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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter II Of what Befell in the Land of Egypt

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Chapter II Of what Befell in the Land of Egypt

For physical beauty and nobility of bearing they surpassed any men I have ever seen. They walked and looked like the kings in old poems.

At dawn on the third of December, while the morning mists still lay on the smooth waters of the Mediterranean, a forest of masts lifted above the level of the horizon. As the sun gained in power the great brown line of a breakwater rose out of the midst of the sea. It was overtopped everywhere by the masts of what seemed innumerable ships. The transports entered the harbour and steamed slowly toward the gleaming white and yellow buildings of Alexandria.

Disembarkation commenced with all speed and by four o'clock in the afternoon the first train was moving out for Cairo. But there were many thousands to go, and so general leave was given to those who could not get away that night. The men went thronging into the city. And what a night they had! At midnight they came back to the familiar holds but not to sleep. They had seen marvels and must recount what they had seen. Excited men talked at the top of their voices. "No one listened to any page 17one else. Everyone was too full of his own experiences—and so the babel flowed on. In one evening they had seen Aladdin's Cave, the Forty Thieves, and the houris of the Thousand and One Nights; veiled women and others whose draperies were of the most diaphanous sort. French, Greeks, Russians, and Italians, with the brown-skinned Egyptians and black Nubians from the south—all these they had seen and the spell of Egypt had taken hold of them."-—2/Auckland Regiment, 1918.

The train journey from Alexandria to Cairo through the heart of the Nile delta was an unforgettable experience. Past the reedy shores of Lake Mariotis with the fishermen busy mending their nets like Peter and Andrew and James and John beside Galilee; and then

Through fields of barley and of rye,
That clothed the wold and met the sky
And through the fields the road runs by

to ancient Cairo. This highroad has been a greatly travelled one since the dawn of history. The great conquerors all passed this way. Rameses the Great with his chariots and horsemen; Nebuchadnezzar in the day of his power; Alexander with the heavy armed hoplites of the Grecian phalanx; Caesar and Antony with the legionaries of Rome; 'Amr Ibn-ElAs with the fierce followers of Mohammed; Saladin and the Saracen light horse; Napoleon and the Army of Egypt. And as each passed in the hour of his glory and his pride the patient fellahin paused for a moment to watch the gleam of the weapons in page 18the sun. The great captains rode onward toward bloody fields and to found empires that could not last because they were based on the tortured flesh and the shed blood of their fellowmen. The dust settled down. The tramp of the marching hosts died away into the distance and the humble poor turned again to till the soil. The whole world was again aflame with war and fresh hosts were filling the land but still the peasant turned not from the ancient wisdom of his fathers; ploughing the black soil with the ancient share; guiding the waters of the Nile into the ordered channels; and three times a year reaping the harvest. He is a type of the things that endure.

Along the road paced strings of loaded camels with contemptuous tossing of their stately heads. Little donkeys ambled bravely along, almost hidden beneath piles of miscellaneous goods—or trotted beneath some stout Gyppo whose long legs almost touched the ground and whose voluminous robe certainly obscured the major part of his steed. The New Zealanders' sympathies were mainly with the "donk" and Abdul was vociferously exhorted to get off and carry it or to walk and put the "missus" up on top. However Abdul secure in the immemorial custom of the land continued aloft, oblivious of the chorus of disapproval. Sometimes a little flock of goats was driven slowly along by small boys who stopped and waved to the train, crying out what was possibly a welcome, but more likely the free and casual insults of their kind. Girls went by in chattering groups; red-tarbooshed Egyptian police on page 19their Arab horses clattered by with ineffective importance; families with their live stock in front of them and all their worldly goods slung on their backs, wended slowly along; magnificently bearded personages in flowing raiment strode majestically past like the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And to add a touch of incongruity to this ancient road an occasional motor car rattled past in a cloud of dust.

On either side stretched the green, well-tilled fields divided one from the other by the irrigation channels that connected up with the Nile system. Here toiled the families of the fellahin, little boys driving lean bullocks round old-fashioned water wheels, the women weeding with their little ones about them, the men hoeing or digging or ploughing with a piece of bent wood reinforced with iron. They worked, slowly but steadily, from daylight to dark. The villages were picturesque warrens of dried mud in which the fellahin herded for the night.

Whenever the trains stopped at some palmfringed station there was an immediate invasion of long-robed vendors of "eggs-a-cook" and "orangies" all "very good, very clean, very sweet," who pushed their wares with plaintive zeal until the carriages were moving again. So the New Zealanders moved through the Nile delta until they reached Cairo and ran through the outskirts to Helmieh station where all disentrained.

