We are constantly cautioned against believing everything we read on the internet. But there is also a danger of incorrect information printed in books or on signs being taken as gospel. One example exists close to where I live. At the entrance to a National Park there is an unusual memorial to those who died in World War I. It is a scale model of the Great Sphinx of Giza and was carved by Private William Shirley while he was a patient at the nearby Lady Davidson Hospital. It is about William Shirley himself that most of the myths have evolved.
Most of the existing information says that William Shirley had been severely gassed at Bullecourt and subsequently suffered from pneumonia and pleurisy. They then go on to say that he carved the Sphinx, having seen the original in Egypt during training or on leave, in memory of his fallen comrades. Yet by examining original documents – in this case his World War I Service records, Battalion histories and war diaries – a different picture emerges.
Shirley enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces on 12 January 1916, being assigned to the 18th Reinforcements, 13th Battalion. At the time his occupation was stonemason and builder. He was sent to England for training until he proceeded to France in March 1917.
This is where the problems start. Sources say he had seen the Sphinx while being trained in Egypt, but he never went to Egypt. All is training had been in Lark Hill in Wiltshire, England.
The next thing to examine is the claim that he was gassed at the battle of Bullecourt. While his regiment did take part in the First Battle of Bullecourt on the 11th April 1917, and there is no reason to suppose that Shirley did not take part in that attack, no gas was used in that battle. It had been snowing prior to the battle and it is possible that he caught some sort of upper respiratory tract infection as he was already suffering from tuberculosis. He was transferred to hospital in Rouen on the 14th April, suffering from “debility”. He was sent back to England, where he was admitted to hospital, by now also suffering from pleurisy. The medical opinion was that his condition pre-dated his enlistment but was “accentuated by the strain of war service conditions”. He was returned to Australia and discharged on 29th November 1917.
In January 1924 the tuberculosis had progressed to the point that he needed to be admitted to a repatriation hospital. It was at this point that he began carving the Sphinx memorial. We have already established that he could not have seen the Sphinx when he was training in Egypt or on leave in Egypt. The reason for carving the Sphinx was more prosaic – a doctor at the hospital had noticed the rocky outcrop in the National Park which bore a slight resemblance to the Great Sphinx of Egypt. As a form of occupational therapy he suggested that Shirley might like to “rough out” a face on it, since he had been a stone mason. Shirley did more than rough it out. With the aid of photographs and a copy of a Baedekers Guide (which contained the exact dimensions of the Sphinx) he spent the next two years carving a scale model of the monument. He finally finished the Sphinx and two pyramids in 1926.
Shirley did not live to see his memorial unveiled to the public on the 3rd May 1931, as he had died on 27th August 1929.
Near the sphinx there is a sign, which states he was "severely gassed during the war, which caused his ill-health and eventual death". This perpetuates the myth, and hides the fact that he died of the more prosaic tuberculosis.