"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess
The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre aims to present an accurate history as chroniclers of early Australian military developments from 1899 to 1920.
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During the Great War, Mena House was converted into a hospital which quickly filled when the casualties from Gallipoli began to pour in.
Mena House with Hospital Patients, 1915 [From: poinky7]
A great big circus was the first impression most men thought when they saw Mena. A few big tops dominated the area while bristling around them were many supporting tents. Running through the centre of the camp from the entrance to the water tanks was Artillery Road. The main points around Mena Camp had already gained familiar and yet peculiar names. The various areas were called such names as Observation Hill, Rockwell Valley, Jackall Valley, Sentry Point, White House, Brown Ridge, Boojun Rocks, Grey Hill, Tuin Points, Tiger's Tooth, Cairn Ridge, Dolly Daydream and Crosspath Hill. New chums had to know these areas quickly as all directions were given with reference to them.
Flowing over the camp roads was a vibrant and living stream composed from a multitude of camels and donkeys. Urging on each of these beasts around the camp walked a motley army of drivers coming from all parts of the British Empire. There were Indians, Nubians, Egyptians, Arabs and Palestinians. They strained and sweated along with their animals to bring into the camp the tremendous quantity of stores required to keep the soldiers fully supplied.
Mena Camp under the shadow of the Pyramids
At the entrance of the camp a whole township had risen almost over night which was dedicated to serving the troops at Mena. Everything was on sale: foods, coffee, liquor, postcards, and four cinemas that featured the very latest of Hollywood releases even before they reached Australia. The buildings were constructed from any available materials such as hessian, corrugated iron and more substantial stone. The streets and ally ways were filled with the sounds of the vendors touting for business while the multitude of different aromas gave the nose a range of sensations from enjoyment to disgust all in the space of a minute.
“For The Allies Sargents Restaurant” outside Mena Camp
Other items which added to the bizarre landscape confronted by the men were the multitudes of camouflage colour schemes used for the various wagons and guns that regularly raced through the camp on some or another important mission. They were painted in reds, blues and yellows representing all the colours that allowed them to blend into the desert. For the newly arriving men the vehicles appeared to belong more in a circus sideshow rather than at as serious vehicles of war.
3rd Light Horse Brigade Lines at Mena
The seemingly mandatory activity that every soldier participated in was getting a picture taken of them on a camel by the Pyramids. For a fee, the men would have their photographs taken by one of the dozen photographic studios on site. This was the first activity indulged in by these men at Mena.
The mandatory "in front of the Pyramids on a camel" picture
Many tens of thousands of men had this similar picture taken of them while Mena Camp was the primary Australian base. After the Australians moved out and the camp ceased to operate, this was still a popular destination for all troops passing through Egypt.
Map of Cairo and Allied Camp locations Topic: Egypt - Mena
At the commencement of hostilities with the Great War, the British imposed a military government upon Egypt through a protectorate. The specific aim was the defence of the Suez Canal, a vital lifeline to Britain.
While most Egyptian governing traditions remained in place, the British took over many districts of Cairo to establish massive training camps for the troops arriving from Australia and New Zealand. Camps were established at Mena, Maadi and Heliopolis. In addition, the main administrative centre of the British Military was on the island of Gezirah. The hospitals were located in the Abbassia area and the training schools at Zeitoun.
The post card below illustrated in a comic manner a very real problem for Egypt and the tramways of Cairo due to the influx of 20,000 well paid Australian and New Zealand troops.
The last deserter left & the last tramway to the Pyramids.
Catching the last tram to Mena camp was always precarious for everyone. If the men did not get back to the camp before their leave ran out, which was usually midnight, they were crimed for AWL (absent without leave) which cost the unlucky man usually a couple days' pay. The tramways were not designed to carry such volumes of men and two things happened. To cope with the sheer volume, men were compelled to sit on the roof of the carriage. This is illustrated in the cartoon picture. Below is a picture of how this happened in reality.
Men crowded on the roof tops of the tram.
In Cairo it must have seemed a bizarre sight with the Australians crowded on the tram roof. The bemused Egyptian pedestrians are looking at the progress of this tram.
Less entertaining was the desire of tram conductors to check every ticket regardless of the time it took to perform or the crowded state of the trams. This caused great tension between both the tram conductor and the men. This officious behaviour often cost a tram load of men to be crimed for AWL purely because of the conductors’ behaviour. There were many cases occurring of angry Australian soldiers taking out their frustrations on particularly officious and lugubrious conductors. Many complaints were lodged at Mena Camp Headquarters by conductors who were assaulted for carrying out their duties. On other occasions, conductors were assaulted and tossed off the trams if it was felt that the behaviour would result in the tram arriving late to Mena.
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