The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, June 1915
When the sluice gates of the Suez Canal were first opened the waters of the Mediterranean in their rush to gain the Red Sea flooded a certain swampy area about half way along the Canal, and so formed the five or six square miles of beautiful water known as Lake Timsah. At the Northern end of the Lake lies perhaps the prettiest place we have seen since leaving New Zealand. Right down to the edge of the water grow tall acacias and date plums, and a little further back are the splendid public gardens through which runs the Avenue de Lesseps. Here are roses and geraniums, flowering vigorously, while from the tall acacias or hebbekh trees, at present covered with bright russet seed pods, droop long streamers up which, to a height of twenty or thirty feet, grow beautiful scarlet creepers. Over many of the low trees are flung large clusters of tangerine flowers or the purple of the Bourgainvillea, so noticeable in Egyptian gardens. Here and there long lines of shrubs, few-leaved, but bearing at the top young leaves of crimson hue, give the impression of long-stalked flowers. These splashes of colour embowered among the greenery of palms and hedges of young bamboo canes are a sight which our desert-wearied eyes love to linger on.
As if the town were not sufficiently preferred in having on one side of the gardens an Ocean Front, complete with beach, bathing houses, boat-sheds, and sometimes even breakers, on the other side a fresh water canal, overhung by trees, winds its silent, restful way, like a river of the plains, bearing the laden "gyassas" from the cultivations inland. Leaving the Avenue de Lesseps, and crossing this canal, we are in a straight, clean street leading directly to the "Station d'Ismailia." So is the large two-storied building at its end designated in large letters, and therein is it typical of the town itself. Here we are in France; the language is French the money is French; the dress is French. Here are placed the headquarters of the Suez Canal Company, and it is not allowed us to forget that a son of France page 19 contrived the great work—"aperire terram gentibus." The streets are all tree-lined, and many of the houses have charming gardens with the bright flowering creepers much in evidence. Everywhere there is quiet undisturbed by the usual city din. Even in the Arab quarter as in Cairo—there is a sense of greater space; and the hawkers and shopkeepers have not the same persistence. impertinence, and noise-creating ability as the Cairene. From the smooth waters of Lake Timsah to the soft, clean quartz sand of the desert, beyond the station, all things seem destined for peaceful existence.
Such is the vision of Ismailia when we shut our eyes to war—and Khaki! But on this first day of February, 1915, Ismailia holds the "Headquarters, Canal Defences" (as the sign posts everywhere inform us) and the German-led, or should we say "German-driven," Turkish army is within a very few miles indeed. Everywhere in and around the borders of the town are khaki-clad figures. In one short walk from the station to the beach we met every shade of that great war colour worked into almost every form of uniform imaginable. Just outside, a small party of Egyptian army engineers in light khaki knickers and jersey and white pagri rode by on camels. At the same time there passed five or six waggons driven by Australian engineers in their fawn-coloured shirt-tunics. As we come to the bridge over the sweet water canal, a guard of Sikhs: in khaki turbans and yellow goatskin overcoats comes to attention. Then a little way along the Avenue we met a party of Churkas in khaki "shorts" and slouch hats—regular Japanese in appearance—armed with the most modern rifle but still clinging to' the ancestral murderous "kukri." Established under the trees is an Australian Field Hospital; and close by, an encampment of Indian troops, with their large earth oven near the footpath, and flocks of sheep and goats for killing by the Hindus among them. All about are Indian soldiers in every description of dress and wearing turbans of all types, from the dull khaki of service to the brilliant red of undress. The distinctive colours in the pagri ends, red, black, black and yellow, etc., give a touch of col page 20 our to the service uniform. Some are upon Camels, some upon mules, others driving mule or horse waggons.
Thus we come to the Lake. Close in is the narrow sleuth-like line of a torpedo boat; away out against the yellow of the Arabian desert stands out the bull-dog shape of a warship. Right at our feet are the portions of a pontoon bridge built by the Australian Field Engineers—a piece of work much admired by all who have seen it.
The preparations, however, are not confined to land and sea. As we return we are aware of a buzzing noise—like a motor bicycle afar off—and looking up we see passing overhead two military bi-planes, just returning from a reconnaissance of the Turkish positions. Each bears a large black circular spot on the wing—an "identity disc"—which makes it known to us as a friendly. These pass to and from the huge khaki coloured sheds so often, that they have already become a common-place sight.
Coming closer to our camping place, near the station, a feeling of bustle and excitement of "something in the air pervades the railway yards. Men in khaki stroll or rush about the platform, and every train coming in or going out shews some such figures at the windows. Ismailia is at ordinary times an important railway junction between Cairo, Port Said, and Suez; but now its extensive sidings are taxed to the uttermost. The goods trains of 40 to 50 large trucks, bearing the supplies of food, forage, and material for the troops engaged in the defence of the Canal, by themselves keep a long length of line continually occupied. Then there are troop trains kept ready made up, and close by is the gentle hissing of a dozen engines—monsters with seven foot driving wheels ready at a moment's notice to draw the reserves in any direction they may be needed. On still another siding we have khaki again. This time it is an armoured train of six waggons and an engine—all painted khaki. The crew of Indian and Egyptian soldiers are protected by double steel sides filled with stones, and the open trunks are lined with sand bags.page break page 21
The same warlike atmosphere continues beyond the railway yards to where the Egyptian Army Engineers have established a supply depot. Nothing is showy: everything seems for use in deadly earnest. The stacks of old corrugated iron, the long, neat rows of picks and shovels, rolls of barbed wire, heaps of old matting, and a huge mound of empty sand bags—there is nothing new or expensive about these, but next to the rifle they are going to be the most helpful material in the coming engagements.
Thus at length we come to our own bivouac, where the men from New Zealand—probably darkest clad of any troops here—are awaiting so eagerly for a call to the trenches, to take their places alongside the Egyptian artilleryman, the Australian Engineer, the Sikh from the Punjab, the Ghurka from Nepaul, the Territorial from Britain, and the sailors of France. In the midst of all these incidents of war we are impatient of the section and company drill with which we have to keep ourselves occupied, and all hope for the speedy arrival of the Turk.
F. L. G. West, Lieut.
1st February, 1915.
Lieutenant West was reported wounded on 16th May.