Monday Musings From Behind The Writer’s Desk

writing

Dear Family, Friends and Followers

This morning I wish to remember a man who was in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment with my Great Grandfather, William Lyons.  I had read in “The History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment” about an incident on the evening of 6th June 1915 at Gallipoli, that caused the death of a Lieutenant Jack Hanly.  Due to heavy fire, his men left his body and ran back to the safety of their own trenches.

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Lt. Jack Hanly

What caught my attention about the story was that my Great Grandfather, William Lyons, led the first search party in order to retrieve Lt Hanly’s body.  They were unsuccessful due to being under attack by enemy fire and a subsequent party the following night was also unsuccessful for the same reasons.  His body was never found.

Since reading about the incident, I wondered how well William Lyons had known him, if at all.  I wasn’t even sure if he had been in the same regiment.  All I knew was that he was from the small Queensland town of Dalby and that he had also fought in the Boer War.  So the probability of the two men crossing paths previously was high.

Last week I made a discovery that brought the entire incident to life.  I discovered a blog called “War Diary”, which is a diary written by another man of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, called Jack Graham.  Lt Hanly was indeed an officer of the regiment and was one of five officers of ‘C’ Squadron, of which William Lyons was also an officer.

Sgt Jack Graham gives a very detailed account of his daily experiences and he wrote about the incident involving Lt Jack Hanly, even stating his friends last words before scrambling out of the trenches to face his fate.  My next post about William Lyons will bring the whole incident to life, however, meantime I would ask you to take a look at the following link which will take you to the Australian War Memorial Site.  Each evening, a fallen soldier is remembered and on this occasion it is Lt. Jack Hanly.

Australian War Memorial Last Post Ceremony – Lt Jack Hanly

Keep a look out in the next few weeks for my post “Jack Hanly”.

A Brief Interlude

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Dear Family, Friends and Followers

My usual weekly post about the life and times of William Lyons will be delayed as I am currently doing a writing course which is consuming my time.  However, I will endeavour to continue my Monday Musing posts.

Thank you for your patience.

Kim Chambers

 

Monday Musings From Behind The Writer’s Desk

 

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I remember the day well.  I had placed a chair beneath the shade of a tree in my backyard and settled into it with a thick wad of paper in my lap.  My cousin had given me a copy of my Great Grandfather’s War Records a year or more before which I had put aside for safe keeping.  As I leafed through the pages for the first time, reading the handwritten details, I caught sight of the two little words “Anzac Cove”.

It is with trepidation that I embark upon the Gallipoli chapter of my Great Grandfather’s story.  I can feel the anxiety rising with each word that my fingers type onto the page, attempting to recreate what transpired. Of course, there is no way of really knowing the exact details of events that changed his life forever.  There exists no diary written during his time in the Dardanelles, so I have to resort to the voices of others who lived and fought by his side.  The story is well documented, there are many diaries online as well as films on the subject.  However, as for William Lyons’ personal experience, I can only guess.

The entire exercise of sending the men to Gallipoli was disastrous to say the least.  Reporting by journalists was highly censored and what was printed in newspapers was one huge glorious lie in the name of the British Empire.  A brilliant Australian mini series was broadcast last year to coincide with the 100 years anniversary of the first landing on 25th April 1915, called “Deadline Gallipoli”.

This series is set around three journalists and a photographer sent to Gallipoli to report the proceedings, however, they were not allowed to report the truth.  Instead:

….. all 4 will face stringent freedoms under General Hamilton (Charles Dance), who vets their reportage to ensure it portrays positive news back home. There is to be “no room for personal opinion, no deviation from the facts” but “rousing reports…. to keep the home fires burning.”

When I researched the number of casualties, I was shocked. The figures of the wounded and dead in that short span of eight months was absolutely tragic.  By country, I have listed these below:

  • Britain –  21255 dead  52230 wounded
  • Australia  –  8709 dead, 19441 wounded
  • France –  10000 dead, 17000 wounded
  • New Zealand –  2779 dead, 5212 wounded
  • India –  1358 dead, 3421 wounded
  • Newfoundland –  49 dead,  93 wounded
  • Ottoman Empire –  86692 dead, 164617 wounded

The total killed:     130842

The total wounded:  262014

As I write my posts I wear the burden of history heavily on my head.  Without exact details it is difficult to write. Instead of striving to portray an absolutely accurate account, I have endeavoured to use real events to pose moral questions for you the reader to consider.  Armistice Day on 24th May 1915 was a very telling event, whereby both sides of the battle lay down arms and joined forces to bury their dead.  Whilst carrying out the grim task, they managed to offer hands of friendship, exchanged souvenirs and cigarettes, showed each other photos of family at home and in some cases, wished each other luck.  One must ask, “what was the point of it all, when so called enemies show they can be friends?”

