Lily Deane was posted at the Citadel Military Hospital in Cairo. At first glance, one is wowed by the splendor of the buildings: high ornate ceilings and walls, grand staircases and marble floors. However, the reality of accommodating a hospital within those walls was fraught with problems.
The Citadel, a British military hospital, was operating for 25 years at the onset of the Great War. On 7 February 1910, Miss Ethel Becher, Principal Matron wrote:
“This hospital, once the Palace of Mahomet Ali, has, I am aware, been condemned by many Authorities, but the following points may serve to show under what trying circumstances and in what totally unsuitable surroundings the Nursing is being carried out.
The wards consist of large open pavilions or halls at the head of wide marble staircases, which it is impossible to keep either comfortably warm, or comfortably cool. At the time of my inspection the thermometer stood at 56 degrees, while in summer it rises to 104 to 108 remaining up as high as 96 at night. There are large openings high up in the walls covered with mosquito netting through which the desert sand pours into the wards when a high wind is blowing, in a short time everything, including the patients themselves, is covered with sand, and even with constant sweeping and dusting, what is usually known as cleanliness in a hospital, is an absolute impossibility. These enormous pavalions, which are of very lofty dimensions, with highly decorated walls and cornices absorbing a considerable amount of light, are at night almost in darkness, the oil lamps provided are of a very inferior pattern and give a poor light and even when burning at their best, it is impossible for the patients to read after the daylight has gone.
On windy nights which are not uncommon in Cairo, these lamps are continually being blown out and then the Sisters are reduced to groping about in the dark, or carrying candles to the bedsides; some lamps bought locally are satisfactory, but the future purchase of these was, I understand, stopped by the War Office. I consider that the provision of adequate lighting in this hospital is from a Nursing point of view an urgent necessity. 1
She also complained about the lack of running water, inadequate bathrooms and cramped accommodation space for both patients and nursing staff. Even if the problems were addressed back then, with the onset of war, the number of beds were tripled.
“The hospital which then provided for only 300 patients, grew until there were 1,000 beds. The nurses had many difficulties to contend with; their quarters were cramped and inconvenient; they were frequently very short staffed.“2
If only I was older when I knew Lily Deane. There are endless questions I would like to ask. Firstly, I’d ask about her first impressions of Cairo. Perhaps they were similar to my own. My first morning spent in the Egyptian capital saw scenes of chaos. Businesses were shutting and people were scuttling in all directions to prepare for the daily prayers. I was fascinated by street scenes straight out of the Bible: of sheep and cattle laying in alleyways feasting on hay, a team of robed men running with a coffin on their shoulders to bury their loved one before sundown, or the slaughter of a camel in the street, admidst a river of blood. I am sure her curiosity matched my own.
I would also like to know if her family tried to disuade her from enlisting. I had to contend with work colleagues trying to talk me out of visiting Egypt in 1988. They thought it was a strange and unsafe place to visit. Little did they know that it had been on my bucket list since my senior year of school when I became fascinated by archaeology and the tomb of Tutankhamun. My family knew there was no point in trying to talk me out of it, and I imagine Lily’s family were the same. Afterall, her parents braved the unknown to leave their home country of Ireland for a new life in Australia. Lily certainly hailed from tough pioneering stuff.
Then, of course, our conversation would switch to the war and her time at the Citadel. I’m curious about her work and working conditions at the hospital. Knowing she was a strong woman, I’m sure she handled everything that was thrown her way, including the many types of wounds and ailments that are products of war.
Lastly, I would want to go back in time and accompany Lily and William on their jaunts around Cairo: to enjoy tea at the Shepheard Hotel, to once again immerse myself in the colourful vibes of a crowded bazaar or to revisit the pyramids. I could tell them that the best archaeological treasure is yet to be found. Would they believe me when I describe the tomb of Tutankhamun? Oh to be a time traveller!
William ascended the front stairs of the Shepheard Hotel. Twisting his way through the crowd of patrons and porters weighed down with baggage, he moved towards the terrace restaurant. Arriving early, not wanting to miss out, he looked for a table.
The outdoor area was more casual than the interior dining room, but still breathed an air of old-world aristocracy. Before the war, the hotel was a favourite with adventurers, archaeologists, and wealthy travellers. William never tired of the establishment. Scanning the bustling scene of diners clustered around tables dressed in starched white cloths and shiny silverware, he began to lose hope. Then a waiter approached.
“May I help you sir?”
“Yes, would you have a table for two?” holding two fingers in the air.
The waiter gave a slight bow and said, “Follow me, Sir.”
William followed the waiter through the maze of diners and large, potted palmsto a table for four in the far corner.
William sank into the comfortable rattan chair. “Perfect.”
“Would you like a drink sir?”
“Not yet. I’m expecting a friend. Thank you, anyway.”
The waiter gave another little bow and retreated.
Despite the table being at the back, William still had a reasonable view. Pasha Street was a dusty strip that separated the opulence of the hotel from the heaving heart of Cairo. Through gaps between suited men, well-dressed ladies and military personnel, William watched the trinket sellers, donkey boys and dragomen who eked out a living on the opposite pavement. The outdoor dining area was a haven from the harassment he would endure once he crossed that barrier. Even those who dined close to the rails were often accosted by street vendors. He thought it was a fascinating place where Lily could experience street life from afar.
