Training At Serapeum,

The yellow banks of the Suez Canal were sketched by masts of Arab fishing craft, clusters of wind swept trees and waving palms.   A sparse collection of small brick and timber buildings sat like modern blocks of defiance in the hot ancient sands. An army of men were busy digging a zig-zag line of trenches on the opposite side of the canal, oblivious to the dark shadowy warship that glided silently by.  In a desolate landscape governed by sun and sand, the scene playing out in the Sinai Desert on that March day in 1916, was a world where ancient man crossed paths with his modern counterpart.


The seemingly uninhabitable yellow sands stretched westward in search of a low horizon.  However, about one and a half miles from the canal,  a map of paths were being carved by teams of rolling wagon wheels, plodding donkeys led by turbaned men in white robes and a travelling camel caravan that padded single file behind its Bedouin master.  The Light Horse camp at Serapeum was teeming with life when a disturbance of sand rose like smoke against the hazy sky.


The sun stabbed through the thick flurries of grainy mist, watching the intermittent glimpses of action with the intensity of a furnace.  A troop of rifle wielding men on horseback, raced back and forth, ploughing this way and that, slipping in and out of view.  They were a turmoil of desperate men and beasts battling against the stormy rage of sand.


William felt the sun burn through his shirt and sear the skin of his face and neck.  Squinting to cut through the blinding glare, his eyes stung from grit and sweat.  In desperation, he urged his horse with another jab of his spurs, but the sweat foaming out of its hair, warned him against pushing harder.  He leaned out to make another turn, but his horse lurched forward almost stumbling.  His hooves  struggled against the weight of sand, his breath laboured from heat and exertion.  William pulled his horse up with a firm heave of the reins and realized it was knee deep in sand. He yelled through the blinding flurries of sand for the other troopers to back off.  Their morning drill had become impossible.

William dismounted and led his horse to the line of troughs that edged the drill field.  The other troopers followed suit.

Gulping from a water bag, a young trooper caught his breath before he addressed his instructor.

“By toast Lieutenant, if this is the life we are to lead, I would rather be a rock!”

A broad smile creased William’s tanned sandy face, as he simultaneously lifted his hat and wiped his hand across his brow and through his wet flattened hair.

“The sand is certainly testing us Corporal. “  William said, whilst replacing his hat on his head.

“I’m starting to wonder who the enemy actually is.” The Trooper replied.  “The Desert or the Turks?”

“I feel sorry for our poor neddies.” Another young Trooper chimed as he splashed the forehead of his horse with water.

“I know it is difficult men.” William spoke as he allowed his horse to drink from the line of troughs.  “Perhaps tomorrow the sand won’t be as deep.”

Desert life proved to be rough whilst the Light Horsemen awaited the imminent advance of the Turks on the Suez Canal.  William knew only too well that nature could be a formidable force.  The heat was stifling and one could never predict the movement of sand from one day to the next.  A sand storm had filled their tents the previous night and as they discovered, had flooded the parade ground.

Despite his experience and training, he too was feeling the daily struggle.  He has questioned whether his own regime of training prior to leaving Australia was of any benefit.  Certainly, the Boer War had taught him about surviving with little water in hot conditions.  With that in mind, he had regularly walked along the railway line from Minehan Siding to Townsville, rationing his water, in the event of this very predicament.  But was it enough?  He certainly was not going to voice his doubts in the company of the men whom he trained.  He needed to be positive for them.

“Be here at 0800 sharp tomorrow men.” William announced before turning and leading his horse away from the group.


Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk



Photo:  From William Lyons’ Collection.  He is back row, 4th from left.

On the eve of Anzac Day, I am pondering what I should write.  I had some thoughts and then they passed.  I wish my Great Grandfather was here to ask.   Afterall, Anzac Day has come and gone on the same day every year for 100 years.  He certainly has had plenty of time to consider the meaning of the day, or rather what it meant to him.

