Sgt. Noel Duncan Braithwaite’s Journal

Sergeant Noel Duncan Braithwaite
Copyright Imperial War Museum

Sunday Nov 20, 1914

On guard again, and the blighted Old Quarter Guard too. I don’t mind the foreign agencies so much. one can get a little sleep there and the orderly officers’ comings can be gauged to an hour, but here there is no sleep and every minute of the day has its little vexations. I was forcibly reminded last night that we were in the midst of winter for I got starved through. Do what I would I could not get warm. This khaki drill has very little protection; and to think that tomorrow we are going on a trek. Methinks it will be a bit nippy bivouacking!

I would have given 20 piastres if I could have handed over my guard this afternoon. Fletcher, our transport wallah, had made arrangements with the native groom at the stable just by the guardroom, for a Garry, for an afternoon drive. And he invited me! My chagrin could be more easily imagined than described when I saw Stringer and Newton sail off in it leaving me with four hours still to do and on an admirable afternoon. However, after so much duty I intend to have a little treat and I have arranged for the same Garry this evening at 7 when I will see the sights of Cairo and its environs by moonlight and at my ease.

It has come to me this morning that the Turks are within three days of Port Said in force and also that the Khedive is a prisoner of war at Malta. This, I try to kid myself, looks serious. Oh, if only it would come to a head and let me be doing something. I am just itching to try my marksmanship on some living targets.

11pm. I have had my little out. Newton and Illingworth and myself hired the Garry and had a couple of hours drive round old Cairo. The narrowness of the streets in the native quarter is astounding. For quite an hour we threaded our way through streets which were little more than ten-foot passages. At one place we were stopped by another Garry in front which was trying to turn off our street into another. So narrow were the streets that it was absolutely impossible for the driver to turn the corner in the usual way. He led his horses in the street as far as he could get them and then he went to the back of his Garry and lifted the whole concern round until it was into line. Then he mounted again and drove off. Cairo will indeed require some beating in the matter of narrow streets. Our Garry wallah took us all through the famous Wazzeh [Wazzir] district, the Cairo hell, and of course we saw the sights. It was altogether a most interesting and enlightening outing.

Monday Nov 23 1914. 2pm

I am writing this on the desert; we are on a trek, and we are not due back at barracks till Wednesday evening. The idea of the thing is that the country is at war and that a small hostile force is coming on Cairo from the South, Helwan way. Our company has been ordered out to meet this force, if possible, to drive it back and if not then to check its advance, and as a result here we are on the desert about 7 miles from barracks. We have advanced in skirmishing order over a couple of miles of desert and have carried the enemy’s position at the point of the bayonet. And it has been no joke. We are in marching order and to charge pell mell for a couple of hundred yards across the sandy desert, while the sun itself is burning with excitement, and we in full pack too, is puffing work. Has we had a real enemy to charge we should never have shifted them, for when we arrived at his position we were fairly blown. However, in maneuvers these physical matters don’t count; we frightened the enemy away I suppose. Anyhow he has retreated and we now hold his position where we are at present awaiting the arrival of our camels with the grub. Of course, crossing the desert, we must have camel transport, horses are no use whatever. The fun started before we left barracks when we were loading the beasts. We had to carry all our food, water, timber, and all accessories with us and we had only twelve camels. The native camel-wallahs did not seem to realise that the camels had to carry big loads and it was with the greatest difficulty that we got them to load up as we wanted. And when we had loaded them, Good Lord! The poor beggars couldn’t get up again. They grunted and growled and roared under their burdens and we had to give a lift to help them up. When we made a halt on route, one of the camels got down and couldn’t get up again and the whole convoy was delayed almost an hour. I think the same one must have got down again somewhere for they do not seem to appear, and as the various stragglers come in, they are greeted with ‘Av yo seen owt o’ any Camels?’ Hello! I see them on the skyline and the chaps have broken out into “The camels are coming, they are, they are!”

We advanced through an Arab cemetery this morning and I saw several skulls. I approached a hole in the ground thinking I might have seen some good specimens but I was greeted with such a ‘sniff’ that I beat a hasty retreat without waiting to see what was in there.

The camels came up at 3:30pm and tea was served by 4. Of course, we have nothing cooked on a trek like this. The stuff we have brought with us consists of biscuits, bully, jam & tea principally.

