Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Egypt 1915

I have been thinking about Charles Holdorf’s journey from Sydney to Egypt in 1915. His departure is well documented on November 9th, but the exact route taken by the troopship Beltana is uncertain. Did the ship sail north via Brisbane and up over the top of Australia, or did it sail south to Melbourne and across the Great Australian Bight to Perth, and then north to Sri Lanka, which was then called Ceylon? I assume that it stopped in Colombo and then sailed around the southern tip of India toward the Suez. Then from Port Suez at the southern end of the canal the ship would have made its way north through Egypt toward the Mediterranean.

Cairo is west of Port Suez, but where did the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade disembark? Did they go to Cairo? Where were they based? What did they do in Egypt? Dad writes simply, Here they provided part of the protection force for Egypt and continued with training. The battle at Fromelles in northern France was not until July 1916, so the battalion was in Egypt some 6 months. They would have celebrated Christmas 1916 there and then were involved in training. The Gallipoli campaign was largely over by the time Charles and his battalion arrived in Egypt, after the allied decision to withdraw. The Australians that had evacuated on the 19th and 20th of December 1915 would have been arriving in Egypt at the same time as the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade. After Gallipoli Australian forces spent the remainder of the war fighting in the Middle East and the Western Front in France.

Thomas Keneally’s recent novel The Daughters of Mars places two fictional sisters, Australian nurses from the coastal town of Macleay, NSW, in the same area in the months before Charles arrived. Though there are no dates in the book, they seem to have arrived sometime around the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, but they left on a hospital ship which had been commandeered as a troop transport sometime in the latter half of 1915. Their ship was torpedoed and they ended up on an island in the Mediterranean for some time before travelling further to France. For them, as for Charles and thousands of Australian soldiers and other military personnel, Egypt, the Mediterranean and then France became the centre of their lives in the fateful years of 1915 and 1916. Many young Australian lives ended there, far from their homes in the bustling cities and remote country towns of rural Australia.

There is an evocative description of Cairo seen through the eyes of young Sally Durance, one of the nurses of Keneally’s tale. I will quote some of it here. It gave me a feeling for what it must have been like for Charles, arriving on his ship from Australia, though under different circumstances, and no doubt with different responses. It gives an idea of the wide eyed amazement at arriving in a fabled city which until now had only been known from books of the exotic east.

A city that was everything, too many people moving with too many ambitions, too many hopes and destinations. Its all-at-onceness couldn’t be conveyed item by item. It was at the same time a glimpse of moored riverboats on – could it be – the Nile. (These were officers’ clubs where Nubian waiters in red tarbooshes and long white robes glided along with drinks trays held high.) It was people carrying all possible items on their heads – a child’s coffin new-bought, a lounge chair, a haunch of camel meat, a bed. It was camels and donkeys on pavements and the smell of their urine, and men seated by them on mats working with sewing machines or turning furniture legs on little lathes. It was car horns of the army and of the rich blaring at one time with the clang of trams and the trumpet blasts of tram conductors. It was street sellers leaning into your gharry trying to sell flyswatters and whisks, scarabs and lottery tickets, and passing British soldiers telling them darkly to clear out – imshi! – and leave the ladies alone. It was raucous native bands in unexplained processions booming and howling – brass and trumpet – and shoe shiners crying, “Allo George” to the soldiers, and the soldiers with cockney accents calling “Ello, sweetie” at the nurses gharries. Whistles from Australian soldiers – wandering the streets like men used to the place – frosted the hubbub with levity… Effendis – Egyptian gentlemen in well cut suits and tarbooshes – sat at café tables talking at an impossible pace yet like centres of calm in all the fury. In the broad streets animal trainers made apes and goats. There were acrobats, fire eaters, snake charmers – all yelling out at passing British and Australian soldiers for baksheesh. Watchmen sat on low benches in front of buildings, occasionally being served little brass cups of Turkish coffee. Shocking beggars – young girls with infants, crippled crones, their hands stained pink and yellow, and every kind of blindness and crookedness of body and amputation – as if these people themselves were the ones who had taken part in a recent and very savage war. And if you looked at the sky you saw kites curling above the putrid streets, waiting to descend to their abominable yet cleansing meals of flesh… All this just the surface anyhow, the visible part of the crammed ocean of life here that you were not equipped to deal with in any way other than by looking at it – if at all – at a tangent.
       (The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally, p35-37 in the paperback version, published 2012)

Such was the sight that must have greeted Charles on his arrival in Egypt at the end of 1915. Egypt became his home for the first months of 1916, as part of the Allied defence force protecting the Suez Canal which had been the goal of an unsuccessful attack by the Ottoman army earlier in 1915. But as Spring drew on into Summer eyes were turned increasingly toward France and the Western Front, where the 30th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force would fight their first major engagement at Fromelles.

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