Mystery of the Australian soldier in Cairo, 1914.

As commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1 are beginning in Europe, it is timely to share this story of a young Australian soldier who spent some of the last enjoyable days of his life here in Egypt, before heading to the battlefield.

I hope that his story also stands as a reminder of the loss, destruction and ultimate futility of war, a reminder needed more than ever in this part of the world at the moment given events in Palestine and Syria.

“…you can bet we are having a great time. the time of our life in fact”, wrote a young Australian soldier of his visit to Cairo, Egypt, in 1914.

Australian troops were stationed, trained and fought in Egypt during WWI. I have a booklet of postcards of Cairo which was sent by a solider to his family or friends in Ballarat, when he was on his way to fight in Europe. It includes his thoughts about his visit and about his immediate future.

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Ivan’s words; the hotel the soldiers visited; Australian battalions in Cairo (with kangaroo mascot) December 1914; William Wallace Ryan, my grandfather, c.1917

I bought the booklet at a market in Melbourne, to add to my collection of Egyptian postcards. Most of the postcards I collect do not have writing on them, but these did. The words were poignant and captured experiences which must have been similar for many soldiers. I wondered who this man was and what happened to him, especially as my grandfather was also in Egypt with the army in 1914/15.

I have been living in Egypt since 2010, but the answers to my wonderings were not found here. I began collecting postcards of Egypt from the early 1900s because I like to compare images of places as I know them now, with how they looked then. They also made me think about what my grandfather would have seen here. I never met my father’s father, he died before I was born, and I wish I had been able to ask him about the brief time he spent in Egypt a century ago. He was then a single man, and I don’t think he would have imagined having a granddaughter who would live in Egypt. I feel the old postcards give me some of the memories that my grandfather might have shared with me, if we had been able to talk about our very different experiences of Egypt.

For many Australian soldiers in WWI, Cairo and the surrounding desert were a stopover and sometimes a training ground before they encountered Europe’s battlefields. Australian War Memorial records show that the ship on which my grandfather left Melbourne in December 1914 was bound for Egypt. What did he see and how did he feel about what he saw and experienced here, this young man so far away from his country for the first time?

He could not fly “home” in just 20 hours, and he did not have the knowledge of other countries that is now easily and instantly available to us with an internet search. He did not come to Cairo prepared with insights from other Australians who had started their life in Egypt, or whose parents came from Egypt, as I did.

I think of my Australian friends of Egyptian heritage, and I wonder if my grandfather met any of their grandparents when he was here. I also wonder if he may have passed the grandparents of my Egyptian friends on some busy Cairo street, or if they gave this stranger in strange clothes and with the strange accent some directions, or asked him to join them for tea, as so many Egyptians have done with me.

I never heard my grandfather speak of these things, but the voice of the soldier who wrote the postcards travels across 100 years. It is the voice of an exuberant young man, discovering this great city, just as I and so many Australians have done since then. I smiled as I read of the fun he and his mates had, and smiled more at his complaint that their afternoon tea in a grand hotel was expensive, because one hundred years later visitors still complain about “tourist prices” here. But it sent a chill down my spine to read that he had heard they would soon be sent to the Front to fight, and his comment “which we all hope is true.”

“hope” is overwritten and underlined. As I am a pacifist and, I must acknowledge, fortunate to live in relative safety (even during the ongoing Revolution here). I cannot begin to understand what would make a young man feel so strongly the need to fight. As in 1914, many people now hold similar commitments to war of one form or other, addressed to one perceived enemy or another. I feel blessed that I can live in Egypt, so far from where I was born, and feel that we are all human, all one tribe, and that I can try to understand the differences among us, rather than have to fight against differences as these men did.

I would have liked to ask the young man and my grandfather if they felt the same way after the War, but I did not know if the young man survived and returned. Did he have a daughter or son, a granddaughter or grandson who has been to Egypt, and who has also wondered? The postcards are faded, and I wonder if his memories of his time in Cairo would have faded too, or stayed as vibrant as his words, and as vibrant as my daily experience here is. Did the postcards ever reach his family or friends in Australia, or did they end up at the market some other way?

