3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment

Friday 11 May 1917 – letters from home, 2nd day of Cairo visit

Pen not going well – bad ink ~ 2nd day of Cairo visit – bath house, pyramids, Sphinx, Nile Barrage – ‘I rolled on the grass just so as not to lose the talent’

Dear Mack
Friday 11 May 1917

The query in point is – have I made this ink or haven’t I made it? ie is it ink or isn’t it? You can answer about as well as I can & say at any rate that it’s a mighty poor job so far. Never mind it’s going to improve tho it’s still very rotten! Took 3 tries to make this – now let’s try & see how she goes – I think it’s all right.

You see that precious bit of paper is wasted but I’ll send it to you now to show you the way the pen improved with bit of cleaning and scratching & trying. Before I forget it let me give you a verse of a ‘hymn’ often sung by the chaps round the fire while the billies are boiling – ‘Old soldiers never die, never die, never die, Old soldiers never die, they merely fade away!’ (sung to the tune of ‘Kind words can never die’). Very pathetic isn’t it? Many of the singers don’t look exactly as if it’s true about fading away.

The reason of all this ink, & outburst, is the fact of the arrival this morning of mail! I scored pretty well to – had 4 (out of 5 apparently) from home, no 4 which continued yours & first part of Lic’s has not yet come to light – I guess by the rest that the contents are as above: also I heard from Uncle Arthur, Jeff Hartley, Vera Baker & Donie – pen is not yet going well – I wish I had not lost that indelible pencil. I read about ½ my lot before brek & the rest during the morning while I had time to enjoy & digest them. It helped to pass the time for quite a while. I hope those Registers will come too in a day or so – that Mother has sent. Papers & parcels (?) will come in a few days.

Those photos of Ruth, Lic, Val Drury & Mary Hartley came in good condition & are now packed in my art gallery which is getting just about full: but it seems to stretch every time. This last lot is not at all bad & I’m jolly pleased to have them – tell REK. Besides the people there I have the swing & almond tree behind & in another one part of the garden – roses, cosmos, snap dragons, orange tree, bit of the loquat tree & the gums across the road in the back yard. In that one I see Lic with Peggy – looking sleepy but evidently recovered from the holiday away which she took at Xmas: the other of Lic I said ‘Good Day Lic’ & Lic’s just going to day ‘Good Day’.

Wait till you see my latest – on a camel in front of the old Sphinx & Lance Neville near by also mounted on a camel. I don’t know whether Lance has sent the 2 big ones & 5 PCs on home to you yet: he has sent me one out here. You may guess by our screwed up face that it was pretty warm & sunny – but that’s nothing. It’s not a bad picture of the ‘old chap’ behind – & the biggest pyramid.

You can perhaps see that we are a little distance up in front of the Sphinx – not right against it (see the young Gyppo roosting up in a nitch in his face – shows the size of the thing) & the pyramid is 3 or 400 yards away I guess. It is 470 feet high & some of the others are not so far behind it in size. I think I had better go head while on the job & tell you about the 2nd day in Cairo. I think I told you all about the first day in a previous letter.

Lance Neville (L) & Spencer (R)

I woke fairly early & got up before Lance & my 2 Tommy room mates & went down below to the bath rooms – paid 3 piastres extra & had a bonzar hot plunge bath: laid back in a bath full of warm water – in soak for about & didn’t consider the time wasted! It was pretty K’right I tell you & I finished up with a cold shower. This was the first morning you know – Friday – & at the YMCA ‘Anzac Hostel where we boarded for the 2 days.

Saturday morning continued

I got upstairs again from my bath & found all the rest at breakfast but we didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all, strange to say. Lance & I got into a gharry & were driven about parts of the town which we had not seen & finished up at the Anglo Egyptian Bank where Lance had some money to get. After that we had some fruit for lunch & about 11am hired a motor car to be driven out to the Pyramids first & on to other places after.

