Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Stretching my imagination back to revisit William’s trip up the Nile in 1917, I liken his story to scenes from a Agatha Christie movie, without the stress of a murder, although a death in the camp might add a great sense of mystery.  Perhaps the crash of a falling slab of stone during their visit to Karnac, could explain his ongoing problems with bad headaches.  There are endless plot possibilities, as Mrs Christie has shown viewers on numerous occasions against the backdrop of a supersized temple or an archaeological dig. Wouldn’t it wonderful for the clues to be scattered between remnants of antiquity that marked his trail.  Well, that can wait for another story; one must stick to the known facts for this one.

In bringing William’s story to life, I have worn the hat of an archaeologist myself, trying to uncover information and photos of the luxor Hotel, where the three men stayed in Luxor.  Digging around on the internet has only uncovered a few photos, although they do give an indication of how it appeared back in 1917. Of course, photos are only interesting when accompanied by a story.

The Luxor Hotel was one of the first working hotels in Luxor, and was built in 1877 by John Cook, son of the famous travel agent Thomas Cook.  Its opening coincided with some monumental archaeological discoveries; most of those exploration missions were led by the Egyptology scientist Howard Carter, who discovered the Tomb of the young Egyptian King, Tutankhamen in January 1914.  Interestingly, the war halted the digs and the tomb wasn’t uncovered until almost a decade later. (1)

 

 

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Since discovering the below-mentioned website, I went for a wander through William’s forest of clues that he left for me, behind the cupboard doors.  My fingers walked through piles of cards and the like, and as if he was guiding my hands, a postcard of the Luxor Hotel appeared from nowhere.

Now that was not the only interesting artifact to make a most timely appearance.  I had also scoured thousands of images of the Temple of Karnac, looking for images of the markings left by Napoleon’s men, to no avail.  Then, out of thin air (and dust) materialized a photo taken by William himself.  The inscription on the back answered my question – the image was the one I was looking for.  I think Great Grandfather was guiding my hand, as he has done many times before.

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Photo:  William Lyons’ collection.  This photo is quite small, however, by enlarging the image has brought out the feint details of paintings applied to the stone which were not visible on the snapshot itself.

Although, I sense that Great Grandfather is guiding and assisting me, I wish I could meet him, face to face.  I would love to know what he thinks about Howard Carter’s final and most impressive discovery.  Afterall, Great Grandfather visited the Tombs of the Kings, totally unaware that Tutankhamun’s treasure lay beneath his feet.

(1)  historichotels.com.eg/en/luxor-hotel/overview.html

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Luxor


Afternoon of February 13th 1917

William felt a freedom that had eluded him, for the past two years.  Wandering between the towering columns of the Temple of Karnak, he transcended between millennia, losing himself to the engineering feats of ancient man.  Walking in the footsteps of great creators and invaders alike, he pondered a question, to which he wasn’t sure there was an answer.

 “How can it be?” he thought aloud as his vision soared skyward to the lotus capital of a giant column.

Overhearing him, Captain Stevenson enquired, “How can what be, my friend?”

“Oh, I was thinking about the mysteries of mankind,” William said wistfully, his voice trailing off as he remained in deep thought.

“Egypt is a land full of mysteries,” Captain Stevenson mused.

William looked at his friend and nodded in agreement.  “I keep asking myself how man can achieve such magnificence, and yet, he is capable of such unfathomable destruction?  Moreover, the question is: Why?”

“Good question, considering the current state of the world,” Captain Stevenson answered.  “I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid.”

All three men continued to stroll through the centre of the massive colonnade that once supported the temple roof.  Grandeur commanded their silence.  Against the bright cloudless, blue sky, the yellow sandstone structures, although worn by sand and sun, still stood as golden symbols of immense power.  William held a camera to his eye and captured the details, before they faded from memory.  He knew that he would need photographic evidence, to accompany the stories he would tell his family at home.  How else would they believe him?

More questions streamed into William’s thoughts, like a rapid current. The how, where and whys of what he saw were overwhelming.   Leaning against the base of a giant column, he unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out a small notebook and pencil.  He recorded his questions for further reference and scribbled a list of new facts he had acquired that afternoon from a local guide.

Before moving on, William, feeling parched from the dry heat, removed the cork stopper from the wool-clad water bottle that hung on a leather strap across his shoulder.  Taking a few swigs, he tasted a grittiness in his mouth.  Blasted sand! He cursed to himself.  He had learned in his two years in Egypt that sand gets into everything, even food.  It was totally unavoidable. Taking another sip, he replaced the cork and let the bottle suspend once more across his torso.  He then continued his exploration, retreating to a shaded arcade that was  guarded by a row of giant seated, human forms carved out of stone; some were still in perfect condition, others had lost their upper bodies.

The three soldiers weren’t the only visitors to the site that day, although at times they could be forgiven for believing they were.  The immensity of the temple made one feel like an ant on the desert floor.  Even voices were muffled to a murmur that buzzed softly at intervals as they wandered in and around the thick sandstone walls and monolithic columns that acted as sound barriers.  The only annoying disruption in their pleasant meanderings were the hawkers who appeared from nowhere, trying to sell their wares.

“Postcards?”  announced a hawker as he waved a fan of cards in front of William.

He stopped to take a look at the cards, he already had quite a collection to take home.

