Tel El Kebir War Memorial Cemetery

Tel el Kebir is a part of the Ismailia Governorate and it should be noted that it is also referred to as Tall al Kebir.The War Memorial Cemetery is situated some 110 kilometres north-north-east of Cairo and is well placed at Tel el Kebir, just 175 metres east of the railway station and the Ismailia or the Sweet Water Canal. You can access the cemetery Saturday through to Thursday from 7.30 to 14.30.

Of the 62 First World War Commonwealth graves at this cemetery, half are Australian. During the war there was an Australian training camp based at Tel el Kebir. There were also a prisoner of war camp, a Red Cross centre and the No 2 Australian Stationary Hospital sited nearby. Commonwealth troops were buried here from June 1915 onwards, and like other cemeteries Tel el Kebir expanded after the Armistice.    

In the Second World War, Tel el Kebir hosted a hospital centre, as well as a large ordnance depot which included repair workshops for armoured cars and war weaponry. There are 526 Second World War Commonwealth war graves, 20 of which are Australian.

Image: Tel El Kebir War Memorial Cemetery
Creator: Christopher Karykides

Despite the Armistice of the Great War, conflict in Egypt did not end on 11 November 1918. Over the following few months tensions built and in March 1919 a dissatisfied Egyptian people challenged the legacy of British colonialism. The spirit of revolution emerged from Cairo where demonstrations and protest action were sparked by students and public servants, including interference with railway, telephone and telegraph lines. Their rebellion gained momentum and the uprising swept throughout the country, reaching rural areas of Egypt.  

The Egyptian action took most Britons by surprise. The remaining Allied troops were being prepared for repatriation, but any plans that the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Divisions had for home were put on hold for an ever willingness to defend the Empire and her interests.

The Egyptian people might have hoped for an empathetic ally in Australia, after all their intention was independence. But Australia’s devotion to Empire was strong and any able remaining troops were called on to control the Egyptian people and to fight for British imperial authority.

Seven of the 12 remaining regiments were marched to Zagazig to quell the rebellion there, the remaining regiments were sent to Damanhur, Cairo and Minia. Throughout this final task, nearly 20 Australians were killed, including Lance Corporal James Maxwell Ferguson and Sergeant John Mathieson, of the Australian Light Horse, who are buried at Tel el Kebir War Memorial Cemetery. But during the main March uprising and the following months of action thousands of Egyptians were killed.

The 1919 Egyptian Revolution is literally an appendix to Australia’s First World War history. Although it does not fit neatly into the story of the Great War it is an important part of the history of Australians and Egypt.

Image: Tel el Kebir War Memorial Cemetery in the interwar years. Buried here are Lance Corporal James Maxwell Ferguson and Sergeant John Mathieson, two Australians killed during the 1919 Egyptian Revolution
Source: Courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives. 

Just as the 1919 Revolution is a reminder of the British Empire’s complex relationship with Egypt beyond the First World War, it is just as important to note the long history of that relationship that precedes the Allied troops’ arrival in 1914.

From 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened to shipping, Britain placed great value on Egypt; after all it was their passage to India, ‘the jewel of the Empire’. But over the next fourteen years tensions escalated between Egypt and Britain, ultimately coming to a head in 1882.

During those years the Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail Pascha had accrued massive debts of almost £100 million. Although these debts were accrued in an attempt to improve the country and its infrastructure, it was nonetheless a financial disaster for Egypt. As a result, Britain and France stepped in, purchasing public holdings and gaining greater influence over the government. Egyptian nationalist groups saw this as an undermining and comprising solution. The nationalists garnered support and they managed to force their new Khedive to change the government ministry to be more sympathetic to their cause. 

Panicking at these revolutionary moves and at the influence of the nationalists, the French and British governments deployed a fleet of ships to attack Alexandria. The Egyptians had set up a defence of the city and when the British and French demanded that they remove their guns the Egyptians refused. In the face of this resistance the French withdrew from the campaign, but the British persisted, and on 11 July, the British bombarded Alexandria for ten and a half hours, before entering the city two days later.

Whilst there was fighting at Zagazig and Kassassin, the main land battle was at Tel el Kebir. On 13 September, 1882, at five o’clock in the morning, the British attacked the Egyptian forces stationed there and whilst the fighting was fierce it was brief, just an hour or so long.

Although Britain would subsequently sustain a strong influence over Egypt and the Suez Canal, theirs would remain a complicated and turbulent relationship well into the twentieth century.

Image: Troops from the 7th Australian Infantry Brigade wandering amongst the graves of the British soldiers killed in the 1882 Battle at Tel el Kebir. Australian soldiers discovered relics and skeletons scattered throughout this war’s battlefields.

Source: Australian War Memorial C02439.

The Australian training camp at Tel el Kebir was set up after the evacuation of troops from Gallipoli back to Egypt. At first the site was a meagre settlement where troops were camped besides the railway tracks and were sleeping beneath water proof sheets. But in time the site became a well set up ‘tent city’ hosting tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops.

There were a number of reasons the training camp was located at Tel el Kebir, just on the outskirts of the 1882 battlefield. Firstly, its landscape, Charles Bean described a ground that was ‘gently undulating, with a hard surface very different from that around Mena, and therefore specially suitable for the encampment and training of troops’.  

Tel el Kebir was also an appealing site for its remoteness. Being so far away from the larger cities meant that troops would not be tempted by activities, like those found in bars and brothels, that would lead to indiscipline.

But the isolation of Tel el Kebir meant camp life could quickly become monotonous. As Trooper De Rome wrote home, the daily routine left troops with much spare time, ‘Reveille sounds at 4 a.m., and we drill until 8 a.m. Then we rest until 4 p.m. and drill from then till 6 p.m. So you see in the hottest part of the day we do nothing’.

Without the exploration or leisure options that Cairo or Alexandria offered, men were forced to find alternative entertainment. Sport were a popular way to pass the time and Tel el Kebir camp hosted many competitions from boxing, Australian Rules football to egg and spoon races and donkey polo.     

Image: A boxing match during the sports carnival that was part of the Anzac Day celebrations at Tel el Kebir camp in 1916.
Source: Australian War Memorial C00267.

Sources

James Maxwell Fergusson

Service Dossier

B2455

FERGUSON J M

National Archives of Australia

John Mathieson

Service Dossier

B2455

MATHIESON JOHN

National Archives of Australia

James Maxwell Fergusson

Circular, Roll of Honour

Australian War Memorial 

Chronicle, Adelaide, 18 March 1916, p. 41

The Casterton News, 10 April 1916, p.4

The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 5 August 1916, p.2

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

www.cwgc.org

‘Egypt 1882’

British Battles: From Crimea to Korea

The National Archives

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/egypt/

Bean, Charles, ‘Chapter I – Preparations in Egypt – The Desert Line’, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, 12th edition, (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, 1941). 

Brugger, Suzanne, Australians and Egypt 1914-1919 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1980).

Featherstone, Donald, Tel El-Kebir 1882 : Wolseley's conquest of Egypt (London: Osprey, 1993).

Gullett, H S, ‘Appendix – The Egyptian Rebellion in 1919’, Volume VII – The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, 10th edition (Angus and Robertson: Sydney: 1941).

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