Preserving Your Family History

Vintage letter


When it comes to preserving your family history, there is no time like now.

Imagine it is one hundred years in time and your living relatives are curious about their ancestors.  If they stumble upon your photograph, will they know who you were?  If there is nothing written on the back of the photograph, then the chances will be that you will be just another nameless face.  Is that what you want for future generations? Do you want to fade into oblivion, along with your entire life story?

When I file through the numerous photos, letters and keepsakes that lived behind my Great Grandparents’ cupboard doors, I feel blessed in that I am able to preserve an entire lifetime of memories.  Obviously, my Great Grandfather’s military life was of great importance as he had kept and preserved so much.  Those pieces of his life form a strong portrait of the man.  What do your things say about you? More importantly, what legacy do want to leave for your family?

Photographs are a good place to start, as family history archaeologists  are always excited by looking into the faces of ancestors.  Family resemblances are a coup.  I have a group photo of my ancestors taken back at the beginning of the 20th Century.  There are no names written on the photo to identify the faces, although I know one of the faces is that of my Great Great Grandmother.  I have identified her from the numerous photos of have of her.  Another face would have to be her sister and perhaps the central figure was her Mother.  I am always struck by the man standing at the back of the group as he has an uncanny resemblance to my Grandfather.  I know it cannot be him as he was probably not born at the time the photograph was taken.  So, my message to you is to write the “who”, the “where” and the “when” on the back of your photographs to save lots of guesswork by future generations.

Aside from what your ancestors look like, it is important to know how they lived and what they thought.  Photos are windows through which we can look into their lives, but we need family stories to bring them to life. I grew up listening to stories, told by my parents and grandparents. Now I wish I had written them down, but as a child it was enough to listen with eager ears as I was transported back into carefree times filled with adventure.  There is a line from that wonderful movie “Secondhand Lion”, that would describe some of my ancestors, whom I had the pleasure of knowing.  The two 90 year old brothers have just died trying to fly their bi-plane through a barn and their great nephew is asked, “Did they really live?” to which he replied, “Yes, they really lived.”

Those two elderly brothers, in the story, lived a remarkable life and passed it on to their nephew in the form of stories.  Not everyone has such a colourful history, however, everyone’s life is valuable and worth preserving for posterity.  Perhaps it is time to start writing down your family stories you heard as a child.  If you are still blessed to have your Grandparents, then start with them.  They all have a story to tell and it is too late once they take them to their graves.

When I first ventured out on the ancestral trail, I became curious about my Grandparents’ lives.  I was fortunate in that my Grandmother on my Father’s side, was always talking about her family.  She was one of 12 siblings and I knew the names of each of them, as well as the names of her parents.  However, after her death, I was curious about her parents’ stories; how they first came to Australia; how they met and married.  My Dad suggested that I talk to his Aunt, my Grandmother’s only surviving sibling.  His words were, “you had better hurry as she is not getting any younger!”  She was 87 at the time.

I am so glad that I contacted Aunty Dulcie as she was a wealth of information.  I wrote out a list of questions and forwarded it to her by mail as she lived 1000 miles away in Brisbane.  I then visited her in Brisbane a few weeks later and she had the answers written out for me.  That marked the beginning of a seven year friendship.  She was my last connection to my Grandmother; her voice, the sparkle in her eyes; the many conversations sprinkled with references to her siblings and parents.  Like me, you too might find a treasure trove of family history, if you reach out to long lost family.

If you do not have any living grandparents or great aunts and uncles, then start with your parents.  Everyone has a story and their stories are part of your life too.  It is important to record the lives of those who walked this earth before us, in order to make sense of our own lives.  I can honestly say that I have discovered myself whilst uncovering those who lived before me.

Apart from the stories of past generations, it is also important to preserve our own stories.  Remember that in the future, we will be a past generation.  Do you document your life?  Scrapbooks are a great way to start preserving your photos along with the accompanying stories.  Keeping a journal is a wonderful way of recording your life.  Not only are the everyday happenings important, but your thoughts are also vital as they paint a picture of who you really are.

When I began my enquiries into my family’s history, I had the basic genealogical information such as names, dates of birth etc., but that wasn’t enough.  I yearned to discover who my ancestors were as people, not just a position on a family tree.  I guess that is what I want of my own life.  It is not enough to be simply a face and name.  I want my future generations to know me as a living person with thoughts and needs, who created an interesting tangle of colourful leaves along the branches of the family tree.