On 25th April 1916, inaugural Anzac Day ceremonies were held across Australia;  a march was held in London and a sports day was held in the Australian Camp in Egypt.  For Great Grandfather and his comrades, memories would have been raw.  Only 12 months had passed since that fateful landing at Gallipoli, and in the months since, many more lives were lost.  Those men in Egypt were still at war, so in the years to come, there would be many more.  John Monash described the anniversary celebrations as:

“A short but dignified service and then a holiday for the troops who had a glorious time with aquatic sports in the Suez Canal.” (1)




When I glance back and forth across the rows of faces in my Great Grandfather’s military photos, I wonder what happened to all those brave men.  Did they survive the war, into old age?  I have read letters written by Great Grandfather’s comrades who did grow old.  They remembered and reminisced old friends; those who died and those who survived.  They were all entrenched in that short period of their lives; they were bound together by the secrets they shared and could only share with each other.  Despite the years and changing life circumstances, they were forever linked in death and life.

For soldiers, young and old, Anzac Day is the coming together of understanding souls.  They march for each other, for their shared experiences, but most of all, they march for those who never made it home.

Lest We Forget.



(1)    The Advertiser, Adelaide, Friday Nov 24 1934






Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk


This week I have put Great Grandfather to rest behind the cupboard doors.  Before you jump up and down in protest, I must add that it is only a temporary interlude in the war and times of his life.  I know he will understand, because my focus has been on my Anzac Day address which I am to present at the Giru Anzac Day Ceremony on Tuesday week.

Given an open book regarding what I choose to say, my mind has been working overtime in the hope that some flash of inspiration will present me with an idea that is new and engaging.  Last year I spoke about two brothers who enlisted in the Great War and whose letters detailing their experiences ended up in the hands of the Australian War Memorial.  There is so much information out in the cyber arena to be found that it can be overwhelming.  Being almost 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba, I had settled upon Ion Idriess’ account in his book “The Desert Column”.  However, I have since discovered that there are doubts about whether his portrayal was actually his first hand account, witnessed through field glasses from afar.  The geographical logistics of his account seem unlikely.

Many of the battles I have read about, are are either portrayed in horrific or heroic terms. Censorship is an important issue with the attendance of school children on Anzac Day, and well heroics seem to miss the point of Anzac Day. Thus I went in search of  a more meaningful story.  At one point, I thought about taking the easy road and simply recite a poem.  Then I stumbled upon the story of an Anzac whose military career was quite exceptional, but not for the more obvious reasons.

The more I read about my Anzac’s story, the more parallels I found between his and my Great Grandfather’s story, that is, without all the military decorations and accolades.  They were both Queenslanders and fought together in the Boer War.  They both held an interest in military matters between wars.  My Anzac was a lawyer and began his career in Townsville where he met his future wife.  Whilst enjoying success with his legal career, he also joined the 15th Light Horse Regiment, a volunteer regiment in Townsville.  He moved back to Brisbane to practice law in 1912 where he kept an interest in the military by joining the Old Moreton Regiment.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, my Anzac enlisted with the Fifth Lighthorse Regiment, along with my Great Grandfather.  The commonalities do not stop there.  They both fought at Gallipoli and then in the middle east, only my Anzac, by that stage was a Lieutenant Colonel, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer.

By all accounts, my Anzac, was well liked and admired.  His war time pursuits were varied and many, which were followed by glowing accolades by his superiors, his counterparts, by journalists and most of all by the men who served him.  Historian, Charles Bean, described him as:

an outstanding example of number of Australian city men who had won distinction in the light horse.  He was shy in manner and very sparing of speech; but his quiet figure concealed the spirit of a great master of horse.  He became marked as a leader capable of handling command far more important than a brigade.”(1)

H.S. Gullett noted in his history of the 9th Light Horse Regiment:

“At the end of this period (1917) the Regiment passed, with the rest of the 3rd Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Wilson who soon proved himself one of the ablest cavalry leaders disclosed by the war.” (2)

To top off the glowing accounts, he was awarded numerous military decorations for his incredible efforts.  However, it was not his impressive military records or medals that impressed me about this particular man.

No, I was impressed by the type of man he was.  By all accounts he was of a quiet and mild nature.  He was quite modest about his own achievements and yet he wrote and spoke often about the achievements of his own men.  His men in turn thought he was great.  They willing followed his orders, because they knew that he would never ask them to do anything that he was not willing to do himself.  He cared about the health and welfare of his men and even set up a special canteen in order to raise money to buy much needed equipment in order to make their lives safer.