Knowing that William Lyons was there 101 years ago, I am sure he won’t mind, along with the other players in my writings, representing the voices of the thousands of souls who endured horrific conditions at Gallipoli between April and December 1915.

 

Armistice Day, Gallipoli – 24th May 1915

 

On 24th May 1915, both sides lay down their arms in order to bury their dead. By then, thousands of dead men lay unattended beneath the hot Turkish sun.  There was no safe opportunity to bury them.

Standing amidst the quagmire of rotting flesh and black bloated forms bursting the seams of tired and dusty uniforms, William pulled his handkerchief soaked in antiseptic up over his nose.  Death was everywhere; there was no escaping it.  It clung to summer’s breath with a stench that fiercely invaded the orifices of his being.  It clouded his vision and ate away his mind like an acid bath.  He knew he could never escape the hollow gaze of several thousand dead men.  Many of them had been laying in the sun since the day of the first landing on April 25th.  The least the living could do was to give them a semblance of dignity.  “How ironic,” William thought to himself.  “That death has brought unity to both sides of this God forsaken war.”

William’s unshaven face wore the strains of the drudgery that had become his life since arriving on the Peninsula four days before.  Slowly lifting his hat with one hand, he urged his other through his short brown hair that was slicked down by layers of dirt, sweat and blood.  Replacing his hat on his head, he wound his long thin fingers around the shovel handle and began to dig the earth that would soon cover up the tragedy that has transpired.  As he witnessed the placement of bodies and body parts in the gruesome grave, he felt the tears well behind his eyes.  His military discipline kept them in check, stemming the flow.  He could not afford to drop his guard, to let his own weaknesses show.  He needed his strengths in order to survive.

Since he scrambled ashore four days before, the earth has barely stopped shaking and pounding from exploding shells.  The air has been clouded with dust, clods of earth, flying bullets and pieces of shrapnel mixed with human flesh and blood.  The turquoise waters of Anzac Cove that lured them ashore were a ruse, for this was no paradise.  They lived like rats in holes dug out of ridges and hills which they shared with the dead.  And sleep,  what is sleep?  “Surely, this is hell?” he has repeated beneath his breath like a mantra, over and over, trying to find some justification for the daily slaughter of good men.

As he continued to shift layers of Turkish soil, he caught sight of something white in the corner of his eye.  Sensing someone standing beside him, he glanced sideways to be greeted by a hand holding a crumpled cigarette packet.

“You…cigarette?” A young Turkish soldier asked William in heavily accented English.

“No, I don’t smoke.” William replied, shaking his head.

 “But thank you.” He tipped his hat to show his gratitude.

“I wish…luck,” the young soldier placed the crumpled cigarette packet back into his pocket and offered William his empty hand.

As he shook the Turkish soldier’s hand, William stared into his brown eyes for a brief moment, trying to grasp his offer of friendship.  That tiny fragment of time felt like a ray of light reaching out of the darkness.  They released their grip and the young man turned and walked away.

“Perhaps, there really is a God.” Commented a young Australian man who stood beside William, shovelling soil into the pit at a seemingly superhuman pace.

“And, you’ve had doubts?” William enquired.

“How can one not, Sir” the young man snapped back with a look that needed no reply.

“Indeed,” William said beneath his breath and continued to work the soil whilst listening to the conversations around him; the accented English; the swapping of souvenirs and photos.

“Perhaps you’re right, trooper,” he spoke.  “Is God trying to tell us something today?”

The young trooper stopped shovelling and straightened his back as he replied, “I hope the powers-that-be are listening, Sir.”

William felt an uneasy mixture of gratitude and guilt toward the enemy.  How can they treat us with kindness when it is we who have invaded their land?  Today is so surreal.  Is it just a dream?