The Mena Pyramids are about 10 miles out & the road is good all the way – with items of interest – places & people both – all along: we passed the house of Lord Kitchener – it looks very nice & good block of land about it laid out in well kept garden, lawn etc & a military guard on the gates. We passed the zoo – went through part of the gardens but hadn’t time to stay there worse luck. People in plenty all along with their camels, donkeys etc loaded up & a good many cattle.

We stopped near ‘Mena House’ – a big sort of hotel I think & on getting out of the car were met by a yelling crowd of boys with donkeys – & guides who wanted to show us round. That was the start of our fun & I don’t think I stopped laughing much till we left ½ hour or more later – except as you’ll see by the sunny-screwed up expression to have my photo taken. I thought afterwards I was a chump not to have been laughing in that too. We ‘imsheed’ [refused] all the Gyps except a guide & a donkey boy each & mounted our steeds (!), first ride ever I’ve had on a donk I think.

It didn’t take long to be jigged up round the hill to the big pyramid shown in our photo, with our guide telling us all about it all the way. Very rough big heavy blocks of stone cut in various sizes – some must be 4’ x 4’ x 6’ and plenty of 4’ cubes & some smaller I dare say at the top though they look big all the way. They are bit uneven so that it would be quite possible to crawl about the wall face. I dare say you’ve seen the photos – as I have – of our early troops here hanging on all over the wall of a pyramid.

From miles back you can see these great tombs – across level country – & they seem big all the time & close at hand: but you go on & on & it gets nearer & bigger all the way until its size is just about monstrous by the time you reach it. Seemed sort of strange & wonderful to be actually looking on these old things of history – but I’d turn away and look again & there they were all right. We were not sparing much time so didn’t go inside tho I’d have liked to go into the big one. Lance didn’t seem to want to stay. So after doing homage to the Sphinx & looking over the mosque or temple of the S close by & in ruins almost underground we remounted our donks & rode back to the motor.

All the time there were ‘dinkum’ fortune tellers, boys with stones, old coins, models of the sphinx & I don’t know who not & what not, at us to buy – buy – buy! I would knock ‘em down to next to nix (you can’t possibly shake then off) & in the end bought nothing: couldn’t be bothered getting a lot of stuff that I may never get home with me. I s’pose I told you that I bought a couple of stones in the temple of Mohammed Ali the previous day: these I have left in my kit bag with my stuff at Moascar & won’t be much loss if I don’t get the again.

Motored back to Cairo & bought some beef rolls & oranges for lunch which we ate while travelling out to the Barrage 20 miles out in the northern direction. The journey out was thro the outskirts of Cairo & on through villages here & there, gardens & cotton & barley fields on either side: no fences anywhere – they must be honest farmers in these eastern countries & only the gardens have high walls around them. One we passed looked a nice place – I believe it belonged before the war to some big Turk who was caught with concealed rifles & ammunition etc & is now having a rest in one of our military ‘prisoners homes’.

The Barrage is a series of 5 or 6 bridges & locks which span & hold up the Nile – must be a mile or more longer: & at present there are separate streams flowing. I s’pose in high flood times they all join up in one wide river. There are arches overhead every 200 or 300 yards sort of gateways – with square towers – old fashioned & a bit narrow (which shows they are not of recent building). I’ve seen picture of them. But there are some tea rooms & bonny lawns & gardens both of which we sampled. I rolled on the lawn just so as not to lose the talent! Nice flowers too – roses, violets, carnations, geraniums & shrubs etc

Barrage on the Nile, 15 miles north of Cairo
Anzac Hostel, Cairo

Access to ink and paper for letter writing was difficult for WW1 soldiers at the front. They often used pencil or made ink using ink powder as this was easier to transport to the front than liquid ink – see more here

3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment

Saturday 21 April 1917 – on leave in Cairo

To Cairo by train ~ Mohammed Ali Mosque, Citadel ~ afternoon tea at Groppi’s ~ French musical at Kursaal ~ Pyramids, Sphinx ~ still hoping to go soon

Saturday 21 April 1917

Dear Ruth

I forgot to look but I think it’s your turn to have a letter. First of all this is a rotten nib but my pen is nearly dry so I’m saving it for when I’m in the old tent.

