EYEWITNESS - 1915
Family researchers know that discovering diaries, letters or articles is like finding ‘buried treasure’. The writer describes events as he sees them taking place, without any revision by hindsight. This account was written ninety years ago yet the narrative remains fresh and moving.
Malta Summer 1915
I stepped into a growing organism when I landed in Malta. Like mushrooms hospitals were springing up everywhere, offshoot buildings were becoming entities. Schools grew into hospitals in a night and then spread round them their white skirts of canvas tents.
It was fortunate that at that moment there was at the head of affairs in Malta, a Field-Marshall, whose genius for organisation had made him one of Britain’s great generals. His Excellency the Governor, Lord Methuen, not only planned the construction of the rising camps, but kept a watchful eye on each detail, and by his constant presence in the ward encouraged the sufferer.
Someone remarked to me before leaving that if I were to see the bestial brutality of war I could never again preach a war sermon. I have seen something of its indescribably horrors already, too awful to describe. My heart melted as I stood by a brave man who was dying alone in a corner of a hospital, as his eyes glazed and his bearded face took on the fixity of death. I remembered he was somebody’s darling, and here was I a perfect stranger, the only one with him at the last.
The silence of Valletta in wartime is what impresses the visitor. Not that it is silent. The cries of street vendors, and all the ordinary noises of a congested town added to the voluble talk of its inhabitants make sound enough, but even that babble is as silence compared with what Valletta used to be. The bells have stopped and the world has not come to an end.
Colonel Ballance, with the sympathy of a true surgeon for the thousands under his charge, had the matter of the bells brought before His Grace the Archbishop of Malta. His Grace with his usual readiness to assist all work for the wounded, ordered the bells to cease, and so there was silence. A great debt of gratitude is due to the head of the Roman Catholic Church for his courageous and generously minded act, and also for the splendid lead he has given his people at this time in all patriotic service.
But it is of the hospitals I wish to speak where so many wounded are finding a temporary home. Heaving slightly on the swell outside the harbour is a stately ship with a big red cross on her side. As she passes into the still waters behind the breakwater the wearied sufferers on board feel a soothing stillness. The engines have stopped and the swinging has ceased. There is no noisy bustle about the arrival of this ship, even the crowds of dghaisas keep away. Then quietly great barges move alongside, cranes creak and a strange burden rises from the deck of the ship is swung over the side and lowered into the waiting barge. It is a stretcher with a motionless form upon it. From under the light covering two feet are visible at one end and a head, possibly bandaged at the other. Never did the arm of steel handle its burden more gently. A mother’s hands could not lay her babe to rest in its cradle more tenderly than does the unconscious crane place its living weight into the closely packed line of stretchers on the barge’s deck.
Then comes the journey ashore. Rows of ambulance waggons are waiting, but the Malta streets were not made for wounded and many a sharp pang there must be ere the shelter of the cool hospital ward is reached. How quickly the wards fill up; for the usual salutation at breakfast is ‘I see there is another ship in today from the Dardanelles’
Valletta Hospital is the one that is nearest and most easily reached and it is being made a sorting base. It is one of the old buildings in the town, and has been a hospital for generations. Here are many of the dangerous cases which it would be unwise to move farther. Nurses, orderlies and Boy Scouts move quietly about. The latter are employed to run any odd errands for the men, to post their letters, and bring them magazines. Very useful and smart these Maltese lads are.
As the Chaplain comes quietly along the rows of beds to see the new arrivals he is impressed with the stillness of the ward, a cooling peace pervades it. I was going my rounds and in one ward I asked ‘Are there any Presbyterians here ? ’ ‘Yes’ came the answer from a bed ‘The man opposite me is one’ As he spoke the wounded soldier pointed to a vacant cot. Its occupant was evidently out. I went over and read the name on the card ‘You are mistaken’ I answered ‘This is a C.o.E. man ‘
‘Well I thought he was a Presbyterian because he is always reading his Bible.’
