The Valley of the Kings

William’s immediate impression of the valley floor was one of disappointment. Compared to the massive scale of the great pyramids of Giza, the barren landscape was underwhelming.  There was nothing visible that marked the area as a special burial ground for ancient Pharaohs.

The men dismounted their donkeys and led them down a track to the valley floor. They followed a sandy road mapped out by rocky retaining walls supporting mounds of loose gravel and stone.  William thought that perhaps they were the product of past excavations.  The dugout entrances of the tombs were marked with coded signs.  They followed the guide to a sign that read ‘K35’ and stopped at the top of a rough flight of stony steps leading down to a wooden doorway.

“This is the tomb of Amenophis II,” the guide announced. “This tomb is very special because the pharaoh’s mummy is still in the burial chamber.  You will see him today.”

Although curious at the prospect of seeing a real Egyptian mummy, William felt a grip of apprehension.  The guide told them that nine mummies were discovered in the tomb, but only Amenophis II remained.  William enquired why.

“Because the tomb was originally intended for him,” the guide answered.

Tomb of Amenophis II 1917

Photo:  Soldier and guide at the Entrance of Tomb of Amenophus II, taken n 1917.

Tethering the donkeys, the men followed the guide through the wooden doorway, into a cavernous stairway illuminated by a single electric light bulb.  Placing his hands on the cool walls, William steadied his footing as he descended through the dim capsule of stone. The musty space echoed with the muffled voices of a group ahead of them, but for the most part William and his friends remained quiet.  Concentration assisted them down the uneven stone steps and sloping corridors that led them deep beneath the valley floor.

Entering a series of small, empty rooms, they took a 90-degree left-turn and descended another flight of stairs.  The gloomy, unadorned stairs and corridors in no way prepared the men for what awaited them.

“Goodness,” William finally found his voice, as he brushed his fingers back through his cropped hair.  “I didn’t’ expect this at all.”

“Astounding,” Stephenson’s eyes were wide and smiling.  Barr remained quiet, but his facial expression gave away his thoughts.

Once the three travelers recovered from their initial surprise, they moved slowly around the space.  Each step represented a new discovery:  the six ornate pillars, the ceiling  painted like a night blue sky shining with gold stars, the intricate border frescoes that ran around the top and bottom edges of the walls, and the detailed depictions of the pharaoh’s daily life.  The room, in its entirety,  stole the men’s undivided attention along with their voices.  What was there to say?  No words could adequately describe the vision before them.

Silently, they neared a rail that blocked the far end of the six pillars.  Squeezing into a space beside another group of visitors, they were taken aback as their eyes focused on the sunken floor below.

Their guide joined them at the rail and whispered, “This is the mummy of Amenophis II.”  His voice bounced softly off the walls.


Mummy of Amenophus II.  Photo:  Dept. of Egyptian Antiquities

William stared at the blackened face of the Pharaoh. He appeared well preserved, despite the thousands of years that had passed since his death.  Suddenly, William felt a twinge of uneasiness in the presence of the dead king.  Perhaps, because death has marred much the past two years.  Listening to the guide’s spiel, he thought about the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the pharaoh’s death;  the years of preparation prior to him taking his final breath and the splendour of his final resting place.  Somehow, it seemed obscene, compared to the hastily dug graves and quick burials of fallen comrades on the battlefields.  He was relieved when they began to ascend to the surface, to the land of the living.


That evening, before going to bed, William tried to digest the events of the long and tiring day.  They visited several tombs and ruins, before making the return trip to Luxor by donkey.  Although he knew that words could not paint a true picture of what they saw or experienced, he continued his letter to Cis.

This morning at 0330 hours, we crossed in a boat to the West bank and put in a long interesting day.  Rode donkeys to a lot of ruins, thence about five miles through a barren gorge to the Tombs of the Kings.  Some of these are lit with electric lights, but if a party wishes to do the trip in style, they can have them all brilliantly lit by giving notice the day previous and paying £E2. 

The natives run alongside pestering one to buy antiques, scarabs, beads – also the hands and feet of Mummies.  The whole of the hills are honeycombed with tombs of minor folk and from these came the hands and feet…… 

Folding the unfinished letter once again, he placed it in his kitbag and grabbed a window faced envelope he had kept from the telegraph office and sat it on the writing table.  Then he retrieved a small pile of blackened wheat grains from a tied handkerchief and placed them, with great care, in the envelope, before sealing it shut.  Fingering the envelope, his thoughts were filled with stories of an archaeologist called Howard Carter who had discovered several royal tombs.  That afternoon, they saw his house which had stood empty, high on the cliff top, since the onset of war.  The war had halted his search for the tomb of the boy King, Tutankhamun.  William smiled to himself, knowing, first hand, the thrill of discovery.  He had found his own little treasure in a tomb that afternoon.




Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk


Yes, I know you are watching over me, Great Grandfather.  Why else do tiny crumbs of information or thoughts end up in my hands?  I don’t really believe in coincidences any more as they occur too often, and just at the right moment in time.   My little psychic moments are usually an extension of my thoughts, or appear when something needs to verified.  It is almost as if you are answering the questions that whirl around in my mind.

In writing my current post about Great Grandfather’s trip up the Nile, I have actually written much of the piece through my own eyes.  He wrote in his letter that he rode to the Valley of the Kings on the back of a donkey, which is exactly how I saw the famous royal burial grounds in 1988.  Although 70 years passed between the visits, I am sure that nothing much had changed in that time.  Except for the line of tourist buses that greeted us on our arrival, that is.

My group crossed the Nile in a boat at 3.00am and on the other side we walked to our guide’s shop where we were issued with donkeys.  William didn’t mention what time he began this journey, however, he did make the crossing by boat.  In order to put in a day at the Valley of the Kings, it is very possible he was an early starter as well.  The desert can be very hot during the day, even during the cooler months, therefore the purpose of an early morning ride was not just to enjoy the sunrise.

Our guide gave us instructions for the donkeys; the word “hoosh” meant stop or slow down.  My donkey was extremely hard-mouthed and no amount of pulling on the reins or hooshing had any positive effect on the beast.  Before we rode too far, I swapped my donkey with that of our guide.  He didn’t want to go anywhere.  That made for an interesting ride.  On our return, I was given my original donkey and at one point in the journey, when we rode along a gazetted road, it almost dragged me under a trailer with logs protruding from its tray.  That was scary to say the least.  My point is that I have written my own experience into William’s story.  I am sure that he managed his donkey better than I did, being an experienced horseman.  Perhaps my version of the event will put a smile on his face.

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The Writer is on the right.


Photo taken by the Writer in December 1988.

When reading William’s account of the day, I realized how similar our experiences were.  His mention of the hawkers, who were trying to sell beads, scarabs and mummified body parts, made me laugh.  I had the same experience;  they appeared from nowhere.  At the time, I wished that I had a can of insect repellent to ‘get rid of the pests’.  Thank goodness, I didn’t see any body parts.  This memory brings me to a little discovery I made only yesterday.  I found an old postcard album and the following card fell from a page.  You will note William’s handwritten inscription, which I have included in my story as dialogue.  He obviously wanted to have his say.



Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

I hope you are enjoying William’s interlude away from the war.  I am certainly finding the task of writing about this period a breath of fresh air.  Having the details of his trip up the Nile recorded, in his own words, has assisted me greatly.  Oft I find myself, as other family historian’s have also, enhancing the known facts with one’s imagination.  In this case, William has provided me with the backbone of his story.

Before I give you pages 2 and 3 of his letter to read, I must share my latest find.  Those old cupboards, that sat untouched for many decades, were the keepers of countless secrets and treasures which seem to keep materializing out of thin air.  When I interviewed my Dad’s cousin John a while ago, he asked whether I had found a small glass bottle containing black wheat.  I hadn’t, although his comment sparked my curiosity as I had been through Great Grandfather’s belongings with a fine tooth comb, over and over.  “My Grandfather told me, the wheat came from an Egyptian tomb,” John said.

Only a matter of weeks after my conversation with John, I discovered Great Grandfather’s war trunk which contained more unseen treasure.  Flipping through a box of letters etc, I found a window faced envelope bearing Egyptian writing.  Inside was a blackened head of wheat.  You can imagine my excitement as I indeed assumed that was what John was talking about.   Well, the contents of the envelope may have hailed from a tomb, but last week, I made another discovery.

Whilst cleaning out my old craft room, I happened upon a small glass vial that I knew came from behind the old cupboard doors.  The contents looked like small pieces of mineral, like black coal, and the glass was coated with black dust.  Upon a closer inspection I noticed the shape of the grains resembled wheat.  Removing the cork stopper, I soon realized the treasure I held in my hands.  I had found Great Grandfather’s stash, he had souvenired from a tomb;  wheat that is possibly several thousand years old.


Wheat taken from an Egyptian tomb by William Lyons

No doubt this wheat was stored for a King’s or his servant’s enjoyment in the afterlife.  I must say thanks to Great Grandfather for providing me with such enjoyment in his own afterlife.  By sharing these finds, I hope to give his extended family some joy as well.

Below are pages 2 and 3 of his letter about his Trip up the Nile.  Please enjoy.





Riding to the Tombs of the Kings

“Hoosh!  Hoosh!  Hooosh!”

The words broke the silence of the street, as the three soldiers struggled to handle their  donkeys behind that of their guide.  Leaving behind, the dim glow of the single lantern that illuminated the front of the Guide’s shop, the little group clippity clopped to the outer edge of town.

