Today I am going to read from one of the many letters written by World War One serviceman no. 3698 James Blackwood to his aunt Agnes living in Glebe in Stewart Street. James was born in a house called The Mains at 28 Boyce Street and was first educated locally at a school run by one of his relatives, a Miss McCredie. His secondary education was at ‘Shore’ where he was a rower, a runner, senior prefect and Latin prizewinner. He enrolled in Arts at Sydney University where he joined the Scouts. Six months later he enlisted.
After the war James’ father published a booklet of his son’s correspondence. James embarked on the troopship Medic in December 1915 and was soon in “great and amazing and wonderful Egypt!” On 29 February 1916, he noted it was a Leap Year day, he wrote to his aunt from Kasr-el-Nil Barracks in Cairo.
James gave detailed reports on what he ate. His 2nd battalion was well fed with plenty of fig jam, fish and boiled eggs, although the turnips in the stew were a bit tough. Outside the barracks you could buy oranges, cheap and luscious, but “of all the things I have tasted here, what amazed me most was strawberries and whipped cream in a French restaurant”.
He’d made two good friends on the voyage: George Gill, a shop assistant from Muswellbrook; and John Vance, a carpenter from Maryborough who had first enlisted in Queensland under age without his parents’ consent and then outwitted them by moving to Sydney where he re-enlisted under an alias.
In Cairo, the three friends were regular visitors to the Esbekiah public gardens where a special area was reserved for men in uniform. There were writing tables, a skating rink, a stage for entertainment and an open air café run by the New Zealand Voluntary Sisters who dispensed cheap tea and coffee, sandwiches, cakes and pastries. James thought it would be a good idea to set up something similar in Sydney to keep young men “out of mischief and the pubs”. He admired this New Zealand initiative and he had heard that their men at Gallipoli were a fine set of fighters.
A classical scholar, James was overwhelmed by the glories of the ancient world, especially “the tremendous pull on the imagination” of the Great Pyramid.
We did the interior in the morning and after dinner Vance and I decided to climb the 451 feet or so to the top. Of course you know the actual peak has been taken off and there is a square piece on top of a comfortable size with absolutely innumerable names and initials carved thereon. One is Edward, the late King. The whole pyramid must have presented an extraordinary appearance of brilliance and grandeur in its original covering of alabaster. However all the alabaster was removed by a Sultan of some description and employed in constructing the mosque of Mohammed Ali up in the Citadel. I should like to see this place as they say it is wonderful. However you have to get a special permit.
But to return to the Great Pyramid. George Gill is inclined to be a giddy subject so he remained below while Vance and I did the passage to the top in about 20 minutes. You go up one of the corners and just follow the beaten track – quite simple!
Now I want to tell you all about the great expanse we saw from the top of the pyramid: the wonderful fertility of the plain due to this new type of irrigation which covers the earth with a checkwork carpet of rich chocolate soil and verdant growth, the views of Cairo and the Pyramids of Sakkarah in the distance and the panorama of the Mena Camp, now used I think only for Artillery and Light Horse.
Really it was the strangest possible sensation to see the midget forms of camels, donkeys, guides and soldiers when you looked back. On our arrival there we took a decent spell and Vance did a bit of carving. He is very good with his hands and he inscribed our initials in the soft stone. Afterwards I did a bit of a scrawl underneath: 2nd Batt. And that was the end. So if you ever go to the pyramid and get anyone to go up to the top for you, ask them to look for JB under JV and 2nd Batt. For it’s your nephew.”
JB and JV both died in France in December 1916. James, aged 20, of wounds and John, aged 19, of pneumonia. George Gill who was too nervous to climb the pyramid survived. He died in Sydney in 1968.