Attack at Bir-el-Dueidar

At 0545 on 22nd April 1916, the Regiment moved out of Salhia towards Kantara, enroute to Katia. 

The following morning, orders were received from General Lawrence that the British camp at Bir-El- Dueidar was under attack.  At 0800 “C” Squadron was sent at once, followed by the balance of the regiment. 

At 0800, “C” Squadron, under Major Cameron, moved out.  They reported to Lieutenant Colonel Leggett and were instructed to proceed to Bir-El-Dueidar and to pursue the enemy.¹


The sharp clickety-clack of horses’ hooves echoed on the metalled surface of the road that led the squadron of troopers out of the large Kantara Camp.  Willing horses carried their eager masters through the maze of small redoubts and entanglements of barbed wire, and onward to the open desert.

“Load Rifles Men!”

Upon hearing Major Cameron’s order, William loaded his rifle with the deftness of a seasoned soldier.  His body tingled as his subconscious snapped into action, inhabiting his being like an old trusted friend who was vital for survival.  He was his eyes, ears and decision maker rolled into one.  He was that automatic finger on the trigger.

A mood of excitement rippled down the line of new reinforcements.  Eagerly they urged each other and their horses towards the faint distant gunshots.

“Can you hear that?”  Said one, his voice a little shaky.

“Guns at last!” Answered another.

 “The poor beggars,” William thought solemnly as he absorbed their conversations in silence.  “Their joy will soon turn to fear, even terror…”

Turning his head, William placed his forefinger to his lips to cut the chat, and then turned back to contemplate the imminent threat.

The bang bang bang of rifle fire was soon thundering across the sky.  Heads turned, eyes widened and horses’ manes swished in a mood of discord, as a blanket of deathly silence fell upon the squadron.

Gripped by that old cold familiar feeling, William felt the metal trigger against his finger.  His eyes scanned back and forth across the sandy desert floor, watching for movement behind the prickly shrubs; a flutter of birds; or a shaking branch.  His horse followed the path in and out of bushes and once they reached the top of a sandy rise, the tents of the Dueidar Camp gleamed against the desert below.


Photo:  William Lyons’ Personal Collection.  This was the Light Horse Camp at Bir-El-Dueidar.

William listened to the fierce argument of life and death that fired, back and forth beneath the sparse covering of date palms.  His loaded bandolier tightly squeezed his chest as it expanded with each rapid breath.  One minute, then two, the waiting was tense.  What will it be?   A charge?  William knew that only one movement of a hand or a single spoken word would instantaneously seize the moment to spur his horse into galloping rage.

As the men of the “C” squadron waited nervously for orders, they were oblivious to the presence of a black vulture circling the sky above their target.  Once, twice and thrice it soared, a lone pilot biding time in the giant blue sky. Then in one swift decisive moment, it swooped downward, disappearing beneath the covering of date palms that shaded Bir-El-Dueidar.



  1. Fifth Light Horse Regiment War Diaries


Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk



The Australian Light Horse – Part 2

Viewed as ‘the national army of Australia’s defence’, young men flocked to the recruitment offices, wanting to join the Australian Light Horse.  Prior to taking up farming, William Lyons was a Light Horse Instructor, a position he had held for many years.  I imagine his expertise was invaluable when testing and training new recruits.

The Light Horse were an effective fighting force.  They were different to the British Cavalry in that their horses were predominantly their mode of transport.  ‘Each regiment lived and fought as a series of four-man “sections”. When they went into action, three men would dismount to fight as infantry while the fourth man led the four horses to cover until they were needed for a further advance or withdrawal.’¹

Those mounted infantrymen gained an appreciation by both the British and Australians for their fighting techniques used in the Boer War.   In turn, the Australians became very wary of the British who failed to adapt quickly enough to conditions.  When facing similar conditions in the middle east during the next war of 1914-1918, the ‘British demonstrated that they could not exercise the same initiative and flexibility as the Australians’.²  The old British tradition of “death or glory” fighting methods were still culturally ingrained into their mentality.

I am sure that in May 1915 when the Light Horse were dismounted, panic may have crept into the minds of those men who had spent weeks training for a specific type of war.  What thoughts went through my Great Grandfather’s mind upon the realization that he and his regiment were to be stuck on the ground in trench warfare?  To their credit, they adapted well and fought hard, but they were sent to a situation for which they were ill-trained.  What were they thinking went they went ashore, weighed down with knowledge that hundreds died on that shore one month before?

