Sapper Howard H. Rees (542) and his letter to his brother D. J. Rees, Pontycymmer P.O.
“After a long and favourable voyage from Mudros, we arrived in Alexandria on the 18/12/1915. We laid in the harbour until 10 a.m. then went along side the quay. I was much struck by the number of ships in this harbour, and also by the great number of seagulls, which kept hovering around the ships and screaming continuously. A train was waiting for us, and at 3.40 p.m. we moved off. As the train was especially for soldiers, we were packed into 3rd class compartments. The seats are arranged just the same as those on the top of English tram cars. The 3rd class carriages are very bare and cheerless, whilst the 1st class are something similar to the 3rd class in England.
As we journeyed inland I was filled with wonder and strange fancies. As we left the outskirts of Alexandria the view on all sides opened out. We sped along and passed tall imposing palms, orchards of orange groves, white painted villa’s glistened in the sunshine, alongside crude dull mud houses. Here and there were a few natives tending their cows or goats and camels; or some donkeys heavily laden, trudging along slowly, whilst the owners walked alongside.
What impressed me the most during this journey was the marvellous and extensive system of irrigation. The wonderful network of artificial waterways spoke eloquently of the ingenious engineering skill of the Egyptians.
The more I saw the more I wondered, and the greater became my admiration as mile after mile we travelled over land rendered fertile by artificial methods, and which otherwise would have been scorched by the terrific heat of the sun.
Our train stopped at a station called Teg-el- Baroud. On the platform there were a number of Arab’s of the better class waiting for the Cairo train. There were also several vendors of oranges, tomatoes, eggs etc, who came alongside the carriages selling their wares to ‘Tommy’, despite the protestations of the native policemen. The lower class Arab lives in constant terror of the Policeman. His word is law and absolute. He is always smartly dressed in a khaki drill uniform and Fez hat. At his side he carries a well polished sword; and invariably he is armed with a long cane or whip. This cane or whip seems to be kept in pretty active play- as several instances proved. They went something like this:- The vendor ( though so afraid of the policeman)) would take great risk for the sake of ‘business’. It seems they were prohibited from selling to the soldiers en route, but knowing the eagerness of ‘Tommy’ to buy, the temptation of disposing of his wares was too great for the Arab. One would venture right up to the train, but was spotted and chased by the policeman. Then pursuer and pursued would run like mad.
During the hot pursuit the remainder of the vendors, taking full advantage of Mr Policeman’s absence, were at once busy exchanging oranges, tomatoes, or eggs for a few piastres ( 2d) or the equivalent in English money. Then in a few seconds there was a scuffle and a scamper, which denoted the return of the policeman.
I for one thought it very silly for adults to keep running away like children from the constable, but I soon saw the reason for this, for when any one was unfortunate enough to be overtaken by this guardian of the law, he became the victim of several thwacks from the cane or whip, which was brought down upon him in no light manner.
Since this first occasion I have witnessed this many similar instances. The policeman first orders the Arab off, but before the fellow can comply he gets a push, then a thwack, then another push and a heavier thwack, and so on until the fellow suddenly takes to his heels.
Soon after leaving Teg el Baroud, we left the irrigated portion of this land behind, and entered the desert region. We stopped just outside another station, and getting out on the sand, a few of us approached two men in uniform, who it seems were employees of the station. They only spoke a few words of English, but spoke fluent French. So we gathered that we were in the village of ———-. We did not feel very cheerful when we were told that the place we were going to was very much out of the way, and that we should see nothing but a small station, smaller village, and plenty of sand. This we found to be quite true, when after about an hours travel we arrived at——— our destination. We collected our equipment, got out of the train, and marched through the sand for about half a mile; there we bivouacked. I put down my groundsheet(which is waterproof); on that I laid a folded blanket, and got down to it, drawing my overcoat over me. Although the days in Egypt are very hot, the nights are cold, and the dew is very heavy. I woke up in the night and found my overcoat and my puttee’s and hat were soaking wet, and it was very cold indeed. In the morning we found that there was a very thick haze, which remained stationary until the sun rose; then the mist began to move, and later to swirl about uneasily in all directions- for the sun and haze do not agree! during the day we were kept fairly busy with various fatigues. That night and the next found us again bivouacking, then we drew and pitched our tents.
Our arrival at ——— was sooner than expected, for the local natives were still busy night and day making roads and laying water-pipes. The natives work very hard, and the appear to have almost Herculean strength, for they carry very great weight’s, they have a very happy-go-lucky way of doing their work. Three or four will carry a length of pipe which is very heavy- And they sing or chant all the time while lifting or carrying. There are a number of camels at work in this part. they are used for carrying stones from the boats in the canal by the station, to a pump-house which was being erected with all speed.
The natives walk with the camels to the pump-house, where the camels are relieved of their loads. On the return journey the natives ride on the camels. Some of the Arabs, during the return journey, play instruments which sound something like bagpipes?
Were it not for some things which we were able to procure from Cairo and from the canteen that has just opened here, we should have fared very poorly for Christmas.
