The perils of Pyramideering in First World War Cairo

Many of Egypt’s Great War visitors were so taken by the monuments at Giza that they decided to climb them for a better look. The ascent was not particularly difficult, only tiring. Detailed advice on climbing the Great Pyramid was offered in Baedeker’s guide to Egypt: “The traveller selects two of the importunate Bedouin by whom he is assailed, and proceeds to the NE corner of the Pyramid, where the ascent begins. These strong and active attendants assist the traveller to mount by pushing, pulling, and supporting him, and will scarcely allow him a moment’s rest until the top is reached. Persons inclined to giddiness may find the descent a little trying, but the help of the Bedouin removes all danger. Both in going and returning the traveller is importuned for baksheesh, but he should decline giving anything until the descent has been safely accomplished.” In later editions of Baedeker the number of Bedouin required for the ascent was upgraded from two to three: one holding each hand and pulling, and a third pushing from behind. Groups of Australian soldiers from nearby Mena Camp appear to have climbed in groups, usually under the direction of a singular guide.

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At an overall height of 139 metres with an angle of 51.5 degrees this endeavour was no mean feat. Many of those completing the climb described their experience of both climbing and sitting atop the Great Pyramid. One soldier, C.W Frost, from Ballarat, described the climb as hard, ‘but not very dangerous’. While Lieutenant A. J. Williamson from Shepparton, was warier of the danger, warning that ‘you have to be very careful, lest you get giddy and fall’.  Some even conducted races up the Pyramids and made a record of the best times, which stood at 4 minutes in 1915. However this practice may have diminished after a group of Ghurkha’s were observed to have ascended the Great Pyramid of Giza at a time of only 2 minutes. Sadly, climbing the Pyramids was also an incredibly dangerous practise leading to a number of fatal falls.

In March 1915, Private Reginald Beard had only climbed a few metres when the stones broke up under his weight and he tumbled to the ground. Beard, a soldier with the 3rd Field Artillery brigade had arrived in Egypt as a member of the Australian Expeditionary Force. The unit had marched from Cairo to the camp at Mena on the morning of the 11th of December and the unfortunate incident took place just a few hours after their arrival. All work in camp had ceased around 5pm and Private Beard had made up his mind to be one of the first men to scale the height of the Great Pyramid.  An account of the incident published in the Kerang New Times, Victoria stressed the need for listening to local knowledge as ‘these men know that to attempt the climb anywhere except at the North East corner was dangerous, because the elements of 5,000 years have caused the limestone to crumble on the western side’. Private Beard was by himself and as a new arrival saw no one to tell him of the obvious risks so he set out up the huge blocks at the nearest point. He made his way up six courses of the blocks and was kneeling on the seventh when they collapsed under his weight and he slipped onto the previous course which immediately gave way. Beard fell out clear of the lower ledges, turning a somersault in mid air, striking his back against a limestone projection that broke off against his back ‘like a twig’. He landed in the accumulation of debris at the foot of the Pyramid, incapacitated and numbed but quite conscious. Unfortunately for Private Beard his fall went unnoticed. He lay helpless on the ground for several hours and was not rescued until the next morning when a passing Donkeyman heard his cries and went for help. A field ambulance was summoned from the nearby Mena House Hospital where Beard underwent an immediate, emergency operation which despite giving him some relief confirmed that he had been paralysed from the waist down. After surgery in Egypt, Beard was then evacuated to Australia and eventually died of his wounds in the St Kilda Military Base Hospital in July 1916 where he had been incapacitated for fourteen months.

On the same day of Private Beard’s accident Norman Veness, a 24 year old letter-carrier from New South Wales, Australia, fell a staggering 100 metres but miraculously did not suffer any permanent serious injury. He had succeeded in reaching the summit of the Great Pyramid on the afternoon of the day on which Beard was picked up, and after marvelling at the sight with a number of companions, commenced the downward climb, sitting down on each ledge and sliding to the next below. But ‘want of local knowledge was his downfall’ because by sheer chance he chose the most dangerous spot for his descent. The first thirty steps were passed in safety, but the next broke away, and Veness shot into the air rebounding first on his head and then on his feet on the uneven ledges, somersaulting until he finally hit the ground, 350 feet below. Veness, described as a ‘broken, bleeding mess’ sustained an eight-inch fracture on the top of his skull, another four inches long near his right temple and a third over the left eye where his forehead had been crushed in. He was rushed to the Mena House Hospital where Dr Fred Bird performed his second Pyramid operation of the day. The young soldier remained unconscious for a week but improved steadily and although somewhat battered was apparently restored to good health. “I remember taking a dive, and nothing more. I often do it over again in my sleep,’- remarked Veness. ‘I ought to be dead, but Mr Bird and the Nurse at Mena Hospital saved my life. It is bad luck having to go home without ever firing a shot at the Germans’. Another Soldier, unnamed, in the press reports made at the time was killed instantly. Following a succession of incidents such as these the North Eastern side of the Great Pyramid was placed out of bounds. Sign posts, with warnings, were erected on site to warn soldiers of the potential dangers of climbing in an attempt to avert further injury and loss of life.

 

Sources

Falls from the Pyramid (1915, April 20). Kerang New Times(Vic. : 1901 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved 5th February, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91974755

Death of a Soldier (1916, July 12). The Argus(Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 10. Retrieved 5th February, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1614795

 

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