Now that I know  my family has its own Light Horseman, I have a special empathy for those men on horseback who have always filled me with pride.  They are no longer anonymous figures of the past.   Now, I see the spirit of William Lyons, sitting tall and straight, as his horse takes him down the street lined with outstretched hands waving Australian flags. He represents all those gallant men who galloped across the Egyptian Desert, across Palestine, and daringly captured Damascus in their fight against the Turks.  He is the face of a special chapter in our history books.

As I follow my Great Grandfather’s trail, I continue to make new discoveries. Along with my unexplainable curiosity for the Light Horse, I have always held an interest for all things Egyptian. If only I knew that I was following in the footsteps of my Great Grandfather when I visited Egypt in 1988?  How could I, when I hardly knew that he existed at all?  I’d like to think that he was setting me up for the future, giving me a true sense of the backdrop to his story.  Had he chosen me as his messenger all along?  Was he waiting for me to find the key to the old cupboard doors?  All I can say is that I am thankful that I did as it has been an unforgettable journey.


  1. Joseph Lyddy website article: “The Australian Light Horse”.
  2. Essay : “The Australian Light Horse at War” by Lt Col Edwin L. Kennedy Jnr. US Army






On The Move

Following the evacuation of Gallipoli, the Turkish army was reorganized by German Commander, Field Marshall Von Der Golz.  They became a formidable force. ¹

In March 1916, the British made repeated failed attempts to defeat the Turks in Iraq.  They then recognized the need for increasing the mounted forces.¹

In April, the Light Horse Brigades began their move to defend the northern regions of the Suez Canal. 

At 9.30am on 4th April 1916 ², a train departed Serapeum loaded with 4 wagons of baggage, 16 horses³ and a small contingent of men.  The remainder of the 5th Light Horse Regiment began their march on horseback, following the railway line, and camped the night at Moascar.  They arrived at the town of Salhia the following day.

“What a sight for a soldier’s sore eyes,” William gasped as he looked out on the horizon.

The town of Salhia began to materialize like a mirage out of the desolate wasteland.  As shapes began to form, his hand relaxed on the reins that rested upon his horse’s neck.  Soon the minaret tower shimmered like a silver sword against the blue sky.  It was an awesome feeling, finding oneself in a place that existed in history books.  One could usually only dream of such places, and yet here he was, witnessing the realization of those dreams.


Photo: William Lyons’ Personal Collection

The lush green fields of cultivation seemed to enliven the rest of the regiment as the waving grove of date palms ushered them into the village.  Following the weeks spent in the heat and sand at Serapeum, the change of scenery was a welcomed change.  The new reinforcements who had grown tired and frustrated from the continuous round of training, patrols and outpost work, were now gripped by excitement.  Leaving behind the tiredness of their daily struggle against the sun and sand, they found themselves being drawn into this Garden of Eden with a renewed vigour.  They were ready to fight the war they enlisted for.


Photo: William Lyons’ personal collection. Column of Light Horsemen on horizon.

William listened to the distinct Australian drawl as the banter bounced along the column.  The slow laconic snippets of conversation sounded distinctly out of place against the background of quick indecipherable gibberish spoken by the locals.  A colourful collection of Arabs and Egyptians populated the narrow street that wound its way through a market place.  Shaded by structures made from tree branches and palm fronds, many family groups peddled fresh produce, some sat cross-legged on the ground tapping away at tin objects with large hammers, whilst others stood watching the procession of foreigners enter their town with guarded curiosity.


Photo: William Lyons’ personal collection.


Photo:  William Lyons’ personal collection


Photo: William Lyons’ personal collection

William inhaled the sights and sounds with his senses on alert.  He savoured the smell of lamb roasting on a hearth.  He marvelled at the symmetrical displays of woven baskets holding an aromatic collection of spices.  His eyes scanned an anonymous Arab woman  slowly walking by, balancing a large clay urn on her shoulder.

“What secrets are you hiding?”  He wondered with a smirk.

He could never imagine Cis hiding behind a veil.  The thought made him laugh with pride.  He could hear her defiantly snapping, “I’ll do no such thing Will Lyons!”  if he so requested.

