Donkeys in the Desert – Charlie Garratt – Author of Mystery and Historical Fiction
Before the opening of the Suez Canal, British soldiers and officers rode donkeys across the Sahara desert when travelling from the Mediterranean to India. One such journey is recounted in A Handkerchief for Maria.
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In 1858 my great-great-grandfather, a soldier in the 91st Regiment of Foot, embarked on what must have been one of the strangest events of his life. Alongside the rest of his comrades, bound for India, he was transported across seventeen miles of desert between Alexandria and Suez in a column of around 1,000 donkeys, in rows of thirty, flanked by camels carrying equipment and packs.
This experience is reported in my recent novel, A Handkerchief for Maria. The text from a contemporary report is below:
The regiment having received orders to proceed to India by the overland route, embarked at Corfu on H.M.S. Perseverance sailing on the 5th of September, 1858, to Alexandria, where they arrived on the 8th of the same month. The strength of the regiment on board was twenty-nine officers and 785 non-commissioned officers and men.
On the 18th the head-quarters with the right wing, composed of five and a half companies, were disembarked, and were at once entrained to be conveyed to the station nearest Suez, which was at that time about seventeen miles distant from it.
Arriving at daybreak on the 19th, they found a hot meal provided, consisting principally of Irish stew, which having been disposed of, the men were paraded to start on their ride to Suez on donkeys.
The animals were drawn up in sections of thirty rank entire, and the mode of mounting was :
the men were paraded in rear of their donkeys, and when ordered to mount, scrambled up over their tails. Each section then advanced to thirty yards interval, with 100 yards between companies, the pace being at the rate of about four miles an hour, and there being two halts during the march at the post stations.
Before the regiment had disembarked at Alexandria, the arms and accoutrements had been packed in boxes, on account of the arrangement which had been made by the British Government and the Khedive, that troops taken through his country should proceed only as private individuals.
The colours were in charge of Ensigns Hamilton and Grant, and were conveyed across the seventeen miles of desert in a van drawn by horses ; the sick being carried in the same manner.
The men were dressed in white duck frocks and trousers, with covers to the forage caps; the chacos had been left at Corfu by special authority.
The knapsacks were placed in sacks and conveyed on camels, all the impedimenta had been sent on a day previous to the march of the men, so that they found everything ready to embark on arrival.
Ref: Historical Records of the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders, now the 1st Battalion Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders … / arranged by G.L. Goff. 1891