William’s donkey was hard-mouthed and cantankerous.  “Hoosh!” his hushed instructions had no effect on the animal that insisted on a trotting pace; it had no brakes.  He braced himself for a bumpy ride.  Stevenson and Barr were issued with donkeys that were equally uncooperative.  One was overly eager, like William’s, and the other took forever to get going.  The guide pulled it by the reins and it began to plod along and stop again.  Finally, with a whip of a stick, it began to walk at a slow, even pace.

“Whose idea was this?” William laughed aloud, his voice echoing as he bounded down the empty street.  He was accustomed to better trained steeds.

“Hope the sunrise is worth the effort,” someone commented.  Following their guide, they were a shadowy moonlit procession. It was only 0400 hours.

Leaving the sleeping streets of Luxor behind, they entered a grey moonscape painted with textured shadows.   A quiet fell upon the group as they awaited the first signs of the waking sun.  They were accustomed to early morning starts, however, this ride was different to their usual patrols.  They could relax, knowing that the enemy wasn’t lurking in the shadows or bushes or rocks.  However, their training was difficult to shake.  William still found himself scanning for a sign, a sound, a flicker of light.  But of course he saw nothing and kept bounding along to the discord of his donkey.

More than an hour later, the sun lifted itself curiously from the distant horizon, illuminating the shapes of flat, grey ridges in the distance and the leafy tops of sugar cane on either side of their trail.

“Will, you should feel right at home,” Stevenson called out from behind William.

“Yes, feels like I’m back in the jungle,”  William enjoyed the familiarity of the cane-fields that closed in on their little group.  As the sun rose higher, he could see the stalks and leaves more clearly.

“I only wish I knew what variety it is,” he said, wondering where he could find out.  “It looks different to what we are growing at home.  My father-in-law would be interested to know.  You know, Padda was the first to grow cane on the Haughton River.  He was instrumental in bringing it to the area.”

“He sounds like quite a man,” Lt. Barr was listening with interest.

“That, he is.”  William admired his Father-in-law, despite his forceful personality.

“He doesn’t tolerate fools,” William added. “I’m sure he thinks I am a fool for enlisting.”

“Well then, we are all guilty of being fools,” Stevenson replied as he trotted alongside.

“C’mon man,” they both called back at Barr.  “You’re lagging.”

All they got was a wave, before the cane-fields opened out onto a desolate plain that was enlivened with tinges of pink from the rising sun that soon greeted them with a fireworks of  bright pink and orange.  William urged his companions’ attention to a building that blended with the orange rocky hills, but on the other hand it shone with the subdued reverence of a temple.  “Funerary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut,” their guide announced.  William nudged the guide for more details.  He made a mental note to record the answers to his questions in his notebook, when they arrived at the tombs.

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Photograph:  taken by the author in December 1988.  Funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut.

Ascending up a gravelly rise, before they knew what was happening, a flash of arms and hands holding objects blocked their path.

Shouts of “scarabs”, “antiques” and “mummies” filled their ears like buzzing flies.  William looked down at the object that one hawker proudly held in the air.  It was a mummified human hand.  Mortified by the hawker’s morbid wares, he urged his donkey, that had slowed its pace,  to continue up the rocky rise.

As they ascended to the top, the sun now painted the desolate valley before them with a yellow wash of warm colour.

“Tombs of the Kings,” their guide pointed down at a desolate valley floor, surrounded by what looked like dugout hills.  Without a tree or blade of grass, the area was  totally void of life.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Stretching my imagination back to revisit William’s trip up the Nile in 1917, I liken his story to scenes from a Agatha Christie movie, without the stress of a murder, although a death in the camp might add a great sense of mystery.  Perhaps the crash of a falling slab of stone during their visit to Karnac, could explain his ongoing problems with bad headaches.  There are endless plot possibilities, as Mrs Christie has shown viewers on numerous occasions against the backdrop of a supersized temple or an archaeological dig. Wouldn’t it wonderful for the clues to be scattered between remnants of antiquity that marked his trail.  Well, that can wait for another story; one must stick to the known facts for this one.

In bringing William’s story to life, I have worn the hat of an archaeologist myself, trying to uncover information and photos of the luxor Hotel, where the three men stayed in Luxor.  Digging around on the internet has only uncovered a few photos, although they do give an indication of how it appeared back in 1917. Of course, photos are only interesting when accompanied by a story.

The Luxor Hotel was one of the first working hotels in Luxor, and was built in 1877 by John Cook, son of the famous travel agent Thomas Cook.  Its opening coincided with some monumental archaeological discoveries; most of those exploration missions were led by the Egyptology scientist Howard Carter, who discovered the Tomb of the young Egyptian King, Tutankhamen in January 1914.  Interestingly, the war halted the digs and the tomb wasn’t uncovered until almost a decade later. (1)





Since discovering the below-mentioned website, I went for a wander through William’s forest of clues that he left for me, behind the cupboard doors.  My fingers walked through piles of cards and the like, and as if he was guiding my hands, a postcard of the Luxor Hotel appeared from nowhere.