Continuing to absorb the elements of history that paved the streets, William listened for echoes of the past that were embedded in the ancient mudbrick walls.  He straightened in the saddle and repositioned his hat as he thought how he and his fellow troopers were following in the footsteps of the great Napoleon.  He prided himself in being able to remember and recite significant dates and places.  February 1799 was when Napoleon set out from this very town to invade Syria.  William made a mental note to add 5th April 1916 to his list of facts.  He hoped to tell his sons that on that day, their father rode in the shadow of the Great French General, with the objective of pushing the Turks from the Suez Canal.


Photo: William Lyons’ personal collection


Photo: William Lyons’ Personal Collection

The column pushed on past the railway station as they neared their camp.  A group of Bedouins and their camels stood by the roadside.  Wearing rough robes of goat’s hair, the big wiry desert men stared up at the passing column of Light Horsemen.  William felt his neck muscles tighten as his eyes locked with one of them.  The man’s jet-black eyes, shadowed by the black cowl of his head dress, stared out of a face that was almost totally void of expression.  However, William sensed something about the slight upward curve of the man’s pursed lips, an uneasiness he could not readily explain.  He slowly felt for the presence of the tiny revolver he kept hidden up his shirt sleeve and then tightened his grip on the reins as he urged his horse on.

Post Note:          

According to family, William did own a tiny revolver that he kept up his coat/shirt sleeve in case he was taken off guard and could not access his rifle.  He brought it home at the end of the war.

William also had a penchant for facts and figures.  He had a very curious mind and kept lists of facts on notes throughout his belongings. The fact that they were riding in Napoleon’s footsteps would have impressed him, I’m sure.  When my father was young, he and his cousin were often sent by their Grandfather to find the answers to his many obscure questions.  More times than not, they couldn’t find the answers. 

I found the photos in this post in a bundle of photos wrapped in a receipt from “Thos. Cook and Son (Egypt) Limited.  I’m assuming that was where he had his film developed for the cost of 13 shillings.  Nothing is written on the photo backs, so I have no idea exactly where they were taken although receipt is dated 24/9/1917.


  1. The Light Horsemen by Roland Perry
  2. The Desert Column by Ion Idriess
  3. Fifth Light Horse Regiment War Diaries


Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk




Upon hearing the word “lighthorseman”, or the sight of a Light Horseman in an Anzac Day parade, always filled me with pride.  I have no idea why.  Growing up, I had no knowledge of my family’s own Light Horseman, William Lyons. He was still hiding behind locked cupboard doors.  Perhaps my sense of pride touched on what it meant to be an Australian.  There was something so intrinsically Australian about those men who wore an emu feather in their hats.  They have been romanticised into our history as legends.

The Light Horsemen have been the subject of many movies and television stories about war, my favourite being “The Light Horsemen” (starring Peter Phelps and Ingrid Thornton) which culminated in the 1917 Battle of Beersheba.  In “The Desert Column” Trooper Ion Idriess brought that battle to life, allowing the reader to be part of that magnificent charge:

“At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man – they were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze – knee to knee and horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points.”

My childhood pride was finally justified upon becoming acquainted with my Great Grandfather.  I was astonished that he was one of those gallant men and yet no one ever spoke of him.  I really knew scant about who the light horsemen were.  If I had the opportunity to ask my Great Grandfather if he considered himself a legend, I think he’d reply, “No my dear.  None of us were legends.  We were just soldiers doing our job. Just doing our job.”

So, who were the Light Horse?  It has often been assumed that they were men of the land – stockman, drovers, farmers, station hands and the like.  However the truth is that 50 percent were of rural origin and 50% were town folk, including professionals such as Doctors and Solicitors.  One must remember that almost all men could ride a horse at the time of the First World War.  The horse was a common mode of transport.

In William Lyons’ case, he spent his childhood and early teenage years on a cattle station called “Fairview” in the Dawson Valley, Central Queensland.  Unlike many Light Horseman of the First World War, he had been a Light Horseman for 25 years.  He joined the Queensland Mounted Infantry at the age of 17, whilst living in Mackay.  He went on to fight in the Boer War, as did many of his counterparts, and he remained in the Light Horse until 1910 when he embarked on a new life as a farmer.  However, during the years leading up to the war, he still remained involved with the Light Horse, in a part time capacity.  Family have always maintained that “he was a soldier, not a farmer”.

To be continued.


Musings From The Writer’s Desk


Over the last few weeks I have followed the pursuits of William Lyons, I have  felt the full weight of those ancient desert sands and the angry piercing eyes of the sun as I have trudged through the remnants of his war.  Although it ended 100 years ago, the guns have been firing from all directions, confusing my search for a simplified version of what transpired.

