Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Over the last two weeks, I have been away on holidays.  Part of our wanderings through Western Queensland have followed the family history trail.  In trying to retrace the life and times of William Lyons, I felt a need to go back to where his life began.

As we head west of Rockhampton, we marvelled at the interesting terrain, where the earth is infinite miles of flat golden grasslands, inhabited by families of fat and happy bottle trees, grazing cattle beneath a clear blue cloudless sky that encompasses the earth like a huge expansive dome.  As we meandered over a range of mountains, we entered the Dawson Valley where John and Mary Lyons settled with their growing family in the mid 19th century.

The first time I had heard of the town of Banana was when I read it on my Great Grandfather’s War Records.  My excitement rose as we neared the town, however, one would only visit if one had a purpose, as I did.  It is a tiny western village where the crows cry louder than any other form of life, but indeed it is where the life of William Lyons began.  Apart from the appearance of one or two cars other than our own, one could be forgiven for expecting a team of bullocks to appear amidst billowing clouds of dust on the horizon at any time.

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John and Mary Lyons lived in isolation on a property in the area, so I imagine the only purpose for Mary to be in Banana on 4th of March, 1873 was to give birth to her eldest child.  Her husband was often away for weeks at a time, so possibly he took her into town on a bullock dray to be attended by a local midwife.

Once I took some photos, as proof of our visit, we kept driving, until we reached Dalby where we stayed for the night.  My mission in Dalby was to find the Memorial for Lieutenant Hanly who lost his life in Gallipoli.  My Great Grandfather led one of three unsuccessful search parties to retrieve his body.  Like my Great Grandfather’s search 102 years ago, mine too was unsuccessful.   I know that a memorial was established my the town of Dalby, however, it is not at the Anzac Memorial (below).

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Anzac Memorial at Dalby

On our return home, we visited a town on the Darling Downs called Toogoolawah which is where William and Cis Lyons lived with their three children Ron, Kev and Jack, before moving to Minehan Siding in North Queensland.  I am very fortunate to have in possession a cheque book dating back to this period and one cheque but details the purchase of a cottage at McConnel Street, Toogoolawah.

 

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The Main Street of Toogoolawah

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Now Toogoolawah, amidst verdant rolling hills,  is much larger than Banana and we drove up and down its streets without finding McConnel.  However, I looked up Google Maps and discovered it to be a little distance from the town centre, behind the skydiving field.  Back in 1909, at the time the family purchased their new cottage, travelling into town in a sulky would have been no quick ride.  The old end of the street which still sports two or three houses that could have been home to my family is a tiny dead end lane.  In recent times the street has been extended in the opposite direction through an area of acreage lots.  It is still “out in the sticks”.

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Like Roma and Dalby where they previously resided, Toogoolawah was home to a Light Horse Regiment which perhaps was based near to where they lived.

In retracing the steps of our ancestors, one can only imagine how they lived more than 100 years ago.  As we passed through the dry and wooded country of the Dawson Valley I tried to picture the Lyons family living so far from their neighbours, let alone a town, and with the constant threat of local aborigines.  Even thirty years later, as William and Cis established their lives on the Darling Downs, life was still not without its hardships.  By learning about the lives of those who lived before us, we can be thankful for our lives today.  We can appreciate the advancements in technology and modern conveniences that so many of us take for granted.  More importantly, we can ensure that the memory of our ancestors will continue to survive.

 

 

The Fifth Light Horse Regroups

 

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When he was offered the position of “Transport Officer”, William accepted it without hesitation. 

 “You will be going to Serapeum to assess the situation.” William’s commanding officer told him. 

“Yes, Sir.” William’s tanned face broke into a grin.  At last he felt that sense of purpose that had eluded him since the light horse were dismounted.  There were times during the last few months when he had questioned his decision to enlist.  More than once he thought his chances of surviving Gallipoli were slim, if at all.  But survive he did, and he was now eager to be useful.

Re-uniting with his regiment at Maadi was steeped in nervous expectation.  Whilst on one hand he looked forward to reacquainting with old faces, he was nervous about revisiting old memories he would rather keep buried.  Re-joining his regiment, in some ways, was like starting over.  So many new reinforcements had arrived, to take the places of those who were lost.  Searching the camp for familiar faces filled William with feelings of emptiness that he could only equate to losing a limb.  Everyone had become so reliant upon each other in the trenches in order to survive.

