|Seven decades later
it was an endless parade down Melbourne's Collins Street with participants
looking like they belonged to the Grandpa Brigade. Average age hinged
around seventy. Servicemen bedecked with medals and citations were WW2's
Aussie veterans for survivors of Gallipoli had either passed away or could
no longer walk the extra mile.
But what I didn't expect to find one
week later at a Canberra museum was the recurring mention of my suburban
hometown in Egypt. What, in the name of Waltzing Matilda could have linked
outback Bushies from Australia, to the town of Maadi located at the
opposite end of the globe! This, I vowed find out.
When WW1 broke out in the summer of
1914, the newly federated state of Australia had turned 14. Prior to 1901,
the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania etc. were separate
British crown colonies settled mostly by bounty hunters, sheep farmers
(remember Colleen McDowal's bestseller Thornbirds) and convicts.
Incidentally, not all Aussie immigrants were murderers and rapists. Back
then, steal a banana in London's Haymarket and it was more likely that you
ended up in Australia. Penal justice has since changed.
It all started when a Serb militant
killed the heir to Austria's throne in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The
ensuing funeral cortege had hardly reached the imperial crypt in Vienna
and Europe's imperialist powers were already polarizing themselves into
two opposing camps. Simultaneously the British Empire mobilized all the
able-bodied men it could muster in the UK and its far-flung dominions
including Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. What were
empires for if they couldn't provide human fodder.
Traveling by troop ships and
requisitioned P&O liners, thousands of Aussies disembarked in Suez and
Port Said on what was to be the first leg in the long and murderous
bloodbath of Gallipoli, and later to Palestine. Most of the young diggers
had never before left the Southern Hemisphere let alone Australia. Neither
had their horses for that matter. In those days, wars were fought with
horses and rifles, not h Uzi machine guns and Pershing missiles.
Once in Egypt the new arrivals needed a
rehab period to familiarize with the local climate and to await further
training and instruction. Australian camps mushroomed overnight outside
Cairo's empty expanses where the large-boned Aussie horses could come
round after a grueling five week journey. In Cairo alone there were camps
at Zeitoun, Mena House, Heliopolis, Kasr al-Nil and the Citadel.
Outside Cairo there was the famous base
of Mo'ascar near Suez. In Alexandria it was al-Hadra and in Upper Egypt,
Sohag. As for the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade under the command of
Colonel Forsyth, it camped in the vicinity of the tiny new suburb of
Barely eight years old, Maadi was under
the jurisdiction of the London-based Egyptian Delta Land & Investment
Company. Most of the townies were British save for a sprinkle of Germanics
who were automatically branded enemy aliens, their homes and assets
confiscated by her Britannic Majesty's government.
The Maadi Brits were mostly glorified
administrators in the employment of the Egyptian government. After four
centuries of Ottoman rule and thirty years of British military occupation,
the latter won out. On 19 December 1914, the British deposed the
Turkish-appointed khedive of Egypt. Henceforth the Nile valley was
declared a British protectorate.
The Anglo-Egyptians, as the British
administrators were called, were the undisputed masters in these parts.
Those living in Maadi were not amused with the Aussie arrival. These were
rowdy, undisciplined and unkempt men. They couldn't even speak proper
English and for all they knew some of these low-brows were Jack-the-Ripper
Maadi's Brits' did not waste time in
communicating their strong reservations to the commanding officers. So
much for neighborly relations!
On the other hand, Australian Comfort
Committees under the directorship of a Mr. H.E. Budden and other
Australian individuals sprung up everywhere. Their main function seemed
that of distributing billies to the troops at every given occasion.
Billies were cooking vessel which, during wartime, were packed with
buttons, shoe-laces, chocolate, postcards, soup tablets, insect powder,
puzzles, safety pins, bandages, hair and tooth brushes, tooth powder,
reading matter, tin openers, tinned fish and penknives.
Aside from the Comfort Committees in
Cairo, there was one in Helwan. It was reachable by train or via
Kitchener's desert road especially built by civilian inmates at Tura
penitentiary. The penitentiary itself would shortly be converted into a
military prison for Turkish and Austro-German prisoners of war.
The stalwart, sunburnt men in their
broad-brimmed hats traveled from Maadi to Cairo by rail getting off at Bab
al-Louk Station. From there it was walking distance to the comfort
committee's headquarters or by ghary (horse-drawn coach) across town to
the fleshpots of Ezbekiya were everything could be had for the right
amount of coppers. City favorites were the American Comosgraph picture
theater, the Salle Kleber which also showed films, the Cairo British
Recreation Club and the Obelisk Hall on Emad al-Dine Street. There were of
course the brothels at the Birket district off Ezbekiya gardens.
While it was no secret how the Maadi
Brits felt about their khaki-clad neighbors, how then, did the men from
down under feel about Maadi? According to the Diggers' monthly magazine Kia-ora
Coo-ee, Aussies referred to Maadi as the garden city. At least this is
how they described it in the magazine's 15 March 1918 issue (cost: 3
piasters). "There are plenty of trees in Meadi where trees grow fast.