His thoughts were interrupted by a high pitched whistle, followed by  a cacophony of shouting in both Turkish and English.  “Back to the trenches men!”  William heard amidst the chaos of thudding leather boots and clanking of shovels and picks colliding with each other in the mad scramble back over the parapet to their former positions of defence.  The feint glimmer of hope that had peered out of no man’s land began to fade into oblivion.  At 17.00 the crack of gunfire ended the armistice; the earth once more began to feverishly quake; the clear blue sky clouded over with whooshing bullets, flying shrapnel and angry fists of earth.

Monday Musings From Behind The Writer’s Desk

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This morning I would like to  pay homage to a very special group of men who are hailed as legends in Australian history books. They were the embodiment of the Australian spirit.  In the early years of colonization in Australia, a semi-military mounted police force was formed and they became known as “The Lighthorsemen”.

 

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Photo:  William Lyons’ collection.  William Lyons (cnr)

 

When the Australian colonies sent troops to South Africa in 1899 to help Britain fight the Boers, Britain was sceptical of these unprofessional colonial cavalrymen.  However, those slouch hatted, rough riding bushmen soon proved to be expert horsemen as well as top shots. Many hailed from properties in the outback and could go for long periods with little food and water.  They also showed a remarkable ability to use the rough terrain to their advantage, using its features for cover, in both attack and defence. (1)

Until then, the British had never changed their methods of fighting wars.  Losing entire regiments on the battlefield was considered a noble and glorious tradition.  However, the ingenuity of those rough and tumbled bushmen from Australia defied that tradition.  ‘When a few hundred Australians and some Rhodesians held out successfully against several thousand encircling Boers at Elands River’, (2) they commanded the attention of  British command.  This brought about change.

William Lyons was part of that change, as he was one of those Light Horseman who fiercely manoeuvred  the plains of South Africa all those years ago.  He and his fellow troopers were set apart from normal troops by their uniforms, with their jodphurs, leather leggings and spurs.

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Photo:  Light Horsemen in full gear.  (Australian War Memorial)

Queensland troopers wore emu plumes in their slouch hats.  The description below tells how the hats were worn:

 

 The hat is worn with a rakish tilt, spaced with 3 finger spaces above the left ear, 2 finger spaces above the left eye, and 1 finger space above the right eye. The puggaree is a plain khaki woollen band 1.75′ (45mm) wide.(3)

 

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Photo:  Australian War Memorial. Trooper A.C. Wooster of 2nd Light Horse, killed 2/11/1917

 

Sadly, William Lyons’ hats and emu plumes have long since disappeared, however he did keep various badges and buttons from his uniforms and below is a badge he would have worn on his hat during World War 1.

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Hat badge is the General Service badge (Rising Sun, Kings Crown) large size, and should be painted matte or satin black. (Unofficial badges worn by light horse units during WW1 are in section 9). (4)

Light Horse regiments were sent abroad at the onset of the First World War.  William Lyons was in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment which was formed predominantly from Queensland volunteers.  Whilst researching for my blog, I have been fortunate to stumble upon some diaries written by light horsemen and in particular, those from my Great Grandfather’s regiment.  Not only have they been useful for my writing, they have been a wonderful way to take a closeup view of their world.  One particular diary I found was written by trooper Jack Graham who was in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment.  His family have serialized it in a blog titled “War Diary” which they have compiled for the Centenary Commemoration of WWI.

The “War Diary” blog contains some fantastic photos of events and I know for certain  that William Lyons was lurking in the shadow of the camera lens.  He was there on the deck of the “Lutzow” whilst men were photographed disembarking at Gallipoli;  he took part in  burying the dead on armistice day 24th May 1915 as scenes were captured on film;  and maybe he knew Trooper Graham personally.  In any case, I recommend that family members take a look at the “War Diary” blog.

I will now leave the last words to Banjo Paterson who wrote this poem about the Queensland Mounted Infantry in South Africa, 1900.

lighthorse-poem

Photo:  Jenny Saxby (William Lyons’ Great Granddaughter)  found this plaque in Toowoomba recently.