Guess where I’ve been! Only back 3 hours ago – with Lance N – to Cairo. We left here on Thursday at 10 am and our ’48 hours’ brought us to the same time Saturday when we arrived back here. Three hours travelling each way and in a decently fast and comfortable train. We rode 2nd Class although I’m not sure if it’s permissable [sic] for mere soldiers. I know we are barred from travelling 1st Class. Of course an officer may ride where he likes, whether he can afford it or not: however the ‘Gyp’ railway-ites are not very fussy about us, even if the military authorities are. You bet we had a jolly fine and most interesting time and even if it was a rather short and hurried trip, it was well worth while and a decided rest and treat for the eyes after this everlasting sand.

While I’m writing in the YM a chap is playing the goanna a’right, just going ahead without music – I can’t think what he is playing now – but it’s a piece I’ve heard well played a few times. I had a bit of a cut when I came in first. Just a bang as usual. I wish I could play – it’s a treat to hear this class of music (not mine)! compared with the ragtime, however well played, which often prevails.

To get on: we left here about 10am on Thursday and reached the big city at 1.30 – got in a gharry and drove straight to the ANZAC Hospital where we had dinner and arranged to sleep at night. After dinner we got another gharry and told the old chap to drive us round the town, First I had to go the the Exchange Telegraph Coy to send a cable for a chap and then we went ahead – saw the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, the Belgian Bank, the Grand Continental and Sheppeards Hotels, Esbekich Square, lots of big shops and warehouses – bigger than Foy & Gibsons easily – and a decent straight wide clean street.

Then up to the citadel on a hill, a military garrison place and inside is the clink of clinks where it pays a soldier to keep away from: the citadel was once occupied by Napoleon and from its commanding position he bombarded the city below. In the walls of Sultan Hassan Mosque which we went into, you can see the smashes made by the cannon and in once place outside a cannonball still rests. It has struck into the wall high up and lodged there – so says the story!

We went into the citadel grounds and from there had a fine view: out to our left were the pyramids – quite plainly shown up – about 10 miles away: down below was Old Cairo – round to the front and away out stretched Cairo with all its spires, mosques domes, big building and old hovels: out to the right we could see Heliopolis – also on a bit of rising ground and distinguishable by its fine clean appearance and big buildings. Close to us were the tombs of the Kalipha. I think you had better come and have a look at it – hills back in the distance where all the huge stones used for the building of the pyramids was supposed to have been brought.

Also within the citadel walls is the mosque of Mohammed Ali – a most gorgeous and richly furnished place inside. At the entrance we were required to put on canvas slippers over our boots (the Gyps themselves take their boots off altogether) and when we reached the inner part of the mosque the guide removed his turban and asked us to do likewise with our hats. The whole floor is covered with a thick soft carpet – dull rich red in colour – and there is a fine high dome and four quarter domes all done up with carved cedar and cut glass and stones. There are lamps and candles to the number of 2000 hanging in all directions: these are only lighted about 5 times a year, so says our guide – on very special occasions: one immense chandelier with I don’t know how many lights on it, hangs in the very centre. This is said to have been presented to the mosque in honour of M Ali by Philip of France some hundreds of years ago. I’m not well enough up in my history to verify or contradict the possibility of truth in the statement.

There’s a special place right on the centre of east end for the Sultan to pray when he goes to church. We were told one rather possible yarn about 2 half pillars protruding from the wall, one on either side of this small recess for the Sultan; they serve as guides for the blind so they know they are praying towards the east and to keep them from going into the Sultan’s praying place. Our guide explained all about the great Mohammed Ali – whose tomb he showed us – barred in at one side of the mosque together with an enormous amount of gold and precious jewels worth £500,000 he said – which I doubt.

