Merry Christmas

With Christmas drawing near, I would like to take the time to thank all my followers for diligently reading my account of William Lyons’ military life.  Keeping up my posts has been difficult of late, hence the irregularity of posting.  I am currently a member of a new writing circle which takes up much of my time.  The good news is that with the invaluable assistance and advice I have received from that group, my Great Grandfather’s story is bound to become much more enjoyable for you readers.  Writing is an ever-evolving process and the journey has been a huge learning curve.

As William’s year draws to a close, I will be taking a break as he did during the latter months of 1916.  This will give me time to continue my research and to organize my thoughts  before recommencing the story in 1917.  However, before I go, I wish to take you back to Christmas 1916.

On 22nd December that year, William received his Christmas Billy in Egypt, filled with Christmas goodies.  The items he unpacked from that tin billy would have lit up his eyes with delight, although to us, they were everyday items that we all take for granted. To a soldier, the gift of tobacco, matches, razor blades, knitted socks, a pencil, writing paper, cake, sauce, pickles, tinned fruit, cocoa, coffee and Anzac biscuits, was the equivalent to finding gold. Any deviation from their staple diet of tinned bully beef and hard army biscuits was rapturously received.

Xmas billy

The Christmas Billies were organized by the Australian Comforts Fund which was officially formed in August 1916.  They regularly sent parcels of little ‘luxuries’ to the troops, the biggest item being hand knitted socks which were urgently needed by men in the trenches of France.  Due to the cold and mud, soldiers could not wash and dry their socks.  In the winter of 1916, the Australian Comforts Fund provided 80000 hand knitted socks.

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Women distribute Christmas billies to men in Cairo, Egypt, December 1915.

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Items included in Comfort Fund packages.

I do not know whether my Great Grandmother, Harriet Lyons was in the Comforts Fund during the Great War.  She was not afforded the luxury of spare time as she had a farm to run, although she might have whiled away her evening hours, once her chores were done and her children were in bed, knitting socks.  I do know that she was an active member of the Australian Comforts Fund during the second world war after she and William had moved to Townsville.  Her grandchildren, Norma White, Beryl Renwick and my father (Keith Lyons) all remember attending the Townsville Comfort Fund Group with their grandmother.

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Miss Coll, from Melbourne, knits socks directly from fleece and the Australian Comforts Fund packs them into bales (on the left) to ship them overseas. c.1916

I’ll leave you with an amusing little anecdote that Norma White told me about her Grandparents.

I attended the Comfort Fund Knitting Group with Grandma one day and when we arrived home, Granddad was kneeling over a flower bed.

When he saw us coming through the gate, he announced, all pleased with himself, 

” Cis, I have weeded your garden”

Grandma, lost for words, just rolled her eyes.  Grandad had pulled out all her new flower seedlings as well as the weeds.

The family always said, he was NOT a farmer!  On that note, I wish you all a fantastic Christmas hope you will all join me again behind the cupboard doors in 2018.

 

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Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Research can present the most wonderful surprises, as I discovered when photographing the old cupboards that originally graced the walls of my Great Grandparents’ home.  Now sitting empty and alone in the shed, it is difficult to believe that they have yielded so much valuable information.   As I clicked away, my father pointed to an old tin trunk that sat on top of a chest of drawers and said, “there are still some things in that old trunk!”

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At first glance it appeared dirty and nondescript, as you can see from the above photograph.  However, I was very soon to realize that I had discovered a chest full of treasure, although I was yet to realize the real treasure that sat before my curious eyes.

The trunk contained a wooden box full of papers – newspaper cuttings, letters, cards and memorabilia from both the Boer War and and World War One.  These included detailed handwritten logs from Great Grandfather’s days as a Drill Instructor in southern Queensland prior to moving to the Haughton River district and there was even a notebook of verse, handwritten by my Great Grandmother during her school teaching days.

After lifting the box of papers out of the trunk and perusing each item with trembling fingers, I discovered a riding whip and a yellowing cloth bag containing some objects sitting in the bottom. The significance of the chest was starting to come to light.  Inside the bag were a set of spurs, two pieces that might have been part of a bridle and an unused military field bandage still in its fabric casing.

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The riding whip and a leather saddle bag found in the trunk.

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Note, the handle of the whip is the shape of a horse’s leg.

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Dad has researched the spurs and they are different to those used everyday by Light Horsemen.  Only last week, we took a closer look at the ‘blade’ under a magnified glass and discovered they are coins issued during Queen Victoria’s rein, so conclude they were part of his ‘dress’ uniform.

Now, you might be saying as you read this “wow, what a find!”  Well, the biggest treasure turned out to be the tin trunk itself. Hints of military green still shines through the century long accumulation of dirt and hornets nests and Great Grandfather’s painted initials can still be determined across the front.  Can you imagine my excitement as that light bulb went off in my head, telling me that Great Grandfather’s war trunk was sitting before my eyes?