One soldier stands out from the others as the cheeriest man I ever met. He was a big handsome New Zealander named Fraser, and when he first came in he was in a most critical condition. He had eighteen wounds in his body. ‘Oh I am getting on all right’ was his first greeting to me. From the start I noticed that his mind always dwelt on the most favourable symptoms of his wounds and I believe that this helped to save his life. If his shoulder were healing he spoke about that, and said nothing about his knee, which was suppurating. I called him the cheeriest patient in Valletta Hospital. When I told him about our tea-room for the wounded he insisted on giving some money to drive up some of the other men in the ward who were strong enough to go though unable to walk and from that time onward while battling with pain, he was always anxious to talk about it, and plan for others enjoying its benefits. For months he lay there, emitting, like radium rays of cheer that brightened the whole ward. He was taken from his bed to the New Zealand hospital ship and our last glimpse of him was a smile. That was one of Malta’s rainbows, which I shall never forget.
Across the harbour on a height which the breezes fan stands Cottonera Hospital. It is not too big and its awning-shaded verandahs are full just now with men of two battalions of the Royal Scots.
Across another creek or bay from Cottonera proudly isolated on its own peninsula is Bighi Hospital. It is naval and is conscious of all the dignity that belongs to the first service. From Deputy-Surgeon-General Lawrence Smith down to the latest arrived nurse there is the consciousness of great traditions that have to be maintained, and the frank kindliness of the deck is repeated in the ward, as is also the discipline.
Floriana Hospital gets the sun. Here are huge blocks of buildings. Once inside you forget of course their external monotony of design and you are not tempted to look out except through coloured glasses. Floriana has this advantage however that when the men begin to move about they are at the centre of things. The recreation halls opened for their benefit in the town are at their door and so as convalescents they have a better time than others.
Two miles further out the hot dusty car track is Hamrun Hospital. Hamrun is small, but a model. Of course, it is quite new, and, therefore might be expected to have all the latest improvements, it exhales an atmosphere of up-to-dateness. Here all eye cases are being sent.
To visit the largest hospital on the island we descend first of all to the bowels of the earth by a sloping tunnel and there we find a train waiting. With much puffing we emerge at last into the open and get a view of the Malta country life. We pass the old town of Citta Vecchia, another tunnel and we have completed our eight miles by rail and reached the terminus, and see on a height before us block upon block of newly built buildings. This is Imtarfa Hospital, the largest on the island. The older part was originally barracks, now it has been greatly added to and we have an array of wards capable of holding 1,200 patients. Its isolation and its elevation have determined its scope. Thither are being sent infectious diseases and enteric cases. A glance at the mosquito netted beds tells its own tale.
St. Andrew’s Hospital is crowded just now with men in khaki. They get the princely allowance of 2s. per week and therefore cannot afford to hire a carozze unless they club together. For a man who did not know whether he would ever be able to walk again and has had a taste of crutches even a trudge in the heat has indescribable attractions. To feel that his limbs are all there and working is worth perspiring for. These are men who have reached the last stage of their several fittings in Malta and are now at the Convalescent Camp, just above St. Andrew’s christened by the Governor the other day ‘All Saints.’ Their next move will be the Dardanelles once more and we will be kind enough to wish that we may never see them back again in Malta !
St. George’s Hospital had the distinction or disqualification of being worked without women. The men of the R.A.M.C. may know their business and make excellent nurses but there is truth in the complaint one of the wounded made to my wife in a confidential moment. ‘There is no one to tuck you in and say good-night’ he remarked wistfully. They must hold out no longer but haul down the benedict flag and welcome the sisters; this has been done.
St. Andrew’s also stands on a hill and has a magnificent set of buildings. If it is smaller than Imtarfa it can only be by a few beds, and it excels in its imposing architecture. But even these great hospitals have overflowed their limits. To the back long rows of wooden huts have quickly risen. In fact they look like a little village, in American they would certainly be dignified with the title of town, if not of city. They bear the appropriate name St. Paul.
