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The New Zealanders at Gallipoli

Chapter III. Training in Egypt

page 32

Chapter III. Training in Egypt.

The first troop train, with Divisional Headquarters on board, got away late in the afternoon, and pursued its way past old Lake Mareotis, with the little brown fishing boats dotted over its waters, into the heart of the Nile Delta. In the failing light the network of irrigation canals, the graceful date palms, and the unpretentious mud houses were dimly discernible.

All night long more trains were loaded and disappeared into the gloom. The Cairo-Alexandria express would be a credit to any English railway company, doing the journey of 133 miles in a little over three hours, but the troop trains, like their kindred all over the world, took a little more leisure, being about eight hours on the way, the first train reaching Zeitoun, four miles further on through Cairo, at 1 o'clock the next morning. The baggage and supplies were tumbled out into the darkness; guards were mounted: and horses and men trudged their weary way about a mile and a half along a dusty white road and across a sandy desert, eventually coming to a halt near a racecourse, to the picket fence of which the horses were made secure, while those who could lay down on the sand to snatch an hour or two of sleep.

It was the Egyptian winter and the nights were exceedingly cold, but the weary men slept on. More and more trains rolled in to Helmieh and Palais de Koubbeh; more and more men and horses stumbled into the bivouac, until about 5 o'clock even the heaviest sleeper was awake and endeavouring to restore circulation until the rising sun should dissipate the morning mist. A great hunger became infectious—most men had a ration of bully beef and biscuits, but the wherewithal to make the welcome billy of tea was not forthcoming. Then the New Zealanders found real friends—friends in need—the men of the East Lancashire Territorial Division, for the generous North Countrymen arrived with page 33 steaming dixies of tea and “summat t' eat.” These were the first English troops we had “lain” alongside, and the good-fellowship so welcomely begun in the desert was strengthened later on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Presently the sun burst triumphantly through the mist and disclosed a bivouac of thousands of men and horses lying on the edge of a limitless desert. As far as the eye could see was a yellow sandy plain. This was skirted on the Cairo side by the main Heliopolis-Suez road, which ran east and west through the camp, and was bounded on the far horizon by a range of low brown sandhills. Soon all hands were at work pitching headquarters and the supply depots south of this
Black and white photograph of mules of the New Zealand Divisional Train.

[Photo by the Author
These big mules of the N.Z. Divisional Train were bred in North America.

main road and the other units north of it. A new road at right angles to the main road was constructed in a northerly direction—on the right of which the mounted rifles, artillery and ambulance placed their tents and horse lines, while the infantry occupied the whole of the left hand side. Water-pipes had been laid on and watering troughs for horses were already on the ground, and by evening some order had been evolved, though many troops had again to bivouac in the open, realizing that, notwithstanding the poets, the sands of the desert do become very cold about 2 o'clock in the morning.

By the end of a week all the ships had been cleared of men, horses and stores, and the three colonial camps had shaken down into something like order—the Australian page 34 infantry at Mena, under the shadow of the great Pyramids; the Australian Light Horse at Medi; and the New Zealanders at Zeitoun. The horses were not fit for either transport work or driving, but for a week or two were exercised in progressive work until able to stand the strain of manoeuvres. Out of nearly four thousand horses only eighty-eight failed to survive the buffetting journey through the Tasman Sea and Great Australian Bight, the sweltering heat of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and the hazardous acclimatization in a hot and sandy desert—there they stood in long and polished rows, chewing the succulent berseem and munching the dry and uninviting tibbin, which apparently caused the horses much less concern than it did the anxious troopers.

Training commenced in earnest. Early every morning the infantry battalions paraded in full marching order and trudged through miles of sandy desert. Like so much of the
Black and white photograph of a water cart.