You have to take a snapshot to photograph the place, the vegetation
growing so fast that a time exposure is impossible."
Another description elaborates:
"This is the town of the garden homes. Talk to any resident of Meadi
and you will find that he is equally proud of his home and of the town,
for Meadi is a community and life there is veritably laid in green
pastures. This does not mean, however, that it is a 'bush' town - though
there are bushes and trees a-plenty. The very streets of Meadi are
gardens. The Delta Land Co. sees to it that proper care is given to the
trees and lawns and that spraying, pruning and other such necessary
operations are done at the right time. They are fortunate in having among
the residents of Meadi the state entomologist and other experts from the
Egyptian Department of Agriculture and so in these respects the town is
pretty well 'fathered'. There is little in the line of town beautification
that is left undone.
As a town Meadi is in its infancy. But
it is a pretty healthy and, one might even say, ultra-modern infant
although, unlike many youngsters, it always has the look of wearing its
Sunday best. Meadi does not look like a 'boom' town, with vacant lots and
advertising signs galore, and as a matter of fact, although there is a
splendid selection of good real-estate property available, one might pass
through the town and not suspect a lot for sale. Everything looks spick
and span and well cared for, the simple reason being that, until actually
built upon, every lot is kept under cultivation. That is why Meadi looks
like a garden.
The Australian Light Horse Unit was
camped at the edge of the desert south of Maadi's Road 84 up to the
borders of Tura town. It was flanked between the Digla railway line and
the Khashab Canal which, in those days, was exposed to direct sunlight,
the Australian eucalyptus trees having only just been planted. Quick to do
business with the troops was Blume's so-called Tavern and the Caf頤u
To capitalize on the beer-drinking
troops the town's two caf鳠were purposefully situated next to the
sleepy Maadi railway station. In a news item reported in the
EgyptianGazette, sentries were posted on both sides of the railway lines
their eyes keen to discover any loiterer round the mountains of fodder,
the rows of field equipment, the mounds of baggage, of food etc. all of
which awaited removal to the nearby camp.
The Egyptian Gazette goes on to
described the Aussie camp in its 18 December 1914 issue. "Although
the camp is not yet quite fixed, the men seem cheerful and at home. Large
wood fires burn beneath and around oval iron pots of tea; toast too, seems
a great favorite, baked and often sadly burned in the wood ashes. The many
lines of beautiful and much loved horses strike the onlooker immediately;
they have practically constant attention night and day. Being packed on
the boats as they were the whole time from Australia, standing for seven
or eight weeks has for the time weakened and stiffened their legs and
joints and at present not one of them is being ridden. They are exercised
daily, at first gently, increasing to 10 mile exercises and training they
are now undergoing. There are wild and almost wild horses amongst them
many of which were presented to the regiments before they left."
"The lines of tents are like most
lines of tents but for a few of the officers' which showed an almost
Oriental brightness with their linings of brilliant orange and the huge
canteen tents built of native tenting. Mascots of the regiments are
of-course a chief and interesting sight and a motley crew they are. One
regiment is the proud possessor of two great birds, of the kind called the
laughing jackasses whose shrieked of mirth can be heard by the inhabitants
of Meadi half a mile away. There was also the rock kangaroo or
From other sources we learn the camp was
not without its own amenities. There was a cinema tent where mass or Holy
Communion was celebrated each morning. A recreation tent provided by the
Maadi residents. There were also a boxing ring, a billiard saloon, a
stadium and for lack of a nearby parade ground, Maadi's tennis courts were
used. A Maadi Soldier Club was opened in December 1915.
From the Light Horse Brigade's Routine
Daily Orders we glean interesting snippets which shed light on the camp's
impact on the immediate neighborhood and on the outlying communities. Much
in there would suggest there were severe communication problems and
culture gaps between the Aussie digger and the Egyptian native. By natives
the Aussies meant the villagers, felaheen or peasants and Bedouins
who populated the outlying area. It was not intended to describe the pasha,
the bey or the effendi class who lived in Cairo proper. And
yet, the Egyptian gentry themselves were not too keen on the Aussie.
In his biographical essay, The Prison of
Life (AUC Press, 1964), author playwright Tewfik al-Hakim has this to say.
"We in the cities did not experience the effects of the war to any
great extent, except in so far as we had to put up with the insolence of
the Australian soldiers and the drunken English. They grabbed what
passers-by had in their pockets at night and what street vendors had in
their hands by the day." Words that hardly flatter Egypt's unwelcome
guests. But, as we'll find out these feelings are reciprocated by the
Following are is an Australian army
directives listed in the Routine Daily Orders for the period 1915-16
(source: the Australian War Memorial, Canberra).
All native villages and cemeteries
are out of bounds to the troops; twelve Sudanese have been appointed as
gaffirs for the camp; gambling with natives will in future be considered
a criminal offense; men are warned against familiarity with the natives;
all ranks are warned against molesting natives and it is to be clearly
understood that any soldier interfering with their property will be
court marshaled and is liable to a term of imprisonment with hard labor.