Ghain Tuffieha Camp Hospital
Further up cresting the height with its snowy canvas is St. David’s Camp. The big marquee erected by the Guild of the United Free Church of Scotland towers in the centre like a mediaeval castle above the clustering roofs of the town it shelters.
Spinola Camp. Has changed its character so often that we are in doubt whether to reckon it a hospital or not. But if we have arrived at the right time we will find many of its tents filled not merely with the men who have been cured and who are waiting to rejoin their regiments but with others just beginning the process.
St. Patrick’s and St. David’s both emerged from their swaddling clothes of mud and blossom into gardens with their tents dotted amongst the rich bloom of flowers, and it has seemed like one of the conjuring tricks of the East. Here the Y.M.C.A., which has done so much for Malta under the superintendence of Mr. Wheeler, has erected a large wooden hall and men can listen there to concert or lecture without being disturbed by the flapping of canvas.
St. John’s Hospital is an imposing building. It was the newest school in Sliema and one envies the children who will have such delightful classrooms. The little hospital of St. Ignatius is hidden away in the suburbs of Sliema. The wards here with their old-fashioned thick walls have managed to shut out the sun, and in Malta the most highly appreciated blessing is shade.
Forrest Hospital stands on St. Julians hill.
Tigne Hospital. Its base is sea washed and the breezes burdened with the brine ought to be a tonic to its inmates. Its high blocks almost depress with their monotony and when you know that they are full to overflowing with suffering humanity the heart of the visitor sinks.
Manoel Hospital is a little world by itself. On a jutting peninsula with only a bridge as a neck it is cut off from the rest of the island. Isolation determines its character for here one finds many infectious cases.
The Blue Sisters’ Hospital must not be forgotten. Of it many an officer has grateful memories. From its balcony a magnificent panorama stretched itself of distant town and sun-lit waters and stone-fenced fields.
St. Elmo and Baviere Hospitals. Both have the attraction of an interesting seascape. I have seen light in strange places. Once was in the eyes of a grizzled Irishman in St. Elmo Hospital. ‘How are you getting on ?’ I asked ‘Och, It’s my eye that bothering me. I got a chill in it last night’ he answered. And yet just two days before he had had his leg amputated !
It is six months now since Hamilton was admitted to St. Elmo Hospital. In that time he had endured seventeen operations. If you wish to learn the price of war you learn it here. If you want to witness its triumph, here is one. At present he has a steel bar through his knee, but that is nothing to what there has been.
It has its bright and its sad side. One day on going into a ward you meet a specially cheery face. ‘I am going home tomorrow sir’, says the lad who cannot hide his joy. ‘There is a hospital ship in and I am to be sent with it.’
He is the envied of all ‘Going home’. How sweetly the words sound they have a sad echo however. There is another ‘going home’ when for the last time the brave soldier follows the drum only now it is muffled.
Under the shady trees of Pieta Cemetery there are many new-made graves and the Chaplain stops on his return from another funeral beside a little plot and thinks of a boyish face that had looked up at his so wistfully and frankly from the pillow. ‘He was a brave lad’ he murmurs to himself ‘and it did me good to know him’. That face is looking into some other heart far away and its smile brings a sweet ache and the longing to see the lonely grave at which the unknown Chaplain is the only mourner.
This at first is one of the hardest duties of a Chaplain and I will confess my eyes dimmed with tears as I committed my first coffin to a soldier’s grave. It was that of a young officer Lieutenant Leggat of the 7th Scottish Rifles. The hour was sunset and I stood robed at Pieta Cemetery gate. Nearer and nearer came the sound of the muffled drums. Five coffins were borne in that last march, two officers and three privates. Slowly reverently were the bodies lifted from the gun carriages. In this land of ceremony even the Presbyterian burial adds a little to its stern simplicity and I walked before the coffin reading passages from the Scriptures until we reached the grave. Two brother Officers and one Private stood beside me as the mourners. Then, when all was over, the firing party awakened the evening stillness with their solemn shots. Silence followed for a moment, then on a silver trumpet rang out the notes of ‘The Last Post’ and to the fancy they seemed to blend with the blast of the angel trumpet which will awake the sleeper from the tomb.