Now that was not the only interesting artifact to make a most timely appearance.  I had also scoured thousands of images of the Temple of Karnac, looking for images of the markings left by Napoleon’s men, to no avail.  Then, out of thin air (and dust) materialized a photo taken by William himself.  The inscription on the back answered my question – the image was the one I was looking for.  I think Great Grandfather was guiding my hand, as he has done many times before.


Photo:  William Lyons’ collection.  This photo is quite small, however, by enlarging the image has brought out the feint details of paintings applied to the stone which were not visible on the snapshot itself.

Although, I sense that Great Grandfather is guiding and assisting me, I wish I could meet him, face to face.  I would love to know what he thinks about Howard Carter’s final and most impressive discovery.  Afterall, Great Grandfather visited the Tombs of the Kings, totally unaware that Tutankhamun’s treasure lay beneath his feet.



Afternoon of February 13th 1917

William felt a freedom that had eluded him, for the past two years.  Wandering between the towering columns of the Temple of Karnak, he transcended between millennia, losing himself to the engineering feats of ancient man.  Walking in the footsteps of great creators and invaders alike, he pondered a question, to which he wasn’t sure there was an answer.

 “How can it be?” he thought aloud as his vision soared skyward to the lotus capital of a giant column.

Overhearing him, Captain Stevenson enquired, “How can what be, my friend?”

“Oh, I was thinking about the mysteries of mankind,” William said wistfully, his voice trailing off as he remained in deep thought.

“Egypt is a land full of mysteries,” Captain Stevenson mused.

William looked at his friend and nodded in agreement.  “I keep asking myself how man can achieve such magnificence, and yet, he is capable of such unfathomable destruction?  Moreover, the question is: Why?”

“Good question, considering the current state of the world,” Captain Stevenson answered.  “I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid.”

All three men continued to stroll through the centre of the massive colonnade that once supported the temple roof.  Grandeur commanded their silence.  Against the bright cloudless, blue sky, the yellow sandstone structures, although worn by sand and sun, still stood as golden symbols of immense power.  William held a camera to his eye and captured the details, before they faded from memory.  He knew that he would need photographic evidence, to accompany the stories he would tell his family at home.  How else would they believe him?

More questions streamed into William’s thoughts, like a rapid current. The how, where and whys of what he saw were overwhelming.   Leaning against the base of a giant column, he unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out a small notebook and pencil.  He recorded his questions for further reference and scribbled a list of new facts he had acquired that afternoon from a local guide.

Before moving on, William, feeling parched from the dry heat, removed the cork stopper from the wool-clad water bottle that hung on a leather strap across his shoulder.  Taking a few swigs, he tasted a grittiness in his mouth.  Blasted sand! He cursed to himself.  He had learned in his two years in Egypt that sand gets into everything, even food.  It was totally unavoidable. Taking another sip, he replaced the cork and let the bottle suspend once more across his torso.  He then continued his exploration, retreating to a shaded arcade that was  guarded by a row of giant seated, human forms carved out of stone; some were still in perfect condition, others had lost their upper bodies.

The three soldiers weren’t the only visitors to the site that day, although at times they could be forgiven for believing they were.  The immensity of the temple made one feel like an ant on the desert floor.  Even voices were muffled to a murmur that buzzed softly at intervals as they wandered in and around the thick sandstone walls and monolithic columns that acted as sound barriers.  The only annoying disruption in their pleasant meanderings were the hawkers who appeared from nowhere, trying to sell their wares.

“Postcards?”  announced a hawker as he waved a fan of cards in front of William.

He stopped to take a look at the cards, he already had quite a collection to take home.

Choosing several cards that depicted the Temple,  he asked, “how much?”

The man gave William a slight bow of the head and said, “For you sir, one pound.”

William chuckled and shook his head, knowing that he was asking too much.  “I’ll pay you 1 piastres. No more.”

“Sir, my price very good price for you,” the Hawker persisted, his smile revealing a mouth full of tobacco stained teeth.

William stood his ground and the man finally relented.

Walking away with his purchase, William commented to his companions, “One could write a book about these pests.”

They all laughed and kept walking.


Postcard of Luxor Hotel from William Lyons’ collection.

After their return to the Luxor Hotel, later that afternoon, they bought coffees at the bar and ventured out onto the garden terrace.  William took a sip from his small glass, savouring the thick bittersweet concoction which he had acquired a taste for of late.  He then pulled out some folded sheets of writing paper from his pocket and placed them on the table, along with his pocket notebook and several picture postcards.  Referring to his notes, he continued the letter to Cis that he began on the train, the night before.