Men are warned that the practice of
taking fruit from the gardens of the natives must cease; Owing to the
number of thefts lately all natives except those employed in the horse
lines or with passes signed by the adjutant must be kept out of camp; it
has been reported that soldiers traveling by train have taken possession
of compartments in carriages set apart for ladies, thereby preventing
veiled ladies from traveling.
If further complaints of this nature
reach the camp commandant all leave will be stopped. A special military
train now runs from Bab al-Louk to Maadi at 10:00 p.m. Men are requested
to travel by this train in preference to the 09:30 p.m.; all guides,
dragomen and other natives found in camp without a pass or committing
misdemeanors are to be handed over to Lieutenant Jordon, officer in
charge of military police, Maadi.
The list goes on.
On the other hand, in an effort to
remain in the good books of Maadi's British population we find the
Permission to exercise horses in
Maadi will not be granted. (Months later) Attention is again drawn to
the fact that no horses are to be exercised in the streets of Maadi;
horses must never be ridden at a faster pace than a walk when riding
outside the camp, motor cars not to exceed 6 miles per hour; all forms
of horse racing are strictly forbidden; damage has been done to Maadi
trees through men tying their horses thereto. This practice must be
discontinued at once; all men appearing in Maadi except when on fatigues
must be properly dressed, that is shirts, putties with shorts or riding
pants, leggings and jackets. Belts must be worn but not bandoleers. On
or after December 15 shorts must not be worn; Shops near the Maadi
railway station in future (December 1915) will be out of bounds at all
times except by pass; the practice of drilling on the Maadi Public
Tennis Courts and the grounds immediately adjoining is hereby
prohibited. The ground is for the use of the residents of Maadi and not
for military purposes; It has been brought to notice that men are in the
habit of digging in search of antiquities. This practice must at once be
put a stop to.
There was also the problem of hygiene
and refuse. From the Daily Routine Order we learn that stable and kitchen
refuse was purchased by a local native Hamouda Mohamed while carcasses
were removed by the Manure Co. of Egypt at one shilling per each animal.
Other daily orders include:
Soldier suffering from venereal
disease are to report themselves without delay; all hair must be cut
short; all natives found defecating or micurating will be handed over to
the Native Police for punishment. Officers Commanding Mounted Brigade
will instruct their Sanitary Squads to see that the Natives Latrine are
carefully disinfected; horse manure form the lines of the 7th Regt. must
in future be put in a heap on the far side of the ditch running behind
the men's mess room, in rear of the shoeing-Smith shop in line with the
men's latrines; All Europeans and native employees in canteens, officers
messes and kitchens, ice cream makers, vendors etc. and hair dressers
are to be dressed in clean white overalls; it has become the custom for
soldiers to pass urine in other places than in latrine buckets and
urinals. This is a filthy practice and men doing so will be crimed;
European employees in the camp found to be dirty or verminous as to
their clothing are to have their names and that of their employer
forwarded to the A.P.M. of the district in which the camp is situated
with a view to the passes of such persons not being renewed; drinking
water at the railway station is forbidden as this water is drawn from
the sweet water canal.
The Australians had their own clinic in
Maadi. It was was attached to the 1st Australian Stationary Hospital under
the command of a Lt. Col. Bryant. Staffed by three resident nurses and
three medial officers it closed down on 26 March 1916 but not before the
sewage problem was fixed whereby both catch pits were completely cleared.
(house is still in existence today).
When hostilities ended in October 1918
with the defeat of Germany, British-occupied Egypt, which had been so far
spared the vagaries of bloodshed, was ready to wage its own war of
independence against the Anglo-Saxon colonizer. Ironically, it was to the
Diggers who survived the carnage in Gallipoli and elsewhere that the Brits
turned to in order to quell Egyptian uprisings and civil disturbances.
This did little to endear the Aussie to the already hostile local
When the orders finally arrived for the
Australian troops to pack up they were only too happy to comply. Homeward
bound at last. They too had had enough of the Gypos and their repugnant
British administrators. As for those diggers who never made it back from
the war front, they were buried near battlefields such as the cemetery at
Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles. Others rest near their temporary bases such
as the ones in Egypt. Little did they know their sons would be back twenty
years later to inflate these same cemeteries some more.
Today, like yesterday and the day
before, the spirit of Anzac lives on. Once a year, the small Australian
and New Zealand communities in Egypt gather at the Commonwealth War Graves
(formerly the Imperial War Grave Commission) in Heliopolis or at Alamein
to commemorate their valorous soldiers who died in WW1 and WW2.
This year, Anzac Day will be celebrated
in Egypt on April 26 with Ambassador Michael Smith presiding. While the
enlightened Australian diplomat is fluent in Arabic having served
extensively in the Arab World (Algeria, Tunis and Cairo) perhaps he also
knows Turkish. If he does, he will surely find wisdom in the words of
Moustafa Kemal Attaturk Father of the Turks (and Turkey's first president)
who, as a young colonel, had led the valiant Turkish troops against their
equally valiant enemy come from so far to fight them:
Those [Australian] heroes that shed their blood and
lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace. To us there is no difference between the
Johnnies and the Mohammeds where they rest side by side here in this
country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from the far
away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our
bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they
have become our sons as well.