[Photo by the Author
The Water Cart on the Desert.

soldier's life, this work was not interesting, but it was necessary; with clothing designed for a cool climate the long columns swung out along the never-ending sands, hardening the hardy ones, the cruel desert slowly but mercilessly winnowing out the few unfit. If a man had a bad knee or a weak chest, those weary sweltering marches and misty nights sought out the weak, who were sent to the Egyptian Army Hospital at Abassia, where Australian nurses of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service nursed them tenderly page 35 back to health, or sent them broken-hearted to convalesce at Alexandria preparatory to their long sea voyage home.
The mounted rifles, artillery and engineers daily exercised their horses and teams until it was possible to have squadron and battery training. Out in the hot sun all day, by diligence and care, men and horses became efficient units in the
Black and white photograph of horses and men resting under date palms.

[Lent by Capt. Boxer, N.Z.M.C.
In the Shade of the Date Palms.

great machine. The way was not always a sandy one; sometimes the route lay along the banks of the irrigation canals, past ancient sakiehs and Archimedean screws lifting the precious water into the little tributary canals that are the life of Egypt. Past fields of wheat and tomatoes; acres of beans reminding one of Thoreau's sojourn in the wilds; down scented orange groves and acacia avenues; through acres and acres of the clover known as berseem—the soldiers went their way, marvelling at the fertility of a land that produces three crops within the year.

On those fresh dewy mornings, with the crows chattering noisily in the trees overhead, one realised what made Egypt triumph over Time. These simple fellaheen and their forbears had watched Hittite, Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman sweep through the country and ravish its beauty, to page 36 be followed in later days by Saracen and Turk with the same intent; and here, long years after, following in the great line of fighting men, but striving for freedom and not conquest, the soldiers from the Antipodes, glorying in their youth, pass the old obelisk at Heliopolis and recognize that, perhaps more than pride of race, a fertile soil and a diligent husbandry make for national longevity.

Black and white photograph of cattle on Berseem.

[Photo by the Author
Cattle on Berseem.
Berseem is a variety of lucerne, and is the staple green food of camels, horses, cattle, goats and sheep. It helps to keep the Nile Delta fertile.

It may have been because of the church parades, where men sang the hymns they knew—hymns associated with their early life and Sunday school, or
Black and white photograph of a man feeding an animal.


perhaps during the service men let their minds wander from the dust and glare of Egypt to the green fields and the loved ones of home—but whatever the cause, Sunday was essentially the day of letter writing. On Sunday afternoons, groups of men wandered further afield—to the mighty Pyramids of Ghizeh, there to pose on the protesting camels for the conventional photograph of tourist, sphinx and pyramid; or perchance to the Zoo at Ghezireh, with its quaint mosaic paths, its giraffes and the bewitching “Lizzie,” page 37 with her radiant smile and open countenance. Crowds were fascinated by the collection of antiquities in the Egyptian Museum, and by those polished cases in which, surrounded by great sphinxes and pylons, sleep the former kings of four and five thousand years ago. It is difficult to conceive that these were ever people of flesh and blood, until the revelation of mummified queens with their tiny babies forces one to realize that they, too, once were really human in their hates and loves, their triumphs and disappointments.
Most of the soldiers' spare time was naturally spent in Cairo. Here everything seemed to be licensed except the drinking shops—the newsboy needed a license to sell his papers; the donkey boys and donkeys, who seemed numberless, were really carefully numbered; the futile red-tarbushed police spent much of their time chasing the bootblack who dared to ply without a permit. Owing to the war, the tourist season had failed—the rich Americans had stayed at home—
Black and white photograph of a man with camels.

[Photo by the Author
Milk Diet.”
A Camel Study on the road to Helouan.

but in the well-paid Australians and New Zealanders the astute merchants found suitable substitutes, whom they proceeded to bleed most unmercifully. Out into the streets they came with their wares. In the natural course of affairs men hawked sugar-cane, vegetables, live poultry, sweetmeats and cakes; the clang of the liquorice-water sellers' gongs clashed with those of the lemonade man; round the cafes, where the page 38 patron sits at a little table on a footpath, men tendered their little trays of shrimps and dusty plates of strawberries—all these now supplemented by an army of boys and men trading walking-sticks and swagger canes by the thousand; antiques made out of Nile mud; ancient Dervish weapons with the dust of Birmingham still upon them; foreign postage stamps on sheets; scenic postcards and questionable pictures; dainty little fly-whisks and “pieces of the true Cross.”

