This week’s photo prompt, Curve, immediately made me think of the semicircular arches on the Catholic Basilica in Heliopolis, Cairo, or Basilica of the Virgin Mary. I’ve written about it and posted a few photos in other posts, for example here and here and here, but I have a fourth one from a different angle. It’s a church that’s not particularly Roman Catholic in a western European sense, but rather more like the Byzantine basilica, Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, which also has large semicircular arches on its sides, and multiple domes. The Heliopolis basilica is deceptively cake-like in this photo and doesn’t look too monumental, that is, until you look at the little man walking down the road!
I post these images for those who are interested in not-so-ancient Egyptian history; they are from my father’s war album, a collection of photos he took in 1941/42 as well as photos from his mates.
The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.
Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.
My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.
The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:
The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).
Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:
You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.
Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.
Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.
Each time I’ve looked at this photo of Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey handing out Aquatic Sports Trophies to members of the AIF, I’ve thought I should blog about it. The photo is one of many in my father’s collection that he brought back from the Middle East in 1942, though this one was not taken by him. Similar images of this trophy ceremony in Kantara, on the eastern side of the Suez Canal in Egypt, are available on the the Australian War Memorial site, which suggest that the photo was taken on the same day, 30th August 1941. This week’s WordPress photo challenge, ‘Gathering’, gives me a reason to send it out into the world. I like looking at the individuals in the gathering who are watching Lieutenant-General Blamey giving his speech and congratulating the winners. They’re clapping, smoking and taking photos, but in particular they’re laughing. He must have cracked a good joke!
Later he became Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey, and here in Canberra he has a square named after him, the Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey Square. A mouthful.
Here’s a direction sign from World War II Libya. The photo taken in about 1941 is in my father’s war album, and is marked as “Signpost Libyan Desert”. The camps are named after Australia’s state capitals, and might have helped the Australian forces to feel (slightly) connected with home, several months’ sail away.
All the capital cities are there except for Hobart. But this board is a palimpsest, a surface where earlier writing has been removed, scraped off, to make way for later writing. Here, the former text has been rubbed or washed away but if you look closely you’ll see the ghosts of smaller words, including the name of Hobart. Whatever happened to Camp Hobart?
There’s also a bit of graffiti on the bottom where a few blokes have scratched their names.
Searching for the locations of the other place names, I learnt that Ikingi Maryût was in the Western Desert outside Alexandria, Egypt, to Libya’s east. But I’m not sure about Abd-el-Kader, though it had been the name of a popular nineteenth-century leader of Algeria, to Libya’s west.
Thanks to WordPress for the photo challenge. See what the word ‘connected’ triggered in others.
Where land meets water in a large city, we build homes and offices for the short walk to the beach and the long view of the open sea. It’s a place to turn our backs on all that disturbs us in society.
For Ailsa’s Land Meets Water photo challenge, here’s a photo of Stanley Bay, Alexandria, Egypt in about 1941. The corniche, the road running round the coastline, was constructed in 1935. The descending levels of concrete bathing cabins added on the shoreline form an amphitheatre that looks onto the Mediterranean. Here in 1941 people are bathing in the sun and sea, and, by all appearances, are unafraid. Yet in May, June and December of that year there had been fierce enemy air and sea attacks on Alexandria with hundreds of people killed and injured. In this scene there are bathers on the sand, in the water and on the rocks, as though all is well.
Today Alexandria is not facing the same threats, but the population has multiplied. Modern photos show the corniche lined with high-rise apartment blocks, not as picturesque as those in the 1940s, and with not nearly as much space to roam between buildings. And town planners seem to have had second thoughts about the bathing boxes, which have disappeared. Only the sea remains the same.
In the 1800s, the town of Helwan was Egypt’s winter resort for the wealthy. During the Second World War, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were resident in the area and visited these gardens constructed in 1917 by the architect Zulfiqar Pasha, who gave them a Japanese theme with about forty Buddha statues, elephants, a Japanese-style bridge and pagodas.
After the 1952 revolution the gardens were neglected and Helwan became an industrial area. However, about a decade ago, with help from the Japanese Embassy, they were restored as a Japanese Garden. Once more it has become a desirable escape from the crowds of Cairo. It’s not just tourists who enjoy the space; most Muslim locals also love it as a green oasis amid decrepit concrete buildings, even accepting the novelty of Buddha statues in a Japanese garden, the only one in the Middle East.
In an earlier blog post, I had previously posted the photo of the seated Buddha on a lotus flower and the three elephants, but I deleted it. However, I’m posting it again, because today I was reminded of the value of photos.
When I went searching online for current images of these statues, I found that my photo had been copied before I deleted it, and then it was used to illustrate a couple of stories about the demise of the statues. The Buddha has been beheaded and the elephants de-trunked. What a horrifying discovery! A couple of web sites have stories or brief notes about the destruction, and the authors of these sites have used my photo to show the statues as they were in the 1940s.
