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A first World War romance

Posted by on February 28, 2013

In the blog of 27th Oct. 2012 I wrote about my grandmother, Kathleen Harper’s passport photograph, but had been unable to find out any details of her journey to Egypt. Through researching ships’ passenger lists I have discovered that she left the Port of London on 4th August 1916 on the P&O ship Arabia. It was bound for Sydney, but she was due to disembark at Port Said. She is described as a nurse, aged 22 – destination Egypt. Further on down the list was the name of the family she travelled with – the Hoggs. This was the family from Surrey that Kathleen worked for as a nanny. The husband, an army doctor, was already in Egypt and he must have considered it safe enough for his wife and young family to sail out to join him. Beatrice, the mother, was 31, and the three children  [aged 5, 3 and 1] accompanied her. These were the children in my grandmother’s care.

They all arrived safely, but only three months later on the return journey  from Australia the R.M.S. Arabia  was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank 300 miles off Malta. So Kathleen’s joking comment on the back of the passport photo could easily have come true. In the account of the sinking of the ship, fortunately nearly all the passengers were rescued and taken to safety on Malta.

My grandmother had no way of knowing that she would meet her future husband, Arthur Slaughter, in Egypt or that they would be brought together by the violent events of the war. The Gallipoli campaign was over, but fighting raged as furiously as ever on the Western front. After Gallipoli, Arthur suffered from neurasthenia [now more commonly referred to as shell-shock] and was transferred from active service to a post assisting in the running of a prisoner-of-war camp near Cairo, rather than being sent with what remained of his regiment to fight in France. Being able to stay in Egypt probably saved his life.

Kathleen and Arthur in Egypt about 1917. They are seated on the right.

Kathleen and Arthur in Egypt about 1917. They are seated on the right.

We do not know exactly how or when my grandparents met, but it must have been between 1916 and 1918 in wartime Cairo, when it was possible for an army officer to meet and fall in love with a nanny, in a social milieu perhaps less constrained by the class conventions of pre-war England. Kathleen used to speak of her time in Egypt as one of the happiest times of her life and described Arthur as the most fascinating man she had ever met. And she, with her long dark hair and beautiful brown eyes, obviously captivated him.


One Response to A first World War romance

  1. Clare Travers

    I love this post – our forebears led what seem to us, in these more prosaic times, romantic lives, didn’t they? Your grandmother looks so lovely in her floaty dress and hat, very modern-looking and not Edwardian, I thought. Your grandparents and mine seem to have started their lives together in very similar circumstances.

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