The boy from the bush hits Cairo

Name: Geoffrey Armstrong
Date: 1915-1918
Unit: 4th Light Horse Brigade
Location: Gallipoli, Middle East

Trooper Geoffrey Armstrong was a boy from the bush, so wandering the streets of Cairo must have been a strange and fascinating experience for him.

Born on a station in New South Wales he became a jackeroo in Queensland before enlisting for World War I.

Having spent much of his life on horseback, it was only natural he should end up in the Light Horse but it came as something of a shock when the horses were disembarked at Adelaide because they would not be suitable for use on Gallipoli, while the troops were on their way to the Middle East.

When Trooper Armstrong arrived at Suez, he and his comrades were unexpectedly disembarked and sent by train to Cairo, a huge disappointment as they had looked forward to seeing the Suez Canal.

Writing to his mother on 26 October 1915, soon after his arrival, he described the sights and sounds of Cairo. For someone who had barely seen a big town in his life, he handled the situation extremely well.

"We were all rather disappointed at not seeing the canal as we were all looking forward to seeing it," he wrote. "However the train trip was very interesting also. I was in charge of Red Cross goods that we brought over and did not travel down with the main body but came on behind in a goods train. It was night time when we started so the first part of the trip was in the dark but it was bright moonlight so we could see fairly well.

The train runs quite close to the canal from Suez as far as Ishmalia where it branches off and goes to Cairo. From Suez to Ishmalia is all desert as far as I could see and the railway line between these two towns is guarded by Indian soldiers.

Ishmalia is quite a large place and is lit up with electric light. A few hours after leaving Ishmalia we got into the fertile country and as this is the time of the year that the Nile is in flood, every acre of ground is used to grow something.

As far as the eye could reach on each side of the line were splendid crops of maize, cotton, vegetables and all sorts of things, but mostly maize. There must be thousands and thousands of acres of corn grown here every year.

The whole country in this fertile part is a network of small canals carrying this water from the Nile. They just let it flow over the land wherever they want it.

We arrived at this strange city of Cairo about 10 o'clock in the morning and after numerous shuntings and shiftings I got rid of my truck of goods and proceeded to find the Australian Intermediate Base where I was to get further orders.

However, I found a good Samaritan in the King's uniform and after safely negotiating the boot cleaners, cigarette sellers, walking stick sellers, sweet sellers and hundreds of other walking shopkeepers who did their best to sell me something, I found it.

There I was told to find the rest of the Reinforcement and for the rest of the afternoon we had a good look round the city.

We are at present camped near Heliopolis, a sort of suburb of Cairo, it is a wonderful place, every house in it is made of white stone or cement of some sort, and there are numerous private residences which are regular palaces. And then there is the Australian General Hospital which was once a hotel. It is a huge place (was the largest hotel in the world I believe). The tram or electric railway as they call it, runs past the camp which is half an hour's run form Cairo.

Cairo is of course the strangest city I was ever in. I don't know how to describe it, it is so different from any place I have seen. You see very few English people except soldiers here of whom there are plenty, both from England and Australia. (Wounded and otherwise)

The Egyptians, who for the most part are a fine looking race, seem to be going about their business as if nothing unusual is going on. The city throngs with cafes and drinking and eating houses. You can go inside and have it or sit at little tables out in the street. The place seems and is more French than anything else. All menus are written in English, French and Egyptian.

Sunday was my birthday so I celebrated by going out to see the Pyramids. You go out in the tram to within about half a mile of them and then we rode donkeys. We had a guide who took us to see everything that was to be seen. The Sphinx and the Temple of the Sphinx and the Pyramids. We went inside the Pyramids and we climbed right to the top of one.

We had our photos taken in front of the Sphinx. I will be sending you one, also some views of Cairo and Heliopolis. We saw the Nile of course and the palace and Casino which is all now a hospital, and also the zoo where there are two of the pontoons that the Turks tried to cross the canal in.

The coinage is easy to get into the way of, it is all in piasters or as we call them 'disasters'. You get 97½ piaster to a pound. There is a 20 piaster piece and a 10 piaster piece, a 5 piaster piece and a 1 and a ½. Then the piasters are divided into millines, 10of which make a piaster, then there are ½ and ¼ millines. A piaster is worth 2½ [pence], so you can imagine what a ¼ milline is worth.

He later wrote that he expected to be getting to the front (Gallipoli) sooner than he'd expected.

"I have got into the lot that is next to go and we are expecting our orders any day now," he wrote. "The less time a man puts in in this place the better, I think, so I have taken the first opportunity of getting away."

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Eville Foster from Queensland, daughter of Trooper Armstrong


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The boy from the bush hits Cairo, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/boy-bush-hits-cairo
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