Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

This week I have put Great Grandfather to rest behind the cupboard doors.  Before you jump up and down in protest, I must add that it is only a temporary interlude in the war and times of his life.  I know he will understand, because my focus has been on my Anzac Day address which I am to present at the Giru Anzac Day Ceremony on Tuesday week.

Given an open book regarding what I choose to say, my mind has been working overtime in the hope that some flash of inspiration will present me with an idea that is new and engaging.  Last year I spoke about two brothers who enlisted in the Great War and whose letters detailing their experiences ended up in the hands of the Australian War Memorial.  There is so much information out in the cyber arena to be found that it can be overwhelming.  Being almost 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba, I had settled upon Ion Idriess’ account in his book “The Desert Column”.  However, I have since discovered that there are doubts about whether his portrayal was actually his first hand account, witnessed through field glasses from afar.  The geographical logistics of his account seem unlikely.

Many of the battles I have read about, are are either portrayed in horrific or heroic terms. Censorship is an important issue with the attendance of school children on Anzac Day, and well heroics seem to miss the point of Anzac Day. Thus I went in search of  a more meaningful story.  At one point, I thought about taking the easy road and simply recite a poem.  Then I stumbled upon the story of an Anzac whose military career was quite exceptional, but not for the more obvious reasons.

The more I read about my Anzac’s story, the more parallels I found between his and my Great Grandfather’s story, that is, without all the military decorations and accolades.  They were both Queenslanders and fought together in the Boer War.  They both held an interest in military matters between wars.  My Anzac was a lawyer and began his career in Townsville where he met his future wife.  Whilst enjoying success with his legal career, he also joined the 15th Light Horse Regiment, a volunteer regiment in Townsville.  He moved back to Brisbane to practice law in 1912 where he kept an interest in the military by joining the Old Moreton Regiment.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, my Anzac enlisted with the Fifth Lighthorse Regiment, along with my Great Grandfather.  The commonalities do not stop there.  They both fought at Gallipoli and then in the middle east, only my Anzac, by that stage was a Lieutenant Colonel, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer.

By all accounts, my Anzac, was well liked and admired.  His war time pursuits were varied and many, which were followed by glowing accolades by his superiors, his counterparts, by journalists and most of all by the men who served him.  Historian, Charles Bean, described him as:

an outstanding example of number of Australian city men who had won distinction in the light horse.  He was shy in manner and very sparing of speech; but his quiet figure concealed the spirit of a great master of horse.  He became marked as a leader capable of handling command far more important than a brigade.”(1)

H.S. Gullett noted in his history of the 9th Light Horse Regiment:

“At the end of this period (1917) the Regiment passed, with the rest of the 3rd Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Wilson who soon proved himself one of the ablest cavalry leaders disclosed by the war.” (2)

To top off the glowing accounts, he was awarded numerous military decorations for his incredible efforts.  However, it was not his impressive military records or medals that impressed me about this particular man.

No, I was impressed by the type of man he was.  By all accounts he was of a quiet and mild nature.  He was quite modest about his own achievements and yet he wrote and spoke often about the achievements of his own men.  His men in turn thought he was great.  They willing followed his orders, because they knew that he would never ask them to do anything that he was not willing to do himself.  He cared about the health and welfare of his men and even set up a special canteen in order to raise money to buy much needed equipment in order to make their lives safer.

One of his greatest concerns was the shortage of water for both horses and men in the middle eastern deserts.  He provided an ingenious solution.  He introduced the Queensland spear-point pump which he had seen used in the Ayr District during his time in North Queensland.  According to C.E..W. Bean,

“it could be carried without trouble on the saddle, this pump entirely changed the practice of watering horses.  In a few minutes it could be unpacked and driven into the sand in a likely spot for water: by the time other men had laid out the light canvas troughing a plentiful supply of water was being pumped out of the sand.” (3)

Apparently, the British refused to pay for these devices, so they were paid out of funds raised by the special canteen.

Whilst studying the life and times of my Anzac, I wondered how well my Great Grandfather knew him.  When I read his diary of 1917, I discovered that my Anzac regularly visited him in hospital at the end of that year.  Were they friends?  Perhaps they were.  On the other hand, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer might have been simply demonstrating the caring man that he was.

wilson_246x550

Lachlan Chisholm Wilson (Photo: Australian War Memorial)

Brigadier General Lachlan Chisholm Wilson proved to be an effective soldier and officer, earning him well-deserved praise and awards.  However, I think he would be happiest to be known as:

An ordinary man who did an extraordinary job in abnormal circumstances.

