Thursday 14 August 2008

Gallipoli 1915 - Part Two

Suvla, August 1915.

Every day that passes shows more plainly that the great attack has failed. The Australians, I gather, had a success on the 2nd, at Tasmania Post, but their losses were very heavy. Those on the spot appear to know rather less than more of the real issues. Everything seems in a terrible muddle, but the scattered utterances I hear are very dispiriting.

“We got there,” Colonel ‘A’ told me; and his voice was unutterably weary when he added: “and then we had to come back.”

It seems that the Gurkhas and some of the Irish struggled up to the heights of Sari Bair under murderous fire, and there waited for the rest of the detachment, greatly exulting if suffering severely; the others lost themselves and never reached their comrades in front, who had to retire exposed to fire from the same guns. I never listened to a sadder story.
We rise at 6 a.m., and are seldom in bed before midnight. Upon the arrival of the “Gloucester Castle,” surgical operations commenced and were continued for thirty-six hours without a pause, and it is fortunate that the weather kept fine. The poor maimed suffering boys – for the majority of the wounded are nothing more than boys in years – like in rows on the deck outside the operating theatre, just as they are taken from the lighter, awaiting their turn. After being operated upon they are carried to the wards, thus saving them unnecessary moving and handling. How wonderfully brave and uncomplaining they are.

“Just let me have a look at that,” said one lad. “It’s only my mother,” he added, with a shy little smile. Poor boys! Poor mothers! So far apart. They are worse off than those in France.

The mental strain weighing on the officers runs through their delirious mutterings. One Captain must have been hit just after he had sent an important despatch, for he is continually muttering, “That fellow ought to be back.” “He got through all right.” “I watched him all the way down, it is time he was back.” “I cannot think why he does not come.” Only death ends his anxiety. Another shot through both lungs, keeps starting up and saying he must get back, he is wanted. “I’d be fit enough if you would only give me something strong to pull me together. Can’t you give me anything?” On trying to drink he falls back gasping, only to start all over again until unconsciousness comes to his relief. Another patients is suffering from almost complete paralysis; he was knocked down and covered by rock and debris; he is quite award of the gravity of his case, but very rarely does he give way. (I am glad to say that reports show he was making a good recovery in England.)

The transport of the seriously wounded down the rough mountain tracks was both painful and slow. A major of the Royal Irish, who had been shot through the lung, said how dreadfully he had suffered from the jolting of the stretcher; he was almost unconscious at the time but can just remember someone leaning over him and saying, “He’s done for, poor chap.” The less seriously wounded were full of fun; one staff officer, from whose leg a bullet has been extracted at his own request without chloroform, insists on hopping round on his good leg to talk to the others. He does his comrades so much good that the nurses pretend not to see him disobeying orders right under their eyes. He knows Captain “D” who is dying unconscious with a fractured base, and promises to write to Captain “D’s” people. There are a large number of medical officers and chaplains among the patients; one Roman Catholic padre being seriously wounded.

There is no cover of any sort on shore, and at the dressing station fragments of bursting shell splash into the basins, so that the staff have to seize their patients and scamper with them along the beach.. On the ship, accommodation has been provided for an extra four hundred patients by putting mattresses and hammocks along the decks. As they lie there huddled together as close as possible, they have to be sorted out and dressed; then entered on the nominal roll. Oh, that nominal roll! The Commanding Officer is heard to talk of it every night in his sleep. One unregistered officer was discovered on deck, raving and delirious; another, lying among some lightly wounded, was so faint that he could not call; his face was disfigured with ugly sores, his uniform in rags, and his badges missing. Whenever an orderly cannot be found near his duties, he is generally found talking to a young Australian who is lying in a hammock, and who has lost both of his legs and his eyesight, while one arm is fractured; yet he lives and jokes and sings. He is known as “Tipperary.” (He reached Alexandria, but after that I lost sight of him.)