At the close I thought I was alone for I stood looking into the grave trying to do for the unknown sorrowing hearts at home the sad service they were denied. Suddenly my reverie was interrupted the Private had spoken, He too was left alone beside me and his voice shook with emotion. ‘He was my officer’ was all he could say.
Men who have got the length of sitting on their beds or limping along the wards have nothing else to think of but the heat, and it is far from an invigorating subject. The need was so urgent that Mr. Campbell and I felt that something must be done. We felt that we would be true trustees of the money entrusted to our charge if we got up a home for our brave lads. I need not speak of initial difficulties. This is a land of inertia, and the only cold water that is to be found here is that which is thrown on new schemes.
Of course the people in Malta are very kind to the wounded They are given theatre entertainments, and sometimes garden parties but what the poor fellows need to keep them straight is a home and a kindly Christian atmosphere.
Long before the hour streams of blue jacketed men, some with arms in a sling, others on crutches, could be seen making their way to the hall, which had been cleaned and garnished and smiled its welcome with the perfume and freshness of newly-cut flowers. One man who on the previous Sunday had hobbled a mile with only one boot on to attend Divine Service, repeated the journey and his happy face almost brought tears to joy to our eyes. Would any Churchgoer have the courage and determination to go a mile to church in his stocking-soles if because of a wound he could not get his boot on ?
Every man who was invited and who could come was there. The little hall was full. The white clothed tables were soon laden with tempting eatables and the cup that cheers was never more relished. On the platform gracing the occasion were also the two chief medical men in Malta, Colonel Sleman, Principal Medical Officer under whose charge are all the numerous hospitals and Colonel Ballance, the famous brain surgeon.
Colonel Sleman in a few words spoke of the value of the work being done by all who at this time came out to assist the troops. The hero of the stocking foot, Lance Corporal Taylor of Christchurch, New Zealand, moved a vote of thanks to the ladies. Another cup of tea followed before the men parted.
So we got our hall. At 2 p.m. the hall is opened and from then until 7 p.m. there is a constant stream in and out of the healed and lame. Already the tables are loaded with magazines and papers. We have provided writing material and many a mother’s heart at home will be gladdened because her son found the cool hall with its ink and pens. Also there is a piano and it is wonderful how musical the soldiers are. Tea is served free to all and fifty loaves a day are sliced and spread with butter and jam and given to our wounded without charge.
One of the chief attractions of the hall is home news. At one end we have had a large paper rack erected, containing about thirty fairly large pigeonholes. Into these the newspapers are sorted. A letter asking for periodicals appeared in about sixty publications in Great Britain and there has been an immediate and generous response. In one pigeonhole are the Greenock Telegraphs, in another Glasgow Heralds. On the row below may be found the Sydney Morning Herald or the Melbourne Argus. I have not yet counted the variety of publications, but I should think that there would be over a hundred different kinds.
What is the secret of this almost unquenchable cheerfulness in our British soldier ?
The other day one poor fellow came into our club. He had both his hands shot away, and was unable to feed himself. Yet he sat down at a table and seemed greatly to relish the cup of tea held to his lips by a comrade’s hands. He talked and laughed with the others, and appeared thoroughly to enjoy himself and to one of the ladies whose tone questioned more than her words replied ‘What is the use of being downhearted ?’ This spirit, I believe, if its origin be sought for, will be found to have its roots in the Christian faith of our country.