 

References:

(1)  Lighthorse.org.au

(2)  Lighthorse.org.au

(3)  Lighthorse.org.au


Postscript:

In order to do justice to my Great Grandfather’s story, I will be late in posting my next blog post.  All I ask is to please be patient as it is a great weight on my shoulders writing the Gallipoli part of the story.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Egypt was a word always associated with William Lyons. When family spoke of him, he was encapsulated in two sentences:  “He was a Military Man. He fought in the Boer War and in Egypt during World War One!”

On the surface, that statement didn’t tell me very much, but once I began to dig through the mountains of memorabilia stored behind the old cupboard doors, I realized it said it all.  It became apparent to me that Egypt had an immense impact on my Great Grandfather’s life.  The shelves were overflowing with books, vases carved with hieroglyphics, textiles and postcards purchased during his stay in the land of the Pharoahs.  For me, wandering from shelf to shelf was like being on an archaeological dig in favourite land of antiquity.

It was always my dream to visit Egypt; to see the great pyramids with my own eyes; to visit the tomb of Tutankhamun, the subject of my semester of archaeology during my senior year at school.  Finally in 1988 I succumbed to my most precious dream and visited the great land and it didn’t disappoint.  As I stood before the Sphinx and the great pyramids of Giza, I had no idea that my Great Grandfather had stood on the very spot 70 years before. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to talk to him about what I’d seen, knowing that he would totally understand my excitement and awe at the monuments that I saw.

During my wanderings one day I stumbled upon a seemingly insignificant booklet, called “What To Know In Egypt”, which I souvenired for myself. Yes I did feel a slight twinge of guilt for stealing a piece of antiquity from my Great Grandfather’s things, but the word Egypt urged my hand, over which I had no say.

Now it wasn’t until 20 years later that I realized the significance of that book. Last year I was part of a project conducted by the Townsville City Library about local World War One veterans.  When I sorted through my collection of memorabilia, I came across that booklet and noticed it was written by C.E.W. Bean.

For those of you who are not aware, Charles Bean was the war correspondent sent to Gallipoli on behalf of the Australian Government.  He played a major role in the real facts getting past sensors as to the dire situation at Gallipoli.  So to hold this little piece of history in my hands was quite sobering.  He had compiled it in 1915 as a guide for Australian Soldiers in Egypt and any profits from its sales were given to the Red Cross.

Sadly, being over one hundred years old, it is frail and coming apart, but I will gladly share some of its pages with you.  Please click on the link below.

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Note on the pages of the above link, the special visiting rights for soldiers wanting to visit the Cairo Museum and the page dedicated to the Mohamedan Religion.  If one didn’t know better, it could be mistaken it for a tourist holiday guide.

The Words That Beckon Me

The secrets are in the words.  Littering the shelves and boxes of those old cupboards, they beckoned me to take another step; they aroused my curiosity; they pleaded with me to turn that key and to enter that inner sanctuary.

Venturing cautiously back through the corridors of time, I followed the trail of words that William left behind.  His love of words was evident.  Like a Thesaurus of clues, the trail meandered through a forest of scribblings and print that seemed totally unconnected except by the hand that created them.  Words, sentences and quotes were sprinkled on letters, cards and on the back of photographs.  His scribblings filled the margins of historical volumes and ran across the lines of notebooks.  Many were perhaps delivered as fleeting thoughts; others were pieces of history tucked away behind book covers or purse pockets so that they may never be found.  It didn’t take me long to realize that these morsels of memory were the roadmaps to his soul; they were signposts guiding me through the inner sanctum of his secret life.

Yes, the secrets are in the words.  Everyone’s life can be reduced to the sum of words and as I listened to the words of William Lyons tell their story, I noted an edge to their voice.  Were they warning me to beware of discovering things that might be too difficult to bear?  If they were, I didn’t listen, I didn’t care.  There was no stopping me now that I had come this far.  So, I eagerly followed the trail like a hound on a hunt, trying to decipher pictures and thoughts that were seemingly abstract.  I tried to fill in the gaps where words remained unsaid.  Perhaps it is those unspoken words that were most telling of all.

There were words that William could not share with his family, in the fear they would not understand. How could he truly express himself when there are no adequate words to explain?  So, he walked alone in a world that he could not share.  He kept it under lock and key, away from his family and away from himself to save his sanity.  After-all, he needed no reminders of the past.  But as time passed, the occasional word escaped; leading me to discover the secret world within.

