A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 1, 2011

Historical Discursus for April 2: The First Battle of the Wasa‘a or Wozzer

Amidst all the revolution and turmoil, it may be time for one of my occasional historical meanderings on little-known subjects. Tomorrow, Saturday, April 2, marks the 96th anniversary of the event known, to those who've ever heard of it, as the Battle of the Wasa‘a, or Wazza, or, Down Under, the Wozzer. Though it took place in Cairo, few Egyptians know about it; unless you're an Aussie or a Kiwi you probably don't know it, and even then only if grandpa was unusually candid. Hence, one of my wanderings down the forgotten (and somewhat censored) side alleys of Middle Eastern history. And side alleys are definitely involved.

Brace yourselves. This one requires a lot of historical background.

If you are, or have ever been friends with or worked with, an Australian or a New Zealander (I've worked with both), you will know ANZAC Day, April 25, the shared national day/remembrance day of the two great nations Down Under, memorializing the day the ANZACs (the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I) were thrown ashore under Turkish guns at ANZAC Cove on Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. April 25 is, in both countries, the analog not only of Armistice Day/Remembrance Day but also a bit of the Fourth of July, for it was out of the crucible of World War I that both the Aussies and the Kiwis found their modern national identities. Though it marked a signal defeat, that was not the fault of the soldiers but of their utterly incompetent commanders, who were from neither of the countries involved. I will not at the moment comment on the degree to which the incompetence of the bloody Pommy Bastards British High Command led to unspoken disdain for the motherland and their growing independence of their colonial patrons. Except to say that the occasional ANZAC Day parties to which I was invited rarely mentioned the Turks at all, but rather Mother England.

April 25 will never be overshadowed, at least not soon, in the national mythology of either nation. But many of the veterans of the ANZAC Corps, now presumably gone (the last US doughboy from WWI just recently died, but I'm not sure about the last ANZAC [*See below]), remembered another "battle" in that same month: on April 2, 1915, a mere 23 days before the debacle of Gallipoli, the ANZACs fought another battle in the Middle East, this one in Egypt. No Turks were involved. It was remembered by those who ever spoke of it as the "Battle of the Wasa‘a" to be scholarly about it, or in the speech of our Australian cousins, the "Battle of the Wazza." Or, even more colloquially, "the Wozzer."

*[Updated: The last ANZACs: the last Australian Gallipoli vet, a Tasmanian named Alec Campbell, died in 2002. Though a Gallipoli vet, he didn't land there till November 1915. The last Aussie and the last Kiwi to land on April 25 died in 1997, and Australian Jack Ross, who enlisted in 1918 but never left Australia but still served in the Great War, died in 2009 at age 110. Good on them all.]

Neither as glorious nor as bloody as Gallipoli, the "Battle" of the Wozzer may, however, have been almost as stupid, and even more pointless in its objective, and it certainly was something only a few veterans spoke of very much. For on the eve of their great sacrifice at Gallipoli, the Australian and New Zealand troops violently trashed the Red Light district of Cairo. On Good Friday. And their own troops, along with British military police, were called out to stop their destruction of the neighborhood.

The ANZAC units, Australians and New Zealanders, a great many of whom had never been far from their own hometowns before, found themselves in Cairo. Because Britain's own troops were tied down on the Western Front, and the Indian Army in "Mespot," (Mesopotamia, Iraq), the "colonial" troops were sent to the Middle East, where they would play major roles in both the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns. Australian films like Gallipoli and The Lighthorsemen have helped make them known in the Northern Hemisphere.
The ANZACs were trained in camps near the Pyramids (photo). So, not unnaturally, they spent their free time in Cairo. Below right is a photo of a tram overflowing with Australians, including on the roof.

It would be nice to say they spent their time sightseeing, but they spent their time the way many soldiers have in many wars, drinking and seeking women, especially of the sort whose virtue was negotiable.

Lest you approach this tale with a "boys will be boys" snigger, let me deliver the downside up front: though tolerated houses of prostitution were supposedly subject to medical checks, the rate of venereal disease during the war was enough to create major problems for the British and colonial forces. ANZAC units reported an average incidence of VD across the Corps as 12%, or one man in eight; one unit is said to have had a rate of 25%. And penicillin hadn't yet been discovered.