William spent the last two weeks anticipating her arrival. He knew from Cis’ letter that Lily had joined the Australian Nursing Corps but had no idea where she would be posted. He was so pleased she was stationed in Egypt, rather than Europe. Only a few nights ago, he attended a lecture by Reverend Waddy1 about the situation in France. He still shuddered when he recalled the newsreel projected on the screen. The Reverend’s account was no less dire. It was certainly no place for young Lily who had never been away from Australian shores.
Tapping his fingers to the tune tinkling from a piano, William kept diverting his attention towards the street. Meanwhile, his thoughts revisited the moment he saw Lily in his ward the previous afternoon. Overwhelmed at seeing family for the first time in three years, he found himself lost for words. Although her visit was fleeting, or as she said, “A quick hello, to let you know I’ve arrived,” she lifted his spirits. He hoped her work schedule would allow them to spend more time together before his departure.
With another glance toward the street, three identically dressed ladies caught his attention. By the time it registered they were nurses, they were out of view. The stairs were not visible from the table, so he thought perhaps he should go and look.
William peered down the length of the rails and saw the girls, wearing the grey dress uniforms of Australian nurses, alighting the steps. He noticed the wisps of auburn hair caught in the sunlight before he saw the face shaded by the hat. Lily wasn’t as petite as Cis; however, her hair and face were unmistakably from the same genes.
With his back to the street, William remained standing. A moment later, she appeared. Turning away from her companions, Lily looked out across the dining area. William watched her rise on her toes and stretch as she tried to see around and beyond the obstacles that blocked her view. He waited, amused at her obvious frustration. Finally, he waved and caught her attention. Grinning, she spoke to her companions, who then walked into the hotel.
“Hello, Will,” she beamed, rushing over to him, while, at the same time, loosening the long scarf ties of her hat. “You had me worried for a bit.”
William laughed as he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. He then guided her over to the table. “My dear girl, it’s so good to see you again.”
He pulled out the chair. “Please, take a seat.”
The large rattan chair seemed to engulf her diminutive frame. Straightening her long skirt, she placed her purse on her lap. Then, she removed her hat and placed it on the chair beside her.
Lily kept looking around the restaurant as her hands checked her long, upswept waves for any runaway strands. Satisfied, she clasped her hands together and looked up at William, “This place is truly amazing.”
“I thought you might be impressed,” William said. “And I’m glad you didn’t brave the streets of Cairo on your own. Would your friends like to join us?”
“No, they’re off to have their hair washed.”
William laughed. “They’re what?”
Leaning forward, Lily lowered her voice. “There are no decent bathrooms at the Citadel. From being at sea, our hair feels like steel wool.”
“You know, from the salt air,” she added, reading William’s quizzical expression. “Anyway, we can have our hair washed here for a reasonable price. I’ll join them later.”
“I see,” he said, trying not to show his ignorance of the quirks of young female company. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the waiter approaching their table.
“Ah, my saviour!” William said, relieved to change the course of conversation.
Lily shot her brother-in-law a questioning glance, which he ignored.
After perusing the menus, they ordered sandwiches and tea.
“Shukran,” William thanked the waiter who gave a little bow and left.
“Do you speak their language?” Lily asked.
“Just the basic greetings. You pick up those words quickly.”
“Cairo is so fascinating.” Lily’s face became animated. “I can’t wait to explore.”
“It is an interesting city. Plenty to see. But a word of caution….”
“Don’t worry about me, Will Lyons,” Lily interrupted. “I can take care of myself.”
“I have no doubt you can,” William said, finding her feistiness rather refreshing. “However, Cis will never forgive me if something happens to you, while I’m still here. Nor will your father, for that matter.”
“Hmm.” She huffed. “I don’t need another lesson. The Matron at the Citadel has already lectured us.”
“Good, I hope you listened. That reminds me, how’s your accommodation?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “Crowded, I must say. Four of us sharing a very, small room.”
“That’s no good,” William frowned.
“There isn’t enough space for all of us. I was told that in the warmer months, some girls were forced to sleep on a roof top.”
“That’s very worrying, Lily. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you. For a start, the mosquitoes would eat you alive.”
“I’m hoping not,” Lily sighed.
“So, when do you start work?”
“Tomorrow morning. I can’t wait to get into it.”
“You might change your mind, once you get a taste of grim reality,” William said in a serious voice.
“We’ll see. Enough about me. What about you? Cis worries you know. She doesn’t say as much, but she does.”
Lily paused, looking at her brother-in-law, then added, “You look terribly thin.”
“I’ve had my share of hurdles to cross. The latest being malaria.”
Lily nodded as William described the preceding months spent in the hospital.
“Tis good news you’re going home, then? Cis and the boys will be relieved when they finally see you. On home soil.”
William felt a lump in his throat. “It’s been a long time coming,” he finally said. “Only two weeks to go.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the waiter who brought their lunch.
William advised, “When dining out in Cairo, you are best to eat at a hotel where you can order western food. Eating from street sellers can be risky, particularly with the flies.”
Lily finished a sandwich triangle, then said, “We have all been given a booklet about such things.”
“Not the book written by Charles Beane?”
“Dysentery is a huge problem here. As is malaria. Mosquitoes at dusk are ferocious.”
“We do have nets in our quarters.”