With that realization, my father and I discussed how we were going to preserve this piece of treasure.  He suggested that he could sand blast it and give it a new coat of paint.  Fortunately, I visited the Jezzine Military Museum and happened upon similar trunks all equally as weathered by time.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, to leave it alone.  To a collector, it is more valuable in its current condition.  Not that I have any intentions of parting with it soon!

Old war trunk

Each little piece of treasure that I uncover stills fills me with a sense of wonderment.  They are all windows through which I can look into Great Grandfather’s world. I also hope that by bringing these pieces out from their hiding place, behind the old cupboard doors, other members of his extended family can appreciate that precious part of their family history as much as I do.

Romani – Night of October 2, 1916

Later that night the canteen marquee  was a raucous blast in the dark.  William’s senses were overwhelmed by the bitter fumes of beer that accompanied the roar of singing and drunken laughter, as he fought his way to the bar, guided by the occasional candle.  Lights were not permitted for fear of being bombed by enemy planes.

The barman filled his quart pot with frothy beer and he then squeezed his way back to a spot where a young trooper sat on the ground writing in a notebook that sat on an upturned box and illuminated by a candle.

“You’ll strain your eyes soldier,” William spoke as he also sat on his haunches beside him.

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Trooper Ion (Jack) Idriess – 5th Light Horse Regiment.

Lifting his eyes from his notebook, the Trooper smiled.

“What is your name Trooper?” William asked.

“Idriess, Sir,” The young soldier replied. “Jack Idriess.”

“Jack, I’m William,” he replied. “Are you writing a book?”

He noticed the pages were covered with handwriting from top to bottom.

“Just a diary sir,  putting pen to paper keeps me sane.  Besides, if something happens…” he hesitated.  “well you know. ”

William nodded, taking a sip from his beer.

 “So, where are you from Jack?’ William enquired.

“North Queensland.  Herberton to be exact.”

“I’m a North Queenslander myself. Minehan Siding, south of Townsville.” William enjoyed the connection to home, a place that seems so very far away.  It was like a dream, a long lost memory.

Sipping his beer, William enjoyed chatting with Trooper Idriess.  He could feel the effects of the alcohol relax his mind and body, for the first time in such a long time.  That was the first time any drink was in such good supply.  A warm feeling cocooned his being as he soaked up the air of jubilation, allowing himself the one small luxury of feeling incredibly lucky that he had survived thus far.  The feeling passed almost as soon as it appeared.  He never allowed himself to dwell on it for long, in case his luck changed, well aware that others have not been so fortunate.

“You know, son,” William mused.  “In some ways, we are very fortunate.”

“How is that?” The younger man appeared puzzled.

“We are surrounded by history, we have followed in the footsteps of the Pharaohs, the Romans and Napolean,” William replied, allowing the beer to free his thoughts.

“Indeed we have,” Idriess nodded in agreement.  “Here’s to ancient soldiers.”

Both men raised their quart pots in celebration, avoiding any discussions about their previous weeks’ stunts.

Jack Idriess closed his notebook and slipped it in a pocket of his great coat.  He then bid William goodnight and disappeared in the crowd.

William tipped up his quart pot to savour the last drop of beer and stood up, stretching his back before heading out towards the tents that stood like ghostly apparitions against the black sky. The cold night air fought against his great coat as his boots quietly sifted through the sand. He pulled his leather gloves over his long thin fingers and raised his woollen collar so it shielded his long bare neck.  Despite the slight discomfort, he was thankful for the cool evening. He was thankful for being alive.

 “Free at last,” he thought to himself.  “How strangeHow can one suddenly turn off the noise? The whizz of bullets, the screaming of shrapnel. The moaning of men.”

Since the Charge at Katia on August 5th, the regiment had been involved in vicious conflicts with the enemy.  The heat and lack of water exacerbated the situation.  At times the heat was so intense that after half an hour of solid shooting, rifles were too hot to hold.  There were days when the torrential raining of bullets and shrapnel continued for hours.  Horses and men dropped like flies onto the sands that turned red from blood.

Suddenly, William was drawn out of his dark void of thoughts by  a wailing sound that seemed familiar but was totally unexpected. As it increased in intensity, the wailing was accompanied by the beating of drums.  The outline of men  appeared like mad ghosts in the desert.  There were bagpipers squealing to the drum beats as the band of merry men marched across the sand, some performing an impromptu jig, others singing with glee.

William smiled at the merry band of minstrels as they jigged across his field of vision, fuelled by beer and joy.  God knows, they deserve it.  He knew how short lived joy could be in their unpredictable world.

He let the noise fade away as he thought of Jock Dakers, his Scottish brother in law, and wondered how he was faring since he enlisted.  His attention then switched to home, treasuring the moment, as he tried to make out the outline of his squadron’s group of tents against the dark sky.  He looked forward to collapsing onto his bedroll and awaking the following morning, knowing with a degree of certainty what the day would bring. Although he knew he had no control over his dreams.

