There were quarters in Cairo and in Alexandria that one doesn't talk much about in decent society. Places where girls sat on chairs outside a door, waiting for hire. I think most of our chaps went to look at them for curiosity. One of their tricks was to snatch a soldier's hat and run into their room with it, in the hope that he would follow. I knew one man who used to go to see one of these girls every week; if he hadn't a shilling he would take a vest or shirt, and she would hold it in pawn until he was in funds.
General Sir E. H. Allenby, British Commander in the Middle East one evening in barracks I was working out, on a big sheet of paper, a kind of charm or soothsayer I had come across in Lane's book on Egypt.
It consisted of circles of letters so contrived that if you selected a letter at random and picked out every fifth from that starting point you got a sentence which was supposed to be an answer to your enquiry.
There were two fellows with us who had arranged to meet two French girls from one of the shops that evening. There was nothing wrong in the proposed meeting, just a squeeze and a kiss perhaps, but the lads were not quite easy. One had left a bride at home, and the other carried a photograph; at any rate they asked me to consult my soothsayer. While all the room stood round watching, the answer spelt itself out: "Whoever does this thing will be doing great wrong". I felt sorry for those French girls.
But in Syria, it was a bit different:
By Christmas we were in Sidon maintaining lines of communication. It is because of two children that I remember Sidon most. A Hugh Mactaggart and I struck up an acquaintance with some American Syrian Mission folk. Hugh and I used to go along once a week and romp with their kids. It was the first association with civilized life we'd had for three years.
One evening Mrs. Byerley suggested we should all go out on the flat roof. The way led through her bedroom, and its delicacy and whiteness filtered round me and lifted me into a sweeter world. Hitherto the only women we had spoken to were those who wanted to save our souls and those who did their best to make us lose them. Here was a woman who, by this action, put us on the same plane as herself. I wonder if she realized how dear a thing she did.
well, almost different:
The "grandma" of another had been in domestic service in New York, and greeted us in strident American. After entertaining us to figs preserved in aniseed, she produced two attractive Syrian girls.
"These are my nieces", she explained. "They are good gals."
"You're married", she added, to me. Then turning to Hugh, she shot out: "You're not. I want my nieces to marry Englishmen. Which one will you have?"
These were Christian villages, and I think the hand of the Turk had been heavy.
There came orders to proceed to Beirut. Hugh and I, doing rations and orderly room work, got a comfortable room as combined office and quarters. We'd hardly settled in when a knock came at the door and two young women who spoke pleasant English made the proposition that they share room and rations with us.
We declined and they apologized. Afterwards they often called to see if there was any mending they could do for us - "Won't Mamma be pleased!" was their usual exclamation if we gave them a tin of bully or jam for darning our socks.
They never referred to their original proposal again, though once, when I asked the elder girl why they chose that livelihood, she answered, "It was this or starve, Mr. Harri".
A chaste friendliness with a prostitute seems a contradiction, yet I felt a tribute in their tears when we came away. We were out of touch with our ordinary conventions, and I think fellows hammered out standards for themselves.
Sapper H. P. Bonser, Royal Engineers (Signals), February 1916 to July 1919. Foreign service units: 74th Divisional Signal Company, Egypt, Southern Palestine; Detached Duty, Fayoum Area; U.U. Cable Section. Royal Engineers, Egypt, Palestine, Syria.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.