Tuesday Nov 24, 1914. 5pm

I shall not forget quickly my first night’s bivouac. After tea we set to and dug shallow trenches for our beds, and when blankets had been issued, one per man, the encampment speedily went to bo-bo. Of course, it was dark by six, and by seven all the camp was as quiet as at midnight. I got down by eight and deeming the weather not too cold, simply took off my puttees and boots and wrapped myself up in my blanket. I got to sleep alright for I was rather tired, a shower of rain soon after getting down didn’t keep me awake, but about 2 o’ clock, as I afterwards ascertained, I woke up with a start to find myself nearly frozen. A cold wind had sprung up and I had had my back to it, with the result that I was nearly stiff with chattering teeth and all a-shiver I got my greatcoat from my valise and took a walk to get warm again. I went down to our cookhouse where there was a smouldering fire and remained there talking up the past with a few other cold kindred spirits till four, when I got down again and didn’t wake till reveille.

Wednesday Nov 25, 1914. 8pm

I am back again in barracks, and wishing I was going on a trek again tomorrow morning. It has been a splendid experience and one which I should be loath to miss if the chance offered itself again. Of course, it has been hard work and as rough as might be, but I never enjoyed anything so much. But to take up my narrative where I left off:

On rising on Tuesday morning, we immediately had breakfast, which consisted of biscuits, jam and tea, and were on the move before 9. There was no accident with the loading of the camels, at least nothing exceptional, and as the company continued the attack on the enemy, who were supposed to be in position on the hills of Lissan Abaid, about six miles further on, the camels went into the village of Maadi to draw water. Maadi is a village on the hill; we left it away on our right. Moving over the desert in full pack is something to try one up and it put us through it. The General came to visit us in the morning. My platoon was acting as supports to the firing line, and the officer in charge of us had allowed us to get too far behind, with the result that, when we saw the General coming across the plain, we had to get into the firing line as quick as possible. In doing this we took a stony ride of about half a mile, almost at a continuous double, and when we got to the top, we were all like Barney’s Bull. One poor fellow threw his rifle away and rolled over as if he had been shot. It had been too much for him. We left a couple of men to bring him round and continued the attack.

I was deuced glad to get to the peace of bivouac that night. By eight o’ clock I was fast asleep and knew nothing more till morning.

We had some rare sport this morning when we were packing the camels. Of course, we always had trouble with the camel-wallah but this morning they actually mutinied. The boss of the shanty, a bearded Arab, with an astonishing flow of language, was kicking up a dickens of a shine about a particular camel’s load, when I came up. The trouble seemed to be about whether a roll of blankets should be put up or not. The camel-wallah was emphatic about it and stood by his camel to see that his wishes were carried out. However, we intended that the blankets should be loaded, as I shoved him out of the way while we hoisted it up. This completely upset his apple cart and he came up again gabbling as if his indignation would drive him silly. I raised my arm and threatened to smash his face in. That did it! He thought he had been ill-used enough. He called to his followers and snatching up their personal belongings set off home, leaving us to manage the camels ourselves. This of course we couldn’t stand so we sent a section to bring them back, which they did! They cuffed the and kicked them all the way back, and that settled them.

After that, things went comparatively smoothly, and we arrived at our first night’s bivouac about 2 o’ clock. We had a meal of biscuits and tea and marched home about 5. And I wish I were going again. I may say that I picked up a good deal of Arabic on this trip.

Monday Nov 30th, 1914:

I have shifted my shanty again. As I write this, I am lying in a tent on the desert overlooked by the Pyramids. I came here on Saturday and do not know when I shall be going back however. Let me record things in their chronological order. Since I last wrote in this journal, I have done a little knocking about which has prevented me keeping up to date. On Friday, I went to Alexandria, some hundred odd miles away with prisoners. Our party consisted of one officer, myself, and 30 men. We entrained on he barracks square and took on board 50 prisoners; Turks, Arabs and Germans. The Turks and Arabs were many of them desperate characters and were placed in a 3rd class carriage whilst the Germans, who were residents in Cairo, were accommodated in a 2nd. Everything passed off without a hitch and we handed the prisoners over to an escort of the 6th Manchesters at Alexandria. We should have escorted them on board but the weather was too rough for embarkation for it was blowing very strongly. The weather was just English. The sky was overcast and a strong wind blowing and it was very cold. As we were marching back to the station we got caught in a terrific downpour of rain and had to take shelter in a drinking shop where it cost the officer 31 piastres! We arrived home about 10pm.

As soon as I arrived, I was warned for the Mena Guard and had to pack up a few necessities in the morning and move off. It was typical of the way things are done in the Army and particularly in the 9th, that I received no precise instructions.

Do you know where the Pyramids are? I was asked.

“Yes, sir!”
“Well, there is a camp about there, with a quantity of supplies. Go and guard it!”