 

L’est We Forget.

References:

(1)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)

(2)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)

(3)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Twriting

This morning there is a little true story I wish to share….

Morning tea at Grandma’s house was not unusual, but there was something different about this occasion.  My fingers traced the familiar lace detail of the tablecloth that covered the table whilst Grandma laid out the fragile tea cups and saucers that she kept in the whitewashed hutch in the kitchen. Uncle Bill leaned quietly against the high back of his favourite chair, whilst Grandma sat in the chair opposite me.  Today, however, an elderly man, whom I had never met, sat to Grandma’s left.

Grandma looked different to the Grandma I knew from my childhood.  Her hair was auburn, not white.  It was pulled up on top of her head with fine wisps falling to frame her relaxed and smiling face.  How curious, I thought to myself.  She’s different. Not so serious. Younger.  Grandma looked up from pouring tea and proceeded  to introduce the guest who sat beside her.  Although the elderly gentleman looked vaguely familiar, I did not recognize his face. Grandma beamed from ear to ear as she announced, “This is my husband!”

My eyes were transfixed on “Grandma’s Husband” whom I had never met.  He had disappeared in 1955 without a trace, so I was told. Gripped by both excitement and shock, I could not stop staring at the man who was my Great Grandfather.   What does one say to a man who suddenly reappears after an entire lifetime of absence?  He had been the subject of my research for the past 10 years.  How many times have I wished for this moment?  All the unanswered questions I had accumulated over the years were whirring around in my brain like a fast train.  My father has said numerous times that he wished he had been more interested in his Grandfather when he was around.  Who would have thought that one day he would reappear?

Unlike Grandma, my Great Grandfather had aged.  I had only known him in his prime; as a dashing young Light Horse officer during the Great War.  That young man who stood so straight and proud in his military uniform had been ravaged by time and experiences.  I search the lines and crevices that now mapped his thin face, hoping to find points of recognition.  His eyes that stared at me from old sepia photos with the alertness of a trained soldier, now gazed at me across the table with a soft blue glaze.

With each sip of tea, my eyes beamed straight over the rim of my teacup, directly at my Great Grandfather.  With each intake that flooded my mouth, a stream of words flooded my thoughts. Gallipoli, Egypt, light horse to name a few. Then there were doubts: Would he talk to me?  (Afterall, I am a woman!)  Should I ask about the war? (But soldiers don’t talk about it).   I cannot recall how the conversation began or for that matter what I said.  All I know is that once the words, questions, sentences fell from my tongue, there was no stopping them.  Back and forth, I asked and to my amazement he answered.   He seemed happy to talk, as if the Great War was his vocation.  Fueled by elation, I inhaled every word.

As fast as the morning had dawned, it faded into oblivion; and along with it, my vision of my Great Grandfather.  I awoke from my dream and my excitement was replaced by disappointment.  I lay in bed hoping that what had transpired was real, but nothing.  Even the conversations had evaporated.  My memories of the moment were reduced to a silent movie.  My long list of unanswered questions remained just that.  Unanswered.

Was my dream one of my little psychic moments as I call them.  I do believe my ancestors talk to me; they have a habit of leading me to their stories.  Dreams can be interpreted in many ways, however, I choose to believe that it was my Great Grandfather’s way of giving me permission to tell his story; a story he found too painful to tell himself.  That was my aha moment that started me on this journey behind the cupboard doors.

Leaving For Serapeum

1429838333300

Sitting high on his horse, William shuddered from the sudden stabbings of cold air that swept in from the outer desert.  Despite the searing hot days, the evening temperatures dropped dramatically, providing the camp with cool relief.  Evenings were also a welcomed relief from the rigorous daily drills, patrols and camp duties.  Many soldiers took advantage of the reading tent set up by locals.  It was a place where they could read the English newspapers or write letters home.  Some obtained leave permits to visit the local Soldier’s Club or travelled by train into Cairo to enjoy bars and cafes.  On the evening of 23rd February 1916, however, the men of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment were mounted in full dress, boots polished, horses packed, awaiting their departure for Serapeum on the Suez Canal.

The sounding of the bugle at 5.00am, urged William to jump out of his bed and plung into the cold unknown of that February day.  There was so much to do and the dawning day already seemed too short of time.  The Maadi camp was a hive of activity as men busied themselves packing up tents, bedding and kit bags.  No-one complained as they were all eager for change.  Moving for most of the new recruits meant an end to the repetitious drills and patrols.  They were eager to face the Turks head on.

William found himself shaking his head at intervals during the day, thinking “Their heads are filled with school boy notions.”