As I crossed the threshold of that inner sanctuary, I knew there was no turning back.  When the word “Gallipoli” glared up at me from a page, I eagerly devoured the page from beginning to end.

 ‘The Lutzow has become shabby,’ I read. ‘ from ferrying so many men to Gallipoli.  She was crammed to the gunwales for this latest voyage….there were 106 officers and 2250 men aboard as well as the ship’s company…” (1)

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The Lutzow

The words began pulling me into a deep dark hole, as I found myself sitting beside William on the ship’s crowded floor.  My eyes scanned back and forth, the words churned around and around as I sensed the collective fear of 2356 men. I wanted to jump ship, knowing what the future holds.  I felt the urge to console the poor beggars, whose fate I already knew, by shouting “everything will be okay”, but I knew that was not true.   With the knowledge that history cannot be rewritten, I sat helplessly watching my fellow passengers whiling away the hours, trying to keep the unthinkable at bay. The discord of voices chatting; nerves rattling, motors humming and the ocean waves thumping against the steel hull of the ship filled the long dark void of night.  And even well after many succumbed to sleep, the grinding of metal against stone growled like howling wolves in the background as bayonets were preparing for war.

 I finally drifted off, leaving the grinding of bayonets fade into history and found myself riding another tsunami of words. The deep base notes of exploding rockets, the staccato of rifle shots, were all players in the sound and light show of rockets and star shells lighting up the skies.(2)  The night of 18th May, Cape Helles, Gallipoli was an awesome sight and the bombings and gunfire argued explosively for the entire next day.

I stood beside William on the open deck watching the rallying of bombs and gunfire on the shoreline in awe, knowing we were safely well away from it all.  He borrowed a pair of field glasses in order to take a closer look at the proceedings and I detected a grin on his face as I too could feel the excitement of all those on board.  At last they have been relieved of the boredom they had experienced during the preceding weeks of waiting for war.  He passed the glasses to me which I eagerly received, and could not believe my eyes as I watched several by-planes taking off into the sky.  It was amazing to witness the height of technology at a time that is now history.

The words were now rushing towards me at a nervous pace, as I raced along the shelves, eager to read more about the fate of those men.   Storm clouds gathered on the yellow brown pages of another book.  I found myself jammed between khaki clad men riding the stormy ocean waves in a trawler named the Claxton.(3) Gripped by the fear of being visible to the enemy, I shuddered and winced at the whooshing of bullets and shrapnel that whizzed around us at lightning speed, hitting the sea and spraying us with water and fear.  Was my fear my reward for turning the key?  I had so eagerly succumbed to temptation as I entered William’s world.  Now I was not so sure and longed to turn back. But there was no time for that as Anzac Cove was looming ahead.  All I could do was sit and watch history replay like an old movie on Anzac Day.

I felt deeply saddened, knowing that William had no choice as he sat with his pack on his back and a rifle in his hand, awaiting orders to go ashore.  I grabbed his arm and whispered, “Good luck Great Grandfather,” not wanting to let him go, knowing that he was about to enter the depths of hell.  He looked at me with a furrowed brow, as if he could detect the desperation in my voice and eyes.  He quietly replied, “Don’t worry about me dear, what will be will be.”

I watched William jump up from his seat, scramble overboard and wade through the shallow waters amidst a storm of assailing bullets.  The edge of the shore became a moving mass of uniformed men as I watched my Great Grandfather disappear amongst them.  I then turned my back on the past, knowing that fate had his own purpose for steering his life along that horrific path.

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A landing at Gallipoli 1915 – Photo:  royalmunsterfusiliers.org

 There are no words to adequately explain my experience of walking in my Great Grandfather’s shoes.  When I crossed the threshold of his secret world, I ignored the warnings and cryptic clues, I misunderstood the signposts that lit the path as I blindly searched for the truth. For now, I am so relieved that I can return from the past and once more close the doors of the cupboards that conceal the secrets of his life.

 Reference:

  1. The Price of Valour by John Hamilton (P. 91)
  2. The Price of Valour by John Hamilton (P. 92)
  3. The History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment. (Ch.2)

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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In today’s musing, I would like to share a little of my writer’s life.  Some weeks the ideas flow like a flooded stream and others, the creek bed is dry and parched with not a word in sight.  Many factors play a part in the keeping the wheels of ideas rolling.  This week was a case of being over tired and unprepared.

