – the other being Private Arthur Blackburn, who would later win the Victoria Cross in France – believed to have penetrated further inland than any other Australians at Anzac. Phil was killed in action three days after the landing and is commemorated on Panel 32 of the Lone Pine Memorial. A letter by Corporal Dennis Rowden Ward of the 9th Battalion tells of the details of his death: ‘It turned out to be Lance Corporal Robin, of the good old 10th Battalion, he had been shot through the skull, and death must have been instantaneous’. On the day of his death, he had with him a ‘Little Book for Nellie’ a diary he kept for his wife, speaking about their future together and his undying love for her. His obituary, written by his manager at the Bank of Adelaide paid tribute to his genial nature and thoughtfulness:

‘He was one of the most manly men who have ever entered the service, and whence the call for volunteers was made he was among the first to respond. When in time we learn the circumstances of his death I feel sure we shall hear that he died foremost in a charge, helping to make traditions for our army, and fighting for his country. A more noble death it is not possible to conceive’
Chronicle (Adelaide), 19 June 1915, p 17

Sadly, seven months later, in London on 19 November 1915, Nellie and her infant son died soon after she had given birth.

Information Sources:

The Australian War Memorial

State Library of New South Wales

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Veterans, South Australia

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Private Ernest Donald Gow

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Private Ernest Donald Gow
4th Bn, Australian Infantry, A.I.F.

Died: 03.02.15 (Double Pneumonia, Mena Hospital, Cairo, Egypt)
Age: 24
Headstone Inscription: ‘At Rest’
Son of William and Minnie Gow, of Ulmarra, New South Wales. Born at Wollongong.

Ernest Donald Gow (Service No. 1207) was one of the first men from the Illawarra to die in World War 1.

He was born in Wollongong in 1890, the son of William Gow and his wife Minnie Gow (nee Baldwin). Ernest had lived with his family at Croome, and had worked for the Albion Park Post Office, as well as for the Post Office in other towns in NSW.

Ernest gave his occupation as Telegraph Operator when he enlisted at Randwick in the AIF on September 12, 1914. He was part of the 4th Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the AIF. He named his father William Gow of Ulmarra as his next of kin. On October 20, 1914, he embarked from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on the HMAT A14 “Euripedes”.

Sadly, he was one of the first men from the Illawarra to die in World War 1 of double pneumonia at the Mena Hospital in Cairo on February 3, 1915. His passing along with three others who also died of pneumonia, was reported in a number of newspapers across Australia.

Commonwealth War Graves point out Ernest was buried in Cairo, Al Qahirah, Egypt in the British Protestant Cemetery, Row B: Grave No 149. He is also commemorated on Panel No. 40 of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

An extract from the Illawarra Mercury 12 February, 1915 reads:

‘SAD NEWS. On the arrival of the Sydney dailies early this week, it was learned that Mr. Ernest Donald Gow, son of Mr. William Gow, of Ulmarra, Clarence River, had died in the Mena Hospital, Egypt, from pneumonia. Much regret has since been expressed at the sad news of the death of this young fellow, who gave his life for the honour of his country. Mr. Gow was at one time a telegraph messenger at the Albion Park post office, having with his parents lived at Croome, he got along so well in the Postal Department that promotion came quickly, and he was appointed on the relieving staff, and had done duty in many towns in New South Wales, and from reports from several of these places it is known that young Gow was a popular officer wherever he went. In the post office he was most obliging and courteous. He was also fond of clean sport and did much to further the attractiveness of several sporting clubs in various towns in which he was relieving. Much sympathy is felt for the parents in losing so brave a son under such sad surroundings”

Sources:
Discovering ANZACS:http://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/browse/records/284011

Shellharbour District Centenary Project 1914-1918 on ANCESTRY :http://trees.ancestry.com.au/tr…/71353581/person/32244157916

Trove – Richmond River Express and Casino Kyogle Advertister Family Notices – 4.2.1916
Northern Star – 24.3.2014 – http://www.northernstar.com.au/…/many-soldiers-die…/2207014/

The War Grave Photographic Project –http://www.twgpp.org/information.php?id=1818897

Trove – Richmond River Express and Casino Kyogle Advertiser – WW1 The Honour Rolls – http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123890556

 

‘These Kings of the Feathers, they steal your bread’

While most of Australia’s Imperial Force went to France in 1916, the bulk of Australia’s mounted forces remained in Egypt to counter to Turkish threat at Suez. After 1916  when the threat to the canal was over and victory at Romani had been secured the Light Horse advanced into Turkish territory. In 1917 they entered Palestine and by 1918 had advanced into Jordan and Syria. The campaign ended on 31st October 1918 – a few weeks after the capture of Damascus.

With the main focus on operations along the Western front the campaign in the Middle East was regarded as somewhat of a side show. Despite this, the campaign had an undoubted air of romance due to the terrain which helped to create the legend of the Australian Light Horse. These men, dubbed the ‘Kings of the Feathers’ by the Arabs or the ‘White Gurkha’s’ by Turkish troops – a reference to their deadly skill with a bayonet  had proven themselves to be expert rough-riding horsemen and good shots. Bush life had hardened them to go for long periods with little food or available water. They also showed remarkable ability to find their way over strange terrain and were able to use its features for cover, both in attack and defence.