Choosing several cards that depicted the Temple,  he asked, “how much?”

The man gave William a slight bow of the head and said, “For you sir, one pound.”

William chuckled and shook his head, knowing that he was asking too much.  “I’ll pay you 1 piastres. No more.”

“Sir, my price very good price for you,” the Hawker persisted, his smile revealing a mouth full of tobacco stained teeth.

William stood his ground and the man finally relented.

Walking away with his purchase, William commented to his companions, “One could write a book about these pests.”

They all laughed and kept walking.

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Postcard of Luxor Hotel from William Lyons’ collection.

After their return to the Luxor Hotel, later that afternoon, they bought coffees at the bar and ventured out onto the garden terrace.  William took a sip from his small glass, savouring the thick bittersweet concoction which he had acquired a taste for of late.  He then pulled out some folded sheets of writing paper from his pocket and placed them on the table, along with his pocket notebook and several picture postcards.  Referring to his notes, he continued the letter to Cis that he began on the train, the night before.

This afternoon, we visited the Temple of Karnak which is on the East bank of the Nile and on the outskirts of Luxor.  We took a good few snapshots, but no photo can give you a true idea of the vastness of these ruins which covered about 200 acres.  Originally, the river ran to the East of the temple, but now it is fully one and a half miles further West. It will never be able to play any of these pranks again, as the great Assuan Dam and other smaller ones higher up have complete control of the floods now.  A double row of ram-headed sphinxes ran from Karnak to a temple close to the Colossi of Memnon – only about three miles.  On one of the walls, Napoleon’s engineers have cut into the stone the latitude and longitude of the main temples, obelisks etc. – also Republique Francaise. 

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Postcard from William Lyons’ collection. Ram-headed Sphinxes that run from Karnac to Colossi of Memnon.

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Photo from William Lyons’ collectionInscription:  Part of Karnac Temple.  Supposed to have been destroyed by an earthquake. On first wall on right of alleyway, are inscriptions by savants of Napoleon’s Engineer Corps.

 

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Photo from William Lyons’ collection.  Colossi of Memnon.

Looking up from his task, he enjoyed the tranquillity of the surrounding gardens and took another sip from his glass.  He felt at peace.

Fingering a postcard of the Luxor Hotel, he had bought that day,  he began writing again.

We are staying at the Luxor Hotel.  It is not much to look at, but very pleasant to stay at.  They feed you well and charge ditto.  The bar and billiard room are in one large room, detached from the main building.  The grounds are large and very pretty – all kinds of trees, shrubs and flowers, seats and even electric lights. 

In the background, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr were discussing the cost of tipping.  It was a practice that was unheard of in Australia, and a topic that had regularly found its way into their conversations.  Smiling to himself, William continued to write.

The tipping system, for which they say the wealthy Americans (in pre-war days) are to blame, is the only fly in the cream.  It makes me shudder now, to think of what it has cost me for this trip.  Could almost fill a page in connection with the pests. Being an officer and a gentleman (?), one cannot deal with them as they feel inclined to do. 

Folding the unfinished letter and placing it back in his pocket, along with his pencil, William settled back in his cane chair and watched the dying sun bathe the garden with golden cheer.  Stirring the thick brown sediment that sat at the bottom of his glass, he raised it and urged his companions to follow suit.

“Cheers, chaps,” he announced, with a glint of humour in his eyes. “Here’s to tomorrow’s ride to the Tombs of the Kings.”

Monday Musings from The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

Having already tasted the beginning of William’s trip up the Nile, I would like to share with you, the letter that inspired the piece and the next few installments.  First, I would like to tell you how I happened upon this wonderful piece of history.

As I have mentioned previously, the process of discovery has stretched over decades, and each morsel of the past, however minute, has lit up my eyes with a sense of appreciation and wonderment.  Like the treasures of the tombs of Egypt, the details and treasures of Great Grandfather’s past, sat in dark and dusty rooms, awaiting for the right beam of light to highlight their significance.

The day was a Sunday and I was taking on the role of custodian over the contents of the old cupboards.  No longer safe from harm’s way, the doors were open to the vermin that had taken over my Grandparents’ empty house.  To save our family history from disappearing altogether, I gathered up the boxes and crates and loaded them into my car to take home.  Before I did, however, I sat and took a random look through letters and cards, which I am sure I had fingered many times over.

I  opened a photo packet to find a bundle of black and white snaps, wrapped in a receipt from the shop in Cairo where they were printed.  Fingering through the photos, I was mesmerized by images of Egyptian monuments and temples taken almost a century before.  Of course, I knew that Great Grandfather had taken them, but I was not aware of the full story.

By then, I was acquainted with Great Grandfather’s habit of tucking pieces of folded paper containing notes, mud maps of battles or random words, in pockets of his diary or inside the cover of books.  Checking the pockets of the photo packet  I found an envelope marked in his handwriting “Trip up the Nile”.  Of course, my curiosity nudged my hand to open the envelope and to pull out a thick wad of folded paper.  It was an eight page account of that trip, written in February 1917.

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I don’t need to tell you how excited I was upon finding this treasure.  I subsequently discovered that various family members already possessed a typewritten copy of that letter.  However, nothing can can compare with the original tome, written by Great Grandfather’s hand.  Today, I will share with you page one of that letter.  Please click on the link below and sit back and enjoy the read.

