The worst news a father could hear

Researching the goings-on in the Australian Imperial Force’s Mena camp, I came across this December 1914 newspaper article in Trove:

DEATHS IN EGYPT MELBOURNE, Saturday The Minister for Defence (Senator Pearce) has received information that Miles Standish Cox, of the Fourth Battalion, died from pneumonia on December 16. His next of kin is his father, Mr. E.S. Cox, of Woy Woy (N.S.W.). Another message to the Minister states that Roy Gartside Cullan, of the First Battalion, died on the same day from pernicious anaemia. His next of kin is his wife, who resides in New Zealand. WAGSTAFFE POINT, Saturday Following the death of Edward King Cox, the deceased’s father received a cablegram last night announcing the death of his second son, Miles Standish Cox, at Mena Camp, Cairo, Egypt, on December 16

Two sons dead at Mena Camp within days of each other. Sadly deaths like these were not unusual. The soldiers would return from drills soaked with sweat; the desert winds would then chill them and put them at risk of pneumonia.

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Egypt

On 6 December 1914 the 10th battalion disembarked at Alexandria and entrained for Cairo.

The men arrived in Cairo around midnight and were given a mug of cocoa, a bread roll and cheese. Then they boarded trams for Mena camp.

Troops entraining at Alexandria. Australian War Memorial collection PS0470
Troops entraining at Alexandria.
Australian War Memorial collection PS0470

As the trams neared the terminus, the men could see the pyramids in the moonlight, wrapped in light fog.

The battalion marched into camp only to find no tents, blankets or bedding. Exhausted from the day’s activities, the men fell asleep on the sand. The desert night was freezing, and Andy had only his greatcoat to keep him warm.

A second night was spent sleeping in the open – this time huddled under waterproof sheets in the rain.The following day the tents arrived.

The NCOs would have been kept busy establishing discipline and routine. Andy would have had to deal with men more interested in climbing the pyramids or seeking out the delights of Cairo than in military routine.

Mena-Camp-SRG-435_1_281
The camps of the 9th and 10th Battalions of the AIF, located 10 miles from Cairo. Two pyramids can be seen in the background. Handwritten note on back: ‘This is a photo of part of the old camp at Mena. It shows the road between our lines (on the left) and the 9th on the right. I picked it up when in Cairo last.’. State Library of South Australia SRG 435/1/281

For the next three months the battalion underwent vigorous training at Mena camp. A typical day started with Reveille at 6am then breakfast at 7am. After breakfast the men marched for about four miles across the desert to the drill ground. There they would rest for ten minutes before drilling until 12 noon.

Lunch was a small bread roll and tinned sardines.

Troops of the 10th Battalion taking a rest break during training in the desert.  Australian War Memorial collection A02135
Troops of the 10th Battalion taking a rest break during training in the desert.
Australian War Memorial collection A02135

In the afternoon the men drilled from 1pm until 4pm. Then they headed back to camp. They wore full kit, marching and skirmishing their way through the desert.By the time Andy arrived in camp his clothes were soaked through with sweat.

After dinner the men would wash and change clothes, then drill from 7:30pm until 10 or 11pm.

At the beginning of January 1915 the battalion structure changed from 8 companies to 4. Andy’s G Company was disbanded and he was now in D Company. About this time the ‘Australian Expeditionary Force’ was renamed the ‘Australian Imperial Force’.

By February night drills had lengthened. Soldier Archie Barwick wrote of practising at night “taking up positions, digging trenches, attacking, scouting, silent marches, bayonet attacks, rapid movements”.

On 2 March 1915 Andy left with the battalion on the S.S. Ionian for the island of Lemnos. Here they would make their final preparations for a landing at the Dardanelles.

The 10th Battalion camp lines at Mena 'packed up ready to move' on the eve of departure for the Gallipoli Peninsula. The remains of the Officers mess is in the right foreground. Australian War Memorial collection A02141
The 10th Battalion camp lines at Mena ‘packed up ready to move’ on the eve of departure for the Gallipoli Peninsula. The remains of the Officers mess is in the right foreground.
Australian War Memorial collection A02141