I joined the Facebook group Lost Melbourne, which as the name suggests focuses on the history of Melbourne. While I thought it was unlikely, I hoped that someone in the group would recognize the names on the card, and posted scans of it.

There were three names on the card, the people it is written to and the writer’s signature. However, these are abbreviated names and only the writer’s first name, which I could not read clearly and be sure of. In just a few hours, people in the group worked out who the man was. Here is the end of how their search unfolded, after several people had guessed at what the signature was:
P: I think the sender of the postcard was SHORTRIDGE Ivan : Service Number – 169 : Place of Birth – Ballarat VIC : Place of Enlistment – Melbourne VIC : Next of Kin – (Aunt) GASSON Rebecca. Unfortunately his records from Aug 1914 until Sept 1915 are not shown in his records.
N: But it does give his date of enlistment as 20/8/1914, which would fit with the date for this letter. The handwriting is also very similar, I think you’ve nailed it P. There are some references to his service for the period from August 1914, largely medical.
(P. points out that the signature on the letter and on his record are very similar)
N: There is only one name identified record in RecordSearch (NAA database) for SHORTRIDGE Ivan, although he is likely to crop up in a number of the WW1 series given his service. His service file includes a fair amount of detail including places he served – he was killed in action in France on 11/6/1918.

For me, this made Ivan’s expression of joy about going to the Front devastating. It also made me feel even more fortunate that my grandfather was one of the ones who saw Australia again. Too many Australians who went to WWI never came home, 64% of those who enlisted became casualties – killed, captured, missing or wounded.

Another researcher continued to delve and found that Ivan had a brother, Bertram, who was also killed in Europe in WW1. I searched the Commonwealth War Graves website and easily found Ivan and his brother, information on their war service and the places where they are buried. Those cemeteries give an indication of the battlefields where their lives ended either in combat, or soon after from the impacts of battle.

The records show that postcard writer Ivan was a Sergeant with the Australian Engineers 2nd Field Company. He was awarded the Military Medal, which is given for bravery in battle on land. He is buried in Borre British Cemetery in France. This cemetery was used from May to September 1918 by field ambulances and fighting Units, particularly those of the 1st Australian Division, during the interval between the German and Allied offensives of that year. He was 23 years old when he died. I guess that after leaving Australia and sending the postcards from Cairo in 1914, he never saw either place again.

Ivan’s brother Bertram died 8 months earlier, aged 31. He was a Private in the Australian Infantry, A.I.F. 41st Battalion, and is buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke, which is near Passendale in Belgium. Two brothers, buried in different countries, who died too young and very far from home.

Ivan and Bertram’s father died in 1916, their mother in 1913. Their father had 14 siblings, but it appears that except for Ivan’s father John, only the women reproduced. Rebecca Shortridge, Ivan’s aunt, married a Walter Gasson and they had four daughters, so the Gasson name has been lost from that line of the family too.

This made tracing any living relatives challenging, but the researcher found what seems to be a reliable family tree online which had this family in it. Family trees can contain small to wild inaccuracies, depending on how thoroughly they have been researched, but this one looked strong. The researcher has sent a contact message to the person whose tree it is, in case they are interested to know about the cards sent by Ivan.

Now we wait to see if they respond. As this person is interested enough in their family history to have established the family tree, I would like them to know that Ivan’s postcards exist. We still do not know if the cards ever reached the family or friends they were addressed to, either before or after Ivan was killed, or if they instead ended up in Melbourne some other way and eventually found me and my curiosity.

I am grateful to the researchers who have brought this story to light. Even if we do not reach Ivan’s family, his story will now be shared with Australians and others I meet here who visit Egypt to see the war cemeteries at El Alamein or who are interested in what history Australia and Egypt share.

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