Notes:

Ion  (Jack) Idriess mentions the drinks in the huge canteen marquee at Romani in “The Desert Column” – beer was provided to mark the end of the campaign at that time.  He also mentioned that he encountered the Scottish bagpipers and drummers on his way back to his tent. I have no way of knowing whether he and William Lyons knew each other, although they were in the same regiment.  It is likely.  

Romani – 2 October 1916

The Fifth Light Horse Camp at Romani was unusually quiet on the morning of October 2nd . No reveille sounded to break the sleeping silence. No twinkling campfires glowed against the predawn sky. No nervous fingers clutched smoldering cigarettes to desperate mouths seeking courage to face another day. The previous afternoon saw wretched battle weary men and horses stagger into camp, totally depleted by heat and thirst. They were now bestowed the well-earned luxury of rest.

By mid-morning the camp had awoken and men were busy readying themselves for General Chauvel’s address. The General’s modest demeanor belied a certain professionalism that William admired. He knew the capabilities of his troops and always endeavoured to keep losses to a minimum. Following each difficult stunt he visited his troops and offered words of praise, lifting morale.

He had already scrubbed away two weeks’ accumulation of dirt and sand before pulling his only clean shirt over his slight frame. He looked down in dismay at the faded murky colour and the patches he had hand sewn over tears. Many of his uniforms were now beyond repair, having weathered months of sun and physical exertion. Fingering the frayed cuffs, he admitted It will have to do, as he hurriedly tucked it into his equally worn jodhpurs. Next, he grabbed his misshapened hat, with its emu plumes reduced to a lifeless tuft, and began stroking it with a small brush. The damn sand gets into everything!He cursed as his hand busily worked the felt. Once satisfied, he then tried to tame the sagging brim with his hands, but was forced to concede defeat. Placing it over his crop of dark shaggy hair, he swapped the shade of his tent for the blistering outdoors.

William’s jaded appearance was soon overshadowed by his taut straight carriage. With firm deliberate strides he joined the procession of troopers who trudged along deep sandy grooves to the parade ground. Through squinting eyes, he surveyed the lifeless landscape with its sparse scattering of small timber outbuildings, endless fence-lines of stables and mappings of telegraph lines. He felt dwarfed by the massive expanse of white glowing sand that appeared to swallow all forms of life. It was a hostile world in which people could survive, but it had proven time and again to be cruel and unforgiving. He closed his eyes at intervals to ease the sharp stabbings of bright light, whilst his feet kept ploughing the sand in automation.

By the time William reached the parade ground, it was already a teeming mass of khaki. Five hundred men were being organized on either side of a path wide enough to accommodate the arrival of the General and his entourage on horseback. William stood on the outer edge of the crowd, preferring not to be hemmed in by the heat of so many bodies packed together beneath the sun. Feeling his back burn through his shirt, he hoped they would not have to stand too long.

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General Chauvel addressing troops near Romani, 1916.  Photo: Australian War Memorial

General Chauvel’s appearance on his dark shiny steed, was met by a hushed crowd. He sat straight in his clean khaki tunic, neatly strapped with leather belting and a plumed slouch hat appointed jauntily on his cropped grey hair. Even his boots tucked into the stirrups were brushed to shining perfection. He was the antithesis of the ragged men he was about to address. Many were unshaven, some wore shorts, others leggings or puttees. Most men, including officers, no longer possessed tunics, instead wore sleeveless flannels, shirts or singlets. All wore hats that had been shaped into dilapidation by heat, sand and war. Some were ventilated by bullet holes. [1] All eyes followed the General, as he deftly urged his horse through the centre of the regiment. They were men yearning for hope, words of reassurance.

The General’s horse obediently turned so his master could face his subjects. The five officers who accompanied him, positioned their horses in the same manner, to his right.

“Good morning men!” General Chauvel bellowed . “ I hope you all managed to get some rest last night.”

“First, a word on a serious subject that has been brought to my attention,” he continued.

Pausing for a brief moment, he eyed the curious crowd before announcing, “Women!”

As you are aware, familiarity with native women is not advised.” He stressed. “If they are respectable, they will get into trouble. And if they are not, then you will more than likely contract venereal disease.”

Laughter rippled down the lines of men and even William couldn’t control the lines that softened his sun-baked face.

“You may laugh now,” General Chauvel interjected looking out at his amused audience. “but you won’t be amused if you fall prey to the disease. Cairo, has been a hotbed for gonorrhoea and syphilis since the Roman times. So, please, if you cannot exercise some restraint, then I suggest you provide yourself with certain prophylactics beforehand.” [2]

Conversations broke out between men, accompanied by laughter, nudging of elbows, the rolling of eyes. William shook his head at the reactions, enjoying the light-hearted mood. The subject of the General’s talk was nothing new, moreover, it was a good note on which to end the past months of hardship and heavy losses.

