Base camp life in Cairo

Polish troops in tropical kit await embarkation for the swift overnight trip down the coast to Tobruk where they would relieve the Australians.

Stephen Dawson had been besieged in Tobruk until he fell ill in August, when he had been evacuated back to Egypt. After a spell in hospital he had be sent to a transit base for troops waiting to be sent to a unit. Unfortunately he had still not fully recovered:

When I first felt ill I didn’t report sick for a day or two. It is discouraged to report sick at the Base. You are usually malingering to avoid a draft. Eventually I had to go, though. As my temperature was normal I got Medicine and Duty and felt a criminal. None of the required Medicine was available but they managed to arrange plenty of Duty for me. In the afternoon (it was a half holiday) I was selected for a burial party.

We buried a couple of blokes at the English Cemetery. They had shot it out with revolvers and both died. One was an MP and weighty; the other was a Scot and lighter. I edged towards the second coffin. “C’mon this ‘un,” said the Sergeant, “You look a big, healthy strong feller” (My God! What irony I thought.) The distance we had to carry the coffins was easily 250 yards. When we got there – “Whop ‘im in, lads!” cried the Sergeant, “An’ lets get weavin’ into the town!” And these men in the be-flagged coffins had died romantically of Bullet. “Some corner of a foreign field”, what!

When I got outside, I noticed that everyone complained of the sickening smell from the coffins… Apparently the two revolver kings had been dead three days, which in this climate, is discouraged. I’d been too ill to notice any smell. All I’d observed was that there is something unmistakably peculiar about the movement of the feet of men carrying the body of another man.

Next day my temperature was 100 degrees and I was sent to bed in my tent. Next day it was normal and I remained in bed. Third day it was 102 degrees. “What is wrong with you?” asked the MO vaguely. “Suspected sandfly fever sir” “And you feel better today?” briskly selling me an affirmative. “No,” I said coldly, “I feel worse, actually” “Oh, you’d better go to hospital, out of the way!” he said impatiently.

So I came here and they soon found it was not sandfly at all but malaria. I feel much better now. Just old and tired. I read all the time, except when I feel too weary. Wonder if I’ll ever feel fit again. It’s months since I felt fit – or tolerably happy.

Stephen Dawson’s diary has been reproduced as a blog, see Soul of a Poet.

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