For all the sacredness of the place and the reverence he professed for it he sold us some alabaster cut stones as good luck souvenirs from the ‘Great God and I hope he bring you safe after the war to your homes again’ – they are a mix up these people. Certainly religious most of ’em but not Christian and from what I’ve seen the majority are ‘not to be trusted as far as you could swing a bull by the tail’ as Mr Reiher would say.

We drove back to the city proper, had afternoon tea at Groppi’s, an up-to-date place, tables scattered round in the open air and with palms and trees all growing about: and very nice ice cream too! And we actually saw about 12 English or Australian ladies, perhaps nurses – and sent out and walked about the streets and into Esbekich Gardens in which is the YMCA. They have all sorts – a refreshment, sweets and tea place, a skating rink, library, concert platform, gym bars etc. We had tea at the ANZAC again and when we went to our room we found two Tommies in 2 other beds just down from the front with a prisoner for the citadel clink. They were able to tell us a fair bit of news and later on we went out with them to the Kursaal – a place of amusement, sort of musical comedy was on but the singing was all in French. French people (couldn’t call all of ’em actors) took the parts and it was rather funny – we thought we’d sooner try it than go to the pictures of which shows there are plenty.

At the Sultans Opera House which looks a fine place there are often good plays I believe but there was nothing doing for our special benefit. So we had to be content with a 2nd rate show. By the way the Sultan’s Palace is a bonny looking place and guarded at intervals along the front by well dressed sentries. Two are mounted, one each side of the entrance – and sit up straight holding a lance in their right hands and look very flash on their fine horses. We saw them changing guard once which was interesting – but I’ll have to tell you of lots of these places and ‘seeings’ when I come home.

In case I don’t tell you later, old good boy Jaick has stopped a bullet – our first to get wounded: he is not very badly hurt – though it might have been serious – got him in the side of jaw and didn’t do much damage. He’s in hospital down town here and Lance saw him yesterday for an hour or so. I hope to get in today to see him cos he may be moved away at any time. He was full of talk and news and quite cheerful and not in any pain apparently, has his jaw tied up of course: dare say Mrs H may be glad to know that cos no doubt she’ll soon have some word about him and may be worrying –  though he is sending a cable also to reassure her. Les, Herb and co are in it alright. Perhaps we are well off here but we are still mad enough to hope to go soon. Still our delay gave us the chance to get to Cairo for which I am very glad.

Had letters from Jim Cowan, Les Williams and Stan Prince the other day and one from old ‘Wolf’ Rowe this morning: also a card last week from Wit – must have been posted on the way: they only had a few hours stay in the west and although he got leave for 2 hours he missed his friends. That was tough luck. They were having a real good trip though cold weather and receiving good food and treatment all round.

A bit of a spell there before posting and it’s now Tuesday the 24th and we are off out this afternoon – start in about half an hour. Mail is just in and Joe Bilton is over now getting any of ours that are here: hope I’ll get a few. My parcels will have to be sent on now. Hope they come along safely. Expect so anyway. Saw old ‘Jaick H‘ the other day. He seemed pretty fair and cheerful and full of talk: pretty busy just now out here.  Of course you know they are not doing any fighting in ‘Gyp’ as Mr McN says so it’s alright. For all that a lot are going out. Poor old Lance is still left behind. I don’t know why I’m sure. If I have time I’ll send you an account of our second day on Cairo. We saw pyramids and sphinx – tell Elf  – and had our photos taken sitting on camels: I’ll get Lance to send a PC to you when they arrive which may be any day. I think I’ll post this and see if I can get another note written in case this goes astray.

Oo roo to ye all – we’ll be dinkum soldiers soon.

Still smiling.



Mosque of Mohammed Ali, Cairo
Interior of Mohammed Ali Mosque c 1900
Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
The Citadel, Cairo – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
Egypt – Pyramid & Sphinx – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
Groppi Cafe in 1924 courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Groppi’s remains a Cairo landmark