“Qui-et!” the General bellowed, raising his right hand to subdue the noisy crowd.

“Now, on the subject of saluting,” he continued in a tone that immediately grabbed the attention of everyone before him.

The General voiced the complaint of The British Command who objected to “those unruly Anzacs” due to the easing of formalities in the field. His words fell like lead bullets, silencing the throng of men.

William suspected that this lecture was coming as he had heard rumbles, the odd word in passing, sly remarks by British officers. He sympathized with men who were not accustomed to the discipline of military life, despite acknowledging that discipline was imperative in times of conflict.

To the relief of the audience, General Chauvel did not dwell on the subject for long before offering words that the men sorely craved.

“Men, I would like to congratulate you all for your tremendous effort. We, and I say We, have successfully pushed the enemy from the Suez. For now, at least.”

The mood of the crowd lightened once again and General Chauvel went on advise, “Lastly men, you will all be sent, in small batches, to Alexandria and Port Said, on short leave.” [3]

William sensed the relief that swept throughout the regiment like a gust of cool sea breeze. Since leaving Katia on August 6th, the Regiment had followed a treacherous route. He glanced around at faces, baked brown and carved beyond recognition by deep lines of adversity. They were old men who had prematurely lost their youth. Despite the current mood of jubilation, he knew that their staring eyes belied a terrible truth. They’ve seen too much. Way too much! He knew that many of them would frequent the bars and brothels whilst on leave, despite the General’s advice. How could he blame them? They were no longer young men looking to a bright future. They have all seen futures cut down in a flash. He knew for certain that ‘now’ was all they had. For many of them, there would be no tomorrows.

The dispersing congregation of troopers forced William to break away from his maudlin thoughts with a determination to enjoy his day of rest. Hearing the distant whinnying of horses, he thought aloud, “But first, there are horses to feed!” and marched off with his usual long straight strides in the direction of the stable lines that marked the outer boundary of the camp.

REFERENCES:

[1]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess

[2]          Guide to Australiasian Soldiers to Cairo – C. Beane

[3]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess – Pg. 207

 

REMEMBERING BEERSHEBA

beershattack

There always seems to be a sense of romance attached to the Australian Light Horse.  Last Tuesday, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, was no different.  As we watched reenactments of that cavalry charge on our television sets, our hearts were pumping with the adrenalin of those 800 men who gallantly rode off into our history books as heroes. We were overcome by that warm feeling of nostalgia.  However, if we were afforded the opportunity to sit and talk with those men who were there on 31st October 1917, the word romance would not enter the conversation.  There was nothing romantic about losing 31 troopers and 70 horses to Turkish bullets.  In fact, desperation for that precious commodity of water was the driving force on that victorious day.

It has been cited as being the last great cavalry charge in history.  In trying to ascertain the exact details of the actions leading up to the charge and those of the charge itself, I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of the battle plan.  The briefest description I could find was the following account on the website

The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917, is remembered as the last great cavalry charge. The assault on Beersheba began at dawn with the infantry divisions of the British XX Corps attacking from the south and south-west. Despite artillery and air support, neither the infantry attacks from the south, or the Anzac Mounted Division’s attack from the east had succeeded in capturing Beersheba by mid-afternoon.

With time running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark, Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew, from aerial photographs, that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire. However, German bombing had forced the 4th Brigade into a scattered formation and it was not until 4.50 pm that they were in position. The Brigade assembled behind rising ground 6 kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right, the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left and the 11th Light Horse Regiment in reserve.

The Australian Light Horse was to be used purely as cavalry for the first time. Although they were not equipped with cavalry sabres, the Turks who faced the long bayonets held by the Australians did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry. The Light Horse moved off at the trot, and almost at once quickened to a gallop. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire with shrapnel. But the pace was too fast for the gunners. After three kilometres Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the Light Horse approached. The front trench and the main trench were jumped and some men dismounted and then attacked the Turks with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba.

Nearly all the wells of Beersheba were intact and further water was available from a storm that had filled the pools. The 4th and 12th Light Horse casualties were thirty-one killed and thirty-six wounded; they captured over 700 men. The capture of Beersheba meant that the Gaza-Beersheba line was turned. Gaza fell a week later and on 9 December 1917, the British troops entered Jerusalem.

 

William Lyons did not take part in that charge as the 5th Light Horse Regiment were not involved.  However, he did mention Beersheba in his diary.

On August 3rd 1917 he wrote:

“Bde (brigade) went out on a stunt to scupper Bedouins outpost, within 5 miles of Beersheba. Mafeesh Bedouins.  Fired on by Turkish outpost.

On August 4th, he continued:

“Returned to camp without casualties”

Then on 4th November 1917, whilst hospitalized in Cairo due to illness, he wrote:

“The wounded are coming in from Beersheba fight.”

