Sunday, 13 July 2008

Gallipoli 1915

Here is a further account taken from 'Reminiscent Sketches 1914 to 1919' written by members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service and the Reserve. This one is taken from diary entries written by Mary E. Webster while she was working on board the hospital ship 'Gloucester Castle.' Split into two parts, it gives a flavour both of the landscape, and of life on a hospital ship over several weeks.

By M. E. Webster

H.M.H.S. “Gloucester Castle,” Lemnos, July 1915.

If it were not for the dark war-clouds, nothing could have been more delightful than this trip through the summer seas, with the blue, sunlit waters and purple islands whose names are poems in themselves. Milo! Paros! Naxos! Samos! Chios! How these conjure up visions of gleaming marbles, rose-wreathed cups, gods and goddesses! Surely no youthful Greek hero ever displayed a finer shape, or more noble poise, than the Australian soldiers who could be seen bating from a transport moored near the “Gloucester Castle” in Mudros harbour. The physical beauty of the Australian soldier was startling, their vitality wonderful. They are at Gallipoli, not driven by fear of invasion (the remoteness of their country saves them from that), but they are here from sheer love of adventure and loyalty to the mother country. Willing even to die if need be.

Lemnos is about sixty miles from the fighting – roughly six hours’ steaming. It is an island of green hills, with bare, stony summits and quaint windmills. In the spring the country is deliciously green, and the grass starred with asphodel lilies and every kind of wild flower. Even now there is just one lovely hour before sunset, when purple shadows lie on the slopes and hollows, and the dull hues of sand and dry grass turn to orange and gold. The glories of the sky and fascinating outlines of mast and hull are reflected in the quiet water; but the midday heat is brazen, for there are no trees. I have heard that this is due to the reckless destruction of timber by the Turks. In the old Greek days the island was well wooded and watered, and a favourite country resort for visitors from the mainland. Now it is a wilderness of drought and flies. Clouds of dust hang over the camps and hospital tents, entirely enveloping any moving van or car. Existence on shores is poisoned by dust and flies, making sleep impossible, contaminating food and drink, and infecting wounds.

Over a hundred vessels lie in this crescent-shaped harbour; battle-ships of many kinds, transports, cargo boats, mine-sweepers, hospital ships, and Greek fishing boats side by side. Our Headquarters Staff is located on the R.M.S.S. “Aragon,” and it is there we report for orders. In the elaborately glazed deck spaces and saloons, red-tabbed officers innumerable “live and move and have their being.” A visitor on board the “Aragon” once remarked that “he had never seen such a __ __ conservatory full of scarlet geraniums in his life!

Anzac, first week in August, 1915.

The “Gloucester Castle” lies about a mile from the shore at Gaba Lepe – now known as the Anzac beach in honour of the Australians and New Zealand Army Corps. It is only a narrow strip of beach, backed by bold red-coloured bluffs, deeply scarred and furrowed in their formation, and reaching to a height of nearly 1,000 feet. There are occasional tracks like those of a mountain goat, with here and there little terraced spaces. The face of the cliffs is covered here and there with patches of dull green prickly undergrowth, chiefly consisting of a shrub resembling holly, but bearing acorns; these, however, scarcely relieve the red-hot glare of the midday. In the distance on the right is Achi-Baba, and on the left, beyond the New Zealand lines, the land falls away into a tree-dotted plain, while beyond that again are the Salt Lake and Chocolate Hill. In the early morning and at sundown this strange, forbidding coast assumes a beauty all of its own; the gullies are deeply blue, and the sea and sky glow with wonderful tints; then, as the darkness falls, lights spring out up and down the hillside, like busy fireflies.

The insistent tapping of machine-guns and the sharp reports of the snipers who are no longer afraid of betraying their hiding place destroy the silence of the night. Sometimes stray bullets are found embedded in the woodwork on board. One of the best Australian snipers is of partly Chinese origin. The costume of a Turkish sniper was brought on board. It was of a dull green colour like the foliage, with coverings for face, hands and feet. Some snipers prefer to paint their faces. The Turks who know the country have found and provisioned posts in most of the larger trees, where they stay for a week or more. In the day time, shelling goes on for hours at a time. The white smoke of the bursting shells can be seen against the blue hills. “Beechy Bill” is responsible for many casualties, and “Tucker Time Liz” always chooses the meal hours; there is really no good cover either on sea or shore.

We have been interested in watching a mine-sweeper dodging about for three days trying to land a cargo of hand-grenades. At last she was hit and stopped alongside the “Gloucester Castle” for a few minutes to leave one of the crew whose arm had bee literally torn off. (I am glad to say he is getting well.) We hear few particulars on board, but can gather that this is to be a great and decisive week. Many senior officers have come on board to rest before their turn comes; they say that a bath and a well-served meal make new men of them, but that the sheets and soft beds keep them awake. Bathing on the beach is very dangerous and strictly forbidden. There is an Australian patient named McRodgers, who won the V.C. and a commission in South Africa, and is now of the Australian Army Service Corps. He is over 40 years of age, and has a fractured skull and arm, but does not consider himself permanently incapacitated to say the least. The “Gloucester Castle” leaves Anzac on August 6, with all the sick and wounded who unfit to take part in the decisive action of the following days. High hopes are held by all who are left behind.

(to be continued)

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