That was all I was told. I didn’t know how long I was going for, any details whatever. I had 20 men, and we took an oilsheet and blanket each, rations for one day and two camp kettles. Arriving at the Pyramids, I looked round but could not see any signs of a camp. I called a guide and asked him if he knew of a soldier’s camp, with tents. ‘Oh Yes, he knew it all right!’ So, we followed him. Over the desert, up and down the hills of sand he took us until we were getting fagged, but still no sign of a camp. At length we told him pretty plainly that we were turning back, and it was a good job that we had the Pyramids as a landmark or we should have been lost, for the desert in all directions is alike. At last, we arrived back to the place whence we started and found the “camp” we had been seeking for three or four hours. It was simply a heap of sacks of corn. Well now, here was a bonny place to send a party of men to. However, we had to make the best of it for another couple of hours would see night here, so we set about to bivouac. Luckily an ASC officer came up and I report to the guard to him, and he vouched the welcome information that there would be some tents coming along. They did in about half an hour, and we soon erected a couple and we were landed. Another quarter of an hour saw us with a heap of timber which we had pinched and soon after, just at the edge of dark, we were taking our first meal since 6:30am. After posting the sentries and arranging all things connected with them, I settled down to sleep for I was tired. It went very cold at night and once I woke up feeling starved. It is to this that I attribute my slight indisposition yesterday, Sunday. I woke up with a slight disturbance in my ‘innards’ but during the morning it was not so bad and I paid little attention to it. Soon after nine I slipped away from Camp, and taking a lad of 15 as a guide, I went to ascend the great Pyramid. As you approach the ting the ascent seems the easiest thing in the world, but try it and it is a nerve trying experience. Preceded by my guide, I got about quarter way up and then stopped to rest. It seemed to me that I sat on the edge of a great precipice, and I felt a bit dizzy, which made me almost decide to go back. However, when I had recovered and got somewhat accustomed to my lofty position in the world, I pushed on, and keeping my face to the rock, reached the top after about twenty minutes climb. And the view from the top was superb. North and South ran the Nile. Miles and miles I could see it until it faded away into obscurity. To the West stretched the great mysterious Sahara, Sand and sand again for miles after miles, without life or verdure of any kind. And looking down the Western side of the Pyramid I obtained a splendid bird’s eye view of the excavation being carried on by some Americans. The Sphynx, a little to the South appeared just like a cat lying on the plain. Looking to the East, Cairo was to be seen in its entirety and further on the landscape lost itself in the Arabian desert. The whole view from such an eminence was magnificent and one worth coming miles to see. Too soon I had to descend for I did not want anybody from Kasr-el-Nil to come to Camp and find me absent or I might have been for it. I got down in half the time it took to get up and as I paid up my guide was well satisfied with my experience.

During Sunday afternoon 57 lorry loads of corn, sugar, etc. came and we had the very dickens of a job to get it unloaded in the proper places. And now let me say a word of explanation of our presence here. We are simply the beginning of a large Camp. Some thirty thousand Australian troops are going to be quartered here, so this will give some idea of the magnitude of the preparations. There are some hundreds of natives employed here in making a road across the desert and in constructing an electric railway. This points to a permanent camping ground, in short, a base of operations. The presence of all this work going on is very handy for us, for it enables us to provide ourselves with fuel for our fire. As soon as night falls, a party of chosen scouts leaves our Camp and return laden with timber, and by this time the railway is many sleepers short. But we must have fuel and as they don’t send us any from barracks, well! What would you do?

6pm Sunday afternoon, the pains in my ‘tummy’ increased in frequency and intensity until at times I was almost doubled up with pain. I thought at first that I had sand colic with swallowing so much up of the stuff. That’s the only fault with this life. We can’t keep the sand out of our food. However, this morning I am much better so I suppose it was just a touch of ordinary colic caused by getting cold on Saturday night.

Tuesday Dec 1st

This life is great. I am still at the Mena Guard, and am enjoying things fine. Our rations are sent out every day but the time of arrival seems to be a matter of no consequence to the authorities at Kasr-el-Nil. Yesterday our rations did not reach us until 3 in the afternoon, and then they were brought by an escort from the 9th who came with about 50 wagons of stores, etc. It was too late to cook anything for dinner so we had tea at the usual time, and we made a dixie stew of our meat and vegetables about 9 o’ clock at night. And by Gad, wasn’t it good? I think I never enjoyed a meal so much before. The night was cold and the dixie stew was hot and – my lips are smacking yet!

Wednesday Dec 2nd 1914

Yesterday another twelve men were sent out from Kasr-el-Nil to strengthen our guard. I have now 32 men and 2 corporals and I feel the responsibility of my position very much. Every day increases the stock of provisions and camp equipment, etc. put here. There must be thousands of pounds worth here, and it extends over a square of half a mile or more. And I alone am responsible for its safety. The preparations here are on a huge scale. I am told that 18,000 colonial troops are to be quartered here, and the preparations seem to indicate the coming of such a vast contingent. From the Pyramids Road an electric railway and a highway is being constructed into the desert and hundreds of natives are employed hereabouts on the work. The cost which a work like this entails seems to point to the fact that this camp is to be a permanent one. It will probably be the largest in Egypt; and my little party pitched the first tent.