He wished he could share their youthful enthusiasm, but like many of the old hands, he watched on in silent contemplation.  How could he share the truth of war with the inexperienced?  Comprehension is grown out of experience.

By midday, the entire regiment stood fully dressed and ready with their horses by their sides.  The wait was long and hot beneath the relentless Egyptian Sun.  By nightfall, a mood of restlessness rumbled down the line of men and horses.  The long period of idleness had dimmed the earlier excitement into a mood of uncertainty as men faced the reality of war.

William, on the other hand, prepared for the move with the calmness of a seasoned soldier.  He had spent the time packing his horse with military precision, marking off each item on a mental checklist as he strapped them in place.  The list was comprehensive, including his water bag, the horse’s nose bag, toiletries, clothes, ammunition, his pistol and the list went on.  Each item he weighed to ensure the total weight of his load, including his own weight, did not exceed the recommended 20 stone.

Now that the day had succumbed to nightfall, William sat straight in his saddle looking out into the darkness, prepared for the unknown. The weight of his rifle against his back reminded him of the dangerous road ahead.  Taking a deep breath, he extinguished any menacing thoughts. Instead, he focused on the distant lights of Cairo.

The lights of the ancient city flickered like beacons of hope on the horizon.  William likened her to an exotic creature who could open the doors to the most wonderful experiences, but he knew that one needed to be wary.  She was a welcomed distraction for many young men who had blindly fallen for her beguiling charms.  Who could blame them, knowing that each day might be their last?  That night, however, the sleepy eyes of the ancient city watched on with indifference as the line of mounted soldiers were readying for war.

The shrill sounding of a whistle interrupted William’s thoughts at 2100 sharp, echoing new waves of excitement down the line. The procession slowly began to move forward, Emu plumes fluttered in the cool breeze, hooves shuffled in the desert sands, tails swished nervously, heads of combed manes tossed and pulled.  The horses were unusually restless, as if they could sense the dangers that lay ahead.

Murmurs and nervous bouts of laughter bounced from man to man as they casually swayed with the movement of their horses pushing through the powdery sand.  As the column of light horsemen edged closer to the city, the shadowy forms of the pyramids loomed like enormous omens against the black sky.  The awesome sight caste a mood of quiet as the silhouetted horsemen crept past like ominous storm clouds on a horizon. William caste a final passing glance at the great testaments to the afterlife and prayed that Nehebkau, the God of Protection, was looking out for them.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

In my recent search along the ancestral trail in the outback and beyond, I wanted to find an old uncle who featured prominently in my life until his death in 1972.

Young Tom Hourigan was only 21 years old when he came up to the Haughton District from Dalby on the Darling Downs in 1914.  He knew the Lyons family from when they lived at Dalby and he agreed to help Cis run the farm whilst William went off to war.  For the duration of the war, Tom lived with the family and that is where he met Cis’ youngest sister Nelly, who would eventually become his wife.

Tom Hourigan A

Uncle Tom Hourigan

 

Now the story of Tom and Nelly’s romance is another story that is somewhat cloaked in mystery.  The reason for this is that those who knew them during their courtship are no longer here to reveal the story.  I knew them as an elderly couple who lived close by and it was on their farm of Burwood that my sisters and I learnt to ride horses.  I remember my Mother saying that they were married late in life, hence they had no children.  I never had any reason to question their relationship, thinking they actually met later in life. That was until I grew up and looked at old photos in which both appeared.

Tennis Group A

Tom (back, second from right) and Nelly (front, second from left)

Then a few years ago, I had access to some old letters written to my Grandfather’s brother Ron.  In one letter, Nelly mentions that she didn’t care much for any members of the Hourigan family (meaning Tom and his brother Bob).  Then, Tom wrote about a weekend that he and Nelly spent in Townsville, and he went on to tell Ron how they had such a great time.  Now back in the 1920’s that was quite a risqué thing to do, but nothing would surprise me of my Aunty Nelly as I imagine her to have been a thoroughly modern girl. She often amused my family with risqué sayings and ditties that flowed from her vintage mouth.  Her lady like appearance belied a young girl with spark.

 

IMG_0002

Young Nellie Deane

 

 

In their youth, I imagine both Tom and Nellie to be quite a couple.  Whilst Nelly was at home in the saddle of a horse galloping the paddocks that surround Horseshoe Lagoon, Tom was more at home racing around the back roads of the Haughton on his motor bike or fast cars.  There are a few stories bandied around about Tom that involve his love of speed and his readiness to go all out for a dare.