I initially made the decision to rattle out a pure narrative on my computer keyboard which would not require much creative thought; just the facts lifted from history books. It was intended to be an interlude of relief from the ongoing story where William Lyons is acting out history in the here and now.   It was to be the vehicle to move the story along; to take the reader to the next major chapter in William’s military life.  After-all, that niggling feeling of walking the fine line that borders fact with fiction, was playing out loud in my head; my conscience was screaming “stick to the facts!”  Of course I do not know what really happened in his everyday life in Egypt, and nor do the living relatives who knew him.  But, of course, my mind never stops churning ideas, and a voice in the back of my head was telling me that William is purely the messenger I use to convey a point of view.  Through his thoughts and actions on the page, I try to find some meaning to the horrific events that transpired. 

Leading up to my writing the post I became engrossed in feeding my brain with facts about the Australian Light Horse in Egypt in 1915.  Recently I have acquired some seriously informative books and diaries on the subject.  I have also been given two very large coffee books about Ancient Egyptian Art and Culture.  Reading the latter, I realized the irony of the Australian camps of Mena and Maadi sitting beneath the looming shadows of the great pyramids of Giza, ancient reminders of death.  When I read about the ancient Egyptian Gods, I thought to myself about the powerful force of fate.  I do not believe in co-incidences; things happen for a purpose.  Regardless of the myriads of ideas sweeping through my brain like the winds of the Egyptian desert, I still had no idea how I’d piece the puzzle together.

Inspiration was what I needed and it was in short supply.  So, I decided to go out to a shopping centre with my notebook and pen and see what a good cup of coffee could do to release words, thoughts and ideas from the deep crevices of my sub conscience.  My first stop was a book shop, my usual place of worship.  Often when stuck for words, opening a book at a random page will lift the fog.  Scanning the spines of varying colour and titles arranged on the shelf, a Bryce Courtney novel caught my attention.  He was an Australian Writer of remarkable talent for storytelling. Immediately as my eyes shifted across the open page, I read a paragraph about a man wiping sand off his khaki shorts.  That was all I needed to open the flood gates of my mind; to urge me to buy that coffee, open my notebook and let my pen talk.

 As my pen filled the pages of my notebook, I could hear William Lyons’ voice talking to me .  I knew for certain that he was a thinker and that the hot Egyptian desert would have given him a thirst for facts and figures, and things that in 1915 could not be explained.  I have gleaned from his diary and the artefacts he brought home at the end of the war, that he was fascinated by Egyptian culture, architecture and art.  Lastly, I have stood in his footsteps at the base of the almighty Pyramid of Cheops, mesmerised by the magnificent creation by ancient man.   It was an awe-inspiring experience that left me with questions about the capabilities of mankind.  How could man, who is capable of creating places of such beauty and perfection, destroy life on an equally massive scale? 

Once again I welcomed William Lyons back to the page as I knew that I needed someone there in the field to bring the story to life; to create a thought evoking experience for the reader.  Of course we are all familiar with the facts of the war, but by creating conversation, we might be able to give history an extra dimension.   So yes, once more I erred on the side of fiction, but only in the small details. My Great Grandfather was actually there in Egypt in 1915 living in the ominous shadows of the Pyramids.  I’m sure he won’t mind being my voice in his own story.

In the Shadows of Death

 

 

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Australian Camp at Mena, Egypt, WWI

 

William brushed his hands together to free them of fine grains of sand.  The tiny desert grains still glistened on the hairs of his suntanned arms and legs; it hid in the creases of his khaki shirt and shorts; there was no getting rid of it. Since the beginning of time it has witnessed the coming and goings in this ancient land.  It has been the silent keeper of secrets.  It knows the answers to the questions that still puzzle mankind.  It has watched armies of men for thousands of years toil beneath the watchful gaze of Ra, the Sun God; the protector of all creation.  The sands of the desert have witnessed the elaborate ancient rituals of assisting the dearly departed into the afterlife.  Soon, it will see death again, perhaps without the grandiose ceremonious expectations of our ancient counterparts, but all the same, ceremonies will take place to farewell the dead.