When they finished their sandwiches and drained the teapot, William hailed a waiter and paid the bill. Following a little bow, the waiter left.
Turning to Lily, William suggested, “Let’s take a look inside.”
“Can’t wait.” Lily stood, holding her purse and hat in her hands. She strode a step ahead of William with the enthusiasm of an adventurer about to visit a foreign land for the first time.
William towered over Lily as he leaned forward and opened the door for her. As he followed her, she reached back and grabbed his arm.
“My golly. William Lyons, in my 26 years I’ve never…” she gasped as they entered the lobby through two massive granite columns, topped with ornate lotus capitals painted in shades of blue, red and yellow.
William watched his sister-in-law’s expression changed to one of amazement, like a giddy child in a fairyland. She stood gazing up at the ceiling with her blue eyes wide open as if afraid of missing a single detail. Then, in the centre of the magnificent Persian carpet, her tiny polished black laced boots pivoted around 360 degrees as she breathed in the opulence that adorned the hotel.
Finally, in a breathless voice, she spoke. “This is like a palace.”
“I never tire of it. Come on, there’s more.”
William was happy to be Lily’s tour guide as they explored the inner sanctum of the hotel. They moved through a series of ornate archways, each leading into a world within a world that emulated the ancient Egyptian golden age. Goddesses or kings, immortalized in stone, flanked the stairways and doorways. Date palms rose to meet painted evening skies sparkling with golden stars. Indeed, the Shepheard rivalled the proposed afterlife of Egypt’s ancient kings and was a world away from the Egypt that existed outside the doors of the hotel. William found himself thinking about when he first arrived in this totally alien world and how different it was from the one he knew. He felt a twinge of jealousy for the experience Lily was about to face.
(1) Percival Stacey Waddy was an Anglican clergyman army chaplain. He served in France with the 3rd and 1st Battalions and in August 1917 sailed for Egypt. In October, he was transferred to headquarters, Desert Mounted Corps, where he became senior chaplain and honorary Major with the light horse.
William’s story is now at an interesting stage, where he is still residing at the 14th Australian General Hospital in Cairo, and preparing for his impending voyage back to Australia. As I read his diary and official medical records, I wondered how many setbacks could a man endure? Then, just when he was struck with malaria, he receives a telegram from Cis, advising her sister, Lily, is Egypt bound.
I am sure this news would have had a positive affect on his psychological wellbeing. She is the first family member he has seen in three years. And, I must say, from her arrival on 27 October 1917, he embarked on a busy round of social outings, mostly in her company.
Lily Deane (Photo from the writer’s private collection)
Emily Deane, known as Lily, was 26 years old when she enlisted with A.N.S. on 3rd September 1917. She embarked the H.T. Ayrshire on 15th September bound for Cairo. After 42 days at sea, I’m sure she was pleased to finally dock in Egypt. However, what was her first impression of this strange, chaotic land?
One can only summise, however I have a strong feeling she took to the madness, like a mummy to a pyramid. I remember Aunty Lily from my childhood, although she was an old lady by then. I guess you could say, I derive my impressions from the trinkets she collected over the years. She travelled the world extensively during her lifetime, mostly during the fifties and sixties, which was unusual for the times. She lived in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, and I remember her visiting her sister Nelly.
I knew Aunty Nelly well. She lived nearby, on the original farm where her parents resided before her. She was a great story teller and always came to visit with little treasures for my sisters and I to play with. One day she gave my sister Noeleen a pendant in the form of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s head – a souvenir Aunty Lily acquired during her war years in Egypt. Noeleen wore it to school one day and left it with her uniform in the changing rooms where she changed into her sports clothes. To her dismay, someone stole it before she returned. It may not have been worth much in monetary terms, but now, more than 103 years after war, I wish I could steal a look at it. With age comes an appreciation for history.
There were other items she collected. I have a vintage length of fabric adorned with black ladies carrying urns and baskets of fruit on their heads. It is an artpiece in itself, something that could be framed and put on a wall. In my cupboard sits a royal blue skirt that is richly cross-stitched in bright coloured threads. It is not a piece of clothing I can envisage on a lady from her era, but obviously she found it in her travels and wasn’t afraid to be seen in it. Then there is the gorgeous bare chested timber lady’s head who adorns my piano. The intricately carved crown and necklace suggest she hailed from Javanese or Burmese royalty. These pieces of memorabilia all suggest she was attracted to unusual cultures that populate the faraway lands of the world.
If only I could have walked beside her as she disembarked that ship in 1917, to capture her reactions. The smells, sounds and sights surely made a deep impression on this young girl who grew up in the isolation of a cane farm on the Haughton River. She was a flame waiting to be lit. By the time she returned home at the end of 1919, she had witnessed the results of war, recovered from the Spanish Influenza in 1918 and had developed an irrepressible urge to spread her career wings.
According to family stories, she borrowed five pounds from her Mother and left for Sydney where she worked as a nurse. As soon as she saved the money, she repaid her Mother. Over the years, she rose to the station of Matron. Not being content to work for others, she bought an old, rundown private hospital, brought it up to standard before selling it for a profit. She continued this process until she became a wealthy woman. She never married, but perhaps she was a feminist, ahead of the times. She cut her own path with the ‘dare-to’ attitude possessed by her pioneering parents.