Cairo in 1915 was rather different from the Cairo of today. Many of its residents, whether foreign born or Egyptians of foreign ancestry, claimed the protection of foreign consulates under the system of "capitulations," under which they were subject to the laws of their protective country, not of Egypt. Disputes with Egyptian nationals were settled in a system known as the "Mixed Courts." This naturally created complex jurisdictional issues for law enforcement.

Sir Thomas Russell (Russell Pasha), was the British Deputy Chief of Police for Cairo, later becoming the Chief. (Egypt, until the war nominally Ottoman but under de facto British rule, was declared a British Protectorate when Turkey joined the Central Powers.) Russell's memoir, Egyptian Service, 1902-1946 is a very readable view of the British era from the inside. (His wife, Lady Dorothea Russell, wrote a readable guide to the Islamic monuments, a predecessor of later works by Richard Parker and Caroline Williams). As a police officer, his memoir deals a lot with the seedier side of things, including prostitution and the hashish trade.

Egypt had developed a licensed brothel quarter in the late 19th century, where the houses were nominally subject to medical inspection. Beyond the licensed quarters, there were areas where prostitution was semi-tolerated. Even when, in 1916 (the year after the events described here), a crackdown was introduced, the capitulations got in the way. Russell Pasha:
One particular house of some size and popularity defied Bimbashi Quartier, our chief detective officer, and myself for months by ringing changes on the nationality of the padrona [the Madam]. Police could not enter a foreigner's house without the consent and presence of the Consul or his representative. When we arrived with the French consular cavass to demand admission from the French padrona, the spy-hole in the front door would be opened and a husky voice announce that Madame Yvonne had sold the business to Madame Gentili, an Italian subject, without whose Consular representative we could not enter. Next week we would arrive with the Italian cavass to be met by another change of nationality by the padrona. Picqued beyond the ordinary, Quartier one night assembled seven Consular cavasses at the fast-closed door, and one by one the fictitious landladies were defeated, entry gained, and the law enforced.
A linguistic note: "Bimbashi" is not detective Quartier's first name. It's a Turkish rank which in the Egyptian Army and Police was equivalent to lieutenant colonel. (Though binbashi today in the Turkish Army is a major.)

Now, to further set the scene for the Battle of the Wozzer, we need to introduce the Red Light District of the Day (or the Red Blind Quarter as it was known). The area may come as a surprise to those who know Cairo today, since it included the once-elegant colonnaded street of Clot Bey (named, ironically given those VD rates above, for the French doctor who introduced European medicine to Egypt in the age of Muhammad ‘Ali), and other streets to the north of the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

Back in Ottoman times, Ezbekiyya had been a lake, and the area to its west was mostly flood plain; Bulaq was an island. Under the Khedives Isma‘il and Tawfiq in the late 19th century the area to the west was filled in and became the Ismailia Quarter, what today we think of as downtown Cairo. (Midan al-Tahrir was originally Midan Ismailiyya.) The Ezbekiyya Lake became the Ezbekiyya Gardens, formal gardens with promenades, surrounded by the foreign consular quarters and the big foreign hotels, including the famous original Shepheards, burned in 1952, opposite its northwest corner. (The later Shepheards was placed on the Nile instead.)

The area to the north of Ezbekiyya was known as Wagh al-Birka, "fronting the lake," because it was once the site of palaces and villas on the lake. The name itself actually needs a little note as well. Literally, the original name was named وجه البركة (Wajh al-Birkat in Arabic) which normally would be pronounced, in Cairene dialect where the jim is pronounced as a hard 'g', as Wagh al-Birkat. But in this case, the jim acquired an sh sound, so that the usual pronunciation was Wish al-Birkat. In fact, the engineer and planner of much of modern Cairo, ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, in his street-by-street masterwork on Cairo, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida, actually spelled it that way: وش البركة.