He would have been kept up to speed on what actually transpired at Beersheba on October 31st.  No doubt he would have spoken to the wounded, curious for details. According to his diary, Colonel Lachlan Wilson, who participated in the charge,  visited him several times during his stay in hospital. If only I could be privy to their conversations.  I am sure they were laced with both the excitement of the successful outcome and of course reflection of the losses.

The attack on Beersheba was a case of “do or die”.  Failure meant either perishing by the hand of the Turks or of thirst.  From what I have recently learnt about General Chauvel, he had studied the possible outcomes.  He only took calculated risks and his men knew that. They trusted his instincts. Yes, they might have been touched by a tinge of madness, but also words like “daring” and “gallant” come to mind.  They had nothing to lose as their luck was evaporating along with the contents of their water bottles. They gave it their all, galloping across the plains on the wings of hope and that glorious victory was the turning point of the war in the middle east.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

Great Grandfather William Lyons spent much time at the Zeitoun Training camp, especially during 1917, his last year abroad. Until 1916, there was no official training for officers, they were expected to learn in the field.  When the fighting with the Turks eased along the Suez Canal by October that year, whilst many troops were sent on leave,  some were sent to Zeitoun to complete the newly devised Officer’s Course.

I used a little creative licence in last week’s post, assuming William Lyons was sent to Zeitoun  to complete the forementioned course.  However, he was promoted to Captain in November 1916, in Cairo according to his records. Zeitoun was situated outside of Cairo, and his work thereon had strong connections to the camp.  Therefore, I think my assumptions are reasonably safe.  In any case, during his frequent visits to the camp, (according to his diary) I wonder if he crossed paths with the Chambers family who ran the YMCA Canteen.

Oswald and Biddy Chambners Zeitoun

In all my internet searches, the Chambers family came up in connection with Zeitoun.  Oswald Chambers was a minister with the Pentacostal League of Prayer, and prior to the outbreak of war in 1915, he was the Principal of the Bible Training College in Clapham Common, Greater London.  Then, in 1915, he suspended operation of the school and was accepted as a YMCA Chaplain.  The family moved to Cairo and were assigned to operate the YMCA Canteen at Zeitoun, where he ministered to Australian and New Zealand troops.

The military and government heads welcomed the YMCA ministries as a way of keeping men out of the seedy clubs and brothels in Cairo.  The YMCA was seen as an  provider of alternative social services such as dances and concerts.  However, Oswald Chambers replaced those services with bible classes.  By day Biddy ran the canteen, providing free refreshments to the troops, whilst Oswald held his classes in the evenings.  The sceptics envisaged an exodus from the establishment, however, the opposite was to occur.  Men were seeking some sort of solace from the realities of war.  Hundreds filled the hut each evening, to listen to Oswald’s messages.

The hut was ‘a place to read, write, sing and relax away from the dust-filled, fly-infested, hot, sandy camp, where showers were irregular and the tents hot and crowded.’ [1] There was another attraction, in the form of the Chambers’ young daughter, Kathleen, who was only 2½ years old when the family arrived in Egypt.  This little blonde girl with a bow in her hair was a constant reminder of families at home.  Men showered her with gifts, including animals.  According to David McCasland in his book “Oswald Chambers: Abandoned for God”,

Occasionally, a man, lonely for his own little ones, sat outside her window at night just to listen to her bedtime prayers.  Some of her favourite soldier friends tiptoed in after family prayers to watch her sleeping and give her a good night kiss before sprinting back to camp before the sounding of the Last Post.

Oswald Chambers died on November 17,1917 from complications after an operation to remove his appendix.  He was granted a military funeral where ‘100 soldiers escorted the gun carriage bearing his coffin.  Only officers were bearers.  All of them walked the whole funeral route with arms reversed – a special tribute to a well-loved and respected man.[2]

I wonder whether Great Grandfather crossed paths with this family who provided such a valuable service at Zeitoun.  Did Kathleen Chambers tug at his heart strings, as she had to so many others?  He too had young children at home.  Young Billy was only three years Kathleen’s senior.  Did her pretty presence bring a spark to his blue sun weary eyes?  I would like to think so. More so, I would like to think that the YMCA Canteen provided him with a retreat from the everyday drudge of a soldier’s life and that Mr Chambers’ bible classes provided him with spiritual comfort.  After-all, he was a churchgoing man.

Of course, there is no way of knowing the answers to my questions.  What I do know for sure is that Oswald, Biddy and Kathleen Chambers were real people who lived in Egypt whilst William Lyons was stationed there.  By seeing the place through their eyes gives me a better understanding of what life was like for soldiers in Egypt at that time.  Therefore, I think Great Grandfather would forgive me for using his voice to tell their stories.

Finally, I would like to point out that there is no connection between myself and the Chambers family aforementioned.  None that I am aware of anyway.