Horses have always played a special role in the story of Australia.  The Light Horse favoured a breed of horse named ‘Walers’ – a New South Wales stockhorse type which were strong, great-hearted animals with the strains of both thoroughbred and semi-draught characteristics to give them speed, strength and stamina. Everything the Light Horse trooper needed for living and fighting had to be carried by him and his horse. When fully loaded, Walers often carried between 130 and 150 kilos. And, in the years of war to come, they would have to carry these huge loads for long distances, in searing heat, sometimes at the gallop, sometimes without water for 60 and even 70 hours at a stretch.

The men were easily identifiable – the slouch hat with its emu plume, jokingly called ‘kangaroo feathers’ became a symbol of the style and romance of the Light Horse.

Image Source: The Australian War Memorial 

Fighting in the desert brought many challenges for the men. Being able to find food and water was essential for the well-being of the men and their animals. Both horses and mules played a crucial role in maintaining the advance. Troops and their mounts travelled long distances in extremes of heat and cold, often hungry with little protection from scorching winds or driving rains.

Trooper Edward Cleaver, 4th Light Horse Regiment, 1917

“Enclosed you will see what has been my home for months, but it won’t be any good when the rain comes … at present the dust is awful … I laid down one night to sleep and had to dig myself out in the morning…”

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Image Source: The Australian War Memorial 

Trooper Ion Idriess, 5th Light Horse Regiment, 1917 

‘The flies are here in millions, they fly, flop onto your food whether you like it or not. As I am writing this note I have to keep them off with one hand and write with the other. Our horses suffer worse than we do. They have to stand in the sun and hot sand for there is no shelter. We have to scrape the top sand away before we can sit down and enjoy a nice stew full of sand and flies’

There is much to be written on the role of the Light Horse and their operations in the desert which I may cover in further blog posts however I’d like to share a tribute to the Light Horse penned by General Allenby at the cessation of operations in the Middle East.

“The Australian lighthorseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind. This mental quality renders him somewhat impatient of rigid and formal discipline, but it confers upon him the gift of adaptability, and this is the secret of much of his success mounted or on foot. In this dual role . . . The Australian lighthorseman has proved himself equal to the best. He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world.” 

 

 

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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‘A gallant and erudite Soldier’ – The Funeral of Major William Throsby Bridges

William Throsby Bridges was born at Greenock, Scotland, on 18 February 1861. As a youth he moved to Canada, where he later entered the Royal Military College but failed to graduate. In 1879 Bridges moved to Australia and joined the civil service, working in Braidwood, Murrurundi, and Narrabri. He returned to military life in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery, and that same year married his wife, Edith. For the next few years he held various positions at the School of Gunnery and attended several gunnery courses in England, passing them with distinction. Bridges served with the British army in South Africa from 1899 until he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. In January 1909 he became Australia’s first chief of the general staff and the next year was tasked with founding Australia’s first military college, the Royal Military College at Duntroon. By the time the First World War had broken out Bridges had attained the rank of Brigadier General and was given the task of raising an Australian contingent for service in Europe. He was promoted to Major General in August 1914 and was appointed the commander of the new Australian Imperial Force. Bridges travelled to Egypt with the first contingent in October and started to record his experiences in a diary from early 1915.

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From this diary we can observe the evolution of planning for the Gallipoli campaign, including his meetings with commanders like Lieutenant General William Birdwood and General Sir Ian Hamilton and with various Australian commanders who would rise to prominence in the years to come.

On 25 April 1915 units of Bridges 1st Australian Division were the first to land at Anzac Cove. In the desperate confusion of the first day the landing force suffered more than 2,000 casualties, and little progress was made towards achieving their military objectives. Bridges argued for an immediate evacuation but was overruled. From the outset Bridges insisted on inspecting the front lines on a daily basis, despite the danger to himself. On 15 May 1915 he was travelling with other officers through Monash Valley when he was shot through his right femoral artery by a Turkish sniper. The rapid onset of gangrene meant that immediate amputation for a 53 year old man would prove fatal so a medical decision was taken that it was better for nature to take its course, which in Bridges’ case was 3 days. He  died on board the hospital ship Gascon before it reached port. His last recorded instruction was “that his regret should be conveyed to the Minister for Defence that his dispatch concerning the landing was not complete — he was too tired now.”

William Bridges was initially buried at Alexandria in Egypt, but in June 1915 his body was exhumed and returned to Australia. A series of interesting photographs held by the State Library of  New South Wales show views from his original funeral.

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He became the only Australian killed in the First World War to have his remains returned to Australia. On 3 September 1915 he was buried on the slopes of Mount Pleasant at Duntroon in Canberra, under the words ‘A gallant and erudite soldier’.

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Sources and Acknowledgements 

The Australian War Memorial

State Library of New South Wales