It is the Chaplain who gets at first hand those tales which like the garments of the wounded man are smirched with the stains of blood and still smell of powder. The doctors and nurses are occupied with the care of the poor, shattered limbs, but it is the Chaplain who comes with healing for the mind and soul, and if he has the sympathetic art he will realise that part of that healing process consists in listening.
The poor fellow who has just been carried from the stretcher into the bed, and who feels the comforting touch of clean sheets after he has wakened up from his first sleep wants to tell somebody all that has happened. The exciting scenes through which he has passed have dazzled his mind, and just as one who has looked on the sun can see nothing else for a while, so the after impression of those awful sights cannot be removed until expressed in speech. After the story has once been told the mind is relieved, and it may be that the soldier will not care to speak of the subject again, for the memory is too painful.
Thus the Chaplain from the bedside sees the battle at many points. He sees what one soldier saw, and then what another witnessed, and the minor incidents which make the battle, and which are known only to the individual who was the principal actor in them, unfold themselves and reproduce the lurid panorama.
He told me the story simply as he lay wounded in nine places. It happened in an attack on the Turkish trenches. Just as the last one was being rushed three rifle bullets pierced his shoulder. He swayed and fell in front of his men, and at that moment a bomb exploded, the shrapnel hitting him in six other places and knocking him over into the communication trench. Then he swooned and knew nothing of what was happening. When he awoke it was hours afterwards. Day had long since broken and there was a deathly stillness around him. He was entangled in a mass of dead men, and could not move. As he turned his head he suddenly saw two Turks peering cautiously round the end of the trench at him. Then he swooned again. Once more he regained consciousness and there were the same two Turks a little nearer this time. He had no weapon within reach and even if he had possessed enough strength to use it.
Then matters became more serious. The Turks threw a hand grenade over the trench at him. It struck a dead soldier and exploded without hurting the Major; but he realised that to remain a moment longer where he was meant death. He asked God for strength and it was strangely given to him. He managed to get on his hands and feet and crawl a few yards just in the nick of time for the next bomb fell where he had been. Slowly and painfully he dragged himself along the trench. Then he came on one of his own men lying helplessly wounded. The man had given himself up for dead but the voice of his officer rallied his spirit and when the Major looked round again he saw the Private crawling after him. They met a sandbag barrier. They were too weak to climb over it, but together they got hold of one of the bags and toppled it down, and after a rest they did the same with another. There was not a moment to lose. Praying for further strength the Major and Private helped each other through the gap they had made in the barrier and rolled down into another trench. Fortunately they had fallen among friends. Some men of the Essex Regiment happened to be on the other side and they were carried to safety.
Another lad had a strange story to tell. The British force was retiring to their trenches. Suddenly the lad heard the cry of a wounded man calling for water. He stopped and stooped over the prostrate form. Meanwhile the bullets were whizzing on every side. Quickly he unslung his water bottle and held it to the other’s parched lips. ‘Only drink half’ he said ‘I may yet need the other half myself’. Then, taking pity on the wounded man and knowing that it would likely mean death to be left out there exposed to the enemy’s fire he called a comrade and asked him to give him a hand in trying to carry the helpless soldier to shelter. Together they staggered under their load, the target now of many bullets. At last they reached the trench and simply rolled their living burden over, then hastened to spring after him. At that instant a shell caught the rescuer on the shoulder shattering the bone and he fell beside the man he had helped. His prophecy was true; he needed the other half of the bottle.
Days passed, the narrator of the story was brought to Malta and was taken to Cottonera Hospital, and it was there that I found him and the strange sequel of the story took place. One day a wounded soldier who is now convalescent entered the ward. Suddenly he stopped in surprise at the first bed on his left, and looked curiously at the pale face on the pillow.
‘Why you are my rescuer’, he exclaimed with delight, ‘The man who gave me that drink which I will never forget and which I can never repay’. They did not know each other’s names but that mattered little. The half bottle of water and the heroic deed are already reaping their reward in life’s richest gift of a loyal comradeship.