 

References:

[1]  Michelle Ule.com

[2]  Women of Christianity

 

Zeitoun School of Instruction

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Training Base at Zeitoun

Photo Source: Pinterest – Barracks at Zeitoun

 

In the shadows of the great pyramids, the Zeitoun School of Instruction bustled with a sense of military purpose. The drill field was a stirring sandy whir of men on horseback fighting an imaginary foe.  The rifle range was crack, crack, cracking as shooting skills honed to deadly perfection.  The Remount Station exploded with excitement as horses were subdued into submission.

In contrast, the streets were mapped out with neat rows of wooden barracks and  uniformed collections of circular white tents.  Paths were marked with rocks painted white and potted plants. Moreover, it was a picture of a perfectly ordered world; one which William Lyons embraced with open arms after months of uncertainty and chaos.

Zeitoun YMCA Exterior

Outside of the Zeitoun YMCA Canteen.  Biddy and Kathleen Chambers second from right.

William and Lt. Atkinson stepped out from the Post Office onto Suez Road and briskly strode the short distance to the YMCA Canteen.  Compared to the splendid symmetry of the Officers’ Mess with its arched façade and path lined with potted flowers, the YMCA was basic.  Whilst lacking in class, it was warm and homely, thanks to Mrs Biddy Chambers.  Her ever-ready smile and home cooked food made her establishment feel like a home away from home.

Kathleen and Biddy Chambers
Photo Source: Michelleule.com -Kathleen Chambers and her Mother Biddy

Entering the canteen, William welcomed the shelter from the burning sun, taking a few seconds to adjust his sight.  Light filtered gently through the rattan walls and beamed down from the open shutters that were suspended from the peaked ceiling.

Removing their feathered hats and placing them under their arms, the two men made their way towards a smiling Mrs Chambers who greeted them from across the counter.

“Good Afternoon, Chaps,” she beamed.  “Two  white teas today, is it?”

“Yes thanks Mrs Chambers,” William responded as they both looked out over the arrangements of tables dressed with clean white cloths and pretty vases of flowers.

Surveying the scattering of chatting patrons from various Anzac Regiments, the two men carried their hot teacups to a spare table in a quiet corner close to the counter.  They placed their hats on the two spare chairs, lowered themselves onto the chairs, sinking the timber legs down into the floor of sand.

YMCA Zeitoun

Inside the YMCA Canteen at Zeitoun

 

“Here’s to our promotions!” Lt. Atkinson raised his tea cup, encouraging Will to follow suit.

“We have to pass first,” William retorted as he chinked his teacup against that of his companion.

“Pass?  Of course we’ll pass.”  They both laughed in unison.

William had spent the last two weeks of September completing the Officers’ Training Course.  The days had been long and rigorous, but nothing compared to his experiences during the past months clashing with the Turks.  By mid-August, the enemy had been pushed away from the Suez.  Men were offered leave to Port Said and some, including William, were sent to Zeitoun for training.  He relished the opportunity for self-improvement as well as a change of scenery.

As the two men sat sipping their tea, little Kathleen Chambers, toddled over to their table holding a plate of biscuits.  Shyly smiling from beneath her mop of blond hair and large floppy bow, she waited for a response.  Three year old Kathleen was almost a fixture at the YMCA Canteen and a joy to weary soldiers’ eyes.  She was loved by all.

William took a biscuit and placed it beside the cup on his saucer.

“Why, thank you Miss Kathleen,” he said, with a slight bow to his head, before retrieving from his pocket a lolly he had saved from his Comforts Fund Parcel.

Kathleen’s eyes lit up as she took the lolly from William’s hand.

She paid him with a sweet “Thank you” before carrying the plate of remaining biscuits back to her Mother.

“You know, I haven’t seen my family for two years,” Will suddenly felt a pang of home sickness as he took a bite from the sweet biscuit.

“The boys are all getting older, growing up, and I am not there to enjoy it.”

“I know that feeling only too well,” his companion replied. “Has the sacrifice really been worth it?”

William pondered the question as he savoured another sip of tea,  a luxury that as evaded him for months.  His thoughts wandered to conversations he had with Colonel Wilson regarding a promotion that could mean the opportunity of utilizing his 20 years as a Drill Instructor.  The very possibility brought a smile to his face.  The    hardships of the past two years along with the long separation from his family, might prove to be worthwhile after all.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

 

Vintage letter

If you are a collector, like me, you tend to keep boxes of stuff that are the sum of a lifetime of experiences and memories.  Recently, during my “decluttering” phase, I happened upon boxes and bags filled with memorabilia from my travels.  I have always had a penchant for beautiful cards and own enough to start a card shop.  Worst still, I collect postcards, leaflets, booklets, packets, pages from newspapers;  anything and everything that proves I have visited some place in the world.

In my early years of exploring the world I brought home rocks, leaves and half eaten cookies that all represented somewhere on the world map.  I have pieces of the Step Pyramid from Egypt and peanut shells that I retrieved from the White House Lawn during Jimmy Carter’s reign.  Aside from travel momentoes, my collection includes newspaper articles by columnists who share my point of view, interesting quotes and pictures of room renos that I wanted to replicate and never did.  And, like my Great Grandfather, I have a collection of scraps of paper scribbled with words for stories I never wrote.  So, what does all this stuff say about me?  Perhaps it says I’m disorganized, have a strong need to cling to my untapped potential?  Or, I possess a befuddled mind?  Who knows?