Watching from the balconies of the fashionable hotels (every soldier is fashionable while the money lasts) the procession filling the street below was always interesting. The Rolls-Royce of the Egyptian Pasha slowing down behind a string of heavily-laden camels; a man with a performing monkey protesting against the intrusion of a flock of turkeys shepherded ahead and astern by old women—solemnly down the main street of Cairo go the old ladies with the birds: a wedding procession with a raucous band meanders past; and jostling one another on the road, shouting arbagis with their two-horse cabs, scurrying motor cyclists of the Army of Occupation, and the quaint one-horsed lorries perambulating the closely-veiled collection of ladies that go to make the modest modern harem.

Like the schoolboy, the soldier dearly loves a tuck shop. Army fare is very monotonous. The soldier on trek and in the trenches constantly talks of his likes and dislikes in the matter of eating and drinking. So it was that the hotels were always crowded—a hot bath and a meal were always welcome—and the girls of Cairo were never treated more liberally and often to the daintiness of Sault's and Groppi's.

The Egyptian, like the Babu, is fond of bursting into print. The comedian in the colonial forces discovered a rich new field. Eating houses purveying the fried steak and eggs and tomatoes, together with imitation Scotch whisky and Greek beer, came forth in all their glory of calico signs inscribed “The, Balclutha Bar,” this with a fine disregard for the prohibition tendencies of the Southern town; “The Waipukurau Reading Rooms,” and the “Wellington Hotel—very cheap and breezy.” Every township in Australia and New Zealand was similarly honoured!

page 39
Black and white photograph.

[Lent by Capt. Boxer, N.Z.M.O.
On the Top of the Great Pyramid.
This New Zealand officer, the two Australians, the Ghurkha officer and the two Ghurkhas are typical of the men who in August 1915, reached the highest points on the Gallipoli Peninsula—the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair; the Australians on Abdel Rahman Bair; the Ghurkhas on Hill Q.

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The most ubiquitous person was easily the bootblack. A soldier could not walk along the street without being besieged by a pestering multitude crying “Bootsa clean, sir! no good, no money; Kiwi polish, sir!” Upon sitting down in a railway station or elsewhere, one's boots would be attacked by a swarm which had to be literally kicked away.

The places of amusement were very attractive. The houses that combined refreshment with entertainment were liberally patronized; the food was much appreciated, and the efforts of the artists cheerfully tolerated. In the first flush of life in a Continental city, the casinos, dancing houses and saloons were far too popular, until the nastiness of these places became apparent through the numbers on the morning sick parades, whereupon officers and men alike realized that they could not keep fit by dancing till the small hours of the morning. The soldier knows his faults, but he strongly resents armchair criticism. It is not difficult to avoid temptation if one sits quietly at home. A cabbage is not immoral, it is unmoral. It is easy to condemn the men who sometimes are not temperate in all things, but the soldier finds it easy to live a prodigal life. He reasons, perhaps quite wrongly, that he may as well eat, drink and be merry, for to-morrow he may be in the casualty list. The soldier will not try to defend his conduct. He recognizes he is a man, with most of the human frailties, yet is prepared at a word and for an ideal, to place his body as a shield between his country and his country's enemies.

