The “Battle of the Wasser”: A Footnote in History?

Historical honesty is crucial on days of national commemoration

Photograph of buildings of the Wasser burnt. Evidence of the burning of the Wasser, taken by J.F. Smith of the 7th Light Horse. Photo courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

Diaries and unit histories shine a light for the intrepid historian on a dark part of Anzac history.

On the afternoon of Good Friday, 1915, roughly 3,000 Anzac troops looted and burned brothels and shops in Cairo’s red-light district, the Wasser, smashing windows and throwing debris onto bonfires in the street. The Australians and New Zealanders “roughly handled” the fire brigade (war correspondent Charles Bean’s own words) and threw objects at the mounted military police, who attempted to disperse the mob. The military police fired on the crowd, injuring several. According to one account, Anzacs, wildly driving a motor vehicle, ran over and killed a local child. Order was eventually restored in the early hours of the next morning.

Bean discounted the significance of the riots in The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: “They were not heroic, but they also differed very little from what at Oxford and Cambridge and in Australian universities is known as a ‘rag’.” In the next sentence, he contended that the subsequent good behaviour of Australians servicemen, who did not partake in a street riot in Cairo in February 1919, overshadowed any previous mischief. Looking beyond this official discourse, however, relationships with sex workers, violence towards locals, verbal abuse and rioting were key ways in which Australians soldiers engaged with the Egyptian landscape and its people during their training.

Bean’s history was a government-commissioned project central to the creation of the modern ‘Anzac myth.’ In the Official History, Bean relegated his commentary on the “Battle of the Wasser” and the subsequent “Second Battle of the Wasser” (31 July 1915) – also involving almost exclusively Anzac soldiers – to an extensive footnote that takes up more than half a page. This rare, incongruous foray into footnoting surely reflects Bean’s struggle to situate the riots within a predetermined storyline, and thus why many today are unaware of this dark element of their national history.

The vast majority of Anzac troops revelled in the destruction they caused in Cairo. Lance Corporal Eric Ward described the riot in his diary as “the greatest bit of fun since we have been in Egypt”. In his memoir, ‘Over There’ with the Australians, Captain Knyvett wrote: “I doubt if any one [sic] who took part in the battle of the Wasir, except maybe the military police, are ashamed of what they did… the burning of those pest-houses must have risen like incense to heaven…”

Two artefacts suggest that Anzac troops openly – maybe even proudly – discussed their destruction of the Wasser. A Greek counterfeiter manufactured a medallion in the first Wasser riot’s aftermath. One side read “The Battle of the Wassaa”. The other read “I was there”. The Australian War Memorial possesses a fascinating object collected in February 1919 from a Gallipoli trench by the Australian Historical Mission. It is a dug out sign with “The Wozzer” inscribed on it, presumably manufactured by Anzac troops. (Soldiers in all theatres during the Great War used nomenclature to humanise the nightmare landscape.) The Wasser was clearly iconic in the folklore of the 1st AIF.

'Improvised trench sign from Rhododendron Ridge (Gallipoli).
‘Improvised trench sign from Rhododendron Ridge (Gallipoli). Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Like the Official History, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and Charles Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horseman, unit histories tend to frame training in Egypt as a jovial period prior to the commencement of more serious fighting and true hardship. Battalion histories, published in limited numbers soon after the war for the battalion’s members, conform to two distinctive moulds. Either the authors relied heavily on the adjutant’s unit diary, which usually made a dry, objective account of the battalion’s past, or they drew from wider contemporary writing and the personal papers of troops. The latter methodology nurtured a more personalised, humorous and anecdotal account.

In diaries, memoirs and battalion histories, where the authors discuss training in Egypt, the “Gyppo” looms large as a conniving but easily subdued figure, almost as a court jester. Euphemisms – “high spirits” – and humour bathe their pages in sanitary liquid. As Captain Hector Dinning of the Australian Light Horse quipped in his memoir, Nile to Aleppo: “it is the combination of the soldier and the Gyppo that has produced most of the Caironese humour we love. And it is the humour of the place we shall remember longest – not its monuments.”

In Australian eyes, the “Gyppo” was an obsequious mimic attempting to extort tourists by replicating their habits and slang. In Australian eyes, cultural difference was both a cause of suspicion and a necessary condition of imperialism that had to be maintained. In the colonial encounter between the Egyptian and the Anzac, mimicry therefore developed an ambiguous power. To counter this threat, Australians employed farce in their writing. These writers gave readers little scope to envision an honest, transformative zone of cross-cultural contact, devoid of scheming ulterior motives.

