In the Shadows of Death




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.



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.”


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)

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