'Something Doing Every Night': A Soldiers' Haven in Cairo

Throughout the First World War thousands of Australian soldiers disembarked in Egypt for their first taste of army life. After a month travelling by ship, the land they arrived in was one of great excitement and freedom, where they were given time to explore in advance of further deployment. 

The men made the most of the opportunity to act like tourists in this strange new land, exploring the Citadel and mosques of Cairo, and climbing the pyramids of Giza. They would often race to scale the Great Pyramid, but the real prize was to carve your name at the top, adding themselves to thousands of years of history.

However, life in and around Cairo was also one of temptation, where cheap bars and brothels  proliferated as the army camps grew. To facilitate the safe entertainment of soldiers, from early 1915 the YMCA began to establish its recreation huts throughout Egypt, wherever the soldiers were stationed. While those in the camps were popular, the soldiers wanted somewhere to go when they were exploring Cairo and so the YMCA responded by taking over the Soldiers' Club at the Ezbekiah Gardens, close to one of the major tram stops. 

The YMCA considered that there was 'no country in the world where men are subjected to more terrible temptations' than in Egypt, and so they made their work in Cairo a priority. Ezbekiah was on the edge of the city's red light district, making it an obvious site for the YMCA to draw men away from what they saw as immoral pursuits towards ones that would foster camaraderie and good Christian ethics. As Sarah Shepherd has identified in her article on soldiering in Egypt, the men needed to use entertainment as escapism. For the YMCA, the matter became of seeking the best sort of entertainment to facilitate this.

The YMCA took over a three acre area of the gardens, transforming it into a haven of recreation. Admission was free (any charge would have been seen as a bar for entry) and all were welcome, regardless of which of the British imperial forces they served with. Australians were most common, but there were also large numbers of English and Indian soldiers who frequented the gardens. Many men would remark at how 'cosmopolitan' it felt to be there; a world away from what they were used to.

Ezbekiah Gardens became the place for soldiers in Cairo, with an average of 1,600 men visiting each day. Sgt James Makin of 21st battalion, AIF, described how 'these fine gardens' became 'a rendezvous for Australian soldiers' at which 'there are always plenty of ways of filling an hour or so'. 

For a period of the war, above the main entrance of the park was a sign that read 'Something Doing Every Night'. For the YMCA's focus here, arguably far more than at any other site, was entertainment. At the heart of the gardens was the famed skating rink, where it became a staple of Cairo service to have tried out roller skating. Some, like Sgt William Peach, only tried it once, noting in his diary that he 'had a go at skating (one fall)'. Others would exercise there regularly, competing in hockey matches or enjoying the skating evenings with orchestral accompaniment (a wonderful precursor to roller disco). From the photographs it can be seen that the roller skates fitted onto the boots the soldiers were already wearing.

Sgt Makin wrote of how there were 'always dozens of brawny sun-tanned Australians flying round' on the rink. He, however, preferred to make use of the writing tables that surrounded the skating rink, taking the opportunity to write home to his family on the YMCA-provided writing paper. The Ezbekiah Gardens also had a post office, with a specific post for Australia, which made it very convenient for the soldiers to keep touch with home. 

 While writing home, Makin and the other soldiers could also enjoy the tea rooms, where an average of 4,000 portions of cake and sandwiches were served every day. Tea, coffee and cocoa were all popular with the soldiers, although on hotter days they also enjoyed drinks such as lime juice. The one thing that was prohibited, as at all YMCA centres, was alcohol, yet the tea room was still a place where soldiers could catch up with friends and obtain some much needed refreshment.

Tea was served by a team of 100 women, who were seen to represent home to the men. The majority of these women were white, the middle class wives of imperial officials, non-combatant workers and religious ministers. Usually dressed all in white, they represented ethical purity and maternal care, with the YMCA making deliberate attempts not to present them as objects of sexual desire. Even so, it was common for the soldiers to note in their diaries how much they enjoyed the company of these women and the welcome distraction they gave to military life.

