‘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’

‘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’

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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.

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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.

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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/

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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.

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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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