Apart from the fact that my responsibility weighs upon me rather heavily I am in thorough sympathy with my surroundings and am enjoying myself. This hard ‘roughing it’ just suits me, and of course the open air and sun is champion. The feeling of isolation one gets, out at a place like this, is quite a new sensation to me. Being separated from my immediate chums at barracks seems to intensify the feeling that thousands of miles separate me from those I hold dear at home. It seems as if I were almost hopelessly cut off from everybody.

Thursday Dec 3rd 1914

Our camp has now become a very busy hive. Yesterday afternoon the advance party of Australian troops arrived. There were about a hundred of them and fine fellows they were too. They are not however, soldiers; they are undisciplined and seem to have little idea of regimental behaviour. They had a rare good time last night down at the Café near the Pyramids. Having been six weeks on the boat they were naturally a bit frisky and they were flashing their money galore. The camel drivers, donkey boys, and fortune tellers made a real harvest of them; like we were at first these Australians were done down at every turn. After being without tobacco for two days I managed to obtain half a cake from one of the chaps so I am set up again for a bit. The boat which sunk the Emden, the Sydney, was escort to the Australian transports and these fellows tells us that they 40 odd of their prisoners, including the Captain, on their vessel.

Saturday Dec 5th 1914

Yesterday morning I went round the Pyramids for a quiet stroll, fully determined to resist all efforts of the guides to thrust themselves upon me. However, I failed. The beggars stick to one like glue and no amount of ‘imshi’-ing or ‘yalla’-ing will clear them. In the end I suffered one of them to take me in the temple of the Sphinx, a sort of underground affair near the wonder from which it takes its name. We descended into it down an inclined passage and then I found myself in the temple. The walls were of granite and the floor of alabaster, and there were sixteen huge columns of granite which had formerly supported the roof. The great blocks of granite comprising the walls were many of them 16 feet long, 3ft high and 6 ft deep. How they had got them there in those old days and put them into position is a marvel to me. And the granite had all been brought from Assowan, 400 miles away. In the temple were tombs of the high priest and of some King’s daughter. That little trip cost me a piastre and a half (3 ¾d).

Yesterday some thousands of Australians arrived, and ‘our fellows’ had a good time with them. These Australian blokes have plenty of money, the privates get 6/- per day, and they are by no means sparing with it. And not their money only but anything they have they will give away.  Tobacco, coins and even badges, caps and other parts of their equipment have found their way into our chaps’ possession. Down at the café last night our lads were tucking in and having as much as they could eat without it costing them a red cent. I rescued an Australian who had a crowd of natives around him changing his money. I knew very well they were diddling him hence my intervention. But afterwards he wouldn’t allow me to pay for anything. We had a rare good tea together and when I remonstrated on account of the price he said “Oh what the hell does it matter, we’ve bags of money!”

There isn’t as much discipline amongst them as one would get from a lot of maniacs but with training, they will make a tough lot to deal with. They’re made of the right stuff. Devil-may-care they are and such are the best fighters.

Last night I stood around one of the camp fires talking with an M.M.P. [Mounted Military Police] sergeant and an Australian until 3 o’ clock in the morning. We were discussing the army and the war and none of us had he slightest idea of the time.

When I awoke this morning, it was bitterly cold. A North wind was blowing that went through one. And I never thought it was cold in Egypt! Good heavens! I thought it would have frozen my face off.

Today completes a week of this guard, and since coming I have not heard anything officially from Kasr-el-Nil. They send over rations out every day but beyond that we might as well be dead.

Tuesday Dec 8th

Still on this guard. We were told we should only be away two or three days and this is the eleventh. But I don’t mind. This life is far better than being in barracks. The open air and the freedom from interference, I am GOC here, are much to be desired, and when obtained are fully appreciated.  Rations have just come for another day, but our holiday cannot be prolonged very much now for the battalion goes to Abbasia on Monday for brigade training and we shall not be allowed to miss that. I am surprised that we have been here so long after the arrival of the Australians. There are thousands of them here now and yet we are kept on guarding their supplies. Possibly the blokes cannot be entrusted with such a guard yet. They are not yet settled down and are just like savages. A more hare-brained set of fellows I never struck. I hear that last night one of them got his throat cut in Cairo. From what I can gather he tore the Yashmak and veil from one of the native women; if that is so he deserves his fate. When these fellows first marched in I was impressed by their physique and thought what a splendid lot of men they were. I have quickly changed my opinion. Generally speaking, they are a lot of boasting, bragging uncivilized hooligans.