This afternoon, we visited the Temple of Karnak which is on the East bank of the Nile and on the outskirts of Luxor.  We took a good few snapshots, but no photo can give you a true idea of the vastness of these ruins which covered about 200 acres.  Originally, the river ran to the East of the temple, but now it is fully one and a half miles further West. It will never be able to play any of these pranks again, as the great Assuan Dam and other smaller ones higher up have complete control of the floods now.  A double row of ram-headed sphinxes ran from Karnak to a temple close to the Colossi of Memnon – only about three miles.  On one of the walls, Napoleon’s engineers have cut into the stone the latitude and longitude of the main temples, obelisks etc. – also Republique Francaise. 


Postcard from William Lyons’ collection. Ram-headed Sphinxes that run from Karnac to Colossi of Memnon.


Photo from William Lyons’ collectionInscription:  Part of Karnac Temple.  Supposed to have been destroyed by an earthquake. On first wall on right of alleyway, are inscriptions by savants of Napoleon’s Engineer Corps.



Photo from William Lyons’ collection.  Colossi of Memnon.

Looking up from his task, he enjoyed the tranquillity of the surrounding gardens and took another sip from his glass.  He felt at peace.

Fingering a postcard of the Luxor Hotel, he had bought that day,  he began writing again.

We are staying at the Luxor Hotel.  It is not much to look at, but very pleasant to stay at.  They feed you well and charge ditto.  The bar and billiard room are in one large room, detached from the main building.  The grounds are large and very pretty – all kinds of trees, shrubs and flowers, seats and even electric lights. 

In the background, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr were discussing the cost of tipping.  It was a practice that was unheard of in Australia, and a topic that had regularly found its way into their conversations.  Smiling to himself, William continued to write.

The tipping system, for which they say the wealthy Americans (in pre-war days) are to blame, is the only fly in the cream.  It makes me shudder now, to think of what it has cost me for this trip.  Could almost fill a page in connection with the pests. Being an officer and a gentleman (?), one cannot deal with them as they feel inclined to do. 

Folding the unfinished letter and placing it back in his pocket, along with his pencil, William settled back in his cane chair and watched the dying sun bathe the garden with golden cheer.  Stirring the thick brown sediment that sat at the bottom of his glass, he raised it and urged his companions to follow suit.

“Cheers, chaps,” he announced, with a glint of humour in his eyes. “Here’s to tomorrow’s ride to the Tombs of the Kings.”

Monday Musings from The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

Having already tasted the beginning of William’s trip up the Nile, I would like to share with you, the letter that inspired the piece and the next few installments.  First, I would like to tell you how I happened upon this wonderful piece of history.

As I have mentioned previously, the process of discovery has stretched over decades, and each morsel of the past, however minute, has lit up my eyes with a sense of appreciation and wonderment.  Like the treasures of the tombs of Egypt, the details and treasures of Great Grandfather’s past, sat in dark and dusty rooms, awaiting for the right beam of light to highlight their significance.

The day was a Sunday and I was taking on the role of custodian over the contents of the old cupboards.  No longer safe from harm’s way, the doors were open to the vermin that had taken over my Grandparents’ empty house.  To save our family history from disappearing altogether, I gathered up the boxes and crates and loaded them into my car to take home.  Before I did, however, I sat and took a random look through letters and cards, which I am sure I had fingered many times over.

I  opened a photo packet to find a bundle of black and white snaps, wrapped in a receipt from the shop in Cairo where they were printed.  Fingering through the photos, I was mesmerized by images of Egyptian monuments and temples taken almost a century before.  Of course, I knew that Great Grandfather had taken them, but I was not aware of the full story.

By then, I was acquainted with Great Grandfather’s habit of tucking pieces of folded paper containing notes, mud maps of battles or random words, in pockets of his diary or inside the cover of books.  Checking the pockets of the photo packet  I found an envelope marked in his handwriting “Trip up the Nile”.  Of course, my curiosity nudged my hand to open the envelope and to pull out a thick wad of folded paper.  It was an eight page account of that trip, written in February 1917.


I don’t need to tell you how excited I was upon finding this treasure.  I subsequently discovered that various family members already possessed a typewritten copy of that letter.  However, nothing can can compare with the original tome, written by Great Grandfather’s hand.  Today, I will share with you page one of that letter.  Please click on the link below and sit back and enjoy the read.


Trip Up The Nile – Leaving Cairo

February 14th, 1917

William and his companions, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr, alighted from Cairo’s Bab El-Louk Station at 1700.  Brushed by cool, late afternoon air, they enjoyed the short walk down Rue Bostane to where it met Suliman Pasha Street.  Turning right, they could see the National Hotel, beaming like a glimmer of hope against the fading light.  For the three travellers, who lived in a desolate town of tents and dust, her refined beauty added bounce to their army boots.

