Every so often, during my wanderings behind the cupboard doors, I hit a bare wall or a space on a shelf. There are gaps in the story, details are missing. In those moments, I generally make the decision to fast forward the story, to the following year, or to a moment that speaks to me with an abundance of words and images.
I have learnt, however, that the details are always there, embedded in the yellowing timbers of the cupboards, watching from the open cracks in the doors. As if my Great Grandfather is watching my struggles in determining the details of his journey, I can feel his prodding finger on my shoulder. I can hear his voice telling me to take my time as the story will reveal itself when it is ready to do so. He warns me to be patient as the story will be revealed, when it is ready.
This week another such moment blocked the road of my literary challenge. For the year 1916, I had nil to tell. My original plan was to skip to 1917, however, a niggling feeling of guilt sent my fingers tapping into cyber space to discover some very interesting facts. With the assistance of my Great Grandfather’s war records I could vaguely map out his whereabouts during the year 1916. Upon reading diaries written by fellow soldiers, I can now put flesh on the bones of his story.
I discovered that Colonel Lachlan Chisholm Wilson, the commanding officer of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, had lived in Townsville for some time prior to the war and is the “Wilson” of the local law firm, Wilson Ryan & Grose. In his time spent in the area he had observed the use of spears to draw underground water for cultivation. He solved the water shortages of the desert by introducing spears and pumps in Egypt. I also discovered that Col. Wilson had fought in the Boer War and wondered whether he and my Great Grandfather were acquainted. I re-read his diary and discovered that not only were they acquainted, but it appears that they were friends. Several entries in 1917 mention Col. Wilson visiting him in hospital.
My Great Grandfather was given the position of “Transport Officer” during March 1916 where he was stationed at Serapeum, on the banks of the Suez Canal . I had no idea what the job entailed until I discovered some government documents that detail what was involved in transporting a regiment and their equipment to a post. I found similar hand written records he kept from his time as a Drill Instructor on the Darling Downs. I have ledgers, detailing the equipment needed on an exercise, including quantities and costs. Now I understand why he acquired the position. He had a penchant for detail and obviously he possessed the necessary capabilities. So, perhaps he was involved in the purchasing and transportation of the spears and pumps. The British refused to pay for them, so they were purchased using Australian regimental funds. Also, being a farmer himself, he no doubt had the necessary experience to sink them into the desert sands of Egypt and beyond.
Aside from the above discoveries, I also found myself wandering through the leafy streets of the garden town of Maadi, where the Light Horse were camped near Cairo. Prior to now, I had imagined it as no more than a spot in the desert against the backdrop of the ancient pyramids of Giza. Little did I know that it was a relatively new flourishing town of villas on acres of lush green gardens watered by the river Nile. Inhabited by expat Brits and Europeans, it spilled wealth into the once bare desert sands. Along with photos of villas that existed during the great war, I found myself maneuvering the streets on maps of old, picturing the route my Great Grandfather would have taken from the tiny railway station to camp. It is wonderful to be able to put myself in his world of 100 years ago.
As usual, when I hit a wall, I know that I just need to exercise a little patience along with a dash of persistance. The information is somewhere to be found, and by tapping away, it is usually forthcoming. So, when my posts slow down, you will know where to find me – hammering away behind the cupboard doors, mining for treasure; searching for details of a life long gone.