I went to barracks yesterday for the first time since coming on this guard. I didn’t care for leaving the corporal in charge but necessity forced me. I was feeling ‘chatty’. We came here without a change of any kind and water is difficult enough to get for washing and cooking, never mind bathing, we have to go half a mile for it, so it is no wonder we were getting ‘chatty’. I had a rare good bath, and changed my suit, which I had never had off for 10 days, and now I feel a new man.

When we first came here the place was desert, but it is desert no longer. There are thousands of men here, the electric cars run up, and good macadam roads have been made; and all this transformation in a week! It is wonderful.

The rumour has currency here, and daily gains in strength, that the East Lancs Division leaves for home on January 7th to be mobilised and equipped for France. If someone told me that on January 7th, I should pick up £50 in the sand I should attach as much credence to it as to this rumour. I will not deny that conviction keeps forcing itself upon me, for the various sources from which the rumour comes to us, gives it every appearance of truth, but I absolutely refuse to believe for fear of a frightful disappointment.

I understand that our battalion has again been ‘for it’ from the Brigade. The Brigade people seem to have an aversion to us, but I claim, and found my claim on personal observation and the views of regular army critics, that the 9th are the smartest and best conducted battalion in Cairo. I am not saying that they are smart but they are smarter than the others.

The weather just now is ideal. It is Dec 8th 12 noon and the sun is shining brilliantly and it is warm enough for me to sit in my tent in my shirt sleeves writing this. I wonder what it’s like at home. Of course, it goes cold at night, but our greatcoats are usually sufficient protection from the cold. And speaking of the weather, reminds me that the Colonel has dropped a very significant hint that we shall see now more hot weather here. Really, it’s very hard to keep from hoping. We look like getting a smack at the Germans yet; and if the Stalybridge lot can go to the front, why not we?

Thursday Dec 10, 1914

This is the 13th day of our encampment here, but I learn with pleasure that we shall be relieved tomorrow. The Colonel of the Australian mob or of some unit of them sent for me this afternoon for particulars of the Guard and said he would probably take over tomorrow. And I am glad. I am getting lazy on the job. I cannot find anything to do, and one can have too much of a good thing. On the whole I would rather be in hard training with the boys.

I have reason to believe that the rumour about our going to England in January is bunkum! A good job I didn’t raise any hopes or they would have been dashed now.

Yesterday we had some frightful weather for Egypt. It was typical English. The sky was black with clouds and the rain came down pell-mell. And it was cold with it too. I imagined the weather might have been somewhat similar at home.

Australian troops continue to arrive in the camp as if there were no end to them.

I have today sent several postcards with Christmas greetings for home. I wonder what sort of Christmas I shall be having when those reach home. When the church bells ring out the glad tidings of Christmas morning, when folks at home are drawing their chairs up to the huge fire and cracking bottles of beer, or munching Christmas cake, I suppose I shall be rolled up in my blanket on the desert gazing up at the stars in an alien sky under which the greeting of a merry Christmas were mere irony. From what I can gather, we shall be on brigade maneuvers at Christmas and I suppose there will be a good deal of bivouacking in that. But we’ll make the Christmas as merry as may be you can bet, especially if we happen to be on barracks. And being rolled up in a blanket on the desert is much better than toasting our toes at home, for a time like this is one of works and not festivity.

Saturday Dec 12th 1914

I am back again in barracks having returned from the Pyramids yesterday. We were relieved about 10 yesterday morning and it is typical of the military character of the Australians that a Major went round to post the first sentries and even then, he lost one of them. After being relieved the next thing was to get home. We were seven or eight miles from home and no transport for our baggage. But transport we had to have so I spotted two carts which were working for Australians and drew them onto our camp ground and got them loaded up. It was a near shave though for a transport officer caught me just as we were setting off. “Sergeant! Where the hell are you taking those carts?” I thought we should have had to unload again but I threw myself on his mercy and managed to get away. It was a bit cheeky though. But I took example from Mick. And I might say that we landed back with more stuff than we took away.

During my absence orders have been issued for the wearing of English Khaki, and it is such a change. I went out in the morning in it and it was just like being at home.

On Monday we move to Abbasia for brigade training.

Monday Dec 14, 1914

10am. We are now packed up for Abbasia, whither we proceed at 2pm. In course of a walk round Cairo last evening I purchased a tarboosh, or fez, the mature red cap with black tassel. An Arab offered it to me in passing and I had not the slightest intention of buying. “How much?” I asked.

“Five piastres!”
“Get out of it; I’ll give you two!”
“Come on!”
“No, I don’t want it. Anyhow, give you one for it!”
He hesitated, then said “Me mafesh faloos!” which means ‘I have no money.”
Give me one and a half. Which I did and got a bargain.