On one such occasion, Tom and my Grandfather wished to attend the races.  However, with a paddock of cane to cut, load and send off to the mill, that seemed impossible. So, they worked through the night loading cane onto bins that were allocated to another farmer in order to achieve their goal.  Whilst they enjoyed their day of fun at the races, a few farmers were not impressed.  Those were the days!

Tom and Nelly were  actually officially married in 1935 which was the year Nelly’s Mother died.  Her Father had died in 1929, so now they found themselves alone at Burwood.  Perhaps they went off and got married to stop the tongues along the banks of the Haughton wagging up a storm.  Whatever the case, they knew each other for 20 years when they actually got married.

From my memories, Uncle Tom was an interesting character.  There was the farmer dressed in khaki drill work clothes, who I remember crouched on his haunches beneath the shady mango tree rolling his own cigarettes and drinking tea from a billy can.  Then there was the smartly dressed racegoer who religiously attended Cluden Racetrack in Townsville every Saturday afternoon. We’d wave as his little blue Hillman car drove along Hodel Road to his “church”.  Sometimes when returning from Townsville on a Saturday afternoon, we’d follow his little car as it made its wandering path home. Uncle Tom was fond of a beer or two at his church.

Both Aunty Nelly and Uncle Tom were stone deaf, which made conversation quite difficult.  On one occasion, Aunty Nelly was away and my Mother told Uncle Tom that she would cook dinner for him.  We arrived at Burwood to find the house all locked up.  Through the glass in the front door we could see Uncle Tom, with his back to us, watching TV.  We yelled, we knocked on the glass, we knocked on the walls and we jumped up and down on the timber verandah floor.  Nothing could arouse his attention.  So we went back home and ate dinner without him.

Finally, in his early 80s, Uncle Tom passed away in 1972.  Aunty Nelly had him cremated and according to family, returned his ashes to his sister Daisy who lived in their  hometown of Dalby.  So, whilst in Dalby, my intention was to find his final resting place, however, our search of the Dalby Cemetery was unsuccessful.  We did, however, find two graves bearing his surname ‘Hourigan’, and according to the man at the cemetery and the receptionist at our motel, there are still Hourigans living in town.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

Over the last two weeks, I have been away on holidays.  Part of our wanderings through Western Queensland have followed the family history trail.  In trying to retrace the life and times of William Lyons, I felt a need to go back to where his life began.

As we head west of Rockhampton, we marvelled at the interesting terrain, where the earth is infinite miles of flat golden grasslands, inhabited by families of fat and happy bottle trees, grazing cattle beneath a clear blue cloudless sky that encompasses the earth like a huge expansive dome.  As we meandered over a range of mountains, we entered the Dawson Valley where John and Mary Lyons settled with their growing family in the mid 19th century.

The first time I had heard of the town of Banana was when I read it on my Great Grandfather’s War Records.  My excitement rose as we neared the town, however, one would only visit if one had a purpose, as I did.  It is a tiny western village where the crows cry louder than any other form of life, but indeed it is where the life of William Lyons began.  Apart from the appearance of one or two cars other than our own, one could be forgiven for expecting a team of bullocks to appear amidst billowing clouds of dust on the horizon at any time.

_MG_8375

_MG_8378

_MG_8379

John and Mary Lyons lived in isolation on a property in the area, so I imagine the only purpose for Mary to be in Banana on 4th of March, 1873 was to give birth to her eldest child.  Her husband was often away for weeks at a time, so possibly he took her into town on a bullock dray to be attended by a local midwife.

Once I took some photos, as proof of our visit, we kept driving, until we reached Dalby where we stayed for the night.  My mission in Dalby was to find the Memorial for Lieutenant Hanly who lost his life in Gallipoli.  My Great Grandfather led one of three unsuccessful search parties to retrieve his body.  Like my Great Grandfather’s search 102 years ago, mine too was unsuccessful.   I know that a memorial was established my the town of Dalby, however, it is not at the Anzac Memorial (below).

IMG_8383

Anzac Memorial at Dalby

On our return home, we visited a town on the Darling Downs called Toogoolawah which is where William and Cis Lyons lived with their three children Ron, Kev and Jack, before moving to Minehan Siding in North Queensland.  I am very fortunate to have in possession a cheque book dating back to this period and one cheque but details the purchase of a cottage at McConnel Street, Toogoolawah.