The National was not as luxurious as other popular establishments, however, it was still aglow with a certain colonial glamour that attracted a decent clientele.  More pretentious hotels, like the Shepheard or the Savoy, upheld a formal dress code for evening diners.  The National, on the other hand, relaxed her standards and became favoured by military personnel, colonial civil servants and nurses. [1]

The men paused, their eyes ran up and down the five storeyed façade, and caressed the curves of the minaret styled towers, that guarded each corner. Row after row of green shuttered windows peered seductively back at them through delicate lace iron balconies.  Surrendering to their desires, to enjoy  pre-dinner drinks, they strode between the two columns that flanked the entrance.


Two hours later, the men were finishing their dinner in The St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room. [2]

William glanced down at his wrist watch, not wanting to miss their train .

“Chaps, it’s 1900,” he reminded the others, knowing their train for Luxor was departing at 2000.

The others nodded, but made no effort to leave. Nor did William. After-all, they still had an hour.  Oblivious to the chiming of silver on china, and the indecipherable chatter of fellow diners, William leaned back against his chair, savouring that satisfying moment when one has had his fill of hearty, home cooked food.  His potage and pom frits [3] were better than anything the mess had ever served. Washing the remnants down with his last dribble of beer, he felt complete and renewed.  Driven by thoughts of the wealthy adventurers, who filled the restaurant before the war, he suggested to his companions they should make a move.

The three travelers collected their great coats and kit bags from the cloak counter.  Slinging their bags over their shoulders, their boots quietly padded across the exotic rugs that softened the tiled floor of the reception hall.  A steady flow of military personnel ebbed in and out of the room.  Small groups stood, discussing the current state of the war.  Others sunk into rattan chairs, that sat plump and content, beneath potted palms. Cigarette smoke rose curiously through their stringy fronds.

The patrons of the National, like elsewhere in Cairo, were transients, seeking some form of enlightenment.  Whether they were soldiers yearning for an evening of hope and normalcy, or visitors wishing to embrace a lost past;  they all wanted some of the Egypt’s magic.  And, William was no different. He sought to satisfy the cravings of his curious mind.

Gazing wondrously at his surroundings, he explored the elaborately patterned frescos that washed the walls and high ceilings in soft shades of blue, russet and gold.  He studied the details of photographs of antiquity, and  urns, adorned with hieroglyphics.

As if reading William’s mind, Captain Stevenson commented, “The hotels of Cairo are certainly splendid.”

“My word,” William replied with a chuckle, “nothing like hotels at home.”

“And this is not as grand as some,” Piped in Lieutenant Barr.  “The Shepheard is a palace.”

“Indeed!” William had seen the Shepheard first hand.

Shepheards Hotel Cairo

Photo: Pinterest Shepheard Hotel, Cairo

Evidence of the country’s incredible history was everywhere.  A large, framed photograph of the Sphinx reminded William of a fact he had gleaned from Charles Bean’s guide “What to Know in Egypt”. [4]

“He’s a portrait of Kephren, the Pharaoh who built the second pyramid.” William informed the others, not out of a desire to impress, but rather, out of his fascination for Egyptian history.

“The head of a king on the body of a lion,” he mused.

Facts, no matter how small and obscure, were like food to William’s soul.  He knew that the magic of Egypt would normally be out of reach for a sugar cane farmer from the Haughton River. The war had given him access to a fascinating world, although, he conceded, it came at an enormous cost, for both himself and his family.

Upon approaching the front entrance, the glass door was opened by the hotel footman.  Looking splendid in a long black western style jacket that fell to just above the ankles, he greeted them in perfect English.

“Good bye Gentlemen,” He said, with a slight bow to his head.  His maroon tarboosh was firmly anchored to his short black curly hair, allowing a black tassel to swing freely to one side.

“Salam”, William replied in Arabic.  The doorman’s brown face softened into a white toothy grin and another off centred bow.

The three men re-emerged onto Suleyman Pasta Street, as a tram squealed to a stop in front of the hotel. Hurriedly, they hauled their kit bags through the passing foot traffic, stepped onto the rear of the tram and settled into seats inside.

As the carriage clanged forward, the fresh evening breeze brushed William’s face, through the open windows, with the aromas of spicy street food and warm soothing coffee. Flushed from alcohol, he felt alive and free.  The streets were moving with a fascinating mix of people who hailed from ancient times.  Although, the reminders were there.  They were like an infinite thread, woven through the city’s fabric.  He could never truly escape the reason he was in Egypt.  Closing his eyes he thought about the next four days, away from it all.