One of his greatest concerns was the shortage of water for both horses and men in the middle eastern deserts.  He provided an ingenious solution.  He introduced the Queensland spear-point pump which he had seen used in the Ayr District during his time in North Queensland.  According to C.E..W. Bean,

“it could be carried without trouble on the saddle, this pump entirely changed the practice of watering horses.  In a few minutes it could be unpacked and driven into the sand in a likely spot for water: by the time other men had laid out the light canvas troughing a plentiful supply of water was being pumped out of the sand.” (3)

Apparently, the British refused to pay for these devices, so they were paid out of funds raised by the special canteen.

Whilst studying the life and times of my Anzac, I wondered how well my Great Grandfather knew him.  When I read his diary of 1917, I discovered that my Anzac regularly visited him in hospital at the end of that year.  Were they friends?  Perhaps they were.  On the other hand, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer might have been simply demonstrating the caring man that he was.


Lachlan Chisholm Wilson (Photo: Australian War Memorial)

Brigadier General Lachlan Chisholm Wilson proved to be an effective soldier and officer, earning him well-deserved praise and awards.  However, I think he would be happiest to be known as:

An ordinary man who did an extraordinary job in abnormal circumstances.


L’est We Forget.


(1)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)

(2)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)

(3)   The Australian Light Horse Association (Brig. Gen. Lachlan Chisholm Wilson)


Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk


This morning there is a little true story I wish to share….

Morning tea at Grandma’s house was not unusual, but there was something different about this occasion.  My fingers traced the familiar lace detail of the tablecloth that covered the table whilst Grandma laid out the fragile tea cups and saucers that she kept in the whitewashed hutch in the kitchen. Uncle Bill leaned quietly against the high back of his favourite chair, whilst Grandma sat in the chair opposite me.  Today, however, an elderly man, whom I had never met, sat to Grandma’s left.

Grandma looked different to the Grandma I knew from my childhood.  Her hair was auburn, not white.  It was pulled up on top of her head with fine wisps falling to frame her relaxed and smiling face.  How curious, I thought to myself.  She’s different. Not so serious. Younger.  Grandma looked up from pouring tea and proceeded  to introduce the guest who sat beside her.  Although the elderly gentleman looked vaguely familiar, I did not recognize his face. Grandma beamed from ear to ear as she announced, “This is my husband!”

My eyes were transfixed on “Grandma’s Husband” whom I had never met.  He had disappeared in 1955 without a trace, so I was told. Gripped by both excitement and shock, I could not stop staring at the man who was my Great Grandfather.   What does one say to a man who suddenly reappears after an entire lifetime of absence?  He had been the subject of my research for the past 10 years.  How many times have I wished for this moment?  All the unanswered questions I had accumulated over the years were whirring around in my brain like a fast train.  My father has said numerous times that he wished he had been more interested in his Grandfather when he was around.  Who would have thought that one day he would reappear?

Unlike Grandma, my Great Grandfather had aged.  I had only known him in his prime; as a dashing young Light Horse officer during the Great War.  That young man who stood so straight and proud in his military uniform had been ravaged by time and experiences.  I search the lines and crevices that now mapped his thin face, hoping to find points of recognition.  His eyes that stared at me from old sepia photos with the alertness of a trained soldier, now gazed at me across the table with a soft blue glaze.

With each sip of tea, my eyes beamed straight over the rim of my teacup, directly at my Great Grandfather.  With each intake that flooded my mouth, a stream of words flooded my thoughts. Gallipoli, Egypt, light horse to name a few. Then there were doubts: Would he talk to me?  (Afterall, I am a woman!)  Should I ask about the war? (But soldiers don’t talk about it).   I cannot recall how the conversation began or for that matter what I said.  All I know is that once the words, questions, sentences fell from my tongue, there was no stopping them.  Back and forth, I asked and to my amazement he answered.   He seemed happy to talk, as if the Great War was his vocation.  Fueled by elation, I inhaled every word.

As fast as the morning had dawned, it faded into oblivion; and along with it, my vision of my Great Grandfather.  I awoke from my dream and my excitement was replaced by disappointment.  I lay in bed hoping that what had transpired was real, but nothing.  Even the conversations had evaporated.  My memories of the moment were reduced to a silent movie.  My long list of unanswered questions remained just that.  Unanswered.

