Diggers in Egypt trained and played hard

Australian soldiers volunteered to fight Germans in Europe in WWI and were surprised to find themselves in Egypt's desert with exotic Cairo nearby.

Before the horrors of Gallipoli and the Western Front, the wide-eyed young men of Australia's new army met the hardships and exotic temptations of early 20th century Cairo.

The city clerks and farm boys who volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in 1914 were disillusioned to find themselves in the desert heat of Egypt, rather than the lush green fields of England, when they shipped out to war.

Disappointment at these sandy drills was tempered, though, by what the fabled city of Cairo could offer to a cashed-up young man seeing the world for the first time.

"They trained hard and they played hard," war historian Professor Peter Stanley said.

A convoy carrying the first Australian and New Zealand troops to enter World War I set out from Albany, Western Australia, on November 1, 1914.

After landing in Egypt, Australia's first army made its home at Mena Camp, a vast training facility in the shadow of the famous Giza pyramids about 16km from Cairo.

At its peak, around 25,000 soldiers were in camp, each for about four months.

Professor Stanley, a researcher at the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Forces and Society at UNSW Canberra, said Mena was the central location for volunteers from all over Australia to muster.

After their basic training in Australia, they learned how to fight together in Mena.

"In Egypt, they started to learn platoon tactics, then company tactics, then how to fight as a battalion," Prof Stanley said.

A black and white newsreel, shot in 1915 and available on the Australian War Memorial website, shows troops drilling with horses, field guns and even a few camels.

They trained in open warfare - fast-moving battles over open ground like those fought in previous decades.

They would get just one day of employing such tactics at the Gallipoli landings before digging in for the prolonged trench campaign - the bogged-down fighting that would define the entire Great War.

Training was six days a week and when leave came, the soldiers had rich opportunities to explore.

Even at the start of the 1900s the pyramids were a global tourist attraction served by electric trams from Cairo.

Soldiers could quickly travel into the city, with its bazaars, brothels and cafes.

Memorable scenes from the 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli show a young Mel Gibson and pals roving through old market stalls, but Prof Stanley said Cairo also had a European quarter, complete with wide boulevards and sidewalk cafes.

One cafe, Groppi, where troops could get a steak with egg and chips, still operates today.

Awed soldiers wrote home about visiting the pyramids and places named in the Bible but were also confronted by a sex trade "on a scale that none of them had ever encountered", Prof Stanley said.

Aussie troops received six shillings a day (one shilling was deferred), leading to grumbles from lower-paid British Tommies that prices went up when the Diggers were around.

It also made them targets for every tout, scammer and dodgy money changer.

Misbehaviour among volunteers unaccustomed to following orders was inevitable and discipline was a serious problem.

"These are young men - the average age is 25," Prof Stanley said.

"Most have been in the workforce for eight to 10 years, most of them are unmarried and they are the highest-paid soldiers in the world.

"Some were innocents; some know exactly what they were doing."

At Easter in 1915, Australians were in a riot in the Cairo brothel district, and officers were gravely concerned by absenteeism.

Prof Stanley said while ill-discipline was viewed as harmless larrikinism, it did have serious consequences.

"Men who went absent made the ones who didn't go absent work harder, and get killed," he said.

Sexually transmitted diseases were also a problem, with more than 1000 men sent for treatment at a special "VD camp" at Langwarrin in Victoria over the course of a year.

Professor Stanley says while the "larrikin minority" tend to attract most attention - as demonstrated in Peter Weir's film - it's important to remember they were just a minority.

In March 1915, Australian troops sailed from Egypt to the Greek island of Lemnos, to prepare for the Gallipoli landings that would mark their place in history.

4 min read
Published 15 April 2015 at 11:16am