Deciding what details to write into William’s story often poses a problem. I constantly ask myself, “How do I include it?” or, more importantly, “Should I include it?” These were the burning questions when I read in his diary on 10th October 1917: “Saw the Sultan’s funeral.”
I remembered a photo I had seen in his possessions of the actual funeral procession. The black and white image hadn’t stood well to the test of time. However, it must have held some importance for him to have kept it. I haven’t been able to locate that photo, however, there are many online. Fortunately I have also found a short film of the procession that moved from the Sultan’s Palace to the Mosque where he was buried. It is incredible to be able to witness exactly what my Great Grandfather saw 103 years ago. Open the following link to view for yourself.
Watching the film, I understood why William braved the crowded streets of Cairo, despite his frailty. The death of Sultan Hussein Kemal was a piece of history he would have wanted to witness. I’m sure the grand military procession filled him with pride. The film has no sound, but one can feel the solemnity of the various military groups, on horseback and on foot, who led the parade. Motionless bystanders watched in silence.
The Sultan’s funeral was only one example of how William pushed himself, no doubt against his Doctor’s advice. His records imply that he was so frail that it would take months to recover, if at all. Perhaps the thought of going home was the driving force behind his survival. I also believe that men of his generation were blessed with fortitude. When life threw a hardball, they picked themselves up and got on with things.
The Burlesque performance drew a reaction from the packed parade ground. Laughter, clapping, and cheering echoed off the surrounding walls. The rappa-tap-tap of ivory keys joined by the splendid 14th A.G.H. Orchestra, accompanied the female impersonators in a risqué skit of song and dance. William’s feet tapped to the beat, as they did for all the preceding acts. Songs like “King Charles”, “We want to go” and “The Flapper”, lifted the cloud that had clung to his being for weeks. He felt the joy around him, as the throng of war-wearied men were plucked, momentarily, from their reality.
The music died and the players from ‘The Kookaburras’ bowed.
“More! More! More!” The audience shouted and whistled.
The crowd’s exuberance grew into a standing ovation until the players took their places on the makeshift stage and signalled to the orchestra.
William’s found himself riveted once again to the performance. The beat reached fever pitch with twirling dancers leading into a can-can. Skirts flounced, legs kicked high in total disarray, drawing a cacophonous reaction from the crowd. As the players took their final bow, William joined the enthusiastic applause.
Basking in the warm afterglow of the concert, William hardly noticed the crispness of the night air. Merriment vibrated around him as men and hospital staff began to disperse. Still tired from his trip to Moascar, he was surprised he sat throughout the entire concert.
The next morning William went to the Recreation Room for a quiet moment of reading.
“At Last,” he sighed as he allowed his weight to free-fall into the canvas deck chair.
The book sat closed on his lap, while William surveyed the room, enjoying the relative quiet. The only sounds were the clicking of billiard balls as two men enjoyed a game. He watched the to-ing and fro-ing of balls, although his thoughts were elsewhere. His mind still buzzed from the concert and his aching body punished him for the hectic schedule of the last three days. It felt good to just sit and contemplate, away from the ward. Deaf to the nearing footsteps, his peaceful reverie was soon disturbed.
“There you are.”
William turned his head to see Lachlan Wilson approaching.
“Colonel,” William smiled at his friend. “How did you find me here?”
“I’ve been looking all over the hospital for you,” the Colonel said as he sunk into the chair beside William. “Thought you must be out and about.”
“Not today. I’m resting.”
The Colonel laughed. “Do you know how to do that?”
“I need to,” William admitted. “I’ve had a busy week, starting with a trip to Moascar on Sunday.”
“Today’s only Wednesday. So, what else have you done that you shouldn’t have?”
“Hmm.” William rolled his eyes. “There was the Sultan’s funeral on Monday. The Kookaburra’s concert last night….”
“My God, Man!” The Colonel cut him off, shaking his head.
“Did you see the funeral?” William deflected an impending lecture.
“Yes, I did. Quite impressive turnout, I must say.”
“That it was.” William could still picture the crowded street where he and a group of chaps from the hospital stood near the Mosque. They found a good position, close to the road’s edge, where they could peer through the gaps in the mounted military honor guard. The heavily draped coffin appeared to be swept along like a boat on the churning river of mourners, the likes of which William had never seen before. He felt for the pallbearers who carried the sultan all the way from the Palace to the Mosque.
Sultans Funeral – October 1917
“It was worth the effort,” he continued. “When an opportunity arises, one can’t say No.”
“Sometimes, one needs to listen to their head.” The Colonel leaned back resting his head against the wooden frame of the chair. “Will, I wondered if you might do something for me?”
“Yes, if I can.”
“I have put together a Christmas parcel for my family. If it is no trouble, could you take it with you, on the ship?”
William laughed. “One more thing won’t matter. I’ll need an entire cargo hold for my luggage.”
“Good. I’ll cable my wife. She can collect it when you dock in Brisbane.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Colonel lurched himself out of the chair and added, “That said, I’ll be back with it in the next couple of days.”
“I’ll be here.”
Colonel Wilson raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
William also unfolded himself out of his chair, steadying himself as he stood. His back felt wet from sweat. “To be honest, I’m not feeling well. Think I’ll head back to the ward.”
“Good plan. Get some rest.” the Colonel replied.