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Trip Up The Nile – Leaving Cairo

February 14th, 1917

William and his companions, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr, alighted from Cairo’s Bab El-Louk Station at 1700.  Brushed by cool, late afternoon air, they enjoyed the short walk down Rue Bostane to where it met Suliman Pasha Street.  Turning right, they could see the National Hotel, beaming like a glimmer of hope against the fading light.  For the three travellers, who lived in a desolate town of tents and dust, her refined beauty added bounce to their army boots.

The National was not as luxurious as other popular establishments, however, it was still aglow with a certain colonial glamour that attracted a decent clientele.  More pretentious hotels, like the Shepheard or the Savoy, upheld a formal dress code for evening diners.  The National, on the other hand, relaxed her standards and became favoured by military personnel, colonial civil servants and nurses. [1]

The men paused, their eyes ran up and down the five storeyed façade, and caressed the curves of the minaret styled towers, that guarded each corner. Row after row of green shuttered windows peered seductively back at them through delicate lace iron balconies.  Surrendering to their desires, to enjoy  pre-dinner drinks, they strode between the two columns that flanked the entrance.

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Two hours later, the men were finishing their dinner in The St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room. [2]

William glanced down at his wrist watch, not wanting to miss their train .

“Chaps, it’s 1900,” he reminded the others, knowing their train for Luxor was departing at 2000.

The others nodded, but made no effort to leave. Nor did William. After-all, they still had an hour.  Oblivious to the chiming of silver on china, and the indecipherable chatter of fellow diners, William leaned back against his chair, savouring that satisfying moment when one has had his fill of hearty, home cooked food.  His potage and pom frits [3] were better than anything the mess had ever served. Washing the remnants down with his last dribble of beer, he felt complete and renewed.  Driven by thoughts of the wealthy adventurers, who filled the restaurant before the war, he suggested to his companions they should make a move.

The three travelers collected their great coats and kit bags from the cloak counter.  Slinging their bags over their shoulders, their boots quietly padded across the exotic rugs that softened the tiled floor of the reception hall.  A steady flow of military personnel ebbed in and out of the room.  Small groups stood, discussing the current state of the war.  Others sunk into rattan chairs, that sat plump and content, beneath potted palms. Cigarette smoke rose curiously through their stringy fronds.

The patrons of the National, like elsewhere in Cairo, were transients, seeking some form of enlightenment.  Whether they were soldiers yearning for an evening of hope and normalcy, or visitors wishing to embrace a lost past;  they all wanted some of the Egypt’s magic.  And, William was no different. He sought to satisfy the cravings of his curious mind.

Gazing wondrously at his surroundings, he explored the elaborately patterned frescos that washed the walls and high ceilings in soft shades of blue, russet and gold.  He studied the details of photographs of antiquity, and  urns, adorned with hieroglyphics.

As if reading William’s mind, Captain Stevenson commented, “The hotels of Cairo are certainly splendid.”

“My word,” William replied with a chuckle, “nothing like hotels at home.”

“And this is not as grand as some,” Piped in Lieutenant Barr.  “The Shepheard is a palace.”

“Indeed!” William had seen the Shepheard first hand.

Shepheards Hotel Cairo

Photo: Pinterest Shepheard Hotel, Cairo

Evidence of the country’s incredible history was everywhere.  A large, framed photograph of the Sphinx reminded William of a fact he had gleaned from Charles Bean’s guide “What to Know in Egypt”. [4]

“He’s a portrait of Kephren, the Pharaoh who built the second pyramid.” William informed the others, not out of a desire to impress, but rather, out of his fascination for Egyptian history.

“The head of a king on the body of a lion,” he mused.

Facts, no matter how small and obscure, were like food to William’s soul.  He knew that the magic of Egypt would normally be out of reach for a sugar cane farmer from the Haughton River. The war had given him access to a fascinating world, although, he conceded, it came at an enormous cost, for both himself and his family.

Upon approaching the front entrance, the glass door was opened by the hotel footman.  Looking splendid in a long black western style jacket that fell to just above the ankles, he greeted them in perfect English.

“Good bye Gentlemen,” He said, with a slight bow to his head.  His maroon tarboosh was firmly anchored to his short black curly hair, allowing a black tassel to swing freely to one side.

“Salam”, William replied in Arabic.  The doorman’s brown face softened into a white toothy grin and another off centred bow.

The three men re-emerged onto Suleyman Pasta Street, as a tram squealed to a stop in front of the hotel. Hurriedly, they hauled their kit bags through the passing foot traffic, stepped onto the rear of the tram and settled into seats inside.

As the carriage clanged forward, the fresh evening breeze brushed William’s face, through the open windows, with the aromas of spicy street food and warm soothing coffee. Flushed from alcohol, he felt alive and free.  The streets were moving with a fascinating mix of people who hailed from ancient times.  Although, the reminders were there.  They were like an infinite thread, woven through the city’s fabric.  He could never truly escape the reason he was in Egypt.  Closing his eyes he thought about the next four days, away from it all.