My father’s collection of wartime photos is a valuable historical resource, and I’m pleased to be able to share them through this blog. However, it’s disappointing that I received no credit as owner of the photo. Take a look at this Twitter post, for example, and a news site, here, which has put its own name across the bottom of the photo. Please, if you wish to use my photos in your stories, ask me before copying them, and give me credit. Thanks.
On 25th April it will be 100 years since Australian and New Zealand soldiers charged the beaches in Gallipoli, Turkey, in an attempt to beat the Turks and give the Allies a chance to take Constantinople. They were mown down, slaughtered. The battles continued for months until December 1915 when they withdrew, defeated. Out of a population of less than 5 million, Australia lost 8,000 young males at Gallipoli.
The following year, 1916, my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, joined the army after stowing away on a ship of volunteers headed for Egypt. In July at Pozières, France, on the Western Front, he was trapped under concrete in an explosion, and then gassed. But he survived. He was one of the 40,000 Australians killed or wounded in 1916 on the Western Front (see AWM). That’s a huge part of a population of 5 million.
When he returned to Australia, he was too ill to work for more than a few days a week, yet it took the government years to offer him a pension.
His oldest son was my father, Ronald Bruce, who hadn’t learnt a thing about the futility of volunteering to fight in a war. In 1941 he joined the army, was sent to Egypt, and months later was sent home with shell shock. He couldn’t hold down a job, and at 25 was offered a pension.
This Anzac Day, I honour my father and grandfather for volunteering to participate in Australia’s defence.
At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra there is a wall called the Roll of Honour. It’s covered in the names of Australians who have died in war. My grandfather and father are not on the wall because they returned alive; but my grandfather’s three cousins, the Shaw brothers, and my grandmother’s two cousins, the Burley brothers, did not. They are all buried on the Somme in France, and their names are here on the wall. I put poppies beside their names.
Since I learnt that they were all killed while my grandfather returned, I haven’t looked at life the same way.
I found this photo of the Grand Hotel in my father’s war album, from his time in Egypt in 1941/42 with the AIF. The hotel in central Cairo is part of the Gamalian complex built in 1939, designed by Kamal Ismail. At street level are the hotel foyer and shops, above them is a mezzanine level of offices, and then eight floors of apartments. The complex is an excellent example of stark modernist architecture with its streamlined, symmetrical arrangement of facade details, repetition of balconies, rounded corners, simple balustrades and lack of ornamentation.
On the right and left of the photo where it is out of focus there are small corner balconies on separate buildings, between which there are three pedestrian walkways leading to a central rotunda. The walkways these days are blocked with shops and stalls, but they were designed to allow natural ventilation and illumination between the three parts of the complex, as you can see in the layout plan below the photo.
I found the plan at archnet.org in a very interesting article, “Gamalian: a rediscovery”, about the design and innovations in the complex. The author laments the deterioration of the buildings since their construction in 1939.
The word ‘angular’ makes me think ‘Art Deco’, the popular visual arts style of the 1920s and 30s that embraced the hard edges of industry, machines and man-made structures rather than the soft, curving, natural lines of the previously popular ‘Art Nouveau’ style. Art Deco buildings are recognisable by their geometric, often symmetrical, forms and decorations: repeated lines, zigzags, steps, and ziggurat shapes. Here’s a photo from Dad’s WWII collection from 1941/42, showing the covered market in Nairobi, built in 1932. It’s now called the City Market.
The City Market building in central Nairobi has the classic features of Art Deco architecture: symmetrically stepped walls and straight lines at every turn – even the clock is octagonal. Well, that was in the 1940s; the clock is no longer there, as you can see in the photo below, taken in 2011.
How quiet it was in the 1940s, with a neatly hedged roundabout and only a few cars parallel-parked beside the building. Images online of the City Market now, including the one above, show a lot of people and traffic, and angle parking to fit more in. Photos online of the interior are full of colour and activity, showing local people buying fresh food, particularly meat and fish, fresh flowers, handcrafts and souvenirs for the tourists.
Inside, it’s an open space where the windowed walls step inwards, with unadorned concrete arches supporting the vaulted ceiling. Pivoting windows on both sides allow air movement and cross ventilation (see an enlarged view of them in the header above), and the vertical strips of louvres allow hot air to escape through the higher openings and cooler air to enter at the bottom. It was ‘green’ architecture long before sustainability became so important. There’s an interesting site here with more photos, as well as plans and information about the energy-efficient design that keeps the building cool. It’s very interesting reading.
I have to admit that while I have a few items of Art Deco style inherited from my parents, it’s not my first choice of decoration or architecture. Give me instead the organic forms of Art Nouveau, the stylised vines whipping asymmetrically around doors and windows and up and down balustrades. Give me environmentally sustainable curves any day.