 

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Australian soldiers at Giza 10/1/1915 – Photo: Australian War Memorial

 

 The chaos around him was no ordinary scene of tourists vying for a closer look at the wonders of the world.  This was the year 1915, a time prior to travel being commonplace. These foreign visitors were driven by a mission; an urgency pervaded their consciousness as if there would be no tomorrow.  As William joined the teeming scene of khaki that swarmed the base of the pyramids like anxious flies, he took a moment to absorb the sheer magnificence and perfection that the Pharoah’s architects created.  He held his felt hat in place as he leaned his head back, allowing the edge of the pyramid wall to guide his eyes to the heavens above. Mesmerised for a moment by the sheer scale of the world’s largest manmade construction, his thoughts were interrupted by conversations around him.  Distinctively Australian, the voices could be heard above the hawkers trying to peddle their wares; beggars crying “baksheesh”; guides delivering elaborate accounts of history and camels snorting and spitting onto the hot sands as they carried uniformed men on their backs.

“Those bloody Gypos!”  Said one young trooper to his friend.  “They are nothing but thieves!”

Alarmed by the the young man’s outburst, William sidled up to the group and lowered his voice to be barely audible.

“Young man, have some respect.  Remember, as much as they may seem annoying, we are guests in their land.”

“But Sir,” the young trooper objected.  “They are thieves!”

“I know….I know son.  But take my advice and just be vigilant.  Try to stay out of trouble. We will be leaving Egypt soon.”

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William could not blame these men for speaking out of turn, for their opinions, he shared as well.  They were all tired of a culture that differed so much to their own.  They were weary of the unknown.  From the day they arrived in Egypt, they have all worked hard, honing the necessary skills required by a light horseman on the battlefield.  They have watered the dry hot desert with the sweat of their labours and on the other hand they have imparted each nervous breath on the dubious women of Cairo’s brothels as if each might be their last. The risks of temptation have not deterred men who are desperate to fit a lifetime of experiences in a few days, weeks or months; whatever time they have left.

William bid the group goodbye and squeezed past in an endeavour to climb to a higher spot on the Pyramid wall.  Once he reached a vantage point where he could look down upon the swirling current of army green below, he stopped to enjoy the quiet.  The noise and chaos were carried away by the desert winds.  Embracing the solitude, he watched the shifting layers of the desert floor, the constant sweeping of dunes; it was a world on the move; unpredictable like quicksand.

Perhaps it was the ancient Serpent God of Chaos slithering beneath the earth, waiting for the lowering of the sun before inflicting unrest.  William had already sensed these vibrations in the urgency the men displayed whilst hungrily devouring the ancient sights.  He had felt their tensions as they haggled for worthless souvenirs.  He had sensed their irritations and aggression as they dealt with locals.  They were strangers in a strange land, begging for change.  Most of all, William had felt the heightened mood in the preceding days; since word had finally reached the camp of the tragedy that occurred at Gallipoli on 25th April.

Surveying the other pyramids and the ruins of the funerary temple below, William stretched his view to the Australian Army camps at Mena and Maadi beyond.  He thought it ironic that the two camps stood in the shadows of the world’s largest testament to death and the afterlife.  Fate was a curious thing.  Sitting on the gigantic stone of the great pyramid of Cheops, he felt empowered by its maker and the magnitude of the dark world that it represented.  Why would man build something so monumental to celebrate death?  Surely, it is life that should be celebrated, not death!

The afternoon sun began to lower its gaze and William felt the evening chill bite at his bare skin.  As he stood, he stretched his arms and legs whilst allowing his mind to fill with lasting memories of the amazing view around him as it succumbed to the dying day.  He began his descent, carefully scrambling to the bottom of the pyramid, where he joined the procession of men in khaki making their way back to camp.

Behind them, the great pyramids now stood like imposing black omens against an angry orange sky.  William stayed focused on the road ahead,  placing one foot after the other, refusing to answer the beckoning call of Giza.  He now had no time for distractions; not now that the Light Horse have been given orders to dismount and ship out to Gallipoli.

Reference Books:

  1. Egypt – The World of the Pharoahs, edited by Regine Schulz and Matthias Swidel.
  2. The Price of Valour – by John Hamilton
  3. The Australian Light Horse – by Roland Perry
  4. What to Know in Egypt – by C.E.W. Bean (1915)