The New Zealand camp was established at Zeitoun, four miles from Cairo, on a level strip of desert sand a few hundred yards from the Helmieh page 20railway station. Tents were rapidly put up and a great canvas town quickly organized. A broad road ran right through the middle; on one side were the Infantry lines, and on the other those of the Mounted Rifles and the various specialist companies.

Training commenced at once and it was as strenuous as it could be made. Arms drill, musketry and bayonet fighting, section and platoon drill, company drill, battalion parades, artillery formation, skirmishing, tactical schemes of attack, entrenching and defence for the infantry and all manner of subtleties for the remainder. And then for every one there was the route march with full pack up! Equipment, pack, and rifle made a heavy load, the sand was soft, the sun blazing hot, the pace a warm one, uniforms of stout New Zealand wool. For a week or so men, soft from the sea voyage, felt the strain of those marches. But gradually they sweated off the last ounce of superfluous weight, their muscles hardened, and lungs filled more deeply as they swung over the miles of desert with lengthened stride and firmer tread. They were the picked men of a hardy open-air people. They were desperately keen on their work, feeling that they were on trial, and that if in the end they made good the prize would be, not garrison duty, but the opportunity of battle. So day by day the splendid material was fashioned into magnificent regiments. Sir Ian Hamilton when he reviewed them commented on their superb physique. Masefield in his prose epic of the Gallipoli campaign, referring to the Australians and New Zealanders wrote: "They were—the page 21finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times. For physical beauty and nobility of bearing they surpassed any men I have ever seen. They walked and looked like the kings in old poems."

When the day's training was over the men were as a rule free for the evening) in consequence Cairo was thronged with sightseers and pleasure seekers. They found it that most marvellous of all places— a city of contrasts. The limitless desert, parched and dry, ran up to the very walls of the Citadel that commanded the town. Standing on the walls one could look across to the gleaming silver strip of the Nile emerging as it were from a horizon of sand, flowing through a strip of vivid green and losing itself in the luxuriance of the delta. The Citadel itself is an old-world castle on a hill, with strong walls and towers and enough space within its great courtyards to contain the beautiful Blue and White mosques—one of them with a cannon shot of Napoleon's still embedded in the masonry.

Below this place of ancient strength stretched the packed and reeking slums of the Egyptian labourers. Stately palaces, three and four stories high and of vast extent, stood in lovely gardens of palms, while almost within stone's throw one plunged into dark alley-ways that led into the crowded bazaars where there was not room for the shopkeeper in his tiny shop, and barely room to walk over him or round him.

The bazaar with its teeming life; its variety of merchandise, contaminated meat, Egyptian curios page 22from Birmingham, silks and shawls from Eastern looms; its quaint methods of business, its swarms of flies, its pavements slippery with rubbish and the gloom of corners where the sun never reached, was a never-ending source of interest. And at no great distance from the packed bazaar and its buzz of haggling chaffer were wide squares and splendid airy shops, full of the luxuries of European civilization, where white women of wealth and fashion were obsequiously served by long-robed assistants immaculately clad and flatteringly deferential. From a medley of intersecting mud walls sometimes roofed and sometimes not, in which men, women and children lived higgledy-piggledy, without comfort, convenience or sanitation, one emerged into splendid residential quarters with tree-lined streets and magnificent dwellings.

In crowded, mud-walled class rooms Egyptian teachers passed up and down long rows of children, with pieces of kerosene tin as slates, who chanted in unison some mournful dirge, possibly multiplication tables, possibly texts from the Koran. The chant rose and fell according to the position of the teacher and the ferule. Across the way rose a splendid mission school with airy class rooms and modern equipment where bright alert children were taught by teachers from the best training-colleges of England and America.

But the real fascination of Cairo was its cosmopolitan population. Dignified Arabs in decorous black and white; English administrative officers in civilian clothes; gigantic coal-black Nubians from the Su-page 23dan; pompous staff officers in red tabs and monocles; hawkers, beggars, bootblacks, slow moving labourers; spade-bearded, bespectacled Frenchmen; grave and meditative doctors from the great Moslem University of Al-Azhar; pushing Greek merchants; ladies in black with white face veils and nose ornaments of polished brass, their bright eyes alone showing; Egyptian clerks in dapper European clothes and scarlet fez; English ladies, and women of the labouring classes unveiled except for the hurried snatching of a loose cloth across a face that was being too closely observed—all these thronged the streets, moving in an unending stream of vivid contrast.