Ezbekiyya remained fashionable, with Shepheards being the HQ of the ANZAC command (who may or may not have known that in 1798 Napoleon had his headquarters just to the west)

The general area of the Wajh al-Birkat and the streets to its north, though once fashionable, were also in the area where the new city of Cairo and the elegant foreign hotels rubbed up against the older quarters of town. It led to unusual juxtapositions: one reason the military command could respond so quickly to the riot we're about to describe is that they were in Shepheards only a couple of blocks away; just north of the area under discussion sat the main Coptic Cathedral for Cairo (the church is still there, but it was replaced as seat of the Coptic Pope by the new Cathedral in ‘Abbasiyya in the Nasser era). It was also an area where the tolerated brothel quarters around Clot Bey and the Wajh al-Birkat merged into a more unregulated area known as the Wasa‘a, literally the "wide area" which apparently once referred to the old fish markets when the Nile came much farther east. The actual "battle" in question started in a street called the Darb al-Muballat, but most of the troops knew the whole area as the Wasa‘a. Or, since the ‘ayn would defeat them, as the Wazza or the Wozzer. As Russell Pasha put it, the Wajh al-Birkat
. . . was populated at the time with European women of all breeds and races other than British, who were not allowed by their Consular authority to practice this licensed trade in Egypt. Most of the women were of the third-class category for whom Marseilles had no further use, and who eventually would be passed on to the Bombay and Far East markets, but they were still European and not yet fallen sso low as to live in the one-room shacks of the Wasa'a which had always been the quarter for purely native prostitution of the lowest class.
He tells us the area was "ruled" by a "king," "a huge, fat Nubian named Ibrahim al-Gharbi," who dressed in women's clothes and wore a white veil.

Now, we come to April 2, 1915. The ANZACs were getting ready to ship off to the Greek islands of Lemnos and Mudros to prepare for the Gallipoli landings. According to some of the accounts I will be quoting below, there had been some incidents leading up to the "battle," but since April 2 was Good Friday, there was no training that day and large numbers of men had leave. So all the resentments came to a head.

Depending on the version, and there are many, the immediate provocation was one or more of the following:
  • Anger over the extremely high rates of VD, already mentioned;
  • An Englishman was trying to rescue his sister from one of the houses;
  • Claims the beer was watered or even stretched with urine;
  • A New Zealand unit was outraged because one of its Maori soldiers was rejected by a girl as too dark-skinned;
  • Arguments over price.
Perhaps it was some combination of all these, or just the imminent deployment.The fight began with an attack on a house at Number 8, Darb al-Muballat, for whatever reason. Soon sofas were burning in the street, a piano came crashing out a window, and as many as 2000 ANZACs were torching brothels and fighting with natives and each other. Both mounted British military police and Australian units eventually put the riot down; the whole thing started between four and five in the afternoon (remember, the men had the day off and doubtless started drinking early) and ended by eight. What may be the nearest thing to a photo of the scene: From the Australian War Memorial collection. Caption: "Cairo, burnt buildings and carts possibly the aftermath of the riot later known as the Battle of the "Wozzer", which took place in the street known as the Haret El Wasser near Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo 2 April Good Friday 1915."

The lady (well, woman anyway) in the foreground in what might be a nightgown invites speculation. I'm pretty certain she's not a man in a galabiyya.

Now, some accounts, including eyewitness ones, from those who were there. Oddly enough, more of those on guard duty who put down the riot seem to have written about it than the participants.

Another view of the post-riot damage is at right.

An account from a website dedicated to the Australian Light Horse:
First Wassa (also Wozzer or Wazzir), the appellation given to the first of two unheroic riots in the Haret el Wassa (the brothel quarter of Cairo, Egypt) involving troops from Australia and New Zealand. The initial incident occurred on 2 April 1915 (Good Friday), after units of the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) received news that their period of training was at an end and that orders had been received for them to embark for long-awaited action. Causes of this disturbance reportedly lay in a desire to exact revenge for past grievances arising from dealings with the district's denizens-such as diluted liquor, exorbitant prices, and high rates of venereal infection-although wild rumours of stabbings of Anzac men by locals also appear to have played a part.

Trouble began soon after 5 p.m. when soldiers began evicting whores and their pimps into the street, and tossing their possessions out after them. Bedding, furniture and clothing-even pianos-were thrown from windows of buildings several storeys high. These materials were piled in the road and set alight. The town picket, drawn from the Australian 9th Light Horse Regiment, came on the scene and tried to clear the men out of the houses being attacked. Five arrests were made, although the crowd-growing larger by the minute refused to let these men be taken away, snatched rifles from some of the troopers and threw the weapons onto the fires, and succeed in freeing four of the prisoners.