In my confusion, I keep questioning how much detail I need to include.  Wars are complex and, as in the case of the 1916 war in the Sinai Desert, an entanglement of scuffles resulting in death and destruction.  The trails are many and varied and have left me wondering where I should begin or indeed finish. My major problem is that I have no way of knowing when William Lyons was present, if at all.

The fifth light horse regiment during the period April to August 1916 was not actually attached to a Brigade.  Its main purpose was reconnaissance.  They conducted night patrols in the hope of averting a surprise enemy attack.  I have scouted through various websites and books to furnish my mind with what transpired.  My bible, “The History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment” by Brig. Gen. L.C. Wilson, which outlines the details in simple layman’s language, has provided the bones of the story.  Meanwhile, Ion Idriess fleshes out the skeleton in “The Desert Column”.  My biggest dilemma is how to work my way through the obesity of flesh and bones to find William’s story. Then I had an aha moment.

My biggest concern has been how to fill the gaps in William’s story, and of course his absence from this world makes my task all the more challenging.  However, in a flash, I realized that this story does not belong to William Lyons alone. He represents the hundreds of thousands of Australian Light Horsemen who were present at the time.  The story needs to be told for all of them. This is a universal story.

This brings me to my predicament of how much detail to include in the story.  Perhaps I should not worry about possible inaccuracies pertaining to William’s personal story, as long as the basic historical facts are correct. There is little doubt that he experienced the harshness of the desert, the whizzing of enemy bullets and the nervous night patrols waiting for the shadows to come to life with messengers of death.

My intention was never to write a detailed account of war.  Rather, my story is about how the war moulded William the man.  He was a military man from he age of 17.  The Great War was his last chance to prove himself as a soldier; as a light horse instructor; to follow his passion. I wish to honour that passion, because it came at a price.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk


In the wake of Anzac Day, I thought that it would be fitting to publish a letter that was printed in a Mackay Newspaper years ago;  the exact year is not clear.  I found this cutting in a box that sat behind the cupboard doors.  Perhaps my Great Grandfather knew Corporal Christiansen who was mortally wounded at Pozieres. Perhaps he kept it because it represents a universal story of the Great War.  The letter was written to Corporal Christiansen’s parents from Mrs N. Morgan, 6 Springfield Rd, St. Leonards on Lee, England.

Dear Friends,

I hardly know how to begin my letter to you.  By this time you will have had the sad news of your son’s death, and my wish in writing is, if possible, to give you a little comfort in your sorrow. 

Perhaps they have told you how your boy fell in the big British advance, badly, very badly, wounded and was brought over to England with, alas, many others of our brave boys, and sent to Buchanan Hospital in this town.  It is a sweet little place, where there are kind nurses and clever doctors and many friends, who love the soldiers and often visit them with fruit and other gifts. 

Into this dear little place they brought your gallant son – a son of the Empire, who had offered himself for the honour of the Motherland and for right against wrong.  He was dreadfully wounded – it is a wonder he lived to reach England, but God saw fit to call him home – his work on earth was done, and now he has heard the great ‘Well done’.

He was laid to rest in a lovely spot, with many of his wounded comrades from the other hospitals following, also many friends to show respect and gratitude to a brave soldier.  The coffin was covered with the Union Jack and the Federal flag and heaps of beautiful wreaths of flowers.  The Royal Sussex Regiment sent the bearers and a firing party to honour him and when the ‘Last Post’ was sounded I feel sure that many prayers were offered for his dear ones far away that our Father would comfort you in your sorrow. 

I waited behind with a few others and arranged the flowers, and I gathered a few and sent them to you yesterday with a piece of ribbon off one of the wreaths, the one the Hospital Board sent, and also the card that was on the wreath sent by his comrades in Hospital.  Surely it will be a little comfort to know he was laid to rest with much sympathy and the greatest respect, and my personal sympathy I offer to you and al his friends. 

I saw a good deal of him, but, he was not able to talk much, but we gathered he had a father and mother and he was worrying because he had had no news for months.  But, of course, with the German submarines sinking the boats the letters might easily be lost. 

All did their best for him, and everyone was grieved that he was past saving his life.  We cannot understand these things, but we must try and pray for strength to bear up.  No one who had seen his sufferings could wish him to live.  Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends, and surely now he wears the martyr’s crown, where all pain and sorrow and weeping is put away.

Goodbye dear friends, and may God bless you.