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)

Saturday 5 July 2008

Australian VADs

There doesn't seem to be a great deal of information out there about the part played by Australian and Canadian VADs during the Great War, so I was interested to find this British Red Cross Society document which gives an account of the work of an Australian VAD detachment in England. I'm always puzzled that while Britain was struggling to staff its own hospitals; had few spare trained nurses, and was pushed to the limits to find suitable VADs to augment the numbers, the Canadians and Australians remained unwilling to release some of their own trained staff to the British and employ VADs to fill the gaps. The writer of the article sounds a bit puzzled too.


36, Grosvenor Place,

29th September 1919

The Australian Imperial Voluntary Aid Detachment was inaugurated in March 1918. Office accommodation was provided at the Australian Red Cross, 36 Grosvenor Place, and every possible assistance was afforded by Lady Ampthill, Colonel Murdoch and Lady Mitchell, to make the scheme a success.

Members who joined the detachment were assured of official recognition, their status being acknowledged by the Imperial Government and the Australian Red Cross Authorities. Therefore it was thought that the many Australian women who were working in England and France would be glad to be united in one organisation, the officers of which would be responsible for their welfare and be pleased to help them in all difficulties connected with their various duties. There was never at any time any intention to disturn members who were already on duty in British Hospitals, or workers with the Australian Red Cross. There were at liberty to join or not, just as they pleased.

In October 1916 Australia had sent over thirty V.A.Ds. to England. These ladies were all members of detachments in Australia and were lent to the British Red Cross to help nurse the wounded in the British Hospitals. These members, together with the various Red Cross workers at Headquarters, formed the nucleus of the detachment. The ranks were quickly filled, new members enrolling daily and officers were appointed. The Uniform worn by the members is the regulation dress of the British Red Cross Society, with the distinctive badges granted by the A.I.F. Authorities, i.e. the bronze “Rising Sun” with the Red Cross in the centre. The hat badge was the same as that of the Joint War Committee and Princess Mary's Detachment.

Generally speaking, all detachments are divided into two classes, Nursing Members and General Service Members, and the latter class included all descriptions of clerical workers, motor drivers, orderly workers in hospitals etc. For various reasons, the Australian Medical Authorities declined to admit nursing V.A.Ds. into their hospitals. This decision was difficult to understand, in view of the fact that Australian Hospitals in France were chiefly filled by British wounded and the Australian wounded were scattered in various British hospitals where V.A.Ds. were freely employed. General Howes had decided to employ V.A.D. General Service Workers at the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Southall. Very few Australian women did this kind of work in the hospitals and the members for these duties were mainly drawn from British Detachments. Arrangements were made, however, in the case of any Australian girl wishing to do this work for her to be given the first opportunity where any vacancy occurred.

Australian girls being barred from nursing in their own hospitals and wishing to do this form of work had to do it in the British hospitals in England and France. That they carried out their duties most successfully is evident from the reports of the Matrons of the several hospitals. I regret to report that Miss Kathleen Adele Brennan (N.S.W.) who had done excellent work, died on the 24th November 1918 while serving at the North Evington War Hospital, Leicester.

At Australian Red Cross Headquarters the members were divided into five sections – the Wounded, Missing and Enquiry Bureau; Prisoners of War Department; Entertainment Department; Hospital Visitors and Supplies, and the Newspaper Department. The Wounded, Missing and Enquiry Bureau was under the able direction of Miss Vera Deakin (Victoria) Assistant Commandant, with Miss Johnson and Miss Lily Wrybrow (Victoria) as Quartermasters. After the return of Miss Deakin and Miss Johnson to Australia, Miss Wrybrow was promoted Assistant Commandant, and carried on the work in a most efficient matter. The Prisoners of War Department, under the splendid organisation of Miss Mary Chomley (Victoria) as Commandant, and Miss Pauline Reid (W.A.) the General Service Superintendent, did work which will never be forgotten. The Entertainment Committee under Miss Florence A. Aikman, the Quartermaster and Assistant Secretary to the Committee, worked exceedingly hard to make the entertainments the success they undoubtedly were. The fourth section consisted of members of the detachment in charge of the Australian Red Cross Stores in various hospitals and Hospital Visitors. The Newspaper Section under the direction of Mrs. Aimee Hewson (Asst. Quartermaster) and Miss Florence Henty (Asst. Quartermaster) worked wonderfully and these ladies deserve particular thanks for their devotion to their entirely voluntary duties. The work was particularly well done.

It is not possible to speak too highly of the way V.A.Ds. have responded to the unique opportunity of training and practical work under supervision. At its maximum strength the membership of the Detachment was 186, comprising 37 officers and 149 members (nursing, clerical and general service). As explaining the large number of officers in proportion to members it must be remembered that V.A.D. officers were often in command of a large number of civilian workers in addition to V.A.Ds.

The advantages of the formation of the Australian detachment were apparent in many ways. The conditions under which the members were working and the accommodation provided by the several institutions where they were engaged were investigated and where necessary efforts were made for their improvement. Members were assisted to find suitable work for their several attainments, and encouraged to keep in touch with Australian Headquarters and each other. As a result of being attached to an organised unit they obtained privileges from which they would otherwise have been debarred. We have been able to render much assistance to members during the difficult process of repatriation, and in recognition of their long and arduous service special privileges were secured for Australian V.A.Ds. which have been greatly appreciated by the Members of the Detachment.

I cannot conclude this report without saying how greatly I appreciate the privilege of being associated with such a splendid band of workers, who have rendered such helpful and devoted services at great personal sacrifice and often under very trying conditions. They have thoroughly deserved the appreciation of those who have benefited by their efforts during this long and terrible war.

Rose H. Robinson