This is a good example of the way we set about buying anything from the natives. They always ask three or four times more than they will eventually take. Of course, we were generally taken in by them at first but we soon tumbled to their dodges.

We went to a picture show last night. The first I have been to since leaving home, and we seemed to have dropped into a very anti-British shop. When any pictures of German troops were thrown on the screen the audience cheered to the echo. And when the awful devastation of the beautiful buildings of Louvain was pictured, I thought the audience would have gone made. They went into ecstatics. How I sighed to have a few of our fellows there. We’d have turned the place inside out.

We had another amusing experience last night too, which made me very indignant at first but afterwards I smiled. We stopped at a postcard shop to buy some cards and were looking at some in a stand outside, when all of a sudden, the shopman came out in a dickens of a sweat, snatched up the stand and took it inside pointing to several empty places and jabbering like an agitated baboon. He seemed to think we had pinched his blighted cards, which by the way, I wouldn’t have sent to my worst enemy. His state of mind was something terrible and when we soon saw the humorous side of the affair, we simply stood and laughed at him. I suppose he took us for common or garden soldiers. Get away you lads!

Tuesday Dec 15 1914

At Abbasia. We are quartered in the main barracks. Leaving Kasr-el-Nil at 2pm yesterday we arrived here about 4:30. We had them to issue biscuits and blankets, there are no beds, and by the time we were ready for tea it was quite dark. However, we managed to get the rations issued somehow.

And then it was time for me to go on duty for I was on Canteen. At 9:30 I closed the Canteen and went groping my way, to our mess. These barracks are a monstrous affair and there are very few lights so that to a stranger it is like threading subterranean passages, moving about at night. I nearly broke my neck last night by fancying I was on the level when there was a flight of steps in front. I didn’t say much until I landed at the bottom, and then – well, I’ll not soil the pages of this journal by recording any more of the incident. When I got to the mess there was a piano and we had a little impromptu singsong until 11pm.

The sergeants in our Company, 10 of us, are quartered in a room originally designed for two, and as we had managed to secure a bed each, its capacity was very severely tried. However, with skillful maneuvering we managed to get all the beds in and eventually got to sleep. We call our house the 4×2 room. For non-regimental readers I will explain that a piece of 4×2 is just sufficient flannelette to go through a rifle barrel.

This morning reveille went at 5:30 and I had to get up in the dark and be at the cookhouse before six, for I am B.O. [Battalion Orderly]. Just now I have an hour to myself before accompanying the Orderly Officer on barracks inspection.

The rumour about our going home on January 7th still retains its currency, and increases in strength. For some reasons I am inclined to believe it, but many others cause me to reject it utterly. Best take things as the come.

Wednesday Dec 16 1914

I have today been on my first day’s training and I returned, well not fagged but very tired. However, after a wash and a brush up I felt in the pink again. We rendezvoused at a place somewhere the other side of Heliopolis at 10:30am. The weather was very warm; it only wants a few days to Christmas and we were all sweating with the heat this morning. Previous to commencing work we were inspected by the G.O.C. Division and he pronounced the 9th ‘a fine set of men!’. I think he was pulling our leg. The work was the brigade in attack and the object of attack being 8,000 yards away. It can be imagined on what a large scale the work was. The 9th was the advance guard, the 4th and 5th East Lancs following on, and the 10th Manchesters bringing up the reserves. The advance continued for about 3 hours before the assembly sounded and the bugles were heard none too soon.

We arrived back at barracks about 4pm and had dinner at 4:30. We had had nothing since 6:30 in the morning.

In orders tonight I read that the battalion is confined to barracks until Saturday. I wonder what the dickens is on the cards now.

During the early part of our advance this morning we crossed a part of the desert which seemed to have been a great cemetery, for it was strewn with bones in all directions. Where holes had been dug, they had laid bare human bones representing any and every part of the anatomy. This is not the first region of this kind we have struck. I should like very much to know the real explanation of these places.

Monday Dec 21st 1914

Since last entering up this journal some days have elapsed and the spirit has never moved me to make a start until now. As a rule, this brigade training keeps us out from 7 to 9 hours a day and when one returns at 4pm the day is very quickly over. By the time one has had a bath and begun to feel OK again it is tea-time. After tea, one must needs have a lie down for the day on the desert has created a ravenous appetite, after satisfying which one does not feel very ‘jildy’ for some time. The evening thus gets lolled away and one tumbles into bed, to follow the same routine tomorrow.

We are getting quite used to our new quarters and even like them. One great thing here is that we only provide two regimental duties, Canteen and Battalion Orderly, against seven which we had to find at Kasr-el-Nil with an escort chucked in now and then to fill up.

