Silent Heroes - 199 Sgt John Reilly

A couple of years ago I was shown a photocopy of a handwritten diary detailing some of the 1st World War experiences of a young man from Bega, NSW, John (Jack) Bernard Reilly. This diary is not in the collection of the Australian War Memorial at the time of writing. This is Jack's story.

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Location: Canberra, ACT, Australia

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jack's Diary - 5 December 1914 to 30 December 1914

5th December: Left for Alexandria. Arrived Alexandria 10am. Fine port, great number of ships in port including German merchantmen. Rumoured that the Khedive has gone over to Turkey. Three men tried to scale ashore in a boat. Officer fired over their heads...hasty return. Busy day.

Sunday (6th December.Ed.) not kept by natives here. A Coy on fatigue all day. Troops disembarking. Broke leave with several others and got into the city. Had a good time & saw the sights of my life.

9th December: Entrain for Cairo. Miles of flat country under cultivation & irrigation. Saw many typical biblical scenes. It is said Egypt has not changed since the time of Christ & I quite believe it. See fields of maize, cotton & vegetables, fruit, etc. Arrive Cairo 1pm. All treated to hot cocoa & a hot roll each. Take tram for Pyramids where we encamp.
(1st Btn lines Mena Camp 1915.umpCALHR27N)

10th December: Visit Pyramids & Sphynx. Great sight.

11th December: Commence training in earnest. Days warm but nights very cold.
Historical Comment
CW Bean again:

“The 1st Australian Division, on its arrival at the Pyramids, plunged at once into the work of training. The staff divided the desert around Mena into three large training areas, one for each infantry brigade. The divisional light horse, artillery, and engineers were given stretches of desert outside of these; the transport and ambulances were allotted ground nearer camp. The various commanders were asked to submit, within the first few days, schemes of training. They were told that they could expect to devote a month to the training of companies, squadrons, or batteries; then ten days to training as battalions or regiments; after which they might work for ten days as brigades. If the division were not then required for the front, it would begin exercising as a whole division.
This training is worth more than passing mention, inasmuch as it was one of the finest achievements in the history of the A.I.F. It was scarcely realised at the time that its intensity was exceptional. A very limited leave was allowed in Cairo after hours. Almost from the morning of arrival training was carried out for at least eight hours, and often more, every day but Sundays. The infantry marched out early in the morning, each battalion to whatever portion of its brigade area had been assigned to it. There they split into companies. All day long, in every valley of the Sahara for miles around the Pyramids, were groups or lines of men advancing, retiring, drilling, or squatted near their piled arms listening to their officer. For many battalions there were several miles to be marched through soft sand every morning before the training area was reached, and to be marched back again each evening. At first, in order to harden the troops, they wore, as a rule, full kit with heavy packs. Their backs became drenched with perspiration, the bitter desert wind blew on them as they camped for their midday meal, and many deaths from pneumonia were attributed to this cause.
But that work made the Division.”

Training's Reality
By Laurie Favelle
The training now is bleedin' hard
No quater given or chance to slack
And, while tired, we are mighty fit.
We have become masters of the firing range,
And bayonet drill is just a breeze.
Yet...I worry when comes the time
To thrust my bayonet into flesh and bone,
And another's blood is warm upon my hands;
Will I suddenly grow old?
Its not cold fear or mortal dread
That wakens me at night.
Its a vision of the souless dead
With my face their final sight!
18th December: Broke leave & went to Cairo with J. Cairns & J. Grant. Had a good day.
22nd December: Riot in 2nd Battalion with some drunks. Shots fired but no-one hurt.

23rd December: J. Cairns & I got to Cairo on French leave. Hire a motor car & had a great drive in it. Dine at Hotel Metropole, left town at 9pm. Tram ran off line on high embankment. Had a narrow escape.

25th December: Xmas Day. Very quiet in camp. Had salmon, peas & tinned fruit for dinner. Went to the zoo after dinner & had a very pleasant time. Territorial fell off Sphinx & was killed.

30th December: Sir George Reid inspects troops. A Coy gets extra drill for bad behaviour.

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