Was my dream one of my little psychic moments as I call them.  I do believe my ancestors talk to me; they have a habit of leading me to their stories.  Dreams can be interpreted in many ways, however, I choose to believe that it was my Great Grandfather’s way of giving me permission to tell his story; a story he found too painful to tell himself.  That was my aha moment that started me on this journey behind the cupboard doors.

Leaving For Serapeum


Sitting high on his horse, William shuddered from the sudden stabbings of cold air that swept in from the outer desert.  Despite the searing hot days, the evening temperatures dropped dramatically, providing the camp with cool relief.  Evenings were also a welcomed relief from the rigorous daily drills, patrols and camp duties.  Many soldiers took advantage of the reading tent set up by locals.  It was a place where they could read the English newspapers or write letters home.  Some obtained leave permits to visit the local Soldier’s Club or travelled by train into Cairo to enjoy bars and cafes.  On the evening of 23rd February 1916, however, the men of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment were mounted in full dress, boots polished, horses packed, awaiting their departure for Serapeum on the Suez Canal.

The sounding of the bugle at 5.00am, urged William to jump out of his bed and plung into the cold unknown of that February day.  There was so much to do and the dawning day already seemed too short of time.  The Maadi camp was a hive of activity as men busied themselves packing up tents, bedding and kit bags.  No-one complained as they were all eager for change.  Moving for most of the new recruits meant an end to the repetitious drills and patrols.  They were eager to face the Turks head on.

William found himself shaking his head at intervals during the day, thinking “Their heads are filled with school boy notions.”

He wished he could share their youthful enthusiasm, but like many of the old hands, he watched on in silent contemplation.  How could he share the truth of war with the inexperienced?  Comprehension is grown out of experience.

By midday, the entire regiment stood fully dressed and ready with their horses by their sides.  The wait was long and hot beneath the relentless Egyptian Sun.  By nightfall, a mood of restlessness rumbled down the line of men and horses.  The long period of idleness had dimmed the earlier excitement into a mood of uncertainty as men faced the reality of war.

William, on the other hand, prepared for the move with the calmness of a seasoned soldier.  He had spent the time packing his horse with military precision, marking off each item on a mental checklist as he strapped them in place.  The list was comprehensive, including his water bag, the horse’s nose bag, toiletries, clothes, ammunition, his pistol and the list went on.  Each item he weighed to ensure the total weight of his load, including his own weight, did not exceed the recommended 20 stone.

Now that the day had succumbed to nightfall, William sat straight in his saddle looking out into the darkness, prepared for the unknown. The weight of his rifle against his back reminded him of the dangerous road ahead.  Taking a deep breath, he extinguished any menacing thoughts. Instead, he focused on the distant lights of Cairo.

The lights of the ancient city flickered like beacons of hope on the horizon.  William likened her to an exotic creature who could open the doors to the most wonderful experiences, but he knew that one needed to be wary.  She was a welcomed distraction for many young men who had blindly fallen for her beguiling charms.  Who could blame them, knowing that each day might be their last?  That night, however, the sleepy eyes of the ancient city watched on with indifference as the line of mounted soldiers were readying for war.

The shrill sounding of a whistle interrupted William’s thoughts at 2100 sharp, echoing new waves of excitement down the line. The procession slowly began to move forward, Emu plumes fluttered in the cool breeze, hooves shuffled in the desert sands, tails swished nervously, heads of combed manes tossed and pulled.  The horses were unusually restless, as if they could sense the dangers that lay ahead.

Murmurs and nervous bouts of laughter bounced from man to man as they casually swayed with the movement of their horses pushing through the powdery sand.  As the column of light horsemen edged closer to the city, the shadowy forms of the pyramids loomed like enormous omens against the black sky.  The awesome sight caste a mood of quiet as the silhouetted horsemen crept past like ominous storm clouds on a horizon. William caste a final passing glance at the great testaments to the afterlife and prayed that Nehebkau, the God of Protection, was looking out for them.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk


In my recent search along the ancestral trail in the outback and beyond, I wanted to find an old uncle who featured prominently in my life until his death in 1972.