 

_MG_8552

The Main Street of Toogoolawah

_MG_8553

Now Toogoolawah, amidst verdant rolling hills,  is much larger than Banana and we drove up and down its streets without finding McConnel.  However, I looked up Google Maps and discovered it to be a little distance from the town centre, behind the skydiving field.  Back in 1909, at the time the family purchased their new cottage, travelling into town in a sulky would have been no quick ride.  The old end of the street which still sports two or three houses that could have been home to my family is a tiny dead end lane.  In recent times the street has been extended in the opposite direction through an area of acreage lots.  It is still “out in the sticks”.

_MG_8556

Like Roma and Dalby where they previously resided, Toogoolawah was home to a Light Horse Regiment which perhaps was based near to where they lived.

In retracing the steps of our ancestors, one can only imagine how they lived more than 100 years ago.  As we passed through the dry and wooded country of the Dawson Valley I tried to picture the Lyons family living so far from their neighbours, let alone a town, and with the constant threat of local aborigines.  Even thirty years later, as William and Cis established their lives on the Darling Downs, life was still not without its hardships.  By learning about the lives of those who lived before us, we can be thankful for our lives today.  We can appreciate the advancements in technology and modern conveniences that so many of us take for granted.  More importantly, we can ensure that the memory of our ancestors will continue to survive.

 

 

The Fifth Light Horse Regroups

 

Farriers-9th-Light-Horse-685w

When he was offered the position of “Transport Officer”, William accepted it without hesitation. 

 “You will be going to Serapeum to assess the situation.” William’s commanding officer told him. 

“Yes, Sir.” William’s tanned face broke into a grin.  At last he felt that sense of purpose that had eluded him since the light horse were dismounted.  There were times during the last few months when he had questioned his decision to enlist.  More than once he thought his chances of surviving Gallipoli were slim, if at all.  But survive he did, and he was now eager to be useful.

Re-uniting with his regiment at Maadi was steeped in nervous expectation.  Whilst on one hand he looked forward to reacquainting with old faces, he was nervous about revisiting old memories he would rather keep buried.  Re-joining his regiment, in some ways, was like starting over.  So many new reinforcements had arrived, to take the places of those who were lost.  Searching the camp for familiar faces filled William with feelings of emptiness that he could only equate to losing a limb.  Everyone had become so reliant upon each other in the trenches in order to survive.

William, however, had little time to dwell upon the misgivings of the past, as he pulled on the boots and spurs he left behind in Cairo in 1915.  Being back in the saddle, he soon morphed into the man he had spent 20 years training to be.  He embraced the intense weeks of training for desert fighting with enthusiasm.

By the time the bugle announced the Revielle at 5.00 each morning, William was already awake, thinking about the day ahead.  His mind was churning with horseback manoeuvres and the sharp explosive sounds of bullets hitting targets on the shooting range.  Over and over, he mentally fine- tuned his skills before the day’s training began.  He knew he had to be mentally and physically prepared for the time that they would be called to fight in a real situation.   Shortages of equipment such as saddlery and horses were also a cause for frustration.  Due to the excess of men, training had to be conducted dismounted.  The second Light Horse Training Regiment was formed from the excess men, and it was with this regiment that William was appointed his new position of Transport Officer.

By the middle of February he heard rumblings of discontentment among the new reinforcements.  Many had enlisted during a flurry of excitement, generated by the recruitment drives, only to find themselves spending long days performing seemingly purposeless desert patrols, repetitious training and tending to their horses.  Old hands like William listened with amusement to the comments that filtered through the various gatherings of men. 

“When are we going to see action?” was a common question asked by those who were young and frustrated with the repetitious nature of training and tired of battling the Egyptian heat and dust.  On the odd occasions when he was privy to such conversations, William commented, “Just be patient chaps and enjoy this time while it lasts.  The time will come soon enough.”

He never saw the need to elaborate, despite being aware of the planning that was underway for the Regiment’s next move.  Transporting an army of men and their supplies out into the desert was fraught with problems. The desert was about to push everyone to their human limits.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

 

writing

There is one trait that I think I have inherited from my Great Grandfather, and that is the need to keep every little piece of memorabilia from every trip that I have ever made.  Each time I return from a trip my suitcase is weighted down, not by clothes, handbags or shoes, but reams of pamphlets, books and postcards, evidence of the places I have been.  When I rifle through my cupboards and drawers with the intention of parting with my “stuff” I cannot bring myself to throw away that part of my history.  Mind you, I very rarely look at any of it once I have tucked it all safely away behind my cupboard doors.  So why do I find it so hard to discard?

