While I was working on my former blog, I recalled a World War I treasure I had found some forty years ago in a municipal garbage dump. It is in the form of a photo album recording a soldiers time and experiences in Egypt a few weeks before he embarked for the ‘Gallipoli Campaign’.How the photo album actually got into the garbage dump is anybody’s guess, but I suspect members of a family were clearing a home after their parents had died, and took everything they didn’t want to the dump.
Today’s garbage facilities would not present an opportunity for the rescue of such a treasure, which leads us to these questions. Just how many such items are dumped and destroyed each year? Now with the centenary fast approaching just how many of treasures, such as this have been lost and destroyed over that century.?
This is not a handsome tome, and would be easily overlooked, but there are a total of 48 small (5 X 8 cm) photos. These range from named single and group photos of his comrades, scenes of their ‘camp’ on the Gaza plane showing the pyramids in the background, to street scenes in Cairo including purchasing water from a street-vender. They make up a complete slice of life for the soldier and his mates at the time. It is inscribed in the front cover, ‘ To Stell’ with Best Love from Alex’. It is date 20 March 1915, Cairo.
When I found it, I was at a loss to know what I should do with it, as I had no way of finding out who the soldier was. However, I have always felt I was holding it in trust, rather than something to be auctioned to the highest bidder of war memorabilia . So it sat in my cupboard, and even moved with us to our new home. Now many years later I have had another look at this album. With the help of online internet resources I have now been able to find out much more about this soldier and his family.
As I mentioned in my former post, the Australian Archives website at . http://www.naa.gov.au, have World War I Service Records of the Australian Military Forces digitized and available on-line. By consulting these records I was able to identify the soldier in the records and follow his movements from his enlistment in August 1914, soon after war was declared, to his discharge in 1917, unfit for continued service. He had been severely wounded several times and was granted a pension. These records also gave his mother as next of kin and the information that he had been born in Scotland.
Through other on-line resources, such as the New South Wales Birth, Death and Marriage Index at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/, I found that after his return to Australia this soldier had married the woman whose name was inscribed inside the cover of the photo album. This confirmed my theory that the album had been sent to his ‘sweetheart’ left behind when he enlisted.
I also found reference to not only his death, but those of members of his family including his parents, and his wife.
Once I had the basic story from the soldiers personal service records and his life after the war, I then returned to the Australian War Memorial website at http://www.awm.gov.au. It is well worthwhile spending time on this site with its many aids and features.
I first looked at their guides and information on World War I to help me put this soldier’s story in context. Here is an extracted outline of this war and how our men ended up in Egypt.
“ (for Australia,) …World War I remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
The outbreak of war was greeted in Australia, as in many other places, with great public enthusiasm. In response to the overwhelming number of volunteers, the authorities set exacting physical standards for recruits. Yet, most of the men accepted into the army in August 1914 were sent first to Egypt, not Europe, to meet the threat which a new belligerent, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), posed to British interests in the Middle East and the Suez Canal.
After four and a half months of training near Cairo, the Australians departed by ship for the Gallipoli peninsula, with troops from New Zealand, Britain, and France. The Australians landed at what became known as ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915 and established a tenuous foothold on the steep slopes above the beach. During the early days of the campaign, the allies tried to break through Turkish lines, while the Turks tried to drive the allied troops off the peninsula. Attempts on both sides ended in failure and the ensuing stalemate continued for the remainder of 1915. The most successful operation of the campaign was the evacuation of troops on 19 and 20 December, under cover of a comprehensive deception operation. As a result, the Turks were unable to inflict more than a very few casualties on the retreating forces.
After Gallipoli the AIF was reorganised and expanded from two to five infantry divisions, all of which were progressively transferred to France, beginning in March 1916….”
Also on this website I was also able to find material that helped me to ‘stand in the shoes ‘ of this soldier. The War Diaries of World War I have been digitized and are on- line, so you can read the daily activities and follow a soldiers progress throughout the war from his enlistment to his death or return home and discharge. Just a short glances at these will bring the reader into a much better understanding of what and where things took place. A series of maps, also on this website, places the reader right in the scene.
Then there are the private diaries of soldiers right there in the thick of things. Many of these tell you how the soldier felt, and his attitude about the things he was experiencing, which is very valuable to a family historian to get an understanding of how war changed these men, their families and also how the world viewed Australia generally after World War I.
As I had started out with a photo album I made a search through the huge photographic collection on this site to find similar photos. There were many photos of World War I, but there seemed few identified in the time and place of this album, and it was then I realized how this album might help fill a small gap in the records and maybe a valuable addition to the collective memory.
This morning, as I stood in the cool early morning air at an Anzac dawn service, with children and grandchildren, I realized no matter whether it was in World War I, before or since this conflict, that each and everyone of our ancestors and family members, whether they came home or not, were a casualty of war, and deserve to be remembered as ‘heroes’. It is up to us as family historians to make sure this happens. We only have a few short months before the centenary celebrations begin, so just get busy and do it!