William began 1917 with a feeling of certainty that had evaded him for the past two years. His promotion to Captain in the preceding November and his new role as Commander of ‘A’ Squadron of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment were good reasons for his renewed confidence. Stationed at the Moascar training camp near Ismailia on the Suez Canal, he felt as certain as one could in the circumstances, that his new role and home would be permanent for the remainder of the war.
On the morning of January 25th , William sat at his desk eager to commence opening a bundle of mail from home. Due to the delays in the mail service between Australia and Egypt, he was accustomed to receiving several letters, written weeks apart by the same hand. On that day, he received two letters from Mater and three from Cis.
Starting with the largest envelope from Cis, he tore it open and pulled out a letter wrapped around a small pocket diary. Opening the diary’s dark green leather cover, he swelled with pride as he read the inscription written in the neat copy book hand of a child.
“To dear dada from the boys,” it said. “Wishing him a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.”
Lifting the small book to his face, he inhaled the new leather, trying to extract memories of home, of his four sons. He then opened it flat on his desk top and, using the tiny pencil that was tucked inside, he wrote:
Capt. W.M. Lyons,
5th L.H.Regiment A.I.F.
Next of Kin
Wife: Mrs Harriet Lyons
Reading Cis’ letter, he could feel his stomach tighten as she told him of her troubles at home.
“Father,” she wrote. “has not been very helpful. I set Tom up on jobs and when I check on him later, he is nowhere to be found and the tasks are left unfinished. When he finally shows, I discover that Father had borrowed him to work at Burwood,”
William felt helpless as Cis voiced her woes. ‘How can her Father be so selfish? He knows she is on her own.’
Two days later, on Saturday 27th he still felt unsettled when he found time to reply to Cis.
My Dear Cis,
I have only just finishing catching up on your news. Reading your long letters about life in “The Jungle” is like reading a good book. Often, as was the case this week, I receive several letters together. I always try to read them in chronological order. However, sometimes a letter takes longer than others to reach me, leaving a gap in the story, for which I am forced to wait. And, what a wonderful surprise to receive a Christmas present from the boys, even if it arrived a month late! Please tell them that I shall put it to good use.
Let us hope the rains you mentioned are setting in for a good wet season. God knows, the cane needs it. Padda chose well when he selected ‘Burwood’ with easy access to the river. Fontenoy, on the other hand has to rely on the grace of God. Speaking of Padda, it worries me that he is being so thoughtless. Cis, you really need to be firm with him, as I am sure you will be. Perhaps Tom needs to stand up to him as well, although we both know how formidable Padda can be. I am pleased that Nelly, at least, is staying with you to help in the dairy. Do you think a certain young man might be an added attraction?
Living out here at Moascar does make a man hunger for the green tropics of home. Our camp is a town of tents that stretches mile after mile across a desolate wasteland. The heat gave way to rain in December and now we mostly experience cold winds which sweep everything in their path with lashings of dust. Each day brings more of the same. Wind and dust, interspersed with showers of rain. Often due to the bad weather, we spend our days indoors. The mess tent at times can be quite rowdy. I must say, anything is preferable to the heat. Even when your tent collapses, as mine did at 0330 one morning. You can imagine the confusion as I scrambled in the dark, trying to cover up my bedding. I spent the remainder of the night in the Quarter Master’s tent. I was not amused at the time, but can laugh about it now.
Life here is never boring, there is no time for that. There are lots of comings and goings of men in transit. Those in the Isolation Camp only stay for two weeks. Once they are quarantined and cleared of illnesses, they are usually sent to France. In the case of my regiment, our men are trained as reinforcements for the Fifth Light Horse Regiment. They are sent out to the regiment when required. Can you guess who is in charge of our remount station? Banjo Paterson himself. I look forward to the day I might cross the path of the “Old Man from the Snowy River”. Now wouldn’t that be a treat, and a good story to tell the boys? By all accounts he is an expert horseman and is doing an exemplary job of training unbroken Walers.
My new post has been demanding of my time, arranging instruction classes for personnel, delivering lectures, among other administrative duties. Although I do still find time for leisurely pursuits. Last Sunday I walked into Ismailia to watch a cricket match between our regiment and the 12th. I’m sad to say, the later won.
So, your little sister wishes to join the Nursing Corps? I imagine Padda is not amused. Remember his reaction when I enlisted? Mind you, Lily is a strong-minded girl, I’m sure she can handle whatever life throws at her, including Padda’s Irish temper. If she is intent on joining, I pray that she will be sent to Egypt rather than France. I have heard that the conditions on the Western Front are abysmal. For her own safety, the Egyptian hospitals would be preferable. Besides, I’d be glad of the company of a pretty face from home.
Did I tell you that I have asked for leave in February? I am hoping to travel up the Nile River for three or four days, to see Luxor and perhaps Assuan. Two other chaps, Capt. Stevensen of the 12th and Ltn Barr of the 7th have voiced some interest in joining me. I will tell you more once our plans are finalized.
Do keep your chin up Cis and remember you must be firm with Padda. I will also write him and ask that he assist you in any way he can. Between the two of us, we might hit a sympathetic nerve behind that blustering exterior.
Please look after yourself and tell the boys I will write to them soon.
Folding the letter, William stared through the opening of his tent, oblivious to the winds outside stirring up a blinding fog of dust. From the beginning of the war, his purpose seemed so clear. He was a soldier, first and foremost. Despite sensing Cis’ fear between the lines of her letters, he always replied with reassurances about his safety, which they both knew were just words. How could he properly deal with her fears when he had difficulty facing his own? Now, Padda’s actions forced him to feel the weight of his family’s burden. Or was that his intention all along?
‘But what can I do from the other side of the world?’ He thought to himself, knowing that the words of advice he had just written to his wife, were well meaning, but just words.
Please note that the letters included in this post are entirely the creation of the writer. However, the information in them is based on facts gleaned from Will’s diary written in the year 1917, information gleaned from family and historical research. And, yes, Banjo Paterson was indeed running the Remount Station at Moascar whilst William was posted there. Whether they ever met is a matter for speculation, however it is entirely likely as he mentions “remounts” often in his diary.
Mater was William’s Mother, Mary Lyons.
Padda was William’s Father in Law, George Deane
The Jungle was William’s affectionate term for Fontenoy or home
Nelly, Cis’ youngest sister, and Tom Hourigan were married in 1935, although the romance was kindled many years before.
Lily Deane joined the Nursing Corps in 1917.