Pages from Hunter Region in the Great War


There were fears that Turkey might attack the canal and deny it to Allied shipping and, although it was

already guarded, some felt the untested colonials might usefully cut their teeth on canal guard duty. Also, the

Australian High Commissioner in London, Sir George Reid, was apparently concerned about what might

happen if thousands of Aussies were put into the cold, miserable camp at Salisbury Plain. So the colonials

went ashore at Alexandria, with the first disembarking on December 5, 1914. They immediately took a train

to Cairo and then had to march the same night to their new home, directly under the Great Pyramids.

The Turks did attack the Suez canal in February 1915, but they were repulsed without need for more than

a handful of the colonials to join the fight.

Gunner James Dalton (excerpts and photo courtesy of the Dalton family) wrote to his brother in Salt Ash:

The Turkish attack on Egypt has proved to be a bit of a farce, hasn’t it? I saw by yesterday’s paper that they

intend to withdraw the Turkish troops to the European side which is a very wise move indeed. The next thing

will be the declaration that Syria and Palestine belong to the Allies. Palestine I fancy will be handed over to

the Jews.

Egypt was hot and dry and the training was very severe. A letter, written by Major Robert Scobie to his

wife in Oakhampton, describes some typical souvenir-hunting and hints at the terrible toll disease was taking

on the Australians. Many men died from disease in Egypt, without ever seeing action.

There is a terrible lot of pneumonia here and men are dying. They say nearly one hundred gone, but so far

we have only lost one named Law who died suddenly yesterday morning.

Yesterday I was in town and bought a few little things to send home, a medal each for the boys, paper

knife for you, also a mummy casket, and a little brooch for wee Jessie. I am also sending along a piece of

alabaster (square) from Mahomed Ali’s tomb and several bits of stone picked up around here in another

parcel. I intend sending along a few beads on a string which one of our sergeants unearthed from an old

tomb yesterday, so they are genuine and may be thousands of years old.

Many Australians and New Zealanders regarded the Egyptians with patronising affection mingled with

distrust or, occasionally, outright hostility. Many Egyptians saw the presence of the troops as an opportunity

to make money by selling goods and services including “antiques”, sweets, drinks, pornography and sex.

With so many young men a long way from home and family – and facing the likely prospect of a severely

foreshortened future – the temptations of the flesh were overwhelming. Venereal disease ran riot. Salt Ash

soldier James Dalton (pictured) told his mother that hundreds of venereal cases were:

. . . in the isolation hospital which is surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled

night and day by an armed guard. The mens’ pay stops from the time they go

in. I have had my eyes opened in many ways since I joined this crowd. I think

I may say the large majority of both officers and men indulge in this way, not

only here but they were doing it in Sydney. The women here are different. They

say most of them are French.

A lot of the fellows have been going the pace and in Cairo they are able to. It

is a veritable hell upon Earth and in one particular quarter. They are not any

more than the English Tommies really, but they can go further because they

have more money. Most of them have a fair cheque on landing being money

that has accumulated during the voyage across.

There were some well-publicised discipline problems when the Australian troops were dazzled by the

bright lights of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Hundreds went absent without leave, there were riots, fights and

finally, a threat that transgressors would be sent home to Australia. Some were. The colonials picked up new

words in Egypt, such as “baksheesh” (bribe or gift), “dinar” (currency), “imshi-yallah” (“go away”), “igri”

(“hurry up”). There were more, and some became part of the Australian slang dialect for decades to come.


More magazines by this user