William, however, had little time to dwell upon the misgivings of the past, as he pulled on the boots and spurs he left behind in Cairo in 1915.  Being back in the saddle, he soon morphed into the man he had spent 20 years training to be.  He embraced the intense weeks of training for desert fighting with enthusiasm.

By the time the bugle announced the Revielle at 5.00 each morning, William was already awake, thinking about the day ahead.  His mind was churning with horseback manoeuvres and the sharp explosive sounds of bullets hitting targets on the shooting range.  Over and over, he mentally fine- tuned his skills before the day’s training began.  He knew he had to be mentally and physically prepared for the time that they would be called to fight in a real situation.   Shortages of equipment such as saddlery and horses were also a cause for frustration.  Due to the excess of men, training had to be conducted dismounted.  The second Light Horse Training Regiment was formed from the excess men, and it was with this regiment that William was appointed his new position of Transport Officer.

By the middle of February he heard rumblings of discontentment among the new reinforcements.  Many had enlisted during a flurry of excitement, generated by the recruitment drives, only to find themselves spending long days performing seemingly purposeless desert patrols, repetitious training and tending to their horses.  Old hands like William listened with amusement to the comments that filtered through the various gatherings of men. 

“When are we going to see action?” was a common question asked by those who were young and frustrated with the repetitious nature of training and tired of battling the Egyptian heat and dust.  On the odd occasions when he was privy to such conversations, William commented, “Just be patient chaps and enjoy this time while it lasts.  The time will come soon enough.”

He never saw the need to elaborate, despite being aware of the planning that was underway for the Regiment’s next move.  Transporting an army of men and their supplies out into the desert was fraught with problems. The desert was about to push everyone to their human limits.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

 

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There is one trait that I think I have inherited from my Great Grandfather, and that is the need to keep every little piece of memorabilia from every trip that I have ever made.  Each time I return from a trip my suitcase is weighted down, not by clothes, handbags or shoes, but reams of pamphlets, books and postcards, evidence of the places I have been.  When I rifle through my cupboards and drawers with the intention of parting with my “stuff” I cannot bring myself to throw away that part of my history.  Mind you, I very rarely look at any of it once I have tucked it all safely away behind my cupboard doors.  So why do I find it so hard to discard?

Perhaps my Great Grandfather’s example holds the key to the problem.  If he had thrown away all the little postcards, receipts and envelopes from the times of his travels, there would be no evidence of where he had been.  I would not have been prompted to tell his story.  No-one every talked about his story, so I would not know about it in the first place.  And obviously, his time in Egypt and afar meant more to him than just a military posting.  The myriads of postcards, books and pamphlets that he chose to keep are pieces of places that struck a chord with his being.

This morning, I am going to share some of his memorabilia.  Some of the items are merely envelopes, but the addresses written in ink are the key to their importance.  I hope you enjoy browsing through just a sample of the items I have found.

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This postcard was in the red envelope above.

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WMJ Lyons Receipt 001

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This note was tucked away in his diary written in 1917.  At a first glance it seemed quite insignificant, until I read the words written at Gallipoli in 1915.

I know that all the places I have visited in the world hold a place in my heart.  I know that I have my own unique memories, however, in years to come, who will be able to piece together the details of my life?  No-one will know of those special places and experiences that have shaped my life, if there is no evidence left behind.  I am not saying that someone will want to write a book about my life, in fact that is highly unlikely, but by having boxes of evidence of how a person lived, would perhaps ignite someone’s curiosity.

In our digital age, by scanning those items and saving them on an external hard drive or the likes could solve the problem of lack of space.  However, there is nothing like sorting through old boxes, filling one’s lungs with the musty aroma of old paper and moth balls to spark that curiosity.  Nothing equals the excitement of holding an item in your hands that was once held by the hand of an ancestor 100 years before.

I have no answers to my problem of hoarding my travel memorabilia, so will continue to do what I have done for 40 years.  In doing so, I am laying the path for future family historians, just like my Great Grandfather had done for me.  So family, let us just say, my boxes and packets of miscellaneous pieces of the world, are my parting gift to you.