British military police (MPs) were summoned, about 30 arriving on horseback to choruses of abuse and a shower of stones and bottles. An ill-advised effort by the MPs to gain control by firing their pistols, supposedly over the rioters' heads, resulted in the wounding of four men in the throng estimated at 2,000-3,000. This only served to further inflame matters, and forced the police to hastily withdraw. Efforts by the Egyptian fire brigade to douse the bonfires were also frustrated, its hose-lines being cut, its members manhandled (especially after they turned a hose onto the crowd), and the engine itself finally pushed into the flames.

Left to themselves, the more unruly elements began to loot some shops and put the torch to a Greek tavern. Shortly after 7 p.m. a second fire engine arrived, this time under cavalry escort which exercised extreme tact, and the various fires were tackled while a still sizeable crowd looked on. Since the `Wassa' was close by Shepheard's Hotel, where the Anzac commander had his headquarters, armed troops had also been called out. After Lancashire Territorials (non-regular British troops who were popular with the colonials) were drawn across the road, the rioters wisely began to disperse and order was eventually restored by 10 p.m.

A formal inquiry was convened the following day under Colonel Frederic Hughes, commander of the AIF's 3rd Light Horse Brigade, to investigate the causes of the riot and establish responsibility for its outbreak. Many New Zealand officers attempted to disclaim that their men had played any part, although the evidence of their presence was quite conclusive - the officer leading the Australian picket was adamant that `New Zealanders predominated'. In any event, nine-tenths of those present had been merely spectators. Apportioning blame was next to impossible, however, with few of the 50 witnesses able (or willing) to provide precise information. As the number of men injured by the MPs' bullets (three Australians and one New Zealander) was roughly in proportion to the size of the respective contingents, it could be said that the ‘honours' were about equally shared. So too was the damages bill of £1,700.
From a letter by Jack Jensen, from Wasley in South Australia, written in England recovering from wounds in Gallipoli:
The last few days we had in Egypt I shall never forget as three nights running there were riots in & about Cairo. On good friday there was a big row in one of the main streets in Cairo. I think I told you once before that Cairo is a very immoral place in fact they say that it is the worst town in the world. Some streets there are nothing but brothels & houses of infamy where every possible vice under the sun exists. Of course some of our men had been going to these places & had got diseases of different kinds & as a (what?) our chaps had a grievance against these places. Finally to finish up with one of the Manchester soldiers who were also stationed in Egypt found his sister in one of them. She had left England as a servant to some lady who had taken her to Egypt & left her there. I dare say you have heard of that sort of thing it is called the white slave traffic here in England. Anyway this girl went from bad to worse until finally she way found dancing in what they call a Can-Can hall that is a dozen or so women dancing perfectly naked in a big hall & exposing their person to every kind of indignity both by themselves & also the onlookers. It is just as well that I cannot tell you everything that goes on here as it would only grieve you. This Manchester chap managed to have a talk with his sister & tried to get her away. She was only too willing to go but the people she was with would not let her & they threw the brother out of a window as a result he was in hospital for nearly a week. When he got right he came in the camp & told our chaps & asked them to help him. At first they could not find the girl again but at last she was found in a particularly vile house. This was a day or two before Good Friday & that day being a holiday about 500 of our chaps & some New Zealanders & English troops went in to raid these houses. When they got in there a good many got drunk & they were joined by a great many more also drunk so the affair ended in a riot. They got the girl out first & then set fire to the houses. The affair started about four oclock in the afternoon & was kept up until nearly midnight Shops were raided & windows broken everywhere. I was on guard that day & we were called out to go & stop it but only twenty of us could do nothing against nearly two thousand. They had a fire in the street & were throwing the furniture out of windows two & three storeys high on to it. Some of us went in & tried to put it out & a chair came out of a window three storeys high & hit one chap & nearly killed him. We carried him away & a few minutes after piano came out of the same window & fell with an awful crash on the pavement. All the strings seemed to break at once & it went off like a cannon. After that the Military Police charged the crowd on horseback firing their revolvers into them but the crowd threw broken bottles & stones at them. One policeman got badly hit & one eye cut out with a broken bottle & two of our chaps were hit by the revolver shots.