The value of these women's work cannot be overstated, in how much it supported the soldiers. A particular highlight of the week was the Sunday afternoon tea, held between the afternoon and evening religious addresses. For, despite the YMCA's focus on entertainment at Ezbekiah, it remained a Christian organisation whose ultimate priority was the religion of the troops. Therefore the tradition of Sunday was important and through the afternoon tea where the men could relax together with their friends, they would also be drawn towards attending the church services. 

A mid-week Bible class was also run on a Wednesday by Oswald Chambers, a Scottish Baptist minister who would go on to write My Utmost for His Highest. While Chambers worked for the YMCA at the Zeitoun camp around ten miles outside of Cairo, he would run the weekly class at Ezbekiah to meet more of the soldiers stationed in the city. David McCasland's biography of Chambers describes how he would often take a small group home to his bungalow near Zeitoun after the class for supper and to continue the conversation.

The religious services did, however, remain entirely voluntary and the YMCA was always keen to state that it did not force religion on anyone. This was especially true of work in Egypt where they were also serving Indian soldiers to whom proselytising was expressedly forbidden. As a result, although the services and Bible study classes were an important part of the YMCA's work, there were still plenty of other activities for men to enjoy if they didn't participate in the religious work.

A favourite of soldiers everywhere were the evening concerts organised by the YMCA and at Ezbekiah it was no different. In the year from May 1916 to May 1917, 104 concerts were hosted at the gardens, in addition to 93 moving pictures and 39 live plays. This works out at an organised entertainment at least every other night of the week. The concerts were a mixture of professional concert parties, including the famed Lena Ashwell troupes, and divisional bands consisting of soldiers. In between these shows were the cinema showings of popular movies, of which Charlie Chaplin was the most notable. These were important opportunities of escapism for the men, but also points of familiarity where, through music or comedy they could be reminded of home while they served thousands of miles away.

To accommodate the large audiences for the entertainments, the skating rink was transformed into a theatre for the evening. A number of photographs in the YMCA's collection show vast numbers in attendance wearing a variety of uniforms. Through these, one also gets a scale for the size of the operation run by JL Hay at Ezbekiah Gardens, which was far larger than the majority of camp huts run by the Association at the time. 

This was an impressive effort by the YMCA to care for soldiers and there recreation was also catered for in a number of other ways. There was a swimming pool for the men to cool off in, there were chess and draughts nights, boxing and billiards. James Barrett's report of the 1916-1917 year recorded a remarkable 6,000 games of billiards being played, an average of more than 16 per day.

While there was certainly a lot of play, the YMCA also provided educational opportunities to the soldiers. Classes in both French and colloquial and classical Arabic were organised to help the men while they were at war, and there were weekly lectures on a whole range of topics, often illustrated with a magic lantern show. Some of these were on the history of Egypt, helping the men to understand the place in which they were living, while others focused on the sciences or politics. Topics directly connected to the war were often avoided. 

Through all of these activities the YMCA upheld its commitment to holistic support for soldiers, that cared for their minds, bodies and spirits. As one soldier wrote and was later published in the Egyptian Gazette, 'Cairo is hell, but the YMCA in Ezbekiah is nearly as good for us as the other place'.

Escapism, recreation, comfort. That was the work of the YMCA at Ezbekiah and across the world.


PS. My world map of YMCA locations, including Ezbekiah and all of the Egyptian huts, can be found here.

PPS. In various places Ezbekiah is spelt: Esbekieh, Esbekiah, Ezbekieh, Esbekiyya, El-Ezbekiyya. I've gone for the spelling most often written by the YMCA.

Lanver Mak, The British Community in Occupied Cairo, 1882-1922.
David McCasland, Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God.
James W Barrett, The War Work of the YMCA in Egypt.
The YM British Empire Weekly
The Red Triangle
Sgt James J Makin's diaries and letters https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P11013282
Sgt William Peach's diaries https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2126721
Sarah Shepherd, 'Soldiering in Egypt'.

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