Our menu has made a remarkable improvement this week. We have got a native caterer from somewhere and one who knows his job evidently. But what it is going to cost I don’t know.

On Saturday evening a few of us went into Cairo to see the sights, and we did see them! The memory of it will linger as long as I live. Would that I could forget it but that will be very hard. This is the most loathsome, filthy, disgusting place it is possible to conceive. From what I hear, I have not seen one hundredth part of what Cairo has to show, but I have seen sufficient to last me a lifetime. I have seen womanhood debauched and sunk into absolutely the lowest depths of degradation, and the sight is revolting in the extreme. Reverence for womanhood is unknown here. Cairo is the cesspool of unfortunate women. They come here as a last resort.

Yesterday the British Protectorate was formally instituted in Cairo and the new Sultan installed. Some of the 9th went to the procession but as it was optional in my case and necessitated arriving at 4am I thought it best to have a lie over instead. I did not go out at all yesterday but I believe there were great doings in Cairo. All the people and the Tommies as well were bent on having a good time; and during the evening the town was the scene of much hilarity and rowdyism.

Tonight, I am stopping in again for I feel more like rest. Cairo somehow has but little attraction nowadays. And if we go down now, we simply stroll round the European Quarter; in fact, we seldom go out unless there is something we want.

Thursday Dec 24 1914

I nearly killed poor Bony the other night.  We call him ‘Blighty’ now, ‘Blighty’ being a soldier’s term which he is always using and which means home. Really it was all ‘Flanagan’s’ fault for if he had not wakened me, well, I should still have slept. Now Flanagan had been visiting the mess of the Westminster Dragoons and came home rather merry. And noisy! Off came my blankets and I awoke to find his face grinning at me from the foot of the bed. No one could be angry with ‘Flanagan’ when he laughs, he is much too funny, so I must needs enter into the spirit of the evening and prepare for a rough house. I got up to arrange my bed, donning my tarboosh for the purpose. It was too tempting a mark for Flanagan, and bang! A 2lb loaf landed against the door with a terrific rattle. Nothing behind, I ‘cobbed’ it back but missed him and only just ‘ducked’ in time to get out of the path of its return journey or my head would now be ‘mafeesh’. Then I got into bed with the tray so that next time I would have some protection from the blankets. From this position I threw again at ‘Flanagan’ and then it was I nearly killed poor ‘Blighty’. It wasn’t my fault that ‘Blighty’s’ head lay between Flanagan’s and my own, nor was I to blame that he was asleep; he ought not to have been asleep with all the row going on. Anyhow, I suppose I was to blame for my wretched aim. I summoned all my strength for the throw and ‘Blighty’ caught it full in his ‘tummy’. Poor beggar, he lay groaning for quite ten minutes; he was fairly knocked out a time. And that put a stop to our mad half hour.

At 12 o’ clock today we returned from our biggest day’s training having been out from 12:45pm on Wednesday. We bivouacked, the whole brigade, somewhere about 10 miles East of Cairo on the plain whereon once fell the Manna of the Israelites. And if the Israelites were kept wandering about here for forty years, well, poor beggars. I don’t know how they did it. Anyway, they couldn’t have been in full marching order.

We reached the place of bivouac about 5:30pm and before tea was ready it was quite dark. Only experienced tea party waiters and waitresses will have even the slightest idea of my difficulty in doling out grub for forty hungry big boys in the dark. However, I managed it eventually and it was not long before the bivouac was quite quiet. I got no sleep, however. About 9 o’ clock a desperation to be silly descended on our little circle and we began to act the goat. Seven of us tried to get down in a space not big enough for three comfortably and so we had some fun. When at last the mad work subsided and we settled down to sleep, I found I could not find slumber by any means. I got up and got down again ten times until about 2 o’ clock I decided to walk about until reveille. I roamed about for an hour with a blanket round me looking like an Indian Chief trying to keep out the cold, until at 3 o’ clock the men were roused and got into their equipment. A beautiful sight during the early hours of the morning was a great white star which everybody said was the Star of Bethlehem. It was a great white orb almost like a small moon, and its light easily reached the earth.

At 3:30am in the darkness the battalion moved off on mass destined for a point four miles away where we were to deliver an attack at dawn. Well, I do believe I walked most of the way in my sleep. I simply stumbled along. There were the other battalions of the brigade there as well. As the sun was just throwing its light above the horizon the charge was delivered which carried the position.

From there we marched back home, having breakfast en-route. As I was annoyed for the whole distance of ten miles with a nail in each shoe, I was glad when we did get home, which was about 12 noon.