It was decided to use the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as the nucleus of a Division. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were to be joined by the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, at that time on the high seas, en route to Egypt. As regards divisional troops, there was a great shortage. A Divisional Ammunition Column was an urgent necessity. A cable was sent to New Zealand asking for the despatch of a second Howitzer Battery (one was already on the water) and a Howitzer Brigade Ammunition Column as the necessary complement. A Field Company of Engineers was to be formed out of surplus reinforcements, page 41 and a cable was despatched to New Zealand for a second company. The Divisional Train was to be organized as soon as the men and mechanical transport could be obtained. The Ceylon Planters' Rifle Corps was also attached and posted to the Wellington Infantry Battalion as a fifth company.

Black and white photograph of the New Zealand Field Artillery on horseback.

[Lent by Major Brunt, W.I.B.
New Zealand Field Artillery passing Bab-el-Hadid, Cairo.

The camp rapidly acquired a well-groomed air. Patterns in stone ornamented the surroundings of each tent. Regimental crests and mottoes, representations of New Zealand birds and Maori proverbs were picked out in little coloured pebbles gathered on the desert. It was discovered that oats, rice and other grains, if soaked in water, germinated vigorously when planted in the sand. Soon among the tents of the mounted units there appeared many green patches like miniature lawns. Round the officers' messes more elaborate gardens were attempted. From Cairene florists pot plants were procured; these were plunged, pot and all, into beds made of soil carted from the Canal banks, and there, watered by the careful Arab gardener, roses and canna bloomed profusely.

The newspaper boys were a never failing fount of amusement. Knowing no English but a few carefully taught swear words, these boys would stop the first slouch hat they met, and ask to have read over in English the gist of the headlines. Many an honest soldier would read the lines as printed, but it was too good a field for the wags to miss. Accordingly it was not uncommon to hear the news cried something page 42 like this: “‘Time-ees Egyp.’ Very good news! Captain —– dead again!” One small boy made a hobby of “Very good news! ‘Egyptian Times’ to-morrow!”

Next to the newsboys in number and popularity were the sellers of oranges. Wherever the troops went in the desert, at smoke-oh, up would come the boys with the “oringies, very beeg, very sweet,” three for a
Black and white photograph of a group of men.


half-piastre. The oranges were little ones, but with a very meaty and juicy pulp, and were most grateful and refreshing in the desert heat. So sudden was their appearance that it seemed these people, together with the boys who sold the cakes and the ones with the hard-boiled eggs, must live in the clouds and drop straight down wherever the dust cloud settled.

Egypt was nominally a province of Turkey, but the Khedive, Abbas Hilma Pasha, having gone over to the Central Powers with Turkey, it was notified on December 18, 1914, that Egypt was placed under the protection of His Majesty the King. The suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt thus terminated. The person appointed to the place of the late Khedive was His Highness Prince Hussein Kamel Pasha, the eldest living prince of the family of Mohammed Ali. His Highness was to be proclaimed Sultan of Egypt at the Abdin Palace, Cairo, on the morning of December 20. The Australians and New Zealanders furnished representatives to line the streets—the Otago and Wellington Infantry Battalions with their bands doing duty for New Zealand. The detachment of Ceylon Planters' Rifles Corps also assisted in guard duty and were posted in the Abdin Square. The streets and buildings were gaily decorated—many Italian and Greek and French flags being displayed, but principally Union Jacks and ensigns and the new Egyptian flag, red with three white crescents and stars.

page 43
Black and white photograph.

The March through Cairo.
The Field Troop of New Zealand Engineers passing Shepheard's Hotel.

page 44

The authorities entrusted with holding Egypt and the Suez Canal were sorely troubled in early December in reference to the Turks proclaiming a Holy War. The Nationalists were active, but with the arrival of the colonial troops the anxiety of those responsible was greatly relieved. The suspected civilians and Turkish officers holding high command in the Egyptian Army were deported to Malta. The Egyptian understands armed strength and despises weakness. Being aware of this, it was deemed advisable to parade the troops as strong as possible and march through the most populous parts of the city.

