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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‘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.

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.