Friday, 8 May 2015

Between Battles 6: The Soldier as Tourist - Astley James Bromfield in Egypt

Astley James Bromfield (whose personal materials are the focus of our current Mabo Library displays) spent the first half of 1916 in Egypt, training with the 25th Battalion in preparation for service on the Western Front. Troops had been sent to Egypt not only to train, but in preparation for a possible Turkish assault on the Suez Canal.  In the relative safety of North Africa Anzac soldiers were able to enjoy what was for many their first trip beyond Australia. They embraced the fascinating sights and sounds of Egypt, a combination of the mystery and exoticism of the Ancient Egyptian past and the familiar trappings of more recent British colonization. The pyramids were a particularly popular destination, aided by their proximity to the Anzac camps.
Photographer: A J Bromfield, NQID1265, North Queensland Photographic Collection.
While in Egypt Bromfield continued his habit of collecting picture postcards, which he had begun before departing from Australia. Picture postcards had become popular in the late 1890s, and by the outbreak of the war were sold in their millions across Europe and the British Commonwealth. Cards featuring locations he had personally visited make up the majority of Bromfield’s collection, though French propaganda cartoons and pre-filled cards (including a captured German example) are also present. Bromfield posted cards to his immediate family, and also collected a large number of blank cards for their pictures, which he sent to his sister Grace.

Front and reverse of French cartoon propaganda card. On the reverse, Bromfield comments on the usefulness of the new Atherton sewer system as an air raid shelter! Private Collection.
Pre-filled postcards, in English and German. Bromfield may have captured or traded for the German card. Several photographs in his collection are marked “Captured from Hun.”  Private Collection.
While in camp in Egypt, Bromfield wrote to his Auntie Dot: 
Have been out to the Pyramids and went right up to the top, also inside the basement. Then we saw the Sphinx and the vaults there. Also the city that has been unearthed just by the pyramid.
Nearly every Anzac soldier in Egypt visited or climbed a pyramid, and photographs of groups in front of the Sphinx and other ancient sites were common. The fascination was so strong as to become dangerous, and several men were injured and possibly killed by falls from the unstable sides. By visiting these monuments, Anzacs established a connection between their own martial efforts and those of Egyptian, Roman, and European soldiers over preceding centuries. The desire to see and experience the foreign world of Egypt was both pleasurable tourism and an expression of their identity and role within a truly global “Great War.” The enthusiasm of the Anzacs, however, was more pronounced than their British comrades, and Bromfield notes, perhaps with some ironic pride: 
It’s no wonder that the Tommies call us the six bob a day tourists.

Front and reverse of postcard. In the early 20th century Heliopolis was a luxurious haven for European expatriates, and in 1910 staged the “Great Week of Aviation,” featuring the first air races held over Africa. Private Collection.
Front and reverse of postcard showing the road to the pyramids. Private Collection.
Front and reverse of postcard showing the Palace Hotel, Heliopolis. This hotel was converted into the “Auxiliary Hospital” during the war. Bromfield was a patient several times during his service in Egypt. Private Collection.

Anzac soldiers in Egypt collected more than photographs and postcards. Physical souvenirs were also coveted, such as this stone, taken by Bromfield from the battlefield at Tel el-Kebir.

First side reads "J Bromfield, Tel el Kabir, Egypt 20/4/16; and on the second side "I picked this stone up on the Tel el Kabir battlefield on my birthday 20/4/1916"
The Battle of Tel el-Kebir (13 September 1882) was the decisive confrontation in the British conquest of Egypt. The historical relevance of this site is more complicated than simple imperial memorializing; though the British utilized a pre-dawn surprise attack to bypass the Egyptian artillery, the battle was essentially an infantry charge on an entrenched position, and won by hand-to-hand combat with bayonets. Both the swift victory and the savagery of the close combat had relevance for visiting Anzacs. The parallels between Tel el-Kebir and the trench warfare of the Western Front would not have been lost on Bromfield and his contemporaries, and their attention to the battlefield and other monuments of Egypt’s colonial past indicates that they had a keen sense of participation in the geopolitical drama of the war.

References/Further Reading:
Featherstone, Donald. Colonial Small Wars 1837-1901. Newton Abbott, Devon, UK: David & Charles, 1973.
Fraser, John. “Propaganda on the Picture Postcard.” Oxford Art Journal 3, no. 2 (1980): 39-47.
Kerr, Greg. Private Wars: Personal records of the Anzacs in the Great War. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Leiser, Gary. “The First Flight Above Egypt: The Great Week of Aviation at Heliopolis, 1910.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, 20, no. 3 (2010): 267-294.
Spiers, Edward M. The Victorian Soldier in Africa. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

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