Here is one with all the skin on his face peeled off, and he is just out for the first day with his new face, which is extremely raw to look at. Very simply he tells us one of the most astounding tales ever narrated.
‘It was like this’ he said ‘Some of us were talking in a trench, not thinking of any danger, when suddenly the Turks began to fire and we heard the hurtling of a shell. The rest of the fellows at once made for a dug-out. I was last and of course could not go faster than the man in front. With a bang the thing plopped right in beside us. I threw myself on my face and in an instant there was a most terrific roar, and I felt tons of earth tumbling on top of me. I lost consciousness. After a while I recovered my senses. At first I could not think where I was. My surroundings seemed so strange and I could not move. The memory came back and I recalled the shell bursting and realised that I was buried alive. I gave myself up for lost. And I can tell you Padre I did some harder thinking in these moments than I ever did in my life before.’
‘Then’ he continues ‘I thought another shell had burst on top of me. The earth began to choke me. How I managed to breathe so far was owing to the soil being lumped and air getting through. Now the crevices got choked. Then my ear detected a sound that gave me hope. my chums has set themselves to dig me out and it was the loose earth from their spades that was smothering me and their knocks that that sounded like other shells bursting. I can tell you I was glad when I got the first real mouthful of air. I left most of the skin of my face behind me, but I was glad to get off in the end so cheaply. I am feeling all right now and expect to be marked down for a the convalescent camp in a few days.’
Yesterday, as usual I was summoned to many deathbeds, all fever cases. I stood beside one man who could scarcely speak. Already his flesh had turned black and the flies were claiming their victim. As I spoke to him he made a feeble motion with his hand towards his one treasure. It was tied up in his pocket-handkerchief. I understood and untied the knot, and took out the contents. They consisted of a crushed picture postcard and his Testament. It was the card he wishes to look at again. It was an ordinary print, depicting a mother and children seated beside the hearth, and above them in a cloud the visionary scene of their thoughts, a body of soldiers marching to war. Below was printed the inscription ‘It is not like home when Daddy is away’. The soldier nodded when I asked if he were a married man. he had a wife and four children. Their wait for him will I fear be a long one.
The Hospital Ward is perhaps the last place you would expect to come across funny incidents. One patient on being asked what he was suffering from quite innocently answered ‘C.o.E.’ The orderly has been in a hurry and had inserted his religious denomination in the space left for the description of his disease and the patient I suppose was wondering what kind of strange illness these letters indicated.
The Scot is not supposed to be very quick at repartee, but loyalty will sharpen any man’s wits. Reverend Cowan handed a lad a magazine with the picture of an actress on the cover ‘There is a pretty girl to look at’ he said. ’Aye but I ken whar thar’s a bonnier ane’ a true hearted lad who was thinking of the girl he had left behind him.
He was more chivalrous than his fellow countryman to whom the same Chaplain put the question ‘Are you married ?’ ‘Na, Na ! ’ was the ungallant answer ‘Fechtin the Turks is quite enough by itsel’
From the mailbag one might pick out many tit-bits of unconscious humour. Here is an extract of a letter to one of our Chaplains ‘My son is in a Malta Hospital suffering from dysentery. The last time he had it the doctor ordered him half a pound of best rump steak daily. Will you see that he gets it ?.
Another commission for the Chaplain was ‘Do you think you could possibly trace a pair of pyjamas which I sent to my son who was in a Hospital in Malta ?’
The man who is in love. You soon get to diagnose his symptoms, and it takes very little tact to draw out his story. I have listened to so many love tales, and read so many love letters during these months that I now feel an expert in the science. Really one very quickly acquires the art of discerning accurately the position of your confidant. Has he been cruelly jilted, or has some misunderstanding which a word can put right arisen, or is the victim of morbid fancies, or is the hand of the mischief- maker to be detected ? It is the mischief-maker whose foul game is to make sport out of the miseries of others. The mental depravity of the mischief-maker I can never understand. Deeper and more ghastly than the wounds of the Turk are the injuries they inflict on the hearts of their victims.