 

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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This morning I am eager to share with you, the details of my travels over the last week or so.  My research has taken me to the exotic land of the Pharoahs.  However, my love affair with Egypt began long ago, alongside the famous Archaeologist Howard Carter.  How can I forget that pivotal moment when he peered inside Tutankhamun’s tomb?

I had not heard of the boy king, prior to my semester of archaeology in my grade 12 Ancient History class.  From that epifanical moment, my life long dream was to see first hand the cause of Mr Carter’s notority.  No other class during my 12 years of schooling held my undivided attention.  I gleaned every minute detail of an archaeologist’s task in recovering and preserving each piece of antiquity as it saw light for the first time in centuries.  So profound was my interest that I managed to achieve A+ for the first time in my educational life.

I finally achieved my dream in 1988 when I travelled to Egypt to see the ancient wonders of the world first hand.  Being a typical tourist, I visited the pyramids and the Sphinx.  I trod through the archaeological site of the Step Pyramid and was priveleged to see the man himself who uncovered the site.  Then of course the icing on the cake was my visit to the Valley of the Kings to step into Howard Carter’s shoes and enter the tomb of Tutankhamun.  At no time during my travels was I aware that my Great Grandfather had seen it all, 70 years before me.

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Whilst he was there for the purpose of war, he and thousands of other men who were stationed in Egypt, spent their time as tourists as well as soldiers.  Travel was not commonplace at the beginning of the 20th century  and many of those men had never been far from their own back yards, let alone out of their own countries.  Can you imagine their reactions upon seeing ancient monuments that still enthral tourists today?  So it is with pleasure that I found myself once more trudging through the desert sands as a family archaeologist.

In following my Great Grandfather’s footsteps of 23rd January 1916, I made the 10 mile train journey from Bab al Louk Station of inner city Cairo to the garden town of Maadi.  First established in 1905, its lush green gardens of leafy trees and flowering shrubs, give the appearance of a desert oasis.  The pristine hedges and sprawling villas of European grandeur look peculiarly out of place on the Egyptian landscape.  The expat British and European Diplomats and Government Employees who inhabit the town were none too happy about the establishment of the Australian Light Horse Camp on the edge of town.  They accused the Aussies as being ill-mannered and unable to speak the King’s English.  Mind you the Aussies’ opinion of them was not complimentary either.

Until my recent journey, I could not imagine the town at all.  Then as usual, I googled the word ‘Maadi’ and found myself wandering through the streets of old manor houses with rambling gardens of leafy trees, swaying palms and tropical flowers.  Guided by the voices  of those who were there between the years 1915 to 1918,  those streets came to life with mules carrying baskets of wares, turbaned men in long sweeping robes and carts trundling along the metal surfaced road.  I could hear the vibration of hundreds of men rubbing shoulders at the sleepy little railway siding, fighting for a seat on a rattletrap bus for one piaster a piece. And the tavern next to the station is buzzing with thirsty soldiers getting drunk on nasty local beer.

From the little station, with a map in my hand, I took a right turn down Road 9 and once I reached the intersection of Road 84, I took another right, crossing the railway line and a bridge over the canal, until I faced the desert sands.  With more assistance from ghosts from the past, I walked to the top of a rise and there before my eyes was the sprawling camp of the Australian Light Horse.

Thankfully, I was spared the expense of visiting Egypt personally, although that would give me such joy.  By entering the world of cyber I followed the century old signposts marking the road.  I listened to stories written by those who lived there alongside my Great Grandfather during the Great War. I also picked up free maps and photographs to find my way.  Where would family historians be without the footprints left by our ancestors, in the hope that their stories will be found.

Finally, I would like to thank those men who kept detailed diaries of their day to day experiences during those times.  My appreciation also goes to families who kept letters from their loved ones written so long ago.  Without the words of those who lived through these events, there would be no story to tell.  Now, by having access to those diaries and letters online, there are so many more possibilities for the family historian.  They have opened a huge door to the past, for which I am forever grateful.

 

 

Back in Egypt – January 1916

 

A grumbling bus hungrily received the bottleneck of men swarming out of the Maadi station gate.

“C’mon chaps,” urged one of William’s companions.  “Let’s join the queue.”

“If you don’t mind,” William resisted, “I might walk.  It is not far.”

