Massey’s tourists

Massey’s tourists

This hook explores the experiences of New Zealand soldiers at the start of their “big adventure” at war

Three soldiers of the 2nd (South Canterbury) Company (external link)

Three soldiers of the 2nd (South Canterbury) Company posing in front of an Egyptian sphinx. They are identified as 6/568 Sergeant Joseph Henry Wallace (in front, killed in action at Gallipoli on 7 August 1915); 6/545 Private Robert Henry Smith (left); and 6/502 Private John Clayton Mason (right). Image courtesy of the New Zealand National Army Museum, accession number 1993.1284.

Context 

The rapid deployment of New Zealand soldiers at the start of the First World War meant that their military training had to be completed overseas. Soldiers at the Zeitoun camp in Egypt participated in drills, shooting practice, parades, and field exercises. With the Zeitoun camp just nine kilometres northeast of Cairo, the soldiers used their free time to explore local tourist sites, including the Sphinx and Great Pyramids of Gaza. Few of the New Zealanders had had the opportunity to be tourists before or to mix with people from diverse cultures. Egypt in 1915 must have seemed very exotic to them. 

Tourist vendors specifically targeted New Zealanders and Australians, who were paid more than their British counterparts, and the New Zealanders earned the nickname “Massey’s tourists”. (William Massey was the Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time, and the New Zealand government effectively funded the New Zealanders’ tourist trips.) 

The behaviour of the New Zealand and Australian soldiers was far from exemplary, and a strict 10.30 p.m. curfew was soon introduced. 

On 2 April 1915, a group of drunken New Zealand and Australian soldiers started a riot in the Haret Al Wassir, or Haret El Wasser, street or red-light district in Cairo. The initial target was a brothel from which the soldiers suspected they had contracted venereal disease, but as the riot spread, the soldiers burned property and assaulted the locals. It took military police several hours to restore order, and the key culprits were never identified. 

It was never discovered who was responsible for the Battle of the Wazza. The New Zealanders and Australians blamed each other, and neither party cooperated with the military court inquiry into the incident. Shortly after the riot, however, senior officers had their mind on other matters. They received orders to prepare for embarkation to the Dardanelles, where Massey’s erstwhile tourists would fight and die in the Gallipoli Campaign. 

‘Massey’s Tourists’ – New Zealand’s Expeditionary Force in Egypt. By Matthew Tonks.

Possible discussion questions 

What impact did the New Zealand and Australian soldiers have on the city of Cairo? How do you think the locals perceived them? How might this perception have influenced the relationship between New Zealanders and Egyptians now?

How might the soldiers’ experiences in Egypt be different from their previous ones in New Zealand? 

What might have been some causes of the soldiers’ riot? 

New Zealanders and Australians are often seen as a united front during the First World War, yet in this incident each group blamed the other. How might this riot have changed the relationship between New Zealand and Australian troops? Can you draw any parallels between this and other examples of New Zealand and Australian relationships? 

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