 

NOTES:

  1. The National Hotel – Cairo
  2. St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room –  The restaurant at the National Hotel, Cairo.  I have a receipt that William kept from this restaurant.
  3. Pottage and pomfret – A meat and vegetable stew and French fries, listed on the abovementioned invoice.
  4.  What to Know in Egypt – A guide written for Australian soldiers in 1915 by War historian, Charles Bean. I found a copy in William’s belongings. He purchased a copy for 1 piastre.

New Beginnings

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William Lyons (right)

William began 1917 with a feeling of certainty that had evaded him for the past two  years. His promotion to Captain in the preceding November and his new role as Commander of ‘A’ Squadron of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment were good reasons for his renewed confidence.  Stationed at the Moascar training camp near Ismailia on the Suez Canal, he felt as certain as one could in the circumstances, that his new role and home would be permanent for the remainder of the war.

On the morning of January 25th , William sat at his desk eager to commence opening a bundle of mail from home.  Due to the delays in the mail service between Australia and Egypt, he was accustomed to receiving several letters, written weeks apart by the same hand.  On that day, he received two letters from Mater and three from Cis.

Starting with the largest envelope from Cis, he tore it open and pulled out a letter wrapped around a small pocket diary.  Opening the diary’s dark green leather cover, he swelled with pride as he read the inscription written in the neat copy book hand of a child.

 “To dear dada from the boys,” it said.  “Wishing him a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.”

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Lifting the small book to his face, he inhaled the new leather, trying to extract memories of home, of his four sons.  He then opened it flat on his desk top and, using the tiny pencil that was tucked inside, he wrote:

Capt. W.M. Lyons,

5th L.H.Regiment A.I.F.

 

Followed by:

Next of Kin

Wife:     Mrs Harriet Lyons

                Haughton River

                Townsville

                Queensland

 

Reading Cis’ letter, he could feel his stomach tighten as she told him of her troubles at home.

“Father,” she wrote.  “has not been very helpful.  I set Tom up on jobs and when I check on him later, he is nowhere to be found and the tasks are left unfinished.  When he finally shows, I discover that Father had borrowed him to work at Burwood,”

William felt helpless as Cis voiced her woes.  ‘How can her Father be so selfish? He knows she is on her own.’

Two days later, on Saturday 27th he still felt unsettled when he found time to reply to Cis.

My Dear Cis,

 I have only just finishing catching up on your news.  Reading your long letters about life in “The Jungle” is like reading a good book.  Often, as was the case this week, I receive several letters together.  I always try to read them in chronological order.  However, sometimes a letter takes longer than others to reach me, leaving a gap in the story, for which I am forced to wait. And, what a wonderful surprise to receive a Christmas present from the boys, even if it arrived a month late! Please tell them that I shall put it to good use.

 Let us hope the rains you mentioned are setting in for a good wet season.  God knows, the cane needs it.  Padda chose well when he selected ‘Burwood’ with easy access to the river.  Fontenoy, on the other hand has to rely on the grace of God.  Speaking of Padda, it worries me that he is being so thoughtless.  Cis, you really need to be firm with him, as I am sure you will be.  Perhaps Tom needs to stand up to him as well, although we both know how formidable Padda can be.  I am pleased that Nelly, at least, is staying with you to help in the dairy.  Do you think a certain young man might be an added attraction?

 Living out here at Moascar does make a man hunger for the green tropics of home.  Our camp is a town of tents that stretches mile after mile across a desolate wasteland.  The heat gave way to rain in December and now we mostly experience cold winds which sweep everything in their path with lashings of dust.  Each day brings more of the same.  Wind and dust, interspersed with showers of rain.  Often due to the bad weather, we spend our days indoors.  The mess tent at times can be quite rowdy.  I must say, anything is preferable to the heat.  Even when your tent collapses, as mine did at 0330 one morning.  You can imagine the confusion as I scrambled in the dark, trying to cover up my bedding.  I spent the remainder of the night in the Quarter Master’s tent.  I was not amused at the time, but can laugh about it now.

 Life here is never boring, there is no time for that.  There are lots of comings and goings of men in transit.  Those in the Isolation Camp only stay for two weeks.  Once they are quarantined and cleared of illnesses, they are usually sent to France.  In the case of my regiment, our men are trained as reinforcements for the Fifth Light Horse Regiment.  They are sent out to the regiment when required.  Can you guess who is in charge of our remount station?  Banjo Paterson himself.  I look forward to the day I might cross the path of the “Old Man from the Snowy River”. Now wouldn’t that be a treat, and a good story to tell the boys?  By all accounts he is an expert horseman and is doing an exemplary job of training unbroken Walers.

 My new post has been demanding of my time, arranging instruction classes for personnel, delivering lectures, among other administrative duties.  Although I do still find time for leisurely pursuits.  Last Sunday I walked into Ismailia to watch a cricket match between our regiment and the 12th.  I’m sad to say, the later won.

So, your little sister wishes to join the Nursing Corps?  I imagine Padda is not amused.  Remember his reaction when I enlisted?  Mind you, Lily is a strong-minded girl, I’m sure she can handle whatever life throws at her, including Padda’s Irish temper.  If she is intent on joining, I pray that she will be sent to Egypt rather than France. I have heard that the conditions on the Western Front are abysmal.  For her own safety, the Egyptian hospitals would be preferable.  Besides, I’d be glad of the company of a pretty face from home.