The two men left the recreation room together.
By the time Colonel Wilson gave him the parcel, William had no memory of the preceding two days. He spent the time either shaking uncontrollably from the cold or sweating so profusely that his bedclothes were constantly drenched. Waves of nausea made sleep a welcomed state. It was during such a lull in the storm, he opened his eyes to see the Colonel sitting in the chair next to his bed.
“How long have you been here?” His voice was hoarse.
“A little while,” the Colonel said, not letting on he had called in each day since he spoke to William in the Recreation room. Each visit was fleeting, due to William’s raging fevers. “You’ve apparently been asleep all day.”
“Damn Malaria. I could do with some water?” William pointed to the jug on the locker.
He pulled himself up as far as his energy would allow. Taking the glass, he took a few sips before handing it back to the Colonel. At that point, he noticed the brown paper parcel on his bedside locker. “You’ve brought the parcel.”
“I remember you asking, but nothing much after that.”
“Looks like you’ve received a good wad of mail too.”
The Colonel handed William the pile of unopened letters and said, “I waited in hope you’d be awake at some point. I’m heading back to the regiment tomorrow.”
“Will I see you before I leave?”
The Colonel nodded. “All going well, I should be back in Cairo by the end of month.”
“Good. Until then.” William raised his hand in a weak salute.
“Well I’d better be going. Look after yourself, old chap.” The Colonel turned to leave, then looked back and stressed, “Don’t overdo it.”
William watched his friend disappear down the long aisle of the ward. He knew the Colonel was right. What am I trying to prove? Now, look at me. Damn malaria.
He despondently fingered through the bundle of mail, recognizing the hands of his mother, his sister Tot and Cis. They had been his line of sustenance for three long years. Letting the letters fall onto his lap, a window faced envelope from the Telegraph Office stood apart from the rest. Fingers shaking, he lifted the back flap and pulled out the contents. It read:
LILY DEPARTED ABOARD H.T. AYRSHIRE. DUE ARRIVAL EGYPT 27 OCTOBER.
On the third day of Quarantine, William was engrossed in his newspaper when a wave of cheers rippled through the ward. Placing the paper down on the bed, he peered around the screen. The Matron was moving down the aisle, stopping intermittently to chat. Rose Creal’s presence was not unusual as she regularly visited the ward and acquainted herself with patients. What was unexpected, however, was the trail of good wishes that followed her. She had the effect of the sun clearing a thick blanket of early morning fog.
Before long, the Matron’s news spread from bed to bed.
“Good old Matron Creal,” William murmured with a smile, feeling the mood lift around him. Reaching for his diary, he penciled Hooray. Quarantine is lifted.
William was now free to make plans. He visited the Quarter Master’s office, in the hospital, to retrieve his belongings that were transferred from the camp. Although he found his tin trunk and canvas bag, some items were missing. He then wrote a short note to Lt. Land telling him to expect his company on the following Tuesday morning.
The sun was already high and bright when William emerged from the Ismailia Railway Station. Leaning on a walking stick, he stretched his legs and used his spare hand to brush coal dust off his uniform. Tilting his hat down to shade his face, he watched the sparse scattering of people moving in different directions across the sandy square. He scanned the faces of military personnel but saw no-one he knew.
His instincts told him to walk to camp. However, after spending three hours on a hard train seat, his aching back argued otherwise.
Walking over to the vehicle, he enquired, “How much to Moascar camp?”
The Egyptian man smiled to reveal missing front teeth. “Very Cheap for you sir, just ten piastre.”
William shook his head. “Too expensive.”
The man slunk into a picture of indignation. “Ah, but sahib sir, my taxi very safe.”
William dismissed the man’s dramatics with a wave of his left hand and began to walk away. Under his breath he cursed, I don’t have the energy to argue. He knew the going price was 10 piastre for an hour, whereas the ride to the camp would only take 15 minutes at the most. Why is everything so trying?
“Sahib!” The driver called after him. “Two piastre, Sahib!”
William stopped and walked back to the stationary vehicle.
“I’ll tell you what. Four piastre and you take me to Moascar camp. Then pick me up again at 12.30 to bring me to station”
The man sat back and observed William who stood firm. Without a hint of a smile, he pursed his lips and nodded his head.
With his kitbag slung over his shoulder, William placed his stick on the floor and climbed onto the seat behind the driver. The man gave the reins a shake and the gharri wheels began to rumble along the road that William knew so well.
Soon they began to amble along the edge of Sweet Water Canal, kicking up a trail of dust behind them. Several boats bobbed gently against the opposite bank, their masts towering above a line of trees. Other than the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves and the accompanying crunch of earth and stones beneath the rattling wheels, there was a quiet that one never experienced in Cairo. William inhaled the salt-tinged breeze floating in through the open window. Even the air is fresher than Cairo.
Before long, they neared the gate to the camp. Pulling on the reins, the vehicle rattled to a stop. As William stepped down onto the road, he turned to the driver.
“Remember, 12.30. I will wait here for you.”
“You pay now?” The man’s grin revealed his bare gums.
With his stick hooked over his arm, William pulled out his wallet and counted out two ‘one piastre’ notes. “Here is half. You get the rest later.” He knew the scoundrel would not return if he was paid in full.
