Our first troops left Australia in late October 1914 following the outbreak of World War I. They disembarked in Egypt at Alexandria, and were then moved to a vast encampment near Cairo, where they continued to train in the shadow of the great pyramids.
Soon, it was Christmas…….
MENA CAMP (Cairo) Christmas Eve 1914
I don’t know who wrote the following, but it is beautiful and so insightful. The piece was published in the Melbourne paper The Argus;
From the shadows thrown by the lines of tents a Christmas carol burst as the notes of ‘First Post’ died. The little group of singers wandered through the sand from tent to tent, with half a dozen regimental bands throwing a distant accompaniment against the rocky rampart over which the Pyramids looked down upon the Australians’ strange Christmas Eve, as they may have watched Napoleon’s a hundred years ago. We realized, perhaps, for the first time when we heard the strains of ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’, the significance of the combination of time, place and season. In this season of peace and goodwill, we who twelve months before had been driving pens, or ploughs, motor cars, or at most drilling for an hour or two under a street lamp, were camped on the edge of the Libyan desert, training ourselves daily to exhaustion, that we might the sooner leap at the throat of a nation that had done more than any other to sanctify Yule-tide. Bourke and Swanson Streets on Christmas Eve were 9,000 miles away, and we had had no mail from home later than the first week in November.
More Christmas famine than feast…
A year on, Sapper Alfred Galbraith described Christmas day 1915 at Ismalia Training Camp, Egypt. In a letter home to his family he wrote that each man in his Company had chipped in to buy a turkey, plus a few other delicacies. However, it appears to have been pretty slim pickings;
‘…chickens more like humming birds, soft drinks and a few biscuits. The chickens were dealt out 1 between 5 men and some of them would not feed one, let alone five men. The one we got we tossed up to see who would get it & I won, but I halved it with my pal & then the two of of us went & bought some biscuits and some tinned fruit.‘
Alfred is among the men eating that scrappy dinner in the following photo;
Tragically, it was to be Alfred’s last Christmas. He died in action in France on July 15 1916, aged 21.
At Mena, there were at least Christmas billies in 1915, filled with treats for the men.
A GRATEFUL GALLIPOLI CASUALTY
By now there were men spending Christmas Day in hospital, after being repatriated to Egypt from the hellish battlefields of Gallipoli.
The Hamilton Spectator published the following piece – Writing to his mother, Mrs W. Pitman, of Macarthur, from No. 2 Australian-General Hospital, Cairo on Boxing Day 1915, Private J. Pitman says – ‘We are just over Christmas, and talk about a good time! I had the best feast I have had for seven months. We had chicken and ham, cabbage, roast potatoes and a lovely Christmas pudding, and after that custard, jelly, fruit and lollies. At night we had a lovely tea, beautifully laid out. The palace (in which the hospital it situated) was decorated. The nurses are very good to us. They work very hard all day, and do the best they can for us’
And here is the menu!
Private John Pitman had been one of the first to volunteer from the Macarthur area, aged just eighteen. He had been badly frost-bitten in the trenches at Gallipoli, where he had also endured the horrors of diarrhea and trench foot. He went on to fight in France, but thankfully survived the war.
Writing under the pseudonym ‘A Nambrok Boy at the Front’, one serviceman in Cairo wrote of the immense pleasure a Comfort Fund billy of Christmas gifts provided. I love the nickname for his billy of William. The wattle buttons referred to were badges, sold back home to raise funds for the war effort.
Winnie was a public spirited young schoolgirl.
Those wartime Christmases were indeed strange for our WWI troops overseas, whether in Egypt, Turkey, France or the UK. Thank goodness for the Comfort Fund, and thousands of people like Winnie Murphy of Lucknow who sent a touch of home to brighten their lives.
YOU MAY ENJOY THE STORY OF ARMY COOK BLUEY, WHO NO DOUBT WAS BUSY ON THAT FIRST CHRISTMAS DAY AT MENA CAMP. OF COURSE HE HAD TO FEED HIS PET TASMANIAN DEVIL FIRST!