Did I tell you that I have asked for leave in February?  I am hoping to travel up the Nile River for three or four days, to see Luxor and perhaps Assuan. Two other chaps, Capt. Stevensen of the 12th and Ltn Barr of the 7th have voiced some interest in joining me.  I will tell you more once our plans are finalized.

 Do keep your chin up Cis and remember you must be firm with Padda.  I will also write him and ask that he assist you in any way he can.  Between the two of us, we might hit a sympathetic nerve behind that blustering exterior.

 Please look after yourself and tell the boys I will write to them soon.

 Will

 Folding the letter, William stared through the opening of his tent, oblivious to the winds outside stirring up a blinding fog of dust.  From the beginning of the war, his purpose seemed so clear.  He was a soldier, first and foremost.  Despite sensing Cis’ fear between the lines of her letters, he always replied with reassurances about his safety, which they both knew were just words.  How could he properly deal with her fears when he had difficulty facing his own?  Now, Padda’s actions forced him to feel the weight of his family’s burden. Or was that his intention all along?

‘But what can I do from the other side of the world?’ He thought to himself, knowing that the words of advice he had just written to his wife, were well meaning, but just words.

POST NOTE:
Please note that the letters included in this post are entirely the creation of the writer.  However, the information in them is based on facts gleaned from Will’s diary written in the year 1917, information gleaned from family and historical research.  And, yes, Banjo Paterson was indeed running the Remount Station at Moascar whilst William was posted there.  Whether they ever met is a matter for speculation, however it is entirely likely as he mentions “remounts” often in his diary.
Also:
  • Mater was William’s Mother, Mary Lyons.
  • Padda was William’s Father in Law, George Deane
  • The Jungle was William’s affectionate term for Fontenoy or home
  • Nelly, Cis’ youngest sister, and Tom Hourigan were married in 1935, although the romance was kindled many years before.
  • Lily Deane joined the Nursing Corps in 1917.

 

Happy New Year

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2nd January 1917 – Moascar, Egypt

 

Dear Cis and the boys,

I wish you all, who await on the other side of the world for my safe return, a happy and safe new year.

Whilst you all bask in warmth and sunshine, spare a thought for us soldiers marooned in the cold Egyptian desert.  The Mess is rather lively today as I sit and write this note.  Everyone is favoring the warmth of indoors rather than weather the strong cold winds.  I’m not sure which I prefer – the cold winds or the lashings of sand that accompany them.

With the dawning of 1917, my life has taken a positive turn.  I was promoted to Captain in November 1916 and was subsequently offered the posting of Commanding Officer of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment, which I might add I gratefully accepted.   This regiment is a reserve regiment attached to the Fifth Light Horse.  I am looking forward to utilizing my 20 years of experience as a drill instructor.  I have been informed that this will be my posting for the remainder of the war.

My permanent home now will be our camp at Ismailia.  This is not to say that I will not ever be in harm’s way, but at least I will have a permanent base.  Mail should be received more regularly here as well.  Last year, being isolated out along the Canal, meant that I didn’t not hear from home for weeks at a time.  Now I am close to a telegraph and mail services and places to relieve the boredom on my days of leave.

Speaking of leave, I have organized with two chaps from other regiments, a trip up the Nile. Hopefully we will be allowed a few days off in February.  This country is so diverse and fascinating that it would be a shame not to see anything of it before returning home.  I have heard about an Archaeologist called Howard Carter who discovered several tombs of ancient pharaohs in what is known as the Valley of the Kings.   Apparently, he was in the process of digging for the tomb of a boy King called Tutankhamun when war broke out.  His plans were thwarted and he abandoned his dig.  We plan to visit the area, to see the tombs for ourselves.  What a sight for sand weary eyes they must be.

I also look forward to seeing areas that are cultivated with sugar cane.  I have heard that French and Belgian companies have established large mills along the Nile.  Maybe I can take home some hints for improving our crops on Fontenoy and Burwood.  Padda would be pleased.  In any case I will write to you about our adventures in due course.

Cis, I must close, so wish you and the boys a great new year.  Hopefully, you’ll enjoy a good wet season in the coming weeks.  Tis a pity I can’t bundle up some of the showers we have had today and send to Fontenoy.  If only?

I hope you are all well in my absence.

Will

 

Note:  This letter wasn’t written by William Lyons, moreover I created it from factual information I have collected through my research and actual letters he wrote home.  Regarding the weather on 2nd January 1917 – this was retrieved from William’s diary entry on that date.  

 

Merry Christmas

With Christmas drawing near, I would like to take the time to thank all my followers for diligently reading my account of William Lyons’ military life.  Keeping up my posts has been difficult of late, hence the irregularity of posting.  I am currently a member of a new writing circle which takes up much of my time.  The good news is that with the invaluable assistance and advice I have received from that group, my Great Grandfather’s story is bound to become much more enjoyable for you readers.  Writing is an ever-evolving process and the journey has been a huge learning curve.

As William’s year draws to a close, I will be taking a break as he did during the latter months of 1916.  This will give me time to continue my research and to organize my thoughts  before recommencing the story in 1917.  However, before I go, I wish to take you back to Christmas 1916.