The native man hesitated, before taking the money. “Okay Sahib. You wait here. Yes?” He then turned his vehicle and steered his horses back towards town.
William walked through the gate, shaking his head at the constant haggling over price. Travelling to the camp on foot would have saved the fuss, but already he felt tired.
He followed the fence line that ran parallel to the canal. At the end of a short row of round tents, he veered off to the right towards the gap between the two long stable buildings. Reaching the corner of the stables, he peered down the line of horses. About to turn, he stopped himself. “Hmm, later,” he whispered and kept walking until he stood outside the paymaster’s tent.
Lt. Land sat behind a desk, his head bent writing figures in a journal. Sensing William’s presence, he looked up.
“Lyons! You’re here. Take the weight off your feet,” he said gesturing towards the spare chair that sat against the tent wall.
William took his time lowering himself onto the chair, before resting his cane against the table.
“Are you okay Will?” Land asked. “You’ve faded away to a shadow.”
“Steady, steady,” William replied. “I tire easily, that’s all.”
“Well, it’s a great thing you’re going home. You can recover properly.”
“That’s what the Doctor thinks. ‘Rest, and more rest’ he keeps telling me.”
“Well, listen to his advice. That’s is what I say.”
William grinned. “Yes, Doctor.”
William told him about the Quarantine and his subsequent trips into Cairo.
Land raised his eyebrows. “That’s not rest. Punishment I’d say.”
“I’m trying to get organized. Besides, ‘tis better than laying in bed all day.”
“You have a point there. Just don’t overdo it.”
“Now that I am here, there is the matter of my account.”
Land leaned back and sighed. “You didn’t need to travel all the way to Moascar for that. I told you I would take care of it.”
“There is also the matter of my belongings,” William continued.
“I would have gladly checked for you. Just say it, old chap, and I’ll take care of it.”
William felt defeated. “Is it so bad that I want to see the camp? Who knows? I might not get another chance.”
“Cheer up old chap. Why don’t we pay the Quarter Master a visit now? If your things are still in storage, then I’ll make sure you get them. How are you going to lug a weight with that,” Land said, pointing to William’s walking stick?
“Hmm, good point,” William conceded.
The two men spent the next two hours inspecting the camp. William caught up with several chaps in his squadron, whom he hadn’t seen for weeks. They visited the Quarter Master’s office and found his remaining things sitting in storage. After saying goodbye, William strolled along the stables and then stopped to take shelter beneath the iron roof. The bay horse in front of him pulled gently on its tethers.
“You remember me boy,” William moved alongside the horse to stroke his face.
“So, they’re looking after you?”
He struggled to pull a knotted handkerchief out of his shirt pocket, while juggling with the horse’s curious nose. As the four corners of cloth fell aside to reveal a small mound of sugar, the eager wide-eyed recipient devoured every sweet grain and kept licking William’s hand as if asking for more.
“Sorry, my friend.” William waved the empty handkerchief before the horse’s eyes. “See, there’s no more.”
William then pulled a small knife from his kitbag and cut a few strands of his horse’s mane. The horse watched as he wrapped his keepsake in the handkerchief and deposit it and the knife in the kitbag. William extended one arm under the horse’s chin and leaned into the large brown neck, immersing himself in the warm, familiar scent of his horse. “Pity I can’t take you for one last ride. You’d love that wouldn’t you?”
William doubted he had the strength to mount a horse. Running a hand along the length of the horse’s brown coat, he paused and wondered what would happen to his loyal friend. Will he return to Australia? Perhaps not.
He checked his watch. “Well, old friend, it’s time. We can’t keep that pesky driver waiting.”
As William edged his way out of the stable, the horse turned his head as far as the tether allowed. His tail flicked back and forth, and his weight shifted from hoof to hoof. William stopped and raised his hat to the horse. Then, shoulders stooped, he allowed the cane to support his weight as he turned and began to walk away. His teetering steps followed the sandy road toward the gate. His body cried out for rest, but there was no sign of the cab.
Leaning against the gate post, William checked his watch. Hmm, 12.35pm. Another 5 minutes passed, and he wondered if he should not start walking back into town. He was certain, though, the prospect of business would encourage the man to stick to his word. Typical Egyptian timing!
William focused on the canal. A tradition dhow glided away from the opposite bank, reminding him of the felucca trip back in February. If only times were different? He could catch more than a fleeting glimpse of this fascinating land. Now, he felt his time was slipping away like the dhow that disappeared as it sailed toward the mouth.
Out of the corner of his eyes he thought he saw a small puff of dust at the far end of the road. As it grew into a cloud, William detected the outline of the gharri and then a waving hand.
“Hello, Sir,” the wharre driver greeted William. “To the station?”
“Actually, could you take me for a drive through the French Quarter? And, if we have time, perhaps the gardens?”
The driver gave another toothless smile. “Of course, sahib. But will cost more.”
William had already calculated a fair price in his head and offered, “Another piastre.”
The driver agreed without any sign of objection and William climbed onto the seat. As the gharri turned, William took one last mental snapshot of the desolate landscape of Moascar. The sparse tent township that sprouted from the lifeless desert floor was now relegated to his memories. Without a second glance, he kept his attention firmly forward.
