A forgotten front
images from egypt and Palestine during the First World War show an alternative side to the conflict. Paul T Nicholson and Steve Mills explain
Images from Egypt and Palestine during WWI
When most of us think of the First World War, images that come to mind are of mud and trenches, fractured landscapes and flattened European towns. Many of these images were taken by official war photographers approved by the War Office.
However there is another, less well-known war: one of heat, dust and movement taking place in an ancient and, to the soldiers, almost mythical landscape. This is the conflict in Egypt and Palestine – a theatre in which only some 600 official photographs were taken. Fortunately for archaeologists and historians the ban on private photography was largely ignored here, and the ‘Views of an Antique Land’ project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and based at Cardiff University, has collected several thousands of these private images. Many of these are available at ww1imagesegypt.mukurtu.net and more will follow.
Most of those who found themselves serving in Egypt and Palestine would, normally, never have had the opportunity to visit these ‘ lands of the Bible’.
The centre of operations for the ‘Palestine Theatre’ was Cairo, so many soldiers were based around that city with others at Alexandria and elsewhere. Local guides deprived of their regular clientele of tourists because of the war seem to have been quick to replace them with trips for these ‘enforced tourists’. We can see from images donated to the project that soldiers were making day trips with the same sort of itineraries as their wealthy predecessors.
An obvious trip was to the pyramids and the Sphinx. Here guides teamed up with local photographers to arrange staged group photos by monuments, photos which could later be bought. Some local photographers even seem to have entered the camps and been allowed to photograph soldiers at leisure.
Slightly more adventurous was a three-part trip visiting the obelisk of Senusret I at Matariyeh, the Virgin’s Tree and an ostrich farm. All were located close to each other in the area of Cairo near the modern airport – none of them feature on most commercial itineraries today.
The obelisk, which then stood in the midst of fields, is now surrounded by modern buildings and busy roads; the Virgin’s Tree associated with the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, attracts few visitors while the ostrich farm is long gone.
These sights were duly photographed by the soldiers, most using the simple but reliable Kodak Vest Pocket cameras, but with a few having more sophisticated models such as the Kodak Autographic 1A. From a user of the latter, the project has very fine images of temples in the south of Egypt, including Philae which at the time was partially submerged as a result of the first Aswan Dam and which was moved in the 1960s in advance of the High Dam. These images give us a snapshot of the ancient monuments during this period.
There are photographs of the war itself too. Few realise that tanks were used in Palestine, though eight were shipped out and pictures of the destruction of some of them are not uncommon. We also have images of them before conflict, shaded and camouflaged before battle, as well as on the move. Similarly, servicemen photographed other pieces of new technology. One of our views is believed to show the Handley Page bomber which stopped off at Cairo before going on to support Lawrence of Arabia and Feisal’s forces in the Hejaz as part of the Great Arab Revolt.
The first major action of the campaign was an attempt by Ottoman forces to cross the Suez Canal in early 1915. This was repulsed and soldiers photographed the captured and bullet-riddled barges in which the crossing had been attempted. The conflict was not only defensive; the British and Imperial forces pushed through Sinai and into Palestine, constructing a railway as they did so, and were able to capture Jerusalem in December 1917.
General Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem was carefully arranged: he walked in on foot as a humble soldier, in comparison to the Kaiser’s more ostentatious entry on horseback before the war. The event was captured by official and amateur photographers alike, as were many views of the ancient city.
The soldiers, sailors and airmen who participated in these actions were evidently fascinated by the antiquity of the lands and of what they saw. As a result they took many photographs showing the local people involved in agriculture and other aspects of daily life. Clear too is the camaraderie of these soldiers, often pictured swimming, playing quoits on the deck of transport ships or generally ‘ larking about’.
While the war in Egypt and Palestine may have happened among exotic backgrounds and in places whose names were familiar because of their Biblical context, it was no less bloody and dangerous than the Western Front. The photographs collected by the ‘Views of an Antique Land’ project serve to commemorate the service of those who took part on what has become a forgotten front.
Above: A group of soldiers with a local guide pose in front of the Sphinx. The number at left is the photographer’s reference number. Donor: Teifion Davies
Left: The temple of Isis at Philae, flooded after the raising of the first Aswan Dam; visitors had to travel around it by boat. Donor: James Black
Above left: Tanks at Deir el-Belah, waiting for battle. Donor: James Black
Above top: The Imperial Camel Corps at rest. Donor: Mary Davis The project would like to thank all its donors for their generosity in making the images available. The fee for this article has been donated to Help for Heroes, at the request of the authors. Acknowledgements: The Heritage Lottery Fund Grant OH-14-04833, Cardiff University School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Project Donors and Volunteers, Hilary Rees
Above right: The obelisk of Senusret I (1965-1920 BC) at Matariyeh. Donor: Rhys David