Recently I discovered a hand printed magazine that belonged to my Great Grandparents, titled “Health and Happiness” dated 19th May 1936.  I always sensed they were health conscious, perhaps ahead of their times.  Dad has told me that his Grandmother always refused to cook in aluminium saucepans and she bought “brown” bread.  Now that was progressive.

The magazine describes itself as “A Periodical dealing with Facts and Features in relation to the Physical and Mental well-being of Civilization”.  It contains articles explaining how one can ensue individuality through the practice of mind control.  Mr F. Carswell writes about improving one’s mind by reading books of learning.

“We are all in a position to see and distinguish good from evil; ” he says.  “but we are blind.  Why?  Because books of learning are left upon the shelf, in their place we read sordid thrillers and books of questionable humour.  We ignore books which will develop and improve humanity.”  

There are philosophical quotes sprinkles through the pages about the benefits of reading and the acquisition of knowledge:

“Have you knowledge?” A Pagan Philoshopher asks. ” Apply it.  Have you not?  Confess it.  This is true wisdom.”

Andrew Lang wrote, “People who deserve to be able to read, did read, and now that every one can read, few people deserve to do so, for few go beyond a newspaper.”

And so, the pages are filled with quotes and intellectualizations about the positive effects of acquiring knowledge.  I already know that my Great Grandfather, William Lyons, possessed an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  According to his grandchildren, he always kept notebooks by his bed where he wrote out facts and figures that aroused his curiosity.  His cupboards were filled with snippets of facts, and letters he received answering his questions.

For William to keep this magazine is very telling indeed.  It was produced by a Doctor Kjellberg who was a Chiropractor and Practitioner of alternative living.  William acquired this publication whilst attending a Retreat at Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Tablelands.  He mentioned his attendance in a diary written in 1936.  For a man who had experienced the horrors of two wars, PTSD was possibly an issue.  Perhaps he was seeking mental relief by improving his mind, to feed it with the wonderments of knowledge.

By writing William’s story, I have had to climb into his psyche, to discover the man behind the army green facade.  Not only was he a soldier at heart, he was an intelligent and inquisitive man who enjoyed the ancient old cultures of the lands he travelled.  He took countless snapshots of local peoples, he collected hundreds of postcards and picture books, along with textiles and ornaments.  Through letters he wrote, I have gleened the depths of his interest in the ways of ancient architects, the farming of sugar cane in Egypt and even his opinion of tipping.

I am forever thankful for the items William chose to keep as they paint a picture of the person he was.  I wonder what my collection of memorabilia will tell my ancestors in 100 years?  How sad it would be, if there is nothing left of my life, of me.  Perhaps we all need to consider the mark we leave on this earth, the legacy we leave to be remembered by.

 

 

 

 

The Day after Katia

Opening his eyes on the morning of 6th August, William greeted an angry dawn sky with trepidation.   His mind was fuzzy.  He had wrestled with demons all night and they continued to blur in and out of reality. His body ached. It screamed out for rest, but he knew there was no time for idleness.  Lifting himself off the ground, he brushed off the sand that clung to his dirty, blood splattered clothes in preparation of another day of unknowns.

 “M…ou…nt!”

The order screeched out of the darkness as he finished feeding his horse.   No time to heat the bully beef that was to be his breakfast, he grabbed a dry biscuit from his pocket and began to chew as he landed in the saddle.  His horse heeded to the gentle nudge of his boot and obediently joined the sombre procession of 500 troopers that crept along the desolate track back to Katia, where they had fled the day before.

The line of dark shadows that moved against the orange-red sky lacked the buzz of yesterday’s charge.  Each man, including William, felt the absence of mates who were left buried in makeshift graves at Katia.  Peering back over his shoulder and then forward down the column, his tired eyes stumbled upon the unfamiliar faces of men who replaced them.  New facesMore sorry representatives of the dead.  When will it end?

The loss of life at Katia forced the Colonel’s sudden retreat.   Many men were bitterly disappointed, but William understood the Colonel’s reasons.  Hundreds of the British reinforcements had fallen out before even reaching the Oasis.  He had witnessed many poor beggars, mad from heat stroke and severe thirst.  The British High Command were demanding a swift victory.  “We must push the Turks away from the Suez!”  They spout. “The Anzacs are our answer!”  But how?  What would they know?  They, who sit behind desks in England!  Are we so expendable?

An unsettling quiet fell upon the column as the green Oases of Katia loomed below.  Although the forward scouts had scoured the area for the enemy, William knew not to put his total trust in the assessment of others.  Resting his hand on his rifle, he stared hard into the tangle of stringy fronds that protected the sandy dunes.  Was the enemy watching? Planning a surprise attack?

