An Australian Woman in the Desert Campaign
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Key people, Less than six degrees of separation
Rania MacPhillamy, born in 1889, was the daughter of a wealthy squatter from Forbes NSW. In 1915 she trained as a VAD and went to Egypt to help nurse the wounded from Gallipoli. After the death of her sweetheart, Ronnie MacDonald of the 1st Light Horse Regiment, Rania stayed on in Egypt and formed a remarkable partnership with an older Australian, Mrs Alice Chisholm. Together they set up a canteen for the Light Horsemen at Port Said, and in early 1917 took over the running of another canteen at Kantara, a busy railway junction on the Suez Canal. Known as the ‘Empire Soldiers Club’, this became one of the best-known and best-loved institutions in Egypt. Thousands of soldiers were able to enjoy low-cost meals and friendly hospitality on their journeys to and from the front line: the club was open 24 hours a day and operated without a break from early 1917 until after demobilisation.
TE Lawrence visited the club at least once on his travels, and a number of Arab delegations also passed through. At one stage in 1917 the two women were hosts to 17 Arab dignitaries, including Nasib al Bakri, a wealthy merchant from Damascus and one of the key players in the fight for Arab independence. In June 1918, Rania set up another club in Jerusalem, which became a haven for the ANZACs on leave from the terrible conditions that summer in the Jordan Valley. Rania’s work for the Light Horse was recognised with the award of an OBE; her older friend, Alice Chisholm, received a DBE.
The images used in this post are courtesy of Christopher and Elizabeth Murray.