  1. The National Hotel – Cairo
  2. St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room –  The restaurant at the National Hotel, Cairo.  I have a receipt that William kept from this restaurant.
  3. Pottage and pomfret – A meat and vegetable stew and French fries, listed on the abovementioned invoice.
  4.  What to Know in Egypt – A guide written for Australian soldiers in 1915 by War historian, Charles Bean. I found a copy in William’s belongings. He purchased a copy for 1 piastre.

New Beginnings

223002 HarveyNorman

William Lyons (right)

William began 1917 with a feeling of certainty that had evaded him for the past two  years. His promotion to Captain in the preceding November and his new role as Commander of ‘A’ Squadron of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment were good reasons for his renewed confidence.  Stationed at the Moascar training camp near Ismailia on the Suez Canal, he felt as certain as one could in the circumstances, that his new role and home would be permanent for the remainder of the war.

On the morning of January 25th , William sat at his desk eager to commence opening a bundle of mail from home.  Due to the delays in the mail service between Australia and Egypt, he was accustomed to receiving several letters, written weeks apart by the same hand.  On that day, he received two letters from Mater and three from Cis.

Starting with the largest envelope from Cis, he tore it open and pulled out a letter wrapped around a small pocket diary.  Opening the diary’s dark green leather cover, he swelled with pride as he read the inscription written in the neat copy book hand of a child.

 “To dear dada from the boys,” it said.  “Wishing him a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.”


Lifting the small book to his face, he inhaled the new leather, trying to extract memories of home, of his four sons.  He then opened it flat on his desk top and, using the tiny pencil that was tucked inside, he wrote:

Capt. W.M. Lyons,

5th L.H.Regiment A.I.F.


Followed by:

Next of Kin

Wife:     Mrs Harriet Lyons

                Haughton River




Reading Cis’ letter, he could feel his stomach tighten as she told him of her troubles at home.

“Father,” she wrote.  “has not been very helpful.  I set Tom up on jobs and when I check on him later, he is nowhere to be found and the tasks are left unfinished.  When he finally shows, I discover that Father had borrowed him to work at Burwood,”

William felt helpless as Cis voiced her woes.  ‘How can her Father be so selfish? He knows she is on her own.’

Two days later, on Saturday 27th he still felt unsettled when he found time to reply to Cis.

My Dear Cis,

 I have only just finishing catching up on your news.  Reading your long letters about life in “The Jungle” is like reading a good book.  Often, as was the case this week, I receive several letters together.  I always try to read them in chronological order.  However, sometimes a letter takes longer than others to reach me, leaving a gap in the story, for which I am forced to wait. And, what a wonderful surprise to receive a Christmas present from the boys, even if it arrived a month late! Please tell them that I shall put it to good use.

 Let us hope the rains you mentioned are setting in for a good wet season.  God knows, the cane needs it.  Padda chose well when he selected ‘Burwood’ with easy access to the river.  Fontenoy, on the other hand has to rely on the grace of God.  Speaking of Padda, it worries me that he is being so thoughtless.  Cis, you really need to be firm with him, as I am sure you will be.  Perhaps Tom needs to stand up to him as well, although we both know how formidable Padda can be.  I am pleased that Nelly, at least, is staying with you to help in the dairy.  Do you think a certain young man might be an added attraction?

 Living out here at Moascar does make a man hunger for the green tropics of home.  Our camp is a town of tents that stretches mile after mile across a desolate wasteland.  The heat gave way to rain in December and now we mostly experience cold winds which sweep everything in their path with lashings of dust.  Each day brings more of the same.  Wind and dust, interspersed with showers of rain.  Often due to the bad weather, we spend our days indoors.  The mess tent at times can be quite rowdy.  I must say, anything is preferable to the heat.  Even when your tent collapses, as mine did at 0330 one morning.  You can imagine the confusion as I scrambled in the dark, trying to cover up my bedding.  I spent the remainder of the night in the Quarter Master’s tent.  I was not amused at the time, but can laugh about it now.

 Life here is never boring, there is no time for that.  There are lots of comings and goings of men in transit.  Those in the Isolation Camp only stay for two weeks.  Once they are quarantined and cleared of illnesses, they are usually sent to France.  In the case of my regiment, our men are trained as reinforcements for the Fifth Light Horse Regiment.  They are sent out to the regiment when required.  Can you guess who is in charge of our remount station?  Banjo Paterson himself.  I look forward to the day I might cross the path of the “Old Man from the Snowy River”. Now wouldn’t that be a treat, and a good story to tell the boys?  By all accounts he is an expert horseman and is doing an exemplary job of training unbroken Walers.

 My new post has been demanding of my time, arranging instruction classes for personnel, delivering lectures, among other administrative duties.  Although I do still find time for leisurely pursuits.  Last Sunday I walked into Ismailia to watch a cricket match between our regiment and the 12th.  I’m sad to say, the later won.

