During World War I the British military command saw Egypt, its industries, businesses and people as resources to be drawn upon to assist the war effort. The tourist industry was not exempt. Hotels around the country were requisitioned, as military headquarters in the case of the Cairo Savoy (which I’ve written about previously, here), but more commonly for use as hospitals (San Stefano in Alexandria, the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, Al-Hayat in Helouan) or as places where injured troops could be sent to convalesce (the Winter Palace in Luxor).
Opened to guests a month over four years previously, in January 1915 the 500-room Heliopolis Palace became Cairo’s main military hospital. Renamed the 1st Army General Hospital (1st AGH), it was operated by the Australian Army Medical Corps. It was reorgainsed to provide accommodation for 1,000 sick, every door on every corridor opening to rooms of neat white beds and the grand dining-hall converted into a great convalescent ward with room for one hundred. Even so, within a very short time the hospital had to expand into additional premises, including buildings at the aerodrome, Luna Park and Heliopolis Sporting Club. Why was so much room required? Because Egypt was receiving the wounded from ongoing campaign in the Dardanelles, including the landings at Gallipoli. Hospital ships transported the injured and dying the five or six days it took to get to Alexandria, from where patients were forwarded to local hospitals or on to Cairo.
They came in so fast the system couldn’t cope. “Men were poured into the wards, and they were crowded together until the place became overpowering,” reported a correspondent for Australia’s The Register newspaper in 1915. “They overflowed into a skating rink enclosure, five, six, eight hundred of them; also into a galvanized building with a glass roof; out to Helouan to a convalescent home. Very soon the crowding at the main building rendered the place septic, a statement I make on the authority of the doctors resident in it. They were afraid to operate.”
Not everyone was so downbeat. In April 1915, The Queenslander newspaper published a letter from a corporal in the Army Medical Crops who was billeted at the Heliopolis Palace.
It is said to be the most beautiful hotel in Egypt. We have been told that it cost £2,500,000 to build. The King of the Belgians, with an English and a Belgian syndicate, built the hotel about three years ago. It was to be run as a casino, and the idea was to rival Monte Carlo. The syndicate was unable to get a license for the casino, and the hotel has been a white elephant. The war interfered with the tourist season this year—it should be in full swing now—and the very costly carpets and furniture have been carefully stowed away. It is possible that the King’s room, which cost £1000 to furnish, with a bed, a chest of drawers, and a washstand, will be made into an operating theatre, and there is talk of providing 800 beds for the hospital, which will be one of the very best.
As to the size of the building, if you put the Treasury and Executive buildings together they would require the largest part of Parliament House to make the group equal in size to this palace. And the exquisite marble, and alabaster, and granite! The ballrooms and reception rooms are things of rare beauty, and when you climb the marble stairs, of which there are many flights, and look down on the marble, and granite, and alabaster, and the richest of stained electric lights and clusters, it needs little imagination to call the building a palace. Some of it is like an artist’s dream. If I had any knowledge of architecture I might attempt a description of the palace within and without, but can only say it is wonderfully beautiful. There are perhaps 10,000 electric lights throughout the building, and, of course, all the appointments are on a lavish scale. We have hot and cold baths and showers, and are comfortably settled in rooms with tables and chairs. The nurses and doctors occupy some of the rooms on the first, second, third, and top floors, and have the most perfect accommodation. We, of inferior ranks, have the servants’ quarters in the basement, and are the envy of our less fortunate comrades in the other hospital, who are in tents pitched on sand in which you sink up to the ankles. The corporals have a private sitting room, where one can read and write at ease. Altogether the conditions are too comfortable for active service, but I suppose we should be glad on that account. (Extract courtesy of the Queensland State Library)
In March 1916, the decision was made that the Australian forces should serve in France. The various medical units were ordered to pack up, transfer their patients elsewhere and depart. On 29 March, staff from the 1st AGH sailed out of Alexandria on HM Hospital Ship Salta bound for the battlefields of Europe, where operating conditions were certain to be far less palatial. (The images in this post are courtesy of the Australian War Memorial website)