He edged his horse forward through the labyrinth of palms. His eyes darting, scanning.  Piles of spent cartridges.  Splatters of blood.  A broken rifle.  Three Turks huddled together.  All dead.  He passes a grave he remembered hurriedly scratching out of the sand for a comrade.  He could still hear the echoes of desperate crazed men.  The endless frenzied fury of shooting, stabbing, clubbing still thumped like the heartbeat of death in his head.  His ears rang with the hissing of bullets, storming the oasis like rain from hell.  He felt compelled to yell “stop!” But, No time to stop.  Must keeping moving. 

A palm frond crunched beneath a horse’s hooves. Heads jerked.  Horses fidgeted. Eyes, wide and expectant, bouncing from frond to sand and back again.  Silence.  Nothing. The column kept moving.

At the very moment that William’s eyes locked with those of a naked body lying face up in the sand, the silence of the column was broken by a voice behind him.

“Those thieving bastards!” A young trooper exclaimed.

“No respect.” Agreed another.

“That’s the way of the Bedouins, son.” William responded, without looking back over his shoulder in case his face betrayed his own disgust. He too held little respect for the desert nomads.

“When one of their own dies,” He informed the troopers behind him. “they place the deceased person’s clothes on the grave to be taken by passing nomads.”

William knew that the Bedouins habitually stripped the bodies of the dead and dug up graves to scavenge clothing and jewelry.  When circumstances allow it, they now tried to dig deeper graves.

“That doesn’t change anything Sir!” the young trooper shook his head.

“Survival, Son, it is all about survival.” William sighed.  “We’re all trying to survive.  In our own way.”

The quiet open desert  welcomed William with an overwhelming sense of relief, knowing the enemy had moved on.  Swaying gently to the movement of his horse, he felt the gaze of his fallen comrades watching from their ghostly posts.  Refusing to look back, he straightened up, held his head hight and looked toward the shimmering sand hills that rolled out across the horizon.  Before long, the silence was broken by  The crack, Crack, Crack, Crack of gunfire thundering ahead.

William closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before mumbling, “Here we go again.”

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

Researching our family history can be a long and tedious process.  We read through documents and texts in search of clues.  Our search can be likened to panning for gold.  Often our work is rewarded with nothing more than a pan of sand, however, when we  happen upon the most minute detail about an ancestor’s life, it shines brightly like a speck of gold. That small golden speck makes the search worthwhile.

I am fortunate that my research has uncovered many specks and the odd nugget of gold.  Armed with few details of my Great Grandfather’s military life at the beginning of this journey, I have stumbled across a few treasures along the way.  Today, I would like to pay tribute to one such treasure; a man who lived and breathed more than a century ago.  He laboured alongside William Lyons in the trenches of Gallipoli and he endured the hardships of the battlefields of the Middle East.  His words survived those hard times and are still as vivid today as they were on the day he penned them.

Ion Idriess wrote diaries throughout his wartime service.  Putting pen to paper became a manic means of coping with the action transpiring around him.  One notebook led to another and eventually they filled a rucksack.  His colourful and lively descriptions place the reader right in the centre of chaos, dodging whizzing bullets and ducking beneath flying pieces of shrapnel.  He forces the reader to see through his battle weary eyes, to face the reality of that horrific world that imprisoned our men.

330px-Ion_Idriess

Ion Idriess – Photo: Wikpedia

“The Desert Column” is the sum of those diaries.  According to General Sir Harry Chauvel, who wrote the forward, “Several books have been written in by officers and war correspondents but in this the campaign is viewed entirely from the private soldier’s point of view”.   He also said, “there is an accuracy in the descriptions of operations which could only be provided by a singularly observant man.  Idriess was, I think, above the average in this respect though I must say that the Australian Light Horseman was generally very quick in summing up a situation for himself”.

For me, those qualities of self-reliance, individuality and power of observation that Ion Idriess demonstrated in his writings, personified William Lyons.  Reading from line to line, I was seeing the battlefield demise through his eyes and hearing the whooshing bullets and whizzing shrapnel with his ears. I was standing in the muddy trenches of Gallipoli or galloping across the desert with my Great Grandfather.  I was listening to the inner workings of his mind and could feel the rumbling of his inner fears.  In my mind, Ion Idriess’ experiences became his.  The war became so real that I felt I was there as well.

In my attempts to write a realistic account of William Lyons’ experiences, I have relied on Mr Idriess to fill in the gaps.  I know I cannot write about what happened with absolute accuracy, however, I do know that the two men fought side by side on many occasions.   Although they were in different squadrons,  I can piece together from both Mr Idriess’ writings and the “Diaries of The Fifth Light Horse Regiment”, a reasonably accurate account of real events.  As for William Lyons’ actual thoughts, fears and actions, I have had to exercise some creative license, for which I hope he can forgive me.