So, your little sister wishes to join the Nursing Corps?  I imagine Padda is not amused.  Remember his reaction when I enlisted?  Mind you, Lily is a strong-minded girl, I’m sure she can handle whatever life throws at her, including Padda’s Irish temper.  If she is intent on joining, I pray that she will be sent to Egypt rather than France. I have heard that the conditions on the Western Front are abysmal.  For her own safety, the Egyptian hospitals would be preferable.  Besides, I’d be glad of the company of a pretty face from home.

Did I tell you that I have asked for leave in February?  I am hoping to travel up the Nile River for three or four days, to see Luxor and perhaps Assuan. Two other chaps, Capt. Stevensen of the 12th and Ltn Barr of the 7th have voiced some interest in joining me.  I will tell you more once our plans are finalized.

 Do keep your chin up Cis and remember you must be firm with Padda.  I will also write him and ask that he assist you in any way he can.  Between the two of us, we might hit a sympathetic nerve behind that blustering exterior.

 Please look after yourself and tell the boys I will write to them soon.


 Folding the letter, William stared through the opening of his tent, oblivious to the winds outside stirring up a blinding fog of dust.  From the beginning of the war, his purpose seemed so clear.  He was a soldier, first and foremost.  Despite sensing Cis’ fear between the lines of her letters, he always replied with reassurances about his safety, which they both knew were just words.  How could he properly deal with her fears when he had difficulty facing his own?  Now, Padda’s actions forced him to feel the weight of his family’s burden. Or was that his intention all along?

‘But what can I do from the other side of the world?’ He thought to himself, knowing that the words of advice he had just written to his wife, were well meaning, but just words.

Please note that the letters included in this post are entirely the creation of the writer.  However, the information in them is based on facts gleaned from Will’s diary written in the year 1917, information gleaned from family and historical research.  And, yes, Banjo Paterson was indeed running the Remount Station at Moascar whilst William was posted there.  Whether they ever met is a matter for speculation, however it is entirely likely as he mentions “remounts” often in his diary.
  • Mater was William’s Mother, Mary Lyons.
  • Padda was William’s Father in Law, George Deane
  • The Jungle was William’s affectionate term for Fontenoy or home
  • Nelly, Cis’ youngest sister, and Tom Hourigan were married in 1935, although the romance was kindled many years before.
  • Lily Deane joined the Nursing Corps in 1917.


Happy New Year


2nd January 1917 – Moascar, Egypt


Dear Cis and the boys,

I wish you all, who await on the other side of the world for my safe return, a happy and safe new year.

Whilst you all bask in warmth and sunshine, spare a thought for us soldiers marooned in the cold Egyptian desert.  The Mess is rather lively today as I sit and write this note.  Everyone is favoring the warmth of indoors rather than weather the strong cold winds.  I’m not sure which I prefer – the cold winds or the lashings of sand that accompany them.

With the dawning of 1917, my life has taken a positive turn.  I was promoted to Captain in November 1916 and was subsequently offered the posting of Commanding Officer of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment, which I might add I gratefully accepted.   This regiment is a reserve regiment attached to the Fifth Light Horse.  I am looking forward to utilizing my 20 years of experience as a drill instructor.  I have been informed that this will be my posting for the remainder of the war.

My permanent home now will be our camp at Ismailia.  This is not to say that I will not ever be in harm’s way, but at least I will have a permanent base.  Mail should be received more regularly here as well.  Last year, being isolated out along the Canal, meant that I didn’t not hear from home for weeks at a time.  Now I am close to a telegraph and mail services and places to relieve the boredom on my days of leave.

Speaking of leave, I have organized with two chaps from other regiments, a trip up the Nile. Hopefully we will be allowed a few days off in February.  This country is so diverse and fascinating that it would be a shame not to see anything of it before returning home.  I have heard about an Archaeologist called Howard Carter who discovered several tombs of ancient pharaohs in what is known as the Valley of the Kings.   Apparently, he was in the process of digging for the tomb of a boy King called Tutankhamun when war broke out.  His plans were thwarted and he abandoned his dig.  We plan to visit the area, to see the tombs for ourselves.  What a sight for sand weary eyes they must be.

I also look forward to seeing areas that are cultivated with sugar cane.  I have heard that French and Belgian companies have established large mills along the Nile.  Maybe I can take home some hints for improving our crops on Fontenoy and Burwood.  Padda would be pleased.  In any case I will write to you about our adventures in due course.

Cis, I must close, so wish you and the boys a great new year.  Hopefully, you’ll enjoy a good wet season in the coming weeks.  Tis a pity I can’t bundle up some of the showers we have had today and send to Fontenoy.  If only?

I hope you are all well in my absence.



Note:  This letter wasn’t written by William Lyons, moreover I created it from factual information I have collected through my research and actual letters he wrote home.  Regarding the weather on 2nd January 1917 – this was retrieved from William’s diary entry on that date.