Perhaps nothing in Cairo staggered the imagination of the average New Zealander as did the sight of the Wasser district—that block of streets and tenement houses given over entirely to the prostitutes of the city. To men used to the relatively high standards of New Zealand life, the general decency and restraint, the high regard for the sanctity of home life and the honour of women, it seemed a thing almost inconceivable that women should be openly exposed for sale as freely as any other merchandise. Yet there was the plain open fact. They sat in rows in the street soliciting custom, beckoned from the windows, dashed out and accosted the passers by. There were all sorts of them from fresh and beautiful young girls to shapeless and terrible hags whose eyes revealed the horrible deadness of soul that one commonly sees only in professional gamblers and hardened prostitutes.

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Now this state of affairs was not a breakdown of standards, the disintegration of a civilization plunging through a storm of war—it was the normal and natural. It resulted from religious conceptions that made woman to be without a soul; from economic conditions that denied her the right to labour; and from a social system that held no place for her other than daughter, wife or harlot. The Wasser, like all things essentially evil, had a terrible fascination. Many who thronged through it were disgusted, many simply marvelled that such things could be and passed by thanking God that it was not so in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. But if truth be the first casualty in war chastity is probably the second, and there were not a few who fell into the snares so widely spread.

After a heavy day's training and a strenuous evening of sight-seeing men slept soundly on the hard, dry sand until aroused early in the morning by the small boys who descended in a swarm upon the camp to sell the morning paper. Their shrill voices rose in a dismal chant.

"Very good news! Earl Roberts dead!" "Times, Egypt, very good news to-morrow!" "Very good news, Captain—dead again!"

These small boys were both credulous and quick and gave the troops many a hearty laugh. They learned swear words and the elaborate ceremonial of guard mounting with equal facility. Some of them, whose instruction had been particularly sound, could hold their own with a regular sergeant-page 25major at either. They formed a critical audience when the guard was changed. According to their own accounts they were all very poor boys ("No father! no mother!") whose most urgent need was "baksheesh." However, despite their pitiful condition, these young "street arabs" were apparently cheerful enough, and what with selling newspapers, "orangies," "eggs-a-cook," and "cleaning Mr Mackenzie's boots," they apparently managed to exist despite their orphaned condition.

And so the days went on. Great days for "Bill Massey's tourists"—the most glorious picnic they had ever had. But at last pleasure and work alike commenced to pall. After all, mechanical precision in arms drill is no very difficult thing to attain; in three months the ordinary man can become as physically fit as he is capable of being, and by daily polishing, the lustre of brass buttons soon reaches its utmost splendour. Even the tremendous ceremony of guard mounting can pall. Nearly all men have a desire to serve great ends, to match themselves with circumstances, to dare the risks of great adventures. Pleasure and security can never finally satisfy. There are always horizons that must be reached, hills that must be climbed, a fleece of gold to be snatched even from the dark wood of the War God. The New Zealanders had enlisted for war not for sight-seeing or enjoyment, and when training was complete, and all knew it to be so, there was engendered a restlessness, a longing for "the day," and a desire for the hour of crisis. Already the war seemed to be incredibly old. The retreat from Mons, the battle page 26of the Marne, the first battle of Ypres were old stories. The English Territorials were in the fighting line in France, and the Canadians had already had one day of great glory. And still the New Zealanders sloped arms, formed fours, and trudged unending miles over the desert sand. They began to have their first taste of the monotony of war. There grew a mood of disgust.

For the infantry there was one brief dash of excitement. One evening orders to entrain for the Canal transformed the weary battalions into an excited crowd of enthusiasts. Ball cartridge was served out and handled, lovingly, reverently; field dressings were issued. So it was to be battle with death and bloody wounds! And the few simple preparations having been made the men threw the accumulated rubbish of the past weeks on blazing bonfires, and then sang and shouted and danced far into the night. The astonished Gyppos who assembled on the chance of baksheesh received fresh proof of the undoubted insanity of the infidels. They were chased and caught and tossed in blankets, sometimes one at a time, sometimes more. They fled out into the friendly darkness of the desert pursued by wild yells of laughter. Next morning the battalions were entrained, and moved down on to the Canal.

But alas! when they reached Ismailia the Brigade went into reserve, and continued training. A few went up and held front trenches for a brief period, and strained their eyes for Turks who did not come. One platoon had a shell burst near it and some were able to see the broken windows and the shot holes in page 27the buildings at El-Ferdan. One little party had the distinction of being captured by Indian troops, and another made a dashing bayonet charge at night upon an empty post. A Nelson company was in the fire trenches when the Turks made their dash upon the Canal, and one of their men was the first New Zealander to lose his life in battle. The Turkish attempt was a failure except that the menace had drawn a tremendous concentration of troops to the bank of the Canal.

