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Saturday, 2 April 2011
The Battles of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915 & 31 July 1915, Contents Topic: BatzO - Wassa
The Battles of Wassa
Egypt, 2 April 1915 & 31 July 1915
First Wassa (also Wozzer or Wazzir), 2 April 1915, the appellation given to the first of two unheroic riots in the Haret el Wassa (the brothel quarter of Cairo, Egypt) involving troops from Australia and New Zealand. Second Wassa, the second riotous outbreak in the Haret el Wassa (the brothel quarter of Cairo, Egypt), occurred on 31 July 1915 before the departure of the AIF 2nd Division for the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The First Battle of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915, Outline
The First Battle of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915, Outline Topic: BatzO - Wassa
The First Battle of Wassa
Egypt, 2 April 1915
One of the many buildings destroyed during First Wassa.
First Wassa (also Wozzer or Wazzir), the appellation given to the first of two unheroic riots in the Haret el Wassa (the brothel quarter of Cairo, Egypt) involving troops from Australia and New Zealand. The initial incident occurred on 2 April 1915 (Good Friday), after units of the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) received news that their period of training was at an end and that orders had been received for them to embark for long-awaited action. Causes of this disturbance reportedly lay in a desire to exact revenge for past grievances arising from dealings with the district's denizens-such as diluted liquor, exorbitant prices, and high rates of venereal infection-although wild rumours of stabbings of Anzac men by locals also appear to have played a part.
Trouble began soon after 5 p.m. when soldiers began evicting whores and their pimps into the street, and tossing their possessions out after them. Bedding, furniture and clothing-even pianos-were thrown from windows of buildings several storeys high. These materials were piled in the road and set alight. The town picket, drawn from the Australian 9th Light Horse Regiment, came on the scene and tried to clear the men out of the houses being attacked. Five arrests were made, although the crowd-growing larger by the minute refused to let these men be taken away, snatched rifles from some of the troopers and threw the weapons onto the fires, and succeed in freeing four of the prisoners.
British military police (MPs) were summoned, about 30 arriving on horseback to choruses of abuse and a shower of stones and bottles. An ill-advised effort by the MPs to gain control by firing their pistols, supposedly over the rioters' heads, resulted in the wounding of four men in the throng estimated at 2,000-3,000. This only served to further inflame matters, and forced the police to hastily withdraw. Efforts by the Egyptian fire brigade to douse the bonfires were also frustrated, its hose-lines being cut, its members manhandled (especially after they turned a hose onto the crowd), and the engine itself finally pushed into the flames.
Left to themselves, the more unruly elements began to loot some shops and put the torch to a Greek tavern. Shortly after 7 p.m. a second fire engine arrived, this time under cavalry escort which exercised extreme tact, and the various fires were tackled while a still sizeable crowd looked on. Since the `Wassa' was close by Shepheard's Hotel, where the Anzac commander had his headquarters, armed troops had also been called out. After Lancashire Territorials (non-regular British troops who were popular with the colonials) were drawn across the road, the rioters wisely began to disperse and order was eventually restored by 10 p.m.
A formal inquiry was convened the following day under Colonel Frederic Hughes, commander of the AIF's 3rd Light Horse Brigade, to investigate the causes of the riot and establish responsibility for its outbreak. Many New Zealand officers attempted to disclaim that their men had played any part, although the evidence of their presence was quite conclusive - the officer leading the Australian picket was adamant that `New Zealanders predominated'. In any event, nine-tenths of those present had been merely spectators. Apportioning blame was next to impossible, however, with few of the 50 witnesses able (or willing) to provide precise information. As the number of men injured by the MPs' bullets (three Australians and one New Zealander) was roughly in proportion to the size of the respective contingents, it could be said that the ‘honours' were about equally shared. So too was the damages bill of £1,700.
The Second Battle of Wassa, Egypt, 31 July 1915, Outline Topic: BatzO - Wassa
The Second Battle of Wassa
Egypt, 31 July 1915
Wassa street with burnt out buildings
Second Wassa, the second riotous outbreak in the Haret el Wassa (the brothel quarter of Cairo, Egypt), occurred on 31 July 1915 before the departure of the AIF 2nd Division for the Gallipoli Peninsula. As with the The First Battle of Wassa, Egypt, 2 April 1915 (q.v.), this incident also involved several thousand troops, nearly all Australians although a few British and New Zealand soldiers were present, and again its origins apparently lay in disagreements with some of the Wassa's prostitutes. Here, too, matters were aggravated by the appearance of military police (MPs) and pickets, both British and Australian, and the fire brigade. MPs attempting to disperse the crowd were beaten back with rocks, bricks, bottles and other missiles, but eventually about 100 gained the upper hand by working their way along the street from both ends simultaneously. A special court of inquiry was convened on 3 August, and at least after this incident attempts were made to provide alternative recreational outlets for military personnel stationed in the Cairo area.
