Ismailia Cemetery

The town of Ismailia sits halfway between Port Said to the north and Suez to the south, on the western side of the Suez Canal. Ismailia was built up around the construction of the canal and its landscape is evidence of a history of British and French colonial influences.

The cemetery is less than a kilometre along the Port Said Road from the centre of town and the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is within the Ismailia Civilian Cemetery. You can find the site’s entrance through the iron gates opposite the bus station.    

The cemetery was established in February 1915 after the unsuccessful Turkish attempt to take the town. The defensive action against this attempt by British, French, Italian and Egyptian forces is commemorated by a nearby memorial at Gebel Maryam. An impressive construction, the monument is two granite obelisks separated by a space symbolising the canal and at its base are two figures, a torch bearer and a guardian of the destinies of the nations commemorated. A French project, the memorial was unveiled in 1930, its architect Michel Roux-Spitz and its sculptor Raymond Delamarre. 

The deaths incurred during the Ismailia’s defence as well as ongoing battlefield and hospital deaths filled the cemetery in the war years which expanded beyond the Armistice to include surrounding burials. 

One hundred of the burials interred here are Australian, 80 from the First World War, 20 from the Second. The graves from the Second World War are of those men who died of various illnesses, including meningitis and appendicitis, as well as general and flying accidents.

Image: Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery
Creator: Christopher Karykides

The No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital was a South Australian raised unit. They departed Australia for Egypt at the end of 1914 and initially set up in Ma’adi, a suburb of Cairo. This hospital also served at Lemnos and the Anzac sector during the Gallipoli campaign. Later, part of the unit was detached for service in Ismailia.

Like so many other military hospitals in Egypt during the Great War, the No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital occupied an unconventional setting, at Ismailia the unit was set up in a former French convent.

A reporter who visited the hospital described how the site’s academic past was ever present: ‘On the walls and over the doors of the different wards are painted the “classes” to which the scholar belonged – “1st Classe”, “2nd Classe”, “3rd Classe”, and so on, with other weird scholastic inscriptions, all in French.’

And set within a picturesque garden, amongst date palms and rock grottos, the hospital seem incongruous, its stretchers, dead bodies and medical supplies so out of place.  

At Ismailia the No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital was set up to serve the defence of the canal and as such they would treat many of the wounded from the Battle of Romani. 

Image: No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital at Ismailia
Source: The Sydney Mail, 31 May 1916, p. 10

Beatrice Middleton Watson was one of the Australian nurses who worked at the No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital in Ismailia, reporting for duty in February 1916. She had enlisted in the Great War in 1915 as a highly regarded professional nurse. She’d trained at the Melbourne Children’s Hospital and with nine years experience she had a special knowledge of infectious illness – obviously a much needed expertise during the war.  

Only a few months after her arrival in June, Beatrice developed a cerebral haemorrhage and died. Pictured is her original grave but her grave is now marked by a standard Commonwealth War Graves headstone in the Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery. 

Sister Watson is one of three women of the Australian Army Nursing Service buried in Egypt. However, it is worth remembering there were Australian women who served as part of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and whose service country is the United Kingdom, such as Sister Agnes Corfield, a Brisbane woman who is buried in Chatby Cemetery.

Image: The original grave of Staff Nurse Beatrice Middleton Watson, Australian Army Nursing Service.
Source: Australian War Memorial, C02303

Ismailia boasts the impressive tag of the ‘city of beauty and enchantment’ and during the war Australian soldiers and nurses certainly understood why. The French influences were a charming feature of the town, with wide boulevards and cafes. But mostly Ismailia was an unexpected delight because of its relative lush greenery and the beautiful flora and gardens on show which were a contrast to the more harsh landscapes of other Egyptian cities and villages.

The colours of the landscape were varied and exciting, a war correspondent described the town: ‘Its waters are purple blue, and its sands are golden yellow, and its trees are vivid green splashed with red where the flame flower mingles its blossoms with the emerald leaves. And here and there giant clusters of orange creepers do their little bit of make it a color scheme good for a war tired eye to look upon. One does not expect to find such a place upon the Suez Canal, but there is.’

Ismailia was certainly a popular place for leave, as seen in this picture of Australian officers and nurses enjoy a picnic in Ismailia’s Spinney Wood.

Image: Australian officers and nurses enjoying a picnic at the “Spinney”.
Source: Australian War Memorial J05885

Sources

First World War Diaries
AWM4, Sub-class 26/70, No 1 Australian Stationary Hospital available: http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm4/subclass.asp?levelID=1868

Beatrice Middleton Watson Service Dossier
Nation Archives of Australia
B2455, WATSON B M

Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 1940, p. 17

Sunday Times (Perth) 9 July 1916, p. 14

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
www.cwgc.org

Les Amis de l'Atelier Raymond Delamarre Sculpteur
www.atelier-raymond-delamarre.fr

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