And so the infantry brigade returned to Zeitoun Camp. There had been little risk and no glory, and not even a respite from the everlasting training. Except as a means of impressing the Mounteds and the recently arrived 3rd Reinforcement, the infantrymen admitted that the expedition had been a disappointment. They did their best, however, and on the whole were successful, particularly with the reinforcements. There is no logic like that of experience, and the man who had seen a shell burst— even afar off—was irrefutable on any minor point, such as the probable duration of the war, or even the internal politics of New Zealand.

Again everyone settled down to the everlasting training, "Slope Arms! Order Arms! Fix bayonets! Present Arms! Form fours! By the right—Quick march!" and away they went slogging over the everlasting sand performing every evolution known to the barrack square enthusiasts, who were then at the zenith of their authority, and who were indeed still looked upon as rather marvellous demigods. The page 28days grew hotter and hotter, and the weight of the packs was increased to 70 lb. Even with this load the battalions were able to make marches of twenty-five miles and still to finish fresh and fit.

It was about this time too, that the thirst of the troops became great. In the three or four years before the war, prohibition sentiment in New Zealand had been exceedingly strong, and indeed the liquor traffic had been existing on a minority vote. With such anti-liquor sentiment in the country it was not surprising that the strongest influences were brought to bear upon the Government to restrict very stringently the amount of alcohol sold to the troops.

Good women who had sent their sons to war for a patriotic ideal did not want them to be subjected to the temptations that are inseparable from the use of liquor. They might never see their boys again, and if they had to die they wanted them to die clean. In the sincerity of their loyalty and the passion of their renunciation, they did not realize that in giving a vote for the utterly immoral act of war, they themselves had undermined the very basis of morality; and that truth, chastity, and sobriety, were after all only the minor and inevitable casualties.

General Godley was in a quandary. On the one side was the pressure from New Zealand, on the other the custom of the British Army, the extreme thirst of the N.Z.E.F., and as a not unimportant factor the appallingly poisonous brews that were sold in Cairo. The general himself was probably in favour of restriction, but compromised by allow-page 29ing the canteens to sell more than the regulation bottle if an order was issued for that purpose by an officer. The result was a most astonishing number of promotions—all of which were at least temporarily effective, as, to the Greeks who did the actual serving all pieces of paper with writing on were the same.

And now there was nothing more that could be done to add to the superb physical fitness of the troops. The feeling of restlessness grew stronger. Training, training, training, always training—was there to be nothing but this everlasting training in the land of sin and sand, and smells and sandstorms? Sheer monotony made the very beauty of the land a repulsive thing. The everlasting stew for which they had daily to wage war with clouds of flies, became nauseating, and like the host of Israel in similar case they murmured.

It seemed as though orders would never come, and that the training, the endless training would go on for ever. But at last there came a growing rumour of an open beach and of hills beyond, and forts that were claimed to be impregnable, and beyond these again an open sea and the prize of victory.

Sir Ian Hamilton was placed in command of all the forces operating in the Mediterranean with specific instructions to open a road to Constantinople, and so develop a new and deadly attack upon the rear of the Central Empires. Scarcely a year before, the great fighter had visited the training camps in New Zealand, and had made himself extraordinarily popular and the men were glad to know that page 30he was to be their leader. He held a great review out on the desert, greeting old friends by name, and marked with keen appreciation the splendid physique and bearing of the men he was to lead.

The coming of Sir Ian Hamilton was taken as a sure sign of coming battle, and spirits rose accordingly. The atmosphere became daily more electric. There was thunder in the air. Cairo was as usual thronged with thousands of sightseers, all of them now in the wildest of spirits, ready for any excitement and devilry. On Good Friday some irresponsibles who had had too much to drink, commenced smashing things up in the Wasser region. Pianos and beds came crashing down from top floor windows, and screaming, gesticulating women rushed protesting out into the street. The hated red-cap police arrived and endeavoured to make arrests. They were roughly handled. More men and more police arrived and the conflict grew. Furniture was heaped up in the street and was soon blazing fiercely. Some of the houses caught and when the fire-brigade arrived the hoses were cut. For several hours the rioters were in charge and only as sanity returned did the excitement gradually die down.

The "battle" was partly a thanksgiving, partly a protest against the current price of sundry filthy liquors, partly an endeavour to suppress the detested red-caps, and partly a very riotous bit of good fun carried too far. It was one of the very few occasions during the whole war when men of the N.Z.E.F. lost self-control, and did damage to civilians. Leave to the city was at once stopped, but it page 31was not so easy to control the overflowing, high spirits of the men, and in consequence the canteen was raided and the cinema set on fire.

The waiting went on for another week when at last final orders came, and the men of the Infantry Brigade entrained at the great Cairo railway station, and leaving their comrades of the Mounteds behind, went down to Alexandria and the waiting transports.