‘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’

Sometimes we look but we don’t really see – a local link to Egypt

On a recent visit to the graveyard at All Saints church in Grasby, North Lincs I was very surprised to see the recent addition of a Commonwealth War graves sign – indicating the presence of a war grave. A quick consultation of the CWGC app revealed the name Arthur Frank Wescott of the Royal Field Artillery who died on the 13th of November 1918. Now I’ve visited this particular graveyard many times as I have two family members buried here and I was immediately curious as I could not recall the presence of a CWGC Portland headstone in such a small graveyard.

I walked round the graveyard 3 times looking for a headstone until I noticed the ‘Dardanelles’ wording on large, white memorial stone directly behind the grave of my Nanna. The headstone bears the names of three unmarried brothers who fell during the conflict – the sons of  local Headmaster Elton Edward Wescott and his wife Leah of Grasby.

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Arthur Frank Wescott died on the 13th November 1918, a scant two days after the signing of The Armistice, whilst serving as Corporal 99056 in A Battery of the 152nd Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. The CWGC records state he was buried in the churchyard at Grasby, he presumably having died at home of his wounds. Arthur was 20 years old.

Harry E Westcott should in fact be Elton Harry Wescott. Elton was serving as Corporal 9828 in the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment when he was killed in action on the 15th August 1915 at Gallipoli aged 23. He was buried in the Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War cemetery in Egypt, grave reference no: J44. I’m rather taken with the personal inscription on his gravestone which states ‘Asleep with England’s heroes in the watchful care of God’.

Edward Lawrence Wescott died of wounds on the 11th May 1917 in France whilst serving as Sergeant 9580 of the 8th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment  at 22 years of age. He had apparently been a member of the 1st Battalion and had gone to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August of 1914 and could therefore have been a regular soldier. Edward was buried in the Etaples Military cemetery, grave reference no: XVIII.M.6A. Like Harry, Edwards gravestone bears the inscription ‘Asleep with England’s heroes in the watchful care of God’. 

In September, I’m due to start my Doctoral research project on the IWGC’s operations in Egypt during the Great War – with a particular focus on the cemeteries of Hadra and Chatby at Alexandria. The Chatby Military and War Memorial Cemetery (originally the Garrison cemetery) was used for burials until April 1916, when a new cemetery was opened at Hadra. I am so looking forward to uncovering more stories such as Harrys within the context of my research.

Sir Ronald Ross’ work on dysentery in Alexandria, Egypt during the Great War

The Ross Collection in the Archives of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine holds material on dysentery during the First World War.
Sir Ronald Ross is famous for being the discoverer of the mosquito transmission of malaria and the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.


Ross and colleagues in Alexandria, 1915

During World War One he was appointed a consultant physician on tropical diseases to Indian troops and was sent to Alexandria for four months to investigate an outbreak of dysentery which was hampering troops in the Dardanelles. In the report he made at the end of his service, he states that on visiting seven large hospitals in Alexandria, nearly all medical cases belonged to five groups of diseases usually prevalent in British troops in warm countries: typhoid, jaundice, malaria, dysentery and mixed cases. Of these, dysentery (an infection of the intestines that causes diarrhoea containing blood and mucus) was the principal cause of sickness in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces. Figures from a report show that from 29 August to 9th October 1915 there were 32,528 cases of diarrhoea and dysentery with 231 deaths.


Post mortems on cases showing dysenteric ulceration of colon at 21 General Hospital, Alexandria June 28-October 27 1915 by George Bertram Bartlett

He found that many of the cases were amoebic dysentery which meant prolonged illness and cases of liver abscesses. Ross instructed that all patients showing dysenteric symptoms at the front be given emetine and this resulted in patients reaching Alexandria in a less critical condition.
Ross finished his report with a number of suggestions, including increasing the number of pathologists in each hospital, and that those patients who have been treated successfully for malaria and dysentery be sent home with medical cards outlining their medical notes in case of relapse.

Ross at the Regina Hotel, Alexandria, Egypt

While Ross is remembered for his work on malaria and dysentry, this remarkable man was also a mathematician, epidemiologist, sanitarian, editor, novelist, dramatist, poet, amateur musician, composer, and artist. He died, after a long illness, at the Ross Institute on 16 September 1932.

“…With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.”

(fragment of poem by Ronald Ross, written in August 1897, following his discovery of malaria parasites in anopheline mosquitoes fed on malaria-infected patients)

Information Sources:

Library & Archives Service, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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

 

‘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

‘One of the Best’ Private W.Vincent Rumbelow – Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.

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A few months ago I was lucky enough to find the Great War medals belonging to 240221 Private William Rumbelow of the 1st / 5th Bn Suffolk Regiment for sale on E Bay.

I was really pleased to be able to purchase the medals and began to undertake some research into the life of their owner and the circumstances surrounding his death.

After the Second Battle of Gaza the Palestinian campaign settled into a stalemate along a line of entrenchments from Gaza on the Mediterranean to the water wells of Beersheba at the foot of the mountains thirty air miles to the southeast. In his book ‘The Egyptian Expeditionary Force in World War I’  Michael J Mortlock wrote:

‘There was considerable bitterness amongst the front line soldiers over what had transpired. The troops were bitterly disillusioned  and very angry as General Murray had no idea how to break the dead lock and kept his headquarters in the comfort of the Savoy Hotel in Cairo, giving awards for gallant services  to members of his large headquarters staff – many of whom had never even see the front line’

Actually Murray did temporarily move to a train carriage at El Arish so as to be closer to Generals Dobell and Chetwode quartered at In Seirat. It was during this period that Private W. Vincent Rumbelow ‘D’ Company of the 1st / 5th Suffolk’s was mortally wounded by a 5.9 shell burst on the 1st of May 1917 while on ‘light duties’ as his comrades were detailed for a wiring party. Murray reported

‘They directed artillery fire on the rear of our positions on the Mansura ridge, doing a certain amount of damage among the transport animals, and making any movement of camel transport during the day impossible’

Although urged by his pal, Private Jake Mortlock, to come with their wiring party ‘as the Turks will send over a few shells and we shall be lying about most of the day’ he could not be convinced and a 5.9 ‘Jack Johnson’ shell mortally wounded him. His sister, Marjorie, remembers the fateful day the Postman delivered the news to his Parents who up until  that day had prayed nightly for his safe return – she never again saw them kneeling by their bed.

Private Mortlock’s grief was not readily discernible in the letter he penned in the rear of the Sheikh Abbas ridge – but the loss of his best pal was a terrible blow to him – not to mention his sister, Gwen, who had been engaged to be married to ‘Vinnie’.

‘One of the Best’ was Jake’s tribute written on the back of a photograph he sent to Gwen.

Michael J Mortlock wrote that ‘W Vincent Rumbelow’s premature death also had unforeseen repercussions regarding the family ownership of the ancient Freckenham manor, as his surviving brother was described as a ‘cripple’ and not up to such an onerous task’ I will research this statement further as although William has an entry on the Soham Grammar School war memorial on the 1911 census he is listed as the son of William W and Mary Rumbelow, aged 15, a Farmer’s Son working on farm, born Freckenham, resident Freckenham, Soham, Cambridgeshire.

For now Williams medals are safe in my keeping.

 

 

‘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.”