THE FIRST A. I .F. IN EGYPT

...Prelude to Gallipoli Rugby under the Shadows of the Pyramids

Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany on August 4 1914, in concert with Great Britain. Enlistment began five days later, when the Defence Department called for men over 19 years of age to volunteer to be sent to Great Britain to join the battle being waged in Europe.

An initial expeditionary force of Infantry Divisions comprising 20,000 men and a Light Horse Brigade of 2,226 men and 2,315 horses was approved by Cabinet. Around the country, recruiting stations were swamped with young men keen to sign up.

On 1 November 1914, a convoy departed Albany W.A. comprising 27 Australian ships and 10 New Zealand vessels, along with a protective naval force led by H.M.A.S. Sydney and H.M.A.S. Melbourne.

While en route to their first stop, Colombo, the first convoy went perilously close to the German raider ‘Emden’ (estimated to be within 50 miles). However, shortly after at the battle of the Cocos Islands, this danger was eliminated when the H.M.A.S Sydney sank the Emden on November 9.

After leaving Colombo, and while at sea, the convoy received a communiqué from London that Australian and New Zealand troops were to train in Egypt prior to proceeding to the Western Front.

This signal also stated that the A.I.F. and N.Z.E.F. were to be combined into one single Corps, to be known as ANZAC. The first ever usage of this famous symbol and that ANZAC would be commanded by a British officer, General William Birdwood.

Shortly thereafter, Senior Australian Army Officer, Colonel Harry Chauvel was ordered to join the forces in Egypt, where he would command the First Australian Light Horse Brigade. There was also a second convoy leaving Australia in February 1915, when on their arrival to Egypt, rumours started circulating that a move of all Anzac troops to the Western Front was imminent.

Unbeknown to the troops at the time, a meeting of the War Council in London on 13 January 2015, outlined the depressing news of setbacks on the Western Front. At the conclusion of the meeting, First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill announced that he had created a plan to change to whole course of the War.

The plan was to send a strong force of Royal Navy Battleships through the Dardanelles and capture Constantinople. At the time, it was decided no additional troops would be needed as the Royal Navy could do it all on their own!

25 April 1915: T.J. ‘Rusty’ Richards was in one of the first boats ashore at the landing. His remarkable photos of that moment are held in the Rugby Archives. He survived Gallipoli then fought in France.

However, later that month, the War Council made the decision to call upon a further 50,000 troops in case the naval attack failed. It was decided that such a force would primarily be composed of the British 29th Division, along with the ANZACs, who were still training in Egypt.

Orders were sent that an advance brigade of ANZAC troops would be sent to the Greek Island of Lemnos, approximately 700 miles north of Alexandria, where they would be held in readiness to support the naval assault on the Dardanelles.

So began the Gallipoli campaign.

By this time, the First Australian Division had been in Egypt for three months. Their intensive training had been thorough and they were hardened, fit, and ready to play their part in the war.

Sport, and in particular the amateur code of Rugby, aided the troops in their preparations, with a number of soldiers training near the pyramids at Cairo.

Former Wallaby Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards of the First Battalion A.I.F made the following comment around the role Rugby played, saying that ‘diversions were necessary'. What he meant was that there was a need to offer the soldiers something in addition to their military training, to help divert their attention from the war and difficulties of being away from their families.

To address this need, Richards and another former Wallaby in Major Blair Swannell of the 4th Battalion, set about organising a series of Rugby matches between the two Battalions.

Rusty then wrote this about these games:

“Most of these matches before our soldiers travelled to Gallipoli were played under the shadows of the Great Pyramids , games that meant as much to the players and their keen followers as ever did an International at the Sydney Cricket Ground!”

Rusty described the playing area as being marked out in the Nile Valley with the ground crusted and sun-baked mud that gave rashes and cut the players. Alternatively, there were, several inches of heavy black mud, depending upon the rise and fall of the Nile.

He continued:

“Whether the surface was soft or hard , what mattered most was that the prestige of the Company upheld. Playing in the delta country, with the mighty monuments of Cheops towering to a height of 560 feet above our playing level, struck everyone with a sense of awe. A venerable spot to play on!“

 

 

 

 



Officers of the 1st Battalion Rugby Team