As it was the four of us in my tent had for breakfast: Bacon, four eggs each, some bread, tomatoes, and tea. Our Christmas dinner from the Army was the usual stew. There was some chocolate, sweets and oranges. For tea we had from the army tea, and rice— and this after coming straight from the fighting in Gallipoli and suffering so many privations, whilst those in England ( even those who won’t sign for foreign service) have on Christmas Day double rations from the Army. We didn’t even have our full ordinary rations. After tea we had (of our own purchasing) some butter, pears and pineapple.
Christmas day is the one day in the year that I particularly yearn to be at home, but on this occasion, fortunately I did not feel too despondent, for I felt that somehow that all was well at home, and felt thankful for the change from constant nervous strain in Suvla Bay.
The canteen here is run by a Greek. There are several Arab assistants, but they only know a word or two of English at most. It is very amusing to see the way they go dashing about to and fro in the rush to cope with a crowd of Tommie’s demands. It was hard enough for hem to understand when asked for cigarettes, but when some of our boys would ask them for ‘fags’ they looked totally bewildered. I myself asked one for a tin of milk. Not appearing to understand my meaning at once, I repeated my order several times, so that there would be no mistake. Then he suddenly seemed to grasp my meaning, and after nodding knowingly at me the whole time, he darted behind a jumble of crates and boxes. He returned a few moments later with a candle! The next night I went again and ordered from the same fellow a pound of butter. By now his confidence had grown, and he unhesitatingly darted away, and rushed back, and smiling proudly placed before me….a tin of milk?
We left ——- on the 2nd of January, 1916, for ———- We were now travelling further into the desert. there was a small village here, peopled mainly by the employees of the factory. Of those employed at this factory two are Englishmen, Mr Patterson the manager, and Mr Firth the chemist. We had several linemen here from the Egyptian Army Engineer Corps, installing a telephone and telegraph for military use. These army linemen lived temporarily in a nearby house. They had the goodness to invite me in the other day. I entered through a shabby doorway, and was immediately in the kitchen. there was no furniture, save on the floor a wide straw mat. The walls were poorly decorated with large flowers in a pot, but the chief thing that caught my attention was the many Arabic inscriptions all around (which on the occasion of a later visit in the company of the Brigade Interpreter, I learned were extracts from the Koran). My chief friend among the linemen insisted that I should remain to have some of the dinner they were cooking. After some futile but polite refusals, however, I squatted down on the mat. First some biscuits were crumbled up and piled in little groups in front of us; then an iron pot was brought and placed in the centre of the ring–for there were five of us squatting there. In the steaming pot were kidney (or liver) and tomatoes and gravy.
I was then invited to join with them in dipping a piece of biscuit into the pot. And so, after a moments uneasiness on my part, the dinner went on in full swing, and I found the meal really tasty. I have since on several occasions eaten with some of the Egyptian soldiers stationed here. At one time it was rice, and at the others it was a good rich ‘salatta’– salad. but always in the same style–squatting down, forming a circle and then all dipping into the same pot.
I have, hanging at my side, a fork ( shoka) and a jack-knife (matwa); they hang in such a manner as to be visible even when I am wearing my tunic. As nothing seems more likely to catch the simple eye of a native, I have constantly to submit my jack-knife for inspection. Some of the natives will, without any invitation whatever, come straight up to me, take hold of the knife, and twist it about admiringly in their hands; and then hold up a corresponding number of fingers, will very discreetly offer me 2, 3, or 4 piastres for it. One generous fellow even went to the extent of offering 5 piastres one day. I had difficulty then in explaining that I must not sell it as I use it for eating with.
Besides a number of pet dogs here in the village, there are about half a dozen ‘Pariah’ dogs that have become ‘tame out of necessity’. The Pariah dogs are said to be descended from jackals, and live in a wild state in the desert. They roam into the village quite frequently, but they are much disliked by the pet dogs here. They cannot get on well together–the dove will not condone with the raven!
I have noticed that many of the lower class natives have the picture of some kind of bird tattooed upon each temple. Upon enquiry, I learned that this is done only by the common Arabs, who regard the decoration as a mark of beauty. Some also have small regular marks just above the cheekbone. This, I understand, is the result of ‘cutting’ or ‘bleeding’ that the natives undergo for certain ailments-particularly that of headache.
I had occasion a few days ago to go to one of our outpost stations. The spot is known by us as ——–, and is situated 12 miles further into the desert. A camel ready saddled was brought for my use, so I made the journey to the outposts of the Egyptian Camel Corps. during the journey I passed several little hamlets occupied by shepherds and their families, engaged chiefly in the rearing of camels, goats and sheep. Hitherto I have regarded camels as being very ugly and uncomely animals, but now, having been in personal touch with them–having ridden on the back of one for 24 miles—seeing the wonderfully light manner these clumsy looking creatures skip along the sand–realising their indispensability , and adaptability for such an arid land— I have changed my opinion, and discarded lurking prejudices, and look upon the camel as a noble animal worthy of being called the ‘friend of man.’ The Indian camel is considerably larger than the Egyptian camel, and I understand that the former carries two passengers and cargo without a further supply of water for seven days, while the latter carries only one passenger and has to be watered after four days.”