On 22nd December that year, William received his Christmas Billy in Egypt, filled with Christmas goodies.  The items he unpacked from that tin billy would have lit up his eyes with delight, although to us, they were everyday items that we all take for granted. To a soldier, the gift of tobacco, matches, razor blades, knitted socks, a pencil, writing paper, cake, sauce, pickles, tinned fruit, cocoa, coffee and Anzac biscuits, was the equivalent to finding gold. Any deviation from their staple diet of tinned bully beef and hard army biscuits was rapturously received.

Xmas billy

The Christmas Billies were organized by the Australian Comforts Fund which was officially formed in August 1916.  They regularly sent parcels of little ‘luxuries’ to the troops, the biggest item being hand knitted socks which were urgently needed by men in the trenches of France.  Due to the cold and mud, soldiers could not wash and dry their socks.  In the winter of 1916, the Australian Comforts Fund provided 80000 hand knitted socks.

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Women distribute Christmas billies to men in Cairo, Egypt, December 1915.

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Items included in Comfort Fund packages.

I do not know whether my Great Grandmother, Harriet Lyons was in the Comforts Fund during the Great War.  She was not afforded the luxury of spare time as she had a farm to run, although she might have whiled away her evening hours, once her chores were done and her children were in bed, knitting socks.  I do know that she was an active member of the Australian Comforts Fund during the second world war after she and William had moved to Townsville.  Her grandchildren, Norma White, Beryl Renwick and my father (Keith Lyons) all remember attending the Townsville Comfort Fund Group with their grandmother.

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Miss Coll, from Melbourne, knits socks directly from fleece and the Australian Comforts Fund packs them into bales (on the left) to ship them overseas. c.1916

I’ll leave you with an amusing little anecdote that Norma White told me about her Grandparents.

I attended the Comfort Fund Knitting Group with Grandma one day and when we arrived home, Granddad was kneeling over a flower bed.

When he saw us coming through the gate, he announced, all pleased with himself, 

” Cis, I have weeded your garden”

Grandma, lost for words, just rolled her eyes.  Grandad had pulled out all her new flower seedlings as well as the weeds.

The family always said, he was NOT a farmer!  On that note, I wish you all a fantastic Christmas hope you will all join me again behind the cupboard doors in 2018.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Research can present the most wonderful surprises, as I discovered when photographing the old cupboards that originally graced the walls of my Great Grandparents’ home.  Now sitting empty and alone in the shed, it is difficult to believe that they have yielded so much valuable information.   As I clicked away, my father pointed to an old tin trunk that sat on top of a chest of drawers and said, “there are still some things in that old trunk!”

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At first glance it appeared dirty and nondescript, as you can see from the above photograph.  However, I was very soon to realize that I had discovered a chest full of treasure, although I was yet to realize the real treasure that sat before my curious eyes.

The trunk contained a wooden box full of papers – newspaper cuttings, letters, cards and memorabilia from both the Boer War and and World War One.  These included detailed handwritten logs from Great Grandfather’s days as a Drill Instructor in southern Queensland prior to moving to the Haughton River district and there was even a notebook of verse, handwritten by my Great Grandmother during her school teaching days.

After lifting the box of papers out of the trunk and perusing each item with trembling fingers, I discovered a riding whip and a yellowing cloth bag containing some objects sitting in the bottom. The significance of the chest was starting to come to light.  Inside the bag were a set of spurs, two pieces that might have been part of a bridle and an unused military field bandage still in its fabric casing.

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The riding whip and a leather saddle bag found in the trunk.

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Note, the handle of the whip is the shape of a horse’s leg.

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Dad has researched the spurs and they are different to those used everyday by Light Horsemen.  Only last week, we took a closer look at the ‘blade’ under a magnified glass and discovered they are coins issued during Queen Victoria’s rein, so conclude they were part of his ‘dress’ uniform.

Now, you might be saying as you read this “wow, what a find!”  Well, the biggest treasure turned out to be the tin trunk itself. Hints of military green still shines through the century long accumulation of dirt and hornets nests and Great Grandfather’s painted initials can still be determined across the front.  Can you imagine my excitement as that light bulb went off in my head, telling me that Great Grandfather’s war trunk was sitting before my eyes?

With that realization, my father and I discussed how we were going to preserve this piece of treasure.  He suggested that he could sand blast it and give it a new coat of paint.  Fortunately, I visited the Jezzine Military Museum and happened upon similar trunks all equally as weathered by time.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, to leave it alone.  To a collector, it is more valuable in its current condition.  Not that I have any intentions of parting with it soon!

Old war trunk

Each little piece of treasure that I uncover stills fills me with a sense of wonderment.  They are all windows through which I can look into Great Grandfather’s world. I also hope that by bringing these pieces out from their hiding place, behind the old cupboard doors, other members of his extended family can appreciate that precious part of their family history as much as I do.

Romani – Night of October 2, 1916

Later that night the canteen marquee  was a raucous blast in the dark.  William’s senses were overwhelmed by the bitter fumes of beer that accompanied the roar of singing and drunken laughter, as he fought his way to the bar, guided by the occasional candle.  Lights were not permitted for fear of being bombed by enemy planes.

The barman filled his quart pot with frothy beer and he then squeezed his way back to a spot where a young trooper sat on the ground writing in a notebook that sat on an upturned box and illuminated by a candle.

“You’ll strain your eyes soldier,” William spoke as he also sat on his haunches beside him.

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Trooper Ion (Jack) Idriess – 5th Light Horse Regiment.