Besides literary subjugation and condescension, Australian soldiers also took a hands-on approach to asserting their racial hegemony in Egypt. Far from adopting the respectful distance of British (and arguably Kiwi) troops, Australians engaged the local populace in a uniquely Australian way. They relied on hyper-masculine displays of intimidation and physical coercion. A seemingly innocuous prize fight between a member of the 2nd battalion of the AIF and a local Egyptian – won by the Australian – warranted mention in the battalion’s unit history precisely because it proved the superiority of Australian masculinity.

Captain Kynvett boasted in his memoir: “There was a good deal of Irish blood among us… so there was some good old ding-dong scraps. Of course the ‘Gyppo’ is no fighter, but he can stand behind and throw stones and can’t resist plunging the knife into an inviting back… I saw a pretty ugly-looking crowd dispersed with a characteristic Australian weapon… when two Australian bushmen began plying stockwhips, those niggers made themselves scarcer than mice on the smell of a cat.”

Anzacs were comparatively well-behaved in Europe. As historian Richard White explains: “In Egypt they themselves had represented civilisation because they were white. Here [Europe] they were insignificant. They behaved themselves because they were thankful and over-awed, because civilised behaviour was appropriate to Europe in their scheme of things, and because Europe’s respect was important to them.”

Scholars seem to have overlooked the racial and gender dynamics embedded in the unrest on Good Friday, 1915. Kevin Fewster, for instance, one of the few historians to focus attention on Anzac riots in Egypt during the Great War, views the Wasser riots through the prism of Australian resistance to authority. However, Australian and New Zealand soldiers specifically targeted feminine spaces normally sacred and off-limits. The men threw intimate belongings – dresses, mattresses, wardrobes, chests of drawers, even a piano – from windows onto the bonfires they had started. Bean recorded in his diary troops throwing household objects, such as kettles, at the military police. While Anzac troops did not physically harm sex workers in the brothels they besieged, in line with Australian notions of chivalry, they waged psychological warfare, making female domesticity a battlefield in itself.

Perhaps there is a societal imperative to reconceptualise what constitutes a “battlefield”. Like the Anzacs in Egypt, modern armed forces in regions like the Middle East increasingly target civilian spaces. There is increased public pressure to win hearts and minds not just on the home front but on the battlefront as well– no easy task . When combined with male tribalism, these factors create a dangerous cocktail, as evident in recent inquiries into the potential involvement of Australian special forces in war crimes in Afghanistan.

Learning from history should not equate to moralistic judgement of past actors according to our current behavioural and cultural norms. These men were products of their time. However, it is also questionable whether past attitudes towards non-Western peoples have dramatically changed, if tomes like Edward Said’s Orientalism are anything to go by.

There were dissenting voices in Egypt. One Australian private labelled Good Friday, 1915, as a “bad day for Australian troops” due to “a horrible riot in Esbekia.” In his personal diary, Bean claimed that opinion among soldiers was divided on the riot. One interviewee “thought things had gone much too far”.

However, a group mentality and the institutionalisation of Australian military history via Bean’s Official History and battalion histories overshadowed these minority views. Anzac misconduct in Egypt was not a case of a hushed cult but a brazen, unapologetic example of mob rule.

Over time the dark episode has dropped out of collective memory. Suppression has followed initial celebration. Of the ten unit histories I have examined concerning units that trained in Egypt prior to the Gallipoli campaign, four mention the first Wasser riot. Of these four, three were published during the 1920s. While a small sample size, those published in the 1930s and 1940s generally omit the event. In The Anzacs, Patsy Adam-Smith discusses conversations she had with ex-servicemen decades after the Great War in which these men were not so eager to admit to involvement in the riot.

With the government spending an estimated $552 million on the Great War centenary – more than any other country – it is astounding that some stories, however unsavoury, escape consideration.

To truly come to terms with our nation’s past, it is vital that we in the present acknowledge the sinister side to Australia’s involvement in warfare. This is too often glossed over and excused as harmless larrikinism.

In light of recent diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Australia/New Zealand over the place of the Gallipoli campaign in national identity, it is even more vital that we look beyond the struggles and losses of our own soldiers to the suffering of those they interacted with. Increasing understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the expansion of public space within which it is acceptable to discuss trauma mean that, slowly, Australians are beginning to commemorate suffering rather than celebrate heroism on Anzac Day. But what about enemy combatants and civilians who suffered when we invaded their homes?

The Egyptian novelist Nagib Mahfuz in Palace Walk details the life of a lower-middle class family in Cairo from 1917 to 1919. He includes telling descriptions of local frustration with intimidating, violent and intrusive Anzac troops.

Past Anzacs were not always angels. They were not always brave. They were not always honourable. They are not so different from us and maybe that is something worth commemorating over a distant mythological figure, frozen in stasis within the minds of government bureaucrats.