Young Tom Hourigan was only 21 years old when he came up to the Haughton District from Dalby on the Darling Downs in 1914.  He knew the Lyons family from when they lived at Dalby and he agreed to help Cis run the farm whilst William went off to war.  For the duration of the war, Tom lived with the family and that is where he met Cis’ youngest sister Nelly, who would eventually become his wife.

Tom Hourigan A

Uncle Tom Hourigan


Now the story of Tom and Nelly’s romance is another story that is somewhat cloaked in mystery.  The reason for this is that those who knew them during their courtship are no longer here to reveal the story.  I knew them as an elderly couple who lived close by and it was on their farm of Burwood that my sisters and I learnt to ride horses.  I remember my Mother saying that they were married late in life, hence they had no children.  I never had any reason to question their relationship, thinking they actually met later in life. That was until I grew up and looked at old photos in which both appeared.

Tennis Group A

Tom (back, second from right) and Nelly (front, second from left)

Then a few years ago, I had access to some old letters written to my Grandfather’s brother Ron.  In one letter, Nelly mentions that she didn’t care much for any members of the Hourigan family (meaning Tom and his brother Bob).  Then, Tom wrote about a weekend that he and Nelly spent in Townsville, and he went on to tell Ron how they had such a great time.  Now back in the 1920’s that was quite a risqué thing to do, but nothing would surprise me of my Aunty Nelly as I imagine her to have been a thoroughly modern girl. She often amused my family with risqué sayings and ditties that flowed from her vintage mouth.  Her lady like appearance belied a young girl with spark.



Young Nellie Deane



In their youth, I imagine both Tom and Nellie to be quite a couple.  Whilst Nelly was at home in the saddle of a horse galloping the paddocks that surround Horseshoe Lagoon, Tom was more at home racing around the back roads of the Haughton on his motor bike or fast cars.  There are a few stories bandied around about Tom that involve his love of speed and his readiness to go all out for a dare.

On one such occasion, Tom and my Grandfather wished to attend the races.  However, with a paddock of cane to cut, load and send off to the mill, that seemed impossible. So, they worked through the night loading cane onto bins that were allocated to another farmer in order to achieve their goal.  Whilst they enjoyed their day of fun at the races, a few farmers were not impressed.  Those were the days!

Tom and Nelly were  actually officially married in 1935 which was the year Nelly’s Mother died.  Her Father had died in 1929, so now they found themselves alone at Burwood.  Perhaps they went off and got married to stop the tongues along the banks of the Haughton wagging up a storm.  Whatever the case, they knew each other for 20 years when they actually got married.

From my memories, Uncle Tom was an interesting character.  There was the farmer dressed in khaki drill work clothes, who I remember crouched on his haunches beneath the shady mango tree rolling his own cigarettes and drinking tea from a billy can.  Then there was the smartly dressed racegoer who religiously attended Cluden Racetrack in Townsville every Saturday afternoon. We’d wave as his little blue Hillman car drove along Hodel Road to his “church”.  Sometimes when returning from Townsville on a Saturday afternoon, we’d follow his little car as it made its wandering path home. Uncle Tom was fond of a beer or two at his church.

Both Aunty Nelly and Uncle Tom were stone deaf, which made conversation quite difficult.  On one occasion, Aunty Nelly was away and my Mother told Uncle Tom that she would cook dinner for him.  We arrived at Burwood to find the house all locked up.  Through the glass in the front door we could see Uncle Tom, with his back to us, watching TV.  We yelled, we knocked on the glass, we knocked on the walls and we jumped up and down on the timber verandah floor.  Nothing could arouse his attention.  So we went back home and ate dinner without him.

Finally, in his early 80s, Uncle Tom passed away in 1972.  Aunty Nelly had him cremated and according to family, returned his ashes to his sister Daisy who lived in their  hometown of Dalby.  So, whilst in Dalby, my intention was to find his final resting place, however, our search of the Dalby Cemetery was unsuccessful.  We did, however, find two graves bearing his surname ‘Hourigan’, and according to the man at the cemetery and the receptionist at our motel, there are still Hourigans living in town.