Perhaps my Great Grandfather’s example holds the key to the problem.  If he had thrown away all the little postcards, receipts and envelopes from the times of his travels, there would be no evidence of where he had been.  I would not have been prompted to tell his story.  No-one every talked about his story, so I would not know about it in the first place.  And obviously, his time in Egypt and afar meant more to him than just a military posting.  The myriads of postcards, books and pamphlets that he chose to keep are pieces of places that struck a chord with his being.

This morning, I am going to share some of his memorabilia.  Some of the items are merely envelopes, but the addresses written in ink are the key to their importance.  I hope you enjoy browsing through just a sample of the items I have found.

IMG

 

 

IMG_0005

This postcard was in the red envelope above.

IMG_0010

IMG_0012

IMG_0003

WMJ Lyons Receipt 001

img_0013.jpg

This note was tucked away in his diary written in 1917.  At a first glance it seemed quite insignificant, until I read the words written at Gallipoli in 1915.

I know that all the places I have visited in the world hold a place in my heart.  I know that I have my own unique memories, however, in years to come, who will be able to piece together the details of my life?  No-one will know of those special places and experiences that have shaped my life, if there is no evidence left behind.  I am not saying that someone will want to write a book about my life, in fact that is highly unlikely, but by having boxes of evidence of how a person lived, would perhaps ignite someone’s curiosity.

In our digital age, by scanning those items and saving them on an external hard drive or the likes could solve the problem of lack of space.  However, there is nothing like sorting through old boxes, filling one’s lungs with the musty aroma of old paper and moth balls to spark that curiosity.  Nothing equals the excitement of holding an item in your hands that was once held by the hand of an ancestor 100 years before.

I have no answers to my problem of hoarding my travel memorabilia, so will continue to do what I have done for 40 years.  In doing so, I am laying the path for future family historians, just like my Great Grandfather had done for me.  So family, let us just say, my boxes and packets of miscellaneous pieces of the world, are my parting gift to you.

 

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

This morning I am eager to share with you, the details of my travels over the last week or so.  My research has taken me to the exotic land of the Pharoahs.  However, my love affair with Egypt began long ago, alongside the famous Archaeologist Howard Carter.  How can I forget that pivotal moment when he peered inside Tutankhamun’s tomb?

I had not heard of the boy king, prior to my semester of archaeology in my grade 12 Ancient History class.  From that epifanical moment, my life long dream was to see first hand the cause of Mr Carter’s notority.  No other class during my 12 years of schooling held my undivided attention.  I gleaned every minute detail of an archaeologist’s task in recovering and preserving each piece of antiquity as it saw light for the first time in centuries.  So profound was my interest that I managed to achieve A+ for the first time in my educational life.

I finally achieved my dream in 1988 when I travelled to Egypt to see the ancient wonders of the world first hand.  Being a typical tourist, I visited the pyramids and the Sphinx.  I trod through the archaeological site of the Step Pyramid and was priveleged to see the man himself who uncovered the site.  Then of course the icing on the cake was my visit to the Valley of the Kings to step into Howard Carter’s shoes and enter the tomb of Tutankhamun.  At no time during my travels was I aware that my Great Grandfather had seen it all, 70 years before me.

h02273

Whilst he was there for the purpose of war, he and thousands of other men who were stationed in Egypt, spent their time as tourists as well as soldiers.  Travel was not commonplace at the beginning of the 20th century  and many of those men had never been far from their own back yards, let alone out of their own countries.  Can you imagine their reactions upon seeing ancient monuments that still enthral tourists today?  So it is with pleasure that I found myself once more trudging through the desert sands as a family archaeologist.

In following my Great Grandfather’s footsteps of 23rd January 1916, I made the 10 mile train journey from Bab al Louk Station of inner city Cairo to the garden town of Maadi.  First established in 1905, its lush green gardens of leafy trees and flowering shrubs, give the appearance of a desert oasis.  The pristine hedges and sprawling villas of European grandeur look peculiarly out of place on the Egyptian landscape.  The expat British and European Diplomats and Government Employees who inhabit the town were none too happy about the establishment of the Australian Light Horse Camp on the edge of town.  They accused the Aussies as being ill-mannered and unable to speak the King’s English.  Mind you the Aussies’ opinion of them was not complimentary either.

Until my recent journey, I could not imagine the town at all.  Then as usual, I googled the word ‘Maadi’ and found myself wandering through the streets of old manor houses with rambling gardens of leafy trees, swaying palms and tropical flowers.  Guided by the voices  of those who were there between the years 1915 to 1918,  those streets came to life with mules carrying baskets of wares, turbaned men in long sweeping robes and carts trundling along the metal surfaced road.  I could hear the vibration of hundreds of men rubbing shoulders at the sleepy little railway siding, fighting for a seat on a rattletrap bus for one piaster a piece. And the tavern next to the station is buzzing with thirsty soldiers getting drunk on nasty local beer.

