Walcha history: Training under the pyramids

Dramatic site: A small portion of the mile-long Australian Training Camp at Mena, some 10 miles from Cairo.
Dramatic site: A small portion of the mile-long Australian Training Camp at Mena, some 10 miles from Cairo.

British authorities believed that creating an army in Australia from predominantly untrained men would present major difficulties.

They found many already possessed a range of skills that adapted very quickly to those needed by soldiers.

They were used to camping out rough; they could find their way around in the bush; they could ride a horse; they could use a rifle; they could forage for food and supplies and could work for 24 hours without a break. But they often failed to treat those in authority in a manner to which they were accustomed.

The major AIF training camps overseas were at Mena and Maadi in Egypt and at Lark Hill on the Salisbury Plain in southern England.

The training routine at all locations was much the same, but where the Egyptian camps were hot, sandy, dusty and dirty, the Lark Hill camp was either cold and muddy or cool and dusty.

Tom Johnston of Brookmount, Walcha, arrived at Mena Camp in mid-December 1914 when construction was still under way. He wrote: “Mena is a very large camp with over 26,000 men and about 2500 horses. We are camped in tents on a big sandy flat with the pyramids of Egypt right in front of us. Our tent has 37 men in it so we are pretty cramped.

“Len Rial and I walked through the biggest pyramid a few nights ago. It is a wonderful sight and inside there are a couple of chambers in which a king and queen were buried. We went down a steep passage for about 100 feet then turned a corner and climbed up until we reached the middle of the pyramid and then walked along a passage to the king’s chamber, which is exactly in the centre, 235 feet up. Afterwards we climbed to the top of the pyramid and had a look over the camp. You can see for miles.

“All hands were out drilling today. We had four two-horse teams and were told to exercise them on our own, so we got down out of sight in a sandy gully and held a nice little race meeting. My horses won every time, as they are much lighter than the others. We raced towards the Sphinx and it was so dusty that those behind could hardly see the leaders. I don’t know if there has ever been a race meeting on the Sahara desert before!”