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.