From the little station, with a map in my hand, I took a right turn down Road 9 and once I reached the intersection of Road 84, I took another right, crossing the railway line and a bridge over the canal, until I faced the desert sands.  With more assistance from ghosts from the past, I walked to the top of a rise and there before my eyes was the sprawling camp of the Australian Light Horse.

Thankfully, I was spared the expense of visiting Egypt personally, although that would give me such joy.  By entering the world of cyber I followed the century old signposts marking the road.  I listened to stories written by those who lived there alongside my Great Grandfather during the Great War. I also picked up free maps and photographs to find my way.  Where would family historians be without the footprints left by our ancestors, in the hope that their stories will be found.

Finally, I would like to thank those men who kept detailed diaries of their day to day experiences during those times.  My appreciation also goes to families who kept letters from their loved ones written so long ago.  Without the words of those who lived through these events, there would be no story to tell.  Now, by having access to those diaries and letters online, there are so many more possibilities for the family historian.  They have opened a huge door to the past, for which I am forever grateful.

 

 

Back in Egypt – January 1916

 

A grumbling bus hungrily received the bottleneck of men swarming out of the Maadi station gate.

“C’mon chaps,” urged one of William’s companions.  “Let’s join the queue.”

“If you don’t mind,” William resisted, “I might walk.  It is not far.”

Although the bus fare was only 1 piastre, seats were rapidly filling from the influx of men disembarking his train and he knew that there was no limit to the number of passengers who were allowed to board.  Rather than being jammed in like fish in a can, or having to sit on the mudguards as he has seen people do, he chose to enjoy the coolness of late afternoon and walk the short distance to the camp. He waved his friends goodbye and turned right along Road 9.

A rabble of voices flowed from Blume’s Tavern that sat conveniently next to the station.  Normally, William might be tempted to join the rowdy patrons, but after a long day of sitting on hard wooden seats of Egyptian trains and fighting his way through the noisy chaos of large stations like Cairo’s Bab al Louk, he could only contemplate rest. The heat of the day was rapidly cooling so he put on the coat that was folded over his arm.  Then, allowing the excitement of the Tavern to wait for another day, he began to walk down Road 9 towards the intersection of Road 84.

William was amazed that following an absence of one year, he needed no directions to the camp.  He had only spent three months at Maadi at the beginning of 1915, but he was familiar with its leafy streets lined with multi storey villas which beamed with European grandeur.  The peculiarity of such houses in the Egyptian desert, seemed to amplify the divide between the rich and the poor.  On the streets, the vendors worked hard to scratch a living.  They conned thousands of hapless soldiers who were only too willing to part with their cash for what they believed to be genuine pieces of antiquity.  Despite earning a lucrative income from peddling locally made replicas, the villas of Maadi were well out of reach for them.

 

lichtenstern-3

Photo:  taken at Maadi 1914

Maadi was a relatively new town, populated by expat Brits and Europeans who held diplomatic or government posts.  Their homes, that reflected their stature in the local community, were a pleasant sight for a soldier’s dusty eyes.  Like an oasis in the desert, the town with its lush green gardens that were watered by the River Nile, stood against the backdrop of Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza.

The shady eucalyptus trees that lined Road 9, greeted him with waving arms, reminding William of his family who he had not seen for more than a year. The few villas that resided along the road stood glowing in the golden afternoon light, proudly towering from their sprawling tropical gardens of glossy palms, leafy sycamores and flaming bougainvillea. For a moment, he forgot about the war; he was walking down the lane from Minehan Siding to his home of Fontenoy, or ‘the jungle’, as he called it.

Thoughts of home were interrupted by a mule carrying two veiled ladies in black robes, clip clopping by, like a dark ominous shadow against the fading light of the sky.  They were accompanied by a dark figure cloaked in a billowing striped galabieh who passed William without acknowledgement.  Street vendors who had packed up their little carts of wares were also rumbling home along the metal surface of the road.  Knowing that they relied on foreigners for their livelihood , they offered their turbaned heads, with leering smiles of tobacco stained teeth, and greetings of, “Good evening sahib,” before continuing on their way.

William could have chosen to cross the railway lines at the station and taken a shortcut across the desert to the camp.  For most of the day, a five minute walk along Road 9 would end up a long winded treacherous journey trying to evade the many villagers who were all clamouring for their share of our “baksheesh”.  Disembarking from a train carriage was a dangerous affair where one was attacked from all sides by locals pouncing on their opportunity of financial gain. However, the fading sun also saw the dwindling of peddlers from the streets and a time to stroll at leisure without being noticed or accosted.