Well, it is now Christmas Eve. Everything is quiet as yet but then it is only seven o’ clock. Personally, I feel as little of the Spirit of the Season as if it was Wakes time. And I got nearly scorched this morning. Weather like we are having and Christmas do not go well together to a Western mind.

Christmas Morning 1914

Just imagine, Christmas! The sun is shining brilliantly and it is quite warm. Christmas indeed; it’s more like Midsummer Day at home. We had a bit of a knees-up last night in the mess. A party of L.F. [Lancashire Fusiliers] sergeants came across and they didn’t half have a beano. This morning in our little 4×2 room we have decorated our Xmas tree. We have on it an old sock, a piece of soap, a cigarette card, an empty cigarette tin, a bottle of brilliantine, a bit of candle, a pack of cards, a salt cellar and a looking glass. Quite a mixed collection. This afternoon I shall have to take my place as head waiter, carver and caterer to my platoon. The men are having their Xmas dinner on the square. Christmas dinner in the open air under a brilliant sun.

“Whoever would ‘a thowt it!” What would I give just now for some English snow and ice and a big roaring fire, with the wind roaring outside! But war does upset one’s calculations so! It’s beastly annoying.

Sunday Dec 27 1914

Ah well! Xmas is over and tomorrow we commence training again. I looked with dismay at the prospect of Xmas under the present conditions but really, I have had a great time; a time that will ever be fresh in my mind as each Xmas time comes round. On Xmas day the men had their dinner on the square. It was the sight of a lifetime. The fellows had the time of their lives. Why, the whole battalion was drunk almost before the dinner was served. Of course, beer was free, and I never saw so many drunken men together in all my life. Dinner was a good meal. First there was roast beef, then turkey and of course pudding. And what was a great feature to the men was the fact that the officers and sergeants were waiting on them. With what gusto they shouted, “Hey sergeant! Fetch us some beer!” I was kept in the run with the beer jug.

Christmas Dinner 1914, Abbassia Barracks

Our own dinner did not come off till 6:30pm and we had a really splendid spread, after which we had a free bar which greatly helped in the enjoyment of the evening. The sing song proved quite a success and when we broke up about 1am we looked and felt as if we had had a good time. The worst of it was that the next day, with Joe and Harry, I had to be up at 6am to get ready for duty at the Territorial Boxing Day Sports on the Khedivial Sporting Club grounds. I must admit that I felt a bit groggy when I got up, (no! I was certainly not drunk), but it soon wore off and I took much enjoyment in the discharge of my duties as steward at the KSC.

We finished there at about 4:30, and we took a Garry to Abatzi’s, where we had arranged to meet the rest of our circle, and there we had tea. The season’s spirit was on us and, I fear, we got rather hilarious, although, mind, our hilarity was the outcome of the season and our own light heartedness, and not sue to any artificial stimulant in the way of drinks. This is a good point about our little circle, we can have a night out without having any drink. After tea we quitted Abatzi’s and forthwith trooped to the photographer to be snatched ‘en masse’. Poor fellows, we nearly drove him off his head. He kept appealing to us “You come for your photograph, and you do not help me one leetle bit. You laugh, you smile; I tell you it is eempossible to make you photograph good! We kept quipping him all the time, and in the end, I fear I spoiled the picture by moving.

From the photographers we went round Cairo, having considerable amusement of the native hawkers, until at 9:30 we went to the pictures. And I heard the funniest thing imaginable, ‘Hitchy Koo’ sung in French. We didn’t give it some ‘Hitchy Koo!’ The picture finished at 12pm ad then we had four miles to come home to Abbasia. So, we did it on donkeys! We barged the donkey-wallahs down to 3 ½ piastres a time (8 ¾ d). Four miles on a donkey for 8 ¾ d, not so bad, is it? We got home about 1-15am and everybody was quite satisfied with Xmas in Egypt.



‘Jildy’ is derived from the Hindu word juldee, meaning energy or effort. When a soldier was ordered to do something with vigour, he was told to ‘put some jildy into it’.

The journal also bore the name ‘Vere Foster‘ on the cover perhaps implying that it was a school book from his teaching days.

‘Fletcher’ is Sgt. 220 Albert Fletcher.

‘Stringer’ is Colour Sgt. 237 Henry Stringer who was Harry Illingworth’s brother-in-law and a cousin of 2/Lt. Ned Stringer.

‘Newton’ is Colour Sgt. 154 George Newton.

‘Illingworth’ is Sgt. 469 Harry Illingworth who was killed in action on June 5, 1915.

‘Joe & Harry’ are Sgt. Joe Harrop and Sgt. Harry Illingworth.


This journal has been transcribed from originals held at the Imperial War Museum. The transcription is provided here under Non Commercial Use License and remain the copyright of the IWM.

The papers are catalogued here at the IWM.