The French Quarter was William’s favourite part of town. Leaning back against the plump padded seat, he relaxed to the rhythmic clip-clopping steps of the horse. The houses that lined both sides of the streets greeted him with a flutter of blue shutters and lacey verandahs. Flowers smiled up at William from their potted homes, while bouganvillia, bursting with flaming laughter as they climbed riotously over whitewashed walls. By the time he reached the gardens along Sweetwater Canal, he felt at home, applauded by fanning palms, and intertwined tropical greenery. For the first time, he felt the restraints of war loosening their grip.
Great Grandfather has left me with a puzzle. On Sunday, 30th September 1917, he wrote: “All Officers innoculated. Ward quarantined.”
So I’m left asking, “Why?”
He doesn’t offer the ‘why’. Instead he has led me trawling through google, in search of answers, the name of a disease that could have instigated the action. There are several possibilities, including mumps, measles, typhoid fever, cholera and influenza. The only clue he offers is that the officers were innoculated. Although he doesn’t suggest there is a link, one can assume there was.
Initially, I wrote that a patient was infected with cholera, although I later decided to go for something more contagious, like mumps, a respiratory diseases that can be passed from person to person by coughing or sneezing. Afterall, those diseases were common among the troops at the time. However, I am pleased that one of my writing friends pointed out that there was no vaccination for mumps in 1917.
So, this morning, my search continues. I’m reminded of the times that Great Grandfather sent my father and his cousin out to find the answers to his many questions. Fortunately, I don’t have to ride a pushbike around Townsville, visiting the library or newspaper office to find the answers. Although, searching through myriads of sites on the internet can be just as frustrating.
After researching available vaccines in 1917, my list has dwindled down to one possibility: typhoid.
According to Wikpedia,
“Other people may carry the bacterium without being affected; however, they are still able to spread the disease to others.’
They also go on to say:
“The cause is the bacterium Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Typhi growing in the intestines and blood. Typhoid is spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. Risk factors include poor sanitation and poor hygiene.”
According to the Oxford Academic, in the early 20th Centure, patients with typhoid were isolated in order to ascertain the source of the infection. Also, convalescents were regularly screened in order to reduce levels of infection.
Great Grandfather was in a convalescent ward of the 14th AGH. If there were patients with typhoid, it would have made sense to shut the ward to visitors. All patients, nursing staff as well as kitchen staff would have been tested. Of course, there are no guarantees that my assumptions are correct. The only people who know the answer to the puzzle are gone from this world. Such are the mysteries of writing our family history.
When I first began to research my family history, I visited an old family friend armed with a list of questions. Over a cuppa, he happily told me details about his family; their immigration from England; his father’s service in WW1 and their life in my own home town of Giru in North Queensland. Looking up at one point from my notebook, I noticed a beautiful framed display on the wall.
“Is that you Cyril?” I asked as I got up from the chair to take a closer look.
“Yes,” he replied without elaborating.
“You look so young and handsome in your uniform.”
“I was only 19,” he admitted.
“Wow, look at your medals,” I said.
“They were terrible times,” he began, shaking his head. “I was in the middle east.
He mentioned little things like swimming in the Dead Sea.
“Really?” I was fascinated. “What was that like?”
“Really salty,” he laughed.
“You went to England on the Queen Mary, didn’t you?” I asked.
“I did,” he replied. “They were terrible, terrible times.”
His mood changed. He wanted to tell me more. Sadly, I didn’t have much time and suggested,”Cyril, perhaps I can obtain your war records when I get home.”
“But,” he interrupted, getting a little agitated. “They won’t tell you what really happened.”
I left that morning, unaware that I had hit on a nerve. A year later, my Dad visited both Cyril and his wife Myrtle, who were by now living in a nursing home.
Cyril began to talk about the war and said, “I wanted to tell Kim, but she said she would obtain my records. She didn’t understand. I don’t want to die without people knowing the truth.”
Some of the experiences he shared with Dad were things a young 19 year old should never have to endure. He had kept these memories locked away in his mind for 70 plus years. He, like most war veterans never spoke about the war. He never marched on Anzac Day, nor did he partake in celebrations like the VP 50 etc. His attitude was to just get on with life. That is what they did. One has to ask, “At what cost?”
Over the next two weeks, William’s health improved enough to be transferred to a Convalescence Ward which gave the appearance of a huge military dormitory rather than a hospital ward. Patients were in varying levels of recovery, depending on their inflictions. Many had lost limbs and their movements were restricted to the hospital grounds. Recreation areas were set up outdoors so they could enjoy sunshine and fresh air. It was not unusual to see able bodied patients wheeling their less fortunate mates in wheelchairs. Day passes could be issued to those mobile enough to leave the hospital grounds. Strict curfews, however, remained in place and roll calls were conducted each evening at 20.00 hr.
Patients at 14th AGH Abbassia
William embraced his newfound freedom. At first, he tired after short spells. As time progressed, he ventured further. Being cooped up for weeks, he saw the old irritations of Cairo in a different light. Although, initially overwhelmed, he soon settled back into the rhythm of noise and bustle that formed the chorus of everyday life. Even the heat was more bearable outside. Each excursion brought more details to his attention; anecdotes to appease the curious minds of his boys. He knew he would be bombarded with questions about the war. On occasions, he had pondered, ‘What will I say? There is only so much I can tell them.’