Lifting his eyes from his notebook, the Trooper smiled.

“What is your name Trooper?” William asked.

“Idriess, Sir,” The young soldier replied. “Jack Idriess.”

“Jack, I’m William,” he replied. “Are you writing a book?”

He noticed the pages were covered with handwriting from top to bottom.

“Just a diary sir,  putting pen to paper keeps me sane.  Besides, if something happens…” he hesitated.  “well you know. ”

William nodded, taking a sip from his beer.

 “So, where are you from Jack?’ William enquired.

“North Queensland.  Herberton to be exact.”

“I’m a North Queenslander myself. Minehan Siding, south of Townsville.” William enjoyed the connection to home, a place that seems so very far away.  It was like a dream, a long lost memory.

Sipping his beer, William enjoyed chatting with Trooper Idriess.  He could feel the effects of the alcohol relax his mind and body, for the first time in such a long time.  That was the first time any drink was in such good supply.  A warm feeling cocooned his being as he soaked up the air of jubilation, allowing himself the one small luxury of feeling incredibly lucky that he had survived thus far.  The feeling passed almost as soon as it appeared.  He never allowed himself to dwell on it for long, in case his luck changed, well aware that others have not been so fortunate.

“You know, son,” William mused.  “In some ways, we are very fortunate.”

“How is that?” The younger man appeared puzzled.

“We are surrounded by history, we have followed in the footsteps of the Pharaohs, the Romans and Napolean,” William replied, allowing the beer to free his thoughts.

“Indeed we have,” Idriess nodded in agreement.  “Here’s to ancient soldiers.”

Both men raised their quart pots in celebration, avoiding any discussions about their previous weeks’ stunts.

Jack Idriess closed his notebook and slipped it in a pocket of his great coat.  He then bid William goodnight and disappeared in the crowd.

William tipped up his quart pot to savour the last drop of beer and stood up, stretching his back before heading out towards the tents that stood like ghostly apparitions against the black sky. The cold night air fought against his great coat as his boots quietly sifted through the sand. He pulled his leather gloves over his long thin fingers and raised his woollen collar so it shielded his long bare neck.  Despite the slight discomfort, he was thankful for the cool evening. He was thankful for being alive.

 “Free at last,” he thought to himself.  “How strangeHow can one suddenly turn off the noise? The whizz of bullets, the screaming of shrapnel. The moaning of men.”

Since the Charge at Katia on August 5th, the regiment had been involved in vicious conflicts with the enemy.  The heat and lack of water exacerbated the situation.  At times the heat was so intense that after half an hour of solid shooting, rifles were too hot to hold.  There were days when the torrential raining of bullets and shrapnel continued for hours.  Horses and men dropped like flies onto the sands that turned red from blood.

Suddenly, William was drawn out of his dark void of thoughts by  a wailing sound that seemed familiar but was totally unexpected. As it increased in intensity, the wailing was accompanied by the beating of drums.  The outline of men  appeared like mad ghosts in the desert.  There were bagpipers squealing to the drum beats as the band of merry men marched across the sand, some performing an impromptu jig, others singing with glee.

William smiled at the merry band of minstrels as they jigged across his field of vision, fuelled by beer and joy.  God knows, they deserve it.  He knew how short lived joy could be in their unpredictable world.

He let the noise fade away as he thought of Jock Dakers, his Scottish brother in law, and wondered how he was faring since he enlisted.  His attention then switched to home, treasuring the moment, as he tried to make out the outline of his squadron’s group of tents against the dark sky.  He looked forward to collapsing onto his bedroll and awaking the following morning, knowing with a degree of certainty what the day would bring. Although he knew he had no control over his dreams.

Notes:

Ion  (Jack) Idriess mentions the drinks in the huge canteen marquee at Romani in “The Desert Column” – beer was provided to mark the end of the campaign at that time.  He also mentioned that he encountered the Scottish bagpipers and drummers on his way back to his tent. I have no way of knowing whether he and William Lyons knew each other, although they were in the same regiment.  It is likely.  

Romani – 2 October 1916

The Fifth Light Horse Camp at Romani was unusually quiet on the morning of October 2nd . No reveille sounded to break the sleeping silence. No twinkling campfires glowed against the predawn sky. No nervous fingers clutched smoldering cigarettes to desperate mouths seeking courage to face another day. The previous afternoon saw wretched battle weary men and horses stagger into camp, totally depleted by heat and thirst. They were now bestowed the well-earned luxury of rest.

By mid-morning the camp had awoken and men were busy readying themselves for General Chauvel’s address. The General’s modest demeanor belied a certain professionalism that William admired. He knew the capabilities of his troops and always endeavoured to keep losses to a minimum. Following each difficult stunt he visited his troops and offered words of praise, lifting morale.

He had already scrubbed away two weeks’ accumulation of dirt and sand before pulling his only clean shirt over his slight frame. He looked down in dismay at the faded murky colour and the patches he had hand sewn over tears. Many of his uniforms were now beyond repair, having weathered months of sun and physical exertion. Fingering the frayed cuffs, he admitted It will have to do, as he hurriedly tucked it into his equally worn jodhpurs. Next, he grabbed his misshapened hat, with its emu plumes reduced to a lifeless tuft, and began stroking it with a small brush. The damn sand gets into everything!He cursed as his hand busily worked the felt. Once satisfied, he then tried to tame the sagging brim with his hands, but was forced to concede defeat. Placing it over his crop of dark shaggy hair, he swapped the shade of his tent for the blistering outdoors.