The New Zealanders were ordered to march through Cairo three days after the coronation. Leaving the camp early in the morning, the parade moved down the beautiful asphalt roads; past processions of camels laden with sugar-came; past old women with their herds of predatory flocks of sheep and goats; past Pont Limoun and Bab-el-Hadid barracks to the Opera Square, where the General Officer Commanding His Majesty's Forces in Egypt took the salute. This far was plain sailing, but presently the head of the column dived down a narrow bazaar where four men could hardly ride abreast. Into this dark slum went the mounted men; the glistening guns of the artillery; the collapsible boats of the Field Troop; the cable waggons of the signallers; then the long line of desert-trained, sun-tanned infantry, with the ambulance and some more mounted men bringing up the rear. In the bazaars it was almost dark, and in the narrower streets, where the projecting balconies seemed to meet overhead, it was not much better. It was a relief to get to wider streets and less foul air. Lining the streets were thousands of people, all seemingly in a good humour. In the open workshops, old men working at primitive loom and lathe never even looked up. Down past the schools and colleges, where hot-headed young Nationalists were wont to air their grievances, the cavalcade clattered on its noisy way; here, perhaps, there was a little scowling. The common people — the men clad in their many-coloured robes and each wearing the red, flat-topped fez worn by every male from the Sultan to the donkey driver—made quite a splash of colour as they crowded page 45 on the sidewalk in the shade of the trees and cheered and clapped with apparent earnestness. Even as the fellaheen appreciates the fact that under British rule he has to pay his taxes only once, so the poor and working class of Egypt recognized that since these bloodless conquerors arrived from overseas, even the beggar and the seller of Turkish delight had accumulated a little hoard of piastres. The disturbances of 1919, however, show that the Egyptian of the cities is a very gullible person.

Black and white photograph of an Egyptian ploughman driving a cattle plough.

[Photo by the Author
An Egyptian Ploughman.
The wooden plough is shod with a metal point. The furrow is not turned over. The earth is merely broken and pushed aside.

Christmas Eve saw the arrival of the British section of the New Zealanders, a contingent of six officers and 234 other ranks who had enlisted in England. These were men who were away from New Zealand when war broke out—some were gold-dredging in the East; some were working in the copper mines in Spain; but wherever they were—Pernambuco, Sarawak or the Andes—when the call came they hastened to the Old Country and enlisted. Engineers, sailors, painters, actors and gentlemen of leisure, they banded together in England and were organized as a machine-gun corps for France, but were eventually sent out to Egypt. Smart and well drilled, they made an excellent impression, and were just the men wanted for the nucleus of the new engineer and transport services, between which two branches they were equally divided.

The Christmas dinner was eaten out of doors in the hot sun, as the new dining huts were not ready. New Year was page 46 ushered in by festivals in the city, while out on the desert the regimental bands played all the old familiar tunes, the men meanwhile holding impromptu dances under the silent desert stars.

Black and white photograph of soldiers eating Christmas dinner.

[Photo by the Author
Christmas Dinner, 1915.

Every week the division was becoming better organized and more like the working whole. From day to day inspections were held by the subordinate commanders. Periodically, staff officers held minute inspection of units, until on two occasions the whole division was paraded for General Maxwell, the General Officer Commanding the Force in Egypt. Each day now saw an improvement. Transport was continually arriving. The division was now officially styled “The New Zealand and Australian Division,” as there would be two complete Australian Brigades incorporated—the 1st Light Horse and the 4th Infantry Brigade.

January 25 was a red-letter day, occupied by the New Zealand Infantry preparing the camp for the 4th Australian Brigade, due to arrive during the week. But at 5 o'clock that afternoon came the thrilling news from Army Corps Headquarters that the Infantry Brigade was needed hurriedly on the Suez Canal to support the Indian troops against an attack by the Turks, who were reported to be advancing. During that night seven days' supplies were carted to the railway stations of Helmieh and Palais de Koubbeh; ammunition was served out; men's kits were checked and deficiencies supplied. Far into the night excited soldiers talked, and scorning sleep, waited expectantly for the morrow.