Reaching the intersection of Road 84, he turned south towards the desert which by now glowed a soft warm yellow and the undulating rolling dunes stretched across the horizon in ribbons of sunset splendour.   Once he rose to the top of a short rise, the orderly rows of tents of the Light Horse camp painted the desert sands.

382149-small

Photo taken by Trooper GS Millar, 1915

Standing for a moment, he watched the tent city with its signposted streets, sprawl before the almighty pyramids and towering minarets of Cairo.  Then the lines of horses caught his eye.  He felt a twinge of excitement, listening to their whinnying, knowing he would soon be reunited with his best friend.  They have been apart since May the previous year.  Would they know each other?   More pressing however, was his eagerness to reunite  with his regiment, to see those who have survived the traumas of the previous year.

 

382180-small

Photo:  taken by Trooper G.S. Millar 1915.

References:

  1. http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/maadi.htm
  2. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-18Ba-c3.html
  3. http://myartblogcollection.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/the-british-forces-in-egypt-during.html

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

Every so often, during my wanderings behind the cupboard doors, I hit a bare wall or a space on a shelf.  There are gaps in the story, details are missing. In those moments, I generally make the decision to fast forward the story, to the following year, or to a moment that speaks to me with an abundance of words and images.

I have learnt, however, that the details are always there, embedded in the yellowing timbers of the cupboards, watching from the open cracks in the doors.  As if my Great Grandfather is watching my struggles in determining the details of his journey, I can feel his prodding finger on my shoulder.  I can hear his voice telling me to take my time as the story will reveal itself when it is ready to do so. He warns me to be patient as the story will be revealed, when it is ready.

This week another such moment blocked the road of  my literary challenge.  For the year 1916, I had nil to tell.  My original plan was to skip to 1917, however, a niggling feeling of guilt sent my fingers tapping into cyber space to discover some very interesting facts.  With the assistance of my Great Grandfather’s war records I could vaguely map out his whereabouts during the year 1916.  Upon reading diaries written by fellow soldiers, I can now put flesh on the bones of his story.

I discovered that Colonel Lachlan Chisholm Wilson, the commanding officer of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, had lived in Townsville for some time prior to the war and is the “Wilson” of the local law firm, Wilson Ryan & Grose.  In his time spent in the area he had observed the use of spears to draw underground water for cultivation.  He solved the water shortages of the desert by introducing spears and pumps in Egypt.  I also discovered that Col. Wilson had fought in the Boer War and wondered whether he and my Great Grandfather were acquainted.  I re-read his diary and discovered that not only were they acquainted, but it appears that they were friends.  Several entries in 1917 mention Col. Wilson visiting him in hospital.

My Great Grandfather was given the position of “Transport Officer” during March 1916 where he was stationed at Serapeum, on the banks of the Suez Canal .  I had no idea what the job entailed until I discovered some government documents that detail what was involved in transporting a regiment and their equipment to a post.  I found similar hand written records he kept from his time as a Drill Instructor on the Darling Downs.  I have ledgers, detailing the equipment needed on an exercise, including quantities and costs.  Now I understand why he acquired the position.  He had a penchant for detail and obviously he possessed the necessary capabilities.  So, perhaps he was involved in the purchasing and transportation of the spears and pumps.  The British refused to pay for them, so they were purchased using Australian regimental funds.  Also, being a farmer himself, he no doubt had the necessary experience to sink them into the desert sands of Egypt and beyond.

Aside from the above discoveries, I also found myself wandering through the leafy streets of the garden town of Maadi, where the Light Horse were camped near Cairo.  Prior to now, I had imagined it as no more than a spot in the desert against the backdrop of the ancient pyramids of Giza.  Little did I know that it was a relatively new flourishing town of villas on acres of lush green gardens watered by the river Nile.  Inhabited by expat Brits and Europeans, it spilled wealth into the once bare desert sands.  Along with photos of villas that existed during the great war, I found myself maneuvering the streets on maps of old, picturing the route my Great Grandfather would have taken from the tiny railway station to camp.  It is wonderful to be able to put myself in his world of 100 years ago.

As usual, when I hit a wall, I know that I just need to exercise a little patience along with a dash of persistance.  The information is somewhere to be found, and by tapping away, it is usually forthcoming.  So, when my posts slow down, you will know where to find me – hammering away behind the cupboard doors, mining for treasure; searching for details of a life long gone.