William’s jaded appearance was soon overshadowed by his taut straight carriage. With firm deliberate strides he joined the procession of troopers who trudged along deep sandy grooves to the parade ground. Through squinting eyes, he surveyed the lifeless landscape with its sparse scattering of small timber outbuildings, endless fence-lines of stables and mappings of telegraph lines. He felt dwarfed by the massive expanse of white glowing sand that appeared to swallow all forms of life. It was a hostile world in which people could survive, but it had proven time and again to be cruel and unforgiving. He closed his eyes at intervals to ease the sharp stabbings of bright light, whilst his feet kept ploughing the sand in automation.

By the time William reached the parade ground, it was already a teeming mass of khaki. Five hundred men were being organized on either side of a path wide enough to accommodate the arrival of the General and his entourage on horseback. William stood on the outer edge of the crowd, preferring not to be hemmed in by the heat of so many bodies packed together beneath the sun. Feeling his back burn through his shirt, he hoped they would not have to stand too long.

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General Chauvel addressing troops near Romani, 1916.  Photo: Australian War Memorial

General Chauvel’s appearance on his dark shiny steed, was met by a hushed crowd. He sat straight in his clean khaki tunic, neatly strapped with leather belting and a plumed slouch hat appointed jauntily on his cropped grey hair. Even his boots tucked into the stirrups were brushed to shining perfection. He was the antithesis of the ragged men he was about to address. Many were unshaven, some wore shorts, others leggings or puttees. Most men, including officers, no longer possessed tunics, instead wore sleeveless flannels, shirts or singlets. All wore hats that had been shaped into dilapidation by heat, sand and war. Some were ventilated by bullet holes. [1] All eyes followed the General, as he deftly urged his horse through the centre of the regiment. They were men yearning for hope, words of reassurance.

The General’s horse obediently turned so his master could face his subjects. The five officers who accompanied him, positioned their horses in the same manner, to his right.

“Good morning men!” General Chauvel bellowed . “ I hope you all managed to get some rest last night.”

“First, a word on a serious subject that has been brought to my attention,” he continued.

Pausing for a brief moment, he eyed the curious crowd before announcing, “Women!”

As you are aware, familiarity with native women is not advised.” He stressed. “If they are respectable, they will get into trouble. And if they are not, then you will more than likely contract venereal disease.”

Laughter rippled down the lines of men and even William couldn’t control the lines that softened his sun-baked face.

“You may laugh now,” General Chauvel interjected looking out at his amused audience. “but you won’t be amused if you fall prey to the disease. Cairo, has been a hotbed for gonorrhoea and syphilis since the Roman times. So, please, if you cannot exercise some restraint, then I suggest you provide yourself with certain prophylactics beforehand.” [2]

Conversations broke out between men, accompanied by laughter, nudging of elbows, the rolling of eyes. William shook his head at the reactions, enjoying the light-hearted mood. The subject of the General’s talk was nothing new, moreover, it was a good note on which to end the past months of hardship and heavy losses.

“Qui-et!” the General bellowed, raising his right hand to subdue the noisy crowd.

“Now, on the subject of saluting,” he continued in a tone that immediately grabbed the attention of everyone before him.

The General voiced the complaint of The British Command who objected to “those unruly Anzacs” due to the easing of formalities in the field. His words fell like lead bullets, silencing the throng of men.

William suspected that this lecture was coming as he had heard rumbles, the odd word in passing, sly remarks by British officers. He sympathized with men who were not accustomed to the discipline of military life, despite acknowledging that discipline was imperative in times of conflict.

To the relief of the audience, General Chauvel did not dwell on the subject for long before offering words that the men sorely craved.

“Men, I would like to congratulate you all for your tremendous effort. We, and I say We, have successfully pushed the enemy from the Suez. For now, at least.”

The mood of the crowd lightened once again and General Chauvel went on advise, “Lastly men, you will all be sent, in small batches, to Alexandria and Port Said, on short leave.” [3]

William sensed the relief that swept throughout the regiment like a gust of cool sea breeze. Since leaving Katia on August 6th, the Regiment had followed a treacherous route. He glanced around at faces, baked brown and carved beyond recognition by deep lines of adversity. They were old men who had prematurely lost their youth. Despite the current mood of jubilation, he knew that their staring eyes belied a terrible truth. They’ve seen too much. Way too much! He knew that many of them would frequent the bars and brothels whilst on leave, despite the General’s advice. How could he blame them? They were no longer young men looking to a bright future. They have all seen futures cut down in a flash. He knew for certain that ‘now’ was all they had. For many of them, there would be no tomorrows.

The dispersing congregation of troopers forced William to break away from his maudlin thoughts with a determination to enjoy his day of rest. Hearing the distant whinnying of horses, he thought aloud, “But first, there are horses to feed!” and marched off with his usual long straight strides in the direction of the stable lines that marked the outer boundary of the camp.

REFERENCES:

[1]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess

[2]          Guide to Australiasian Soldiers to Cairo – C. Beane

[3]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess – Pg. 207