Three miles out from Suvla the ship slackens speed and the dead are committed to the deep. Ships carrying sick proceed to Lemnos, where orders are received either to transfer th epatients to a home-bound ship, or take them to one of the Mediterranean bases. In spite of the rush and scramble, anti-tetanic serum is being given with great regularity and with good results. There are some very bad cases of gas-gangrene; one young New Zealander, who was lying out for twenty-four hours with a compound fracture, lost first his leg and then his life from this condition. Even slight shell and shrapnel wounds are complicated by much bruising of the surrounding tissues and need to be treated with great judgement. Cases of dysentery, gastro-enteritis and colitis are very numerous; there is also a good deal of paratyphoid, but inoculation has done much to diminish cases of enteric. The “Gloucester Castle” has twice the number of patients it is supposed to accommodate, and on an average a fresh lot are received every week, consequently the supply of hospital suits on board is not sufficient to meet this demand, and as the patients come on board covered with dirt and blood, and it being impossible to deal with the patients’ own clothing, the Red Cross clothing is found invaluable.
August 1915 will not soon be forgotten by any who spent it in the Dardanelles.

Malta, December 1915

It is always pleasant to get to Malta, the patients feel that they are half-way home. Lemnos now is terribly bleak, and although Mudros harbour appears sheltered, it can blow furiously there and show as cold and dreary an aspect as any spot on earth.
December has been the saddest month of the saddest year! At the end of November (27) one of the most furious storms broke over the much tried troops at Suvla and Anzac. Those who lived through it say it seemed as if the Powers of Darkness had broken loose. The wind howled and shrieked, wrecking buildings and tearing up every shelter. Provisions and clothing were carried away and destroyed by flooded torrents that burst from the hills. To sleep or prepare any food was impossible.
One officer came across some men reeling drunk with spirits they had taken from a wrecked store; they were staggering unsteadily along, bearing a stretcher with a wounded man, yet the officer said that at the time it did not surprise him, it just seemed part of the pandemonium that reigned everywhere. The storm and floods lasted three whole days and were followed by a severe frost. This cold weather had not been expected so soon and very few possessed any warm footgear, consequently hundreds of frostbitten cases were received on board. The Gurkhas suffered badly and I am afraid some of them will lose their feet. After this it was a relief to hear that Suvla and Anzac were to be evacuated, and although the evacuation was a severe blow to one’s pride, there was considerable satisfaction when, a few days before Christmas, the evacuation order was successfully carried out.
The Australian troops felt the leaving very bitterly; they had struck deep roots at Anzac, but they entered into it with zest and even got some fun out of it. Groups of half a dozen remained behind to run up and down the gullies showing lights so as to give the impression that the usual number were there. Already their hearts are set on France: it is there that they wished to go. A very interesting picture of a group who had been in the first landing, eight months previous, was taken on the last hospital ship from Anzac. A staff group, photographed on the deck of the “Aragon,” had a narrow escape. A Taube dropped a bomb on the spot where the group had been standing, a few minutes after they had dispersed.

One of the hardships of the Gallipoli campaign was its remoteness for sick and wounded. Those invalided home from France could see their people almost immediately, but what patient cared about getting to Malta or Alexandria? And how deeply they loathed Lemnos; mails, too, were scanty and irregular. A particular case I have in mind is of an officer who was suffering from a very serious head wound, and how, on his partially regaining consciousness, his eyes would rove about so wistfully, seeking for some familiar face. I used to think that his groping senses might have cleared could they but have settled on someone he knew. It was pathetic to hear this officer ask over and over again, “Where? Where?” Colonel Balance spent considerable time on board in consultation over this particular case; his sympathy and kindness to the patient made a great impression on me. (I had the pleasure of being shown round the beautifully equipped hospital at Ligne by Colonel Balance. My patient eventually died in that hospital.)
What should we do in these times without some of the lighter interludes? A major who was suffering from a contused wound of the head caused roars of laughter by his account of how he was hit by a tin of biscuits. His dug-out was protected by a barricade of stores consisting chiefly of tins of biscuits; a shell went right through them, alighting in the last case but one, but without exploding, the last tin being thrown with some violence on to his head. It was a wonderful escape and the major boasts that he is the only man in the British Army who knows exactly through how many tins of biscuits that particular kind of shell will penetrate.