About eight oclock five hundred Manchester troops came with fixed bayonets & were told to charge. They charged alright but they wouldn’t go for our men so they gave them rifles & our chaps threw them on the fire. Then they turned & ran & our fellows followed them up with sticks A while after the South Australian Light Horse came but the horses wouldn’t face the fire & smoke A little after eleven oclock the Westminster Dragoons came. They looked all right as they were coming down the street with all their swords drawn & their horses going straight through the fire & smoke. This very soon cleared the street & then we went for the houses & took everybody prisoner that we found. We got about fifty Australians & some New Zealanders.

The girl who was the cause of all the trouble was sent to England. She was taken charge of by the Y.M.C.A. The men in camp collected over forty pounds to pay her passage & expenses back to England Of course the money was handed over to the Y.M.C.A.

Next night a riot started in the canteen of the Abbasieh camp. Somebody caught an Arab who was employed at the canteen making water in a tub of beer. The Arab was at once pulled & half killed. All the beer casks & tubs were broken & spilt & all the groceries & goods stolen & the place burned down.

The guard was called out again but by the time we got there everything was over & the camp was quiet except for the fire still burning.

On Sunday evening the New Zealanders burned down a picture show. The man had advertised a boxing match & doubled the admission & then showed just the same pictures as he usually did. So they burned his place down.
The "Manchester" troops Jensen refers to are presumably the Lancashire Territorials mentioned in the earlier quote as being more popular with the ANZACs than British regulars; before the British government started messing with the historical counties, Manchester was in Lancashire.

You can also find the original contemporary diary of Australian War historian C.E.W. Bean on the Australian War Memorial site; Diary Number 3, including the Wozzer (which at one point he calls the Wozzy), is here.This has gone on too long and transcribing a PDF manuscript would take me all night, but it's there if you want more detail. Perhaps I'll transcribe it for a future post.

At right, troops in evidence in the Wasa‘a after the riot, via Australian Light Horse Studies Centre.

Now, for the sake of completeness, I should note that there was a second Battle of the Wozzer fought on July 31. This was a much smaller affair, and took place after most of the ANZACs were ashore at Gallipoli.It also has its own website, The 2nd Battle of the Wozzer, complete with some of the testimony, so I'll just refer you there. The medallions at the top of this post are from his site.

Now, a discursus on the area in more recent times, in case any of my readers want to visit the scene.

When I first went to Cairo back in the 1970s, Ezbrekiyya still had traces of its former glory, though once the Opera house burned down it was less of a draw. Nearby Cafes and bookstalls surrounded the gardens.

When the new Azhar Flyover was built, I think sometime in the 80s, the south side of Ezbekiyya was dominated by its on-ramps and nearby Midan al-Ataba dwarfed by the highway. But the area to the north, site of our story, has changed less (though of course Shepheards has been gone since 1952, two revolutions ago). To avoid any copyright issues from Google maps or Google Earth, I've scanned in a section of a Survey of Egypt map from the late 1960s. It's in Arabic, and on a Friday night I don't have time to caption it in English in Photoshop, so for non-Arabists who nevertheless know Cairo, here's a brief guide:

The large street with a tramway down the middle at the right is Clot Bey. The street running westward and intersecting Clot Bey at the lower right corner, today the extension of Naguib al-Rihani Street east of Gumhuriyya St. was the old Wajh al-Birkat street. Gumhurriya (then Sh. Kamel) and Clot Bey reach the northwest and northeast corners of Ezbekiyya a couple of blocks south of the lower edge of the map. The big building complex in the right center of the map is the Coptic church of Saint Mark, formerly Cairo's main cathedral, now replaced by the big one in ‘Abbasiyya. The north-south street through the middle of the picture, running from Naguib al-Rihani to Clot Bey, is Al-Kanisa al-Marqusiyya, named for the church which is on it. If you'll look between Naguib al-Rihani (Wajh al-Birkat then) and Qabila street to its north, you'll see a small back street, the third to the right counting from Al-Kanisa al-Marqusiyya. The print here is too small to read, but it is Darb al-Muballat. The original brothel attacked and burned in 1915 was at number 8, Darb al-Muballat. I don't know if the street numbers have changed; today's number 8 is on the west side of the street. It's a pretty staid neighborhood today, or was the last time I saw it. Illegal brothels were cleaned up in 1916 and prostitution made illegal in 1924.

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