A general view of Maadi army camp, south of Cairo, showing the desert and Mokattam Hills in the distance. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial H18504
A general view of Maadi army camp, south of Cairo, showing the desert and Mokattam Hills in the distance. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial H18504 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

Anzac training camps diverted to avoid English winter

IN Part 7 of our Anzac Centenary Milestone series, we look back on the conditions in England that led to Anzac troops being sent into camp in Egypt instead. 

WAR had been declared on Turkey while the Anzacs were at sea.

This had led a number of troops and commanders to wonder if they would be sent to Egypt as a garrison force, instead of Great Britain, where they were to set up in camp for training prior to being deployed to the front in Europe.

According to official war historian Charles Bean: "The troops, to a man, desired to go to the Western Front."

On November 26, 1914 - 100 years ago today - the Anzac convoy left the port of Aden, in Yemen, ready to make its way up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal, with Great Britain still as its planned destination.

But not long after the ships departed, Major-General William Bridges, commanding officer of the 1st Australian Imperial Force, received a signal from the ship Minerva suggesting he should hurry ahead of the fleet to Port Said, at Egypt's northern tip of the Suez Canal shipping channel.

The following day he received a telegram from Sir George Reid, Australia's High Commissioner in London: "Unforeseen circumstances decide that the force shall train in Egypt and go to the front from there.

"The Australians and New Zealanders are to form a corps under General Birdwood. The locality of the camp is near Cairo."

But there had been a bit more foresight behind the "unforeseen circumstances" than the telegram might have suggested.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force had also been sent to England to train prior to being sent to the front, and they had set up camp on and around the Salisbury Plain.

As the English winter set in, it became patently clear the conditions were punishing in the extreme, especially because timber and carpenters could not be organised in time to build wooden huts. All the Canadians had between them and the appalling weather was canvas.

"The 'training' became a fight against the weather for bare health and existence," Bean wrote.

"The camps turned into archipelagoes of tents in a knee-deep sea of mud."

Colonel Henry Chauvel, the Australian representative at the War Office in London, had been anxiously watching the conditions of the camps the Australians were headed into, and he put pressure on Sir George to get them sent elsewhere.

Sir George was said to be one of the few people able to ring Britain's fearsome Minister of State for War, Lord Kitchener, without an appointment. And if he left it too late, the convoy would be too far past Egypt to make the back-up plan stick.

He convinced Kitchener of the wisdom of sending the Anzac troops into camp near Egypt's capital, and in turn the plan was put to the Australian Government, which accepted it.

One problem was the Anzacs had arrived without tents, but commanders were able to provide them for almost half the troops and the rest would arrive from England within a fortnight. Contractors would also arrive soon to lay waterpipes and build roads and supply lines into the camp.

By December 2, most of the troop ships had steamed into Port Said, where they anchored before making their way to Alexandria, and then to various camps depending on their military division.

Bean remarked it was the closest the troops had come to seeing their fellow soldiers on board the other ships, tightly packed in one next to the other at anchor, having spent the better part of the past six weeks in convoy.

"That homecoming of the force to itself, at the end of the voyage, was the first great demonstration in its history," Bean observed.

"The second was when it marched through the streets of London after the end of the war."


Major-General William Throsby Bridges

A studio portrait of Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, commanding officer of the 1st Australian Imperial Force. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial A02867
A studio portrait of Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, commanding officer of the 1st Australian Imperial Force. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial A02867 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

He was born at Greenock, Scotland, in 1861 and moved to Canada as a young man, later entering the Royal Military College but failing to graduate.

In 1879, Bridges moved to Australia and joined the civil service, but returned to military life in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery.

For the next few years he held various positions at the School of Gunnery and attended several gunnery courses in England, passing them with distinction.

Bridges served with the British army in South Africa from 1899 until he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. In 1909, he became Australia's first chief of the general staff and the next year was tasked with founding Australia's first military college, the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

By the time the First World War had broken out, Bridges had attained the rank of brigadier general and was given the task of raising an Australian contingent for service in Europe. He was promoted to major general in August 1914 and was appointed the commander of the 1st Australian Imperial Force.

Bridges travelled to Egypt with the first contingent in October and started to record his experiences in a diary from early 1915.

Sadly, his diary entries would not last long. Although he argued for immediate evacuation soon after the Gallipoli landings, viewing them as a hopeless situation, he continued to pay routine visits to the firing line, showing disregard for his own safety.

On May 15 - less than three weeks into the Gallipoli campaign - a sniper's bullet severed his femoral artery and he died three days later on board a hospital ship.

He was the only Australian killed in the First World War to have his remains returned to Australia, and he was buried at Duntroon.

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