Although the bus fare was only 1 piastre, seats were rapidly filling from the influx of men disembarking his train and he knew that there was no limit to the number of passengers who were allowed to board.  Rather than being jammed in like fish in a can, or having to sit on the mudguards as he has seen people do, he chose to enjoy the coolness of late afternoon and walk the short distance to the camp. He waved his friends goodbye and turned right along Road 9.

A rabble of voices flowed from Blume’s Tavern that sat conveniently next to the station.  Normally, William might be tempted to join the rowdy patrons, but after a long day of sitting on hard wooden seats of Egyptian trains and fighting his way through the noisy chaos of large stations like Cairo’s Bab al Louk, he could only contemplate rest. The heat of the day was rapidly cooling so he put on the coat that was folded over his arm.  Then, allowing the excitement of the Tavern to wait for another day, he began to walk down Road 9 towards the intersection of Road 84.

William was amazed that following an absence of one year, he needed no directions to the camp.  He had only spent three months at Maadi at the beginning of 1915, but he was familiar with its leafy streets lined with multi storey villas which beamed with European grandeur.  The peculiarity of such houses in the Egyptian desert, seemed to amplify the divide between the rich and the poor.  On the streets, the vendors worked hard to scratch a living.  They conned thousands of hapless soldiers who were only too willing to part with their cash for what they believed to be genuine pieces of antiquity.  Despite earning a lucrative income from peddling locally made replicas, the villas of Maadi were well out of reach for them.

 

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Photo:  taken at Maadi 1914

Maadi was a relatively new town, populated by expat Brits and Europeans who held diplomatic or government posts.  Their homes, that reflected their stature in the local community, were a pleasant sight for a soldier’s dusty eyes.  Like an oasis in the desert, the town with its lush green gardens that were watered by the River Nile, stood against the backdrop of Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza.

The shady eucalyptus trees that lined Road 9, greeted him with waving arms, reminding William of his family who he had not seen for more than a year. The few villas that resided along the road stood glowing in the golden afternoon light, proudly towering from their sprawling tropical gardens of glossy palms, leafy sycamores and flaming bougainvillea. For a moment, he forgot about the war; he was walking down the lane from Minehan Siding to his home of Fontenoy, or ‘the jungle’, as he called it.

Thoughts of home were interrupted by a mule carrying two veiled ladies in black robes, clip clopping by, like a dark ominous shadow against the fading light of the sky.  They were accompanied by a dark figure cloaked in a billowing striped galabieh who passed William without acknowledgement.  Street vendors who had packed up their little carts of wares were also rumbling home along the metal surface of the road.  Knowing that they relied on foreigners for their livelihood , they offered their turbaned heads, with leering smiles of tobacco stained teeth, and greetings of, “Good evening sahib,” before continuing on their way.

William could have chosen to cross the railway lines at the station and taken a shortcut across the desert to the camp.  For most of the day, a five minute walk along Road 9 would end up a long winded treacherous journey trying to evade the many villagers who were all clamouring for their share of our “baksheesh”.  Disembarking from a train carriage was a dangerous affair where one was attacked from all sides by locals pouncing on their opportunity of financial gain. However, the fading sun also saw the dwindling of peddlers from the streets and a time to stroll at leisure without being noticed or accosted.

Reaching the intersection of Road 84, he turned south towards the desert which by now glowed a soft warm yellow and the undulating rolling dunes stretched across the horizon in ribbons of sunset splendour.   Once he rose to the top of a short rise, the orderly rows of tents of the Light Horse camp painted the desert sands.

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Photo taken by Trooper GS Millar, 1915

Standing for a moment, he watched the tent city with its signposted streets, sprawl before the almighty pyramids and towering minarets of Cairo.  Then the lines of horses caught his eye.  He felt a twinge of excitement, listening to their whinnying, knowing he would soon be reunited with his best friend.  They have been apart since May the previous year.  Would they know each other?   More pressing however, was his eagerness to reunite  with his regiment, to see those who have survived the traumas of the previous year.

 

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Photo:  taken by Trooper G.S. Millar 1915.

References:

  1. http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/maadi.htm
  2. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-18Ba-c3.html
  3. http://myartblogcollection.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/the-british-forces-in-egypt-during.html