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Friday, 1 August 2008
The Battles of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915 & 31 July 1915, Philippa Levine's Account
Topic: BatzO - Wassa

The Battles of Wassa

Egypt, 2 April 1915 & 31 July 1915

Philippa Levine's Account

 

The cover of Prostitution, Race and Politics

 

 

The following is an extract from the excellent book written by Philippa Levine called Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire and published by Taylor & Francis in July 2003. The extract comes from Chapter 6, Colonial soldiers, white women, and the First World War.

Levine, P,  Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire, Taylor & Francis, July 2003,  Chapter 6, Colonial soldiers, white women, and the First World War, pp 155 - 157.

 

The Unsafe Orient 

Conversely, when white soldiers were stationed outside Europe, they were warned that they faced temptations greater than in the west. "Men," warned one leaflet distributed in Egypt by the Army Medical Services, "must be careful to avoid any attempts at familiarity with native women; because if they are respectable, they will get into trouble, and if they are not, venereal decease (sic) will probably he contracted. Another urged soldiers to realize "that in this country prostitutes are all more or less infected with disease [emphasis in original]." Considering the VD rates in cities such as London or Marseilles, this belief in Egypt's potentiality for infection may seem extraordinary but it held fast to the familiar refrain about the sexually unsafe Orient. In yet another leaflet men learned that "[T]he climate and conditions of life in Egypt are. unfortunately, such as to create temptations greater than those which exist at home.” C. & W. Bean, official press correspondent for the AIF in Egypt, dubbed Cairo the “home of all that is filthy and beastly.” Some three decades later, military surgeon Robert Lees lambasted Cyprus and Egypt as lands dominated by "flies and whores.- This propaganda had little effect on soldiers who Suzanne Bragger describes as "queuing more than six-deep to take their turns" in the Egyptian brothels." Egypt chalked up high rates of venereal infection throughout the war. The Anzacs boasted the highest rate, followed by the BEF. About 3 percent of the AIF in Egypt had VD on any given day:" In February 1915, the director of AIF medical services in Cairn reported to the high commissioner far Australia that over 5 percent of the men were unable to report for duty because of venereal complaints."

Residence in Egypt brought together a complex of racial and sexual assumptions with sometimes violent consequences for the local population. In Port Said, the Arab Quarter was out of bounds to Indian soldiers, as much to minimize Muslim disloyalty as to keep them from buying the services of women. As a result, Indians quartered in Egypt posted much lower rates of infection than white troops." For white troops, however, this was an area of supervised brothels."' C. E. W. Bean regretfully noticed that among the rowdy drunken soldiers, "easily the most noticeable and the most frequent offenders were the Australians. Such behavior aroused concern but little was done to curb soldiers in Egypt's cities. The Australian troops were notorious for their boorish treatment of the local population. Bean worked hard to put the best face on their antics, but clearly shared their low esteem of the locals. "On the whole our men, if they have erred, have erred on the side of being over familiar with any class of native who simply wants to exploit them.”

 

The Wazza Riots

On the night of April 2, 1915, a group of Australian soldiers forcibly entered a brothel at number 8 Darb-el-Moballat in what a subsequent enquiry described as "an undesirable quarter of Cairo City."" They threw property out of the windows, terrorizing the residents, and before long, the uproar had spread throughout the brothel district in a full-scale riot, instigated largely by men of the Australian and New Zealand forces Bonfires were set, men applauded the Flames, and moved on drunkenly through the brothel quarter. This was the first of the two Wazza riots, so named for the Wazza or Wassa District of Cairo that housed the brothels, and that, according to the commandant of the city police, was "the hot bed of these worst forms of syphilitic disease." An official enquiry instituted immediately afterwards produced no substantive conclusions. Richard White has suggested that the soldiers motives revolved around the idea of scrubbing "Pharaoh's dirty kingdom clean” though Kevin Fewster argues that "the attack on the brothels was very much a preliminary" to a deeper dissatisfaction with the military police." But the second such riot, which occurred on July 31, 1915, was also in the brothel quarter, and the court of inquiry heard that "the cause of trouble was a row between four to nine Australian soldiers and prostitutes-the reason for this on the one side, the robbery of the soldiers by women, on the other side refusal to pay the women. After the altercation a number of soldiers came out into the street and whatever was said to the crowd gathering outside, it seemed to inflame them." In the first riot, the committee had heard among other stories, that the trouble had begun when "three men had got a dose off a woman." It was her refusal to reimburse them for the stoppage of pay they had incurred while hospitalized which was said to have set off the violence."" There were certainly other issues at stake, but there can be no doubt that, in both instances, it was the brothel quarter that was targeted and brothels that were mostly damaged. Tellingly, Magnus Hirschfeld, writing about the German experience of the war, likened the Wassa riot to its "German counterpart … the notorious attack on the brothel in Sudan." Brothels, especially in colonial environments, were fair game for inflamed soldiers.

The lack of punishment after the two Wassa riots, the inefficacy of the inquiries, the slow speed of compensatory payments to locals who suffered damage, and the military's insistence that such payments did not constitute an admission of liability, all suggest that while rioting was undesirable from a military perspective, white soldiers nonetheless enjoyed a privilege of mobility and freedom in relation to the Egyptian streets and the colonial marketplace, a privilege denied the large corps of poorly paid Indians also barracked in Egypt. On both fronts - eastern and western - distinctions were drawn within the British forces between white soldiers and the non-white. As Suzanne Brugger points out, "encounters with the equally abundant, but more discreet prostitutes of France and England were not taken as evidence of the natural viciousness of either the French or the English:- “That privilege was reserved for non-white and colonized peoples.

Military authorities in Egypt chose to control the women of the brothels rather than their white clientele. Before the war, under the old Ottoman legal system of Capitulations, the local police had no jurisdiction over white prostitutes; only the appropriate consular authorities had any power over them." Egyptian women could be sent to the lock hospital but not the Europeans; much to their frustration, the police were limited to notifying European women's venereal status to the relevant consul. But by 1915, martial law had extended the regulatory powers over non-Egyptian women. All women working in the brothels were required to register and submit to regular medical examination. In Port Said, Cairo, Ismailia, and Alexandria, brothels were confined to certain districts, and women working outside those zones were subject to arrest. Unlicensed prostitutes were "vigorously pursued." In Alexandria, 280 police raids in 1916 netted seventy-nine unlicensed foreign women. - Foreign prostitutes faced the same surveillance as local women. Their only privileges were that they were examined only by European doctors, and confined to a separate lock hospital.

 

 

Further Reading:

Wassa

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

 


Citation: The Battles of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915 & 31 July 1915, Philippa Levine's Account

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 17 December 2009 2:20 PM EAST

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