Family began to dominate his thoughts as he awaited approval for a trip home. Each letter from Cis was a window into the life he left behind three years ago. Her letters, always long and newsy, painted a vivid picture of her daily challenges on the farm, the boys, her parents and siblings. Often a backlog of letters arrived, describing life on the Haughton over a period of weeks. She sometimes mentioned the ‘Italians’ (Baccaris family) who lived on the neighbouring farm, or Mrs Hughes who ran the Post Office and General Store, the only store, at Minehan Siding. There was no township, just farms linked to Ayr and Townsville by railway. After the chaos of Cairo, he mused, ‘how am I to adjust to the isolation of the jungle?’
William also kept informed about the happenings at Moascar via his many visitors as well as correspondence. He was particularly pleased to receive a card from Lt Land on 16th September.
Moascar Sept 14th, 1917
I am so glad I received yours of 9th and that you are doing well. Pleased you got the cable ok and so you are cracking hardy eh. Hope you get better quick and get your trip home. Let me know as soon as you get anything definite. I went to Regiment on Sunday last, saw Colonel and old Tom. Doing ok, wishes to be remembered to you. (the latter I mean). No-one in here yet and C/o still the same. I don’t give a damn. There was 72PT in bank. You owed 18 from old book. Thanks very much old chap. Will write more later.
Fingering the card, he thought of Tom Fargher. He hadn’t seen him since before being transferred to the 14th AGH. So, he’s still out with the Regiment. Hopefully I’ll see him before I leave. If I leave.
A week later, another bundle of mail arrived from home. He fingered through the envelopes recognizing the handwriting of Cis and his Mother. Then his attention was drawn to an official letter bearing a military insignia. Could it be? he asked himself as he unfolded a single sheet of paper. his eyes raced back and forth across the page, the words ‘you will be invalided to Australia for ‘a six month change’ answered his question. He let the thought digest for a moment before reading on. ‘You will be discharged to the H.T. Wilshire for Australia on 12th November 1917.’
Now that his trip was assured, he wasted no time preparing for the voyage. With all the extra items he had acquired, he needed another trunk or suitcase. He searched the army kit stores with little luck. Finally, he purchased a large tin box at a tourist store for PT200. He also ordered a new pair of boots and picked up sundry items including boot polish, an electric torch, and a new pair of pajamas.
A week after receiving notification about his trip home, his freedom was curtailed. A patient in the ward was diagnosed with mumps. The ward was immediately quarantined and all patients, including William were inoculated to prevent the disease from spreading. Much to his disappointment, all outings and visitors were banned.
William wasn’t accustomed to long stretches of idleness. Now that he was incapacitated, he spent most of his time writing letters or reading books supplied by the Red Cross. With so much spare time, he found his mind wandering.
On the days he felt well enough, he quizzed the nursing staff and patients in the next beds about various subjects. He kept a notebook on his bedside locker for recording the answers to his questions and made further notes about things that piqued his curiosity. He looked forward to being able to explore the buildings that housed the hospital.
William updated his diary most days with brief notes. Some days he simply wrote, “Still in 14th AGH!” which was more an act of frustration than a record. He had just finished such an entry when he saw Colonel Wilson approach his bed.
Colonel Lachlan Wilson
“Colonel. Twice in one week,” William greeted his friend while securing the leather flap of his diary.
“Just a quick visit. Who’s the lady?” The Colonel raised his eyebrows at the vase of flowers on the bedside locker.
“Captain Handley, if you must know.”
The Colonel grinned. “Of course.”
“I haven’t been short of visitors. Lieutenant Land brought in receipts for my mess account. I need to repay Captain Robertson. He kindly paid it for me.”
“That’s jolly good of him,” the Colonel replied and pointed to the end of the bed. “May I?”
“Please,” William replied.
“So, how are you feeling?” The Colonel enquired as he sat, holding his cap on his lap.
“Better than the last time I saw you,” William admitted.
“Yes, you took a nasty turn.”
“And another the following day.”
The Colonel’s smile faded as he nodded, listening to William, noting the pallor of his face. Even his voice lacked its usual strength.
“I felt queer for most of that day. I still feel very tired.”
“Well rest while you can.”
“That is all I can do. Doctor’s orders,” William shrugged.
“Good. Listen to those who know best. Before long, you’ll be back in the saddle.” The Colonel stood to leave.
“I’m afraid I won’t be back.”
Straightening up, Colonel raised his eyebrows as William continued.
“The doctor has recommended a trip home. For six months recuperation.”
“That’s good news.”
“It is. But in some ways…” William’s voice trailed off. He hadn’t fully digested the reality of going home.
The Colonel sat down again. “Why wouldn’t it be? You’ve been away from your family since the outset.”
William nodded. “Three years is a jolly long time. Home seems so remote. There are times when I have trouble picturing the farm. Even my sons. I’m sure they’ve changed in that time.”
“At least you are returning to your wife and children.”
Both men fell quiet.
Finally, the Colonel stood. “So, have they given you a date?”
“No. Not until I’m well enough to travel.”
“Well I’ll pop in when I can.”
William watched the Colonel disappear down the long aisle of the ward. He felt a tightness in his stomach. Going home seemed like venturing into the unknown. For many who occupied beds around him, it would be a blessing. The war interrupted their normal lives. For himself, the war was an extension of himself, of his 20 plus years of training. On the positive side, he thought, “it is only for six months.”