The significance of the two riots is open to varying interpretations. The official historian, Charles Bean, saw little difference from what at Oxford and Cambridge and in Australian universities is known as a "rag" but for others such as Bill Gammage both incidents 'betrayed some of the worst aspects of Australian character'.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, p. 107.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
Bill Gammage, (1974), The Broken Years, Canberra: Australian National University Press.
Suzanne Brugger, (1980), Australians and Egypt 1914-1919, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press;
Kevin Fewster, 'The Wazza Riots, 1915', Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No. 4, April 1984.
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.
First Wassa, Egypt, April 2, 1915, John "Jack" Jensen's Account Topic: BatzO - Wassa
Egypt, 2 April 1915
John "Jack" Jensen's Account
Wassa District after the riot.
Account by 955 Private John "Jack" Jensen
Part transcription of a letter from 955 Private John "Jack" Jensen, 1st Battalion, H Company, written on 28 August 1915 while in England due to wounds received at Gallipoli. This section of his letter deals with his interpretation of the events that surrounded First Wassa.
The last few days we had in Egypt I shall never forget as three nights running there were riots in & about Cairo. On good friday there was a big row in one of the main streets in Cairo. I think I told you once before that Cairo is a very immoral place in fact they say that it is the worst town in the world. Some streets there are nothing but brothels & houses of infamy where every possible vice under the sun exists. Of course some of our men had been going to these places & had got diseases of different kinds & as a (what?) our chaps had a grievance against these places. Finally to finish up with one of the Manchester soldiers who were also stationed in Egypt found his sister in one of them. She had left England as a servant to some lady who had taken her to Egypt & left her there. I dare say you have heard of that sort of thing it is called the white slave traffic here in England. Anyway this girl went from bad to worse until finally she way found dancing in what they call a Can-Can hall that is a dozen or so women dancing perfectly naked in a big hall & exposing their person to every kind of indignity both by themselves & also the onlookers. It is just as well that I cannot tell you everything that goes on here as it would only grieve you. This Manchester chap managed to have a talk with his sister & tried to get her away. She was only too willing to go but the people she was with would not let her & they threw the brother out of a window as a result he was in hospital for nearly a week. When he got right he came in the camp & told our chaps & asked them to help him. At first they could not find the girl again but at last she was found in a particularly vile house. This was a day or two before Good Friday & that day being a holiday about 500 of our chaps & some New Zealanders & English troops went in to raid these houses. When they got in there a good many got drunk & they were joined by a great many more also drunk so the affair ended in a riot. They got the girl out first & then set fire to the houses. The affair started about four oclock in the afternoon & was kept up until nearly midnight Shops were raided & windows broken everywhere. I was on guard that day & we were called out to go & stop it but only twenty of us could do nothing against nearly two thousand. They had a fire in the street & were throwing the furniture out of windows two & three storeys high on to it. Some of us went in & tried to put it out & a chair came out of a window three storeys high & hit one chap & nearly killed him. We carried him away & a few minutes after piano came out of the same window & fell with an awful crash on the pavement. All the strings seemed to break at once & it went off like a cannon. After that the Military Police charged the crowd on horseback firing their revolvers into them but the crowd threw broken bottles & stones at them. One policeman got badly hit & one eyecut out with a broken bottle & two of our chaps were hit by the revolver shots.
About eight oclock five hundred Manchester troops came with fixed bayonets & were told to charge. They charged alright but they wouldn’t go for our men so they gave them rifles & our chaps threw them on the fire. Then they turned & ran & our fellows followed them up with sticks A while after the South Australian Light Horse came but the horses wouldn’t face the fire & smoke A little after eleven oclock the Westminster Dragoons came. They looked all right as they were coming down the street with all their swords drawn & their horses going straight through the fire & smoke. This very soon cleared the street & then we went for the houses & took everybody prisoner that we found. We got about fifty Australians & some New Zealanders.
The girl who was the cause of all the trouble was sent to England. She was taken charge of by the Y.M.C.A. The men in camp collected over forty pounds to pay her passage & expenses back to England Of course the money was handed over to the Y.M.C.A.
Next night a riot started in the canteen of the Abbasieh camp. Somebody caught an Arab who was employed at the canteen making water in a tub of beer. The Arab was at once pulled & half killed. All the beer casks & tubs were broken & spilt & all the groceries & goods stolen & the place burned down.
The guard was called out again but by the time we got there everything was over & the camp was quiet except for the fire still burning.
On Sunday evening the New Zealanders burned down a picture show. The man had advertised a boxing match & doubled the admission & then showed just the same pictures as he usually did. So they burned his place down.
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