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

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days -

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

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