It is all done so simply and apparently so innocently. Their letters have a wonderful sameness. They are generally from a cousin, a sister-in-law, or candid friend and the remark is thrown in casually that the writer has seen Mary Jane with so and so, and that they were very thick and something more, Mary Jane being of course the girl to whom the soldier is engaged. Now a man who is lying on a bed of fever or pain, takes things very seriously and as he has little to think about except this bit of news which he had got from home he turns it over and over in his mind until it festers. The doctors wonder why his temperature has gone up and it is the Chaplain who discovers the cause. In a confidential mood the sufferer tells his trouble to sympathetic ears, and the Chaplain who has had experience very soon sees that he is on the trail of another mischief-maker and would like to wire home for her instant arrest, only our laws do not reach the real culprits.
Looking back on my year here and recalling my conversations with the men, I see how largely this topic bulks.
The development of the hospital accommodation of Malta has been one of the remarkable achievements of the Great War due to the energy and administrative skill of Colonels Sleman and Cumming. They worked under the guidance of His Excellency, Lord Methuen, whose extraordinary activity, enthusiasm; sympathy and wisdom are known to all workers in Malta. Surgeon General Whitehead arrived in August and energetically furthered the work on.
At the beginning of May 1915 only a few hundred beds were available for the use of the sick and wounded soldiers. In the succeeding months the opening of hospital after hospital till at the end of November 1915 the island could accommodate 20,000 patients, and actually did house that number. With a little more effort the number of beds could easily have been increased to 25,000, and the plans and material for this increase were ready. In all twenty-seven hospitals and camps were established, including Ghain Tuffieha, which in itself contained four camps holding 4,000 men.
In the summer of 1915 the hospitals were staffed by nearly 300 medical officers and the nursing sisters reached almost 1,000 in number. Over the latter was Miss Hoadley. She was assisted by the matrons of the different hospitals. About one half of the nursing sisters were V.A.D.’s only partly trained nurses; but without their self-sacrificing labours the sick and wounded could not have been properly looked after and nursed. It is only right to say that these so-called partly trained ladies did superb work on many critical occasions and that many of them were highly educated and had made big sacrifices in relinquishing home and comforts at the call of duty to nurse the British soldier.
In charge of Valletta Hospital and also of the largest home for nurses was Miss Brown and she discharged the duties of her dual office with thoroughness and industry. Miss McFarlane who left St. Patrick’s Camp for St. Andrew’s Hospital and then for the Front was the subject of many letters of gratitude in the local press from her patients and the sorrow of her departure was one of the finest testimonies to the power and influence of a good and clever woman in a position of authority.
Miss McDougall has been promoted from Ghain Tuffieha Camp to Cottonera Hospital. The blend of gentleness and firmness, the happy knack of putting patients and nurses at their ease in her presence is not only characteristic of her, but of the other matrons in Malta.
St Paul's Hospital Camp
It is well that those at home should know something about the nurses to whose hands their sons are entrusted. This lady is also, of course Scottish, although born in Canada; but she can speak Gaelic. So wise in judgement and shrewd in her knowledge of human nature, and withal possessed of such a big heart that the needs of others seem to be her one thought. Such is this Miss M’Gregor, and such are some of those brave women who, in their self-sacrificing service, show to the world the true charm of noble womanhood. From such hands our laddies receive a mother’s care, as well as the skill of the latest scientific training.
I have experience a personal loss in the death of Lieutenant McGowan, of Grangemouth, who was stationed at St. George’s Hospital. Lieutenant McGowan was seized with fever, and his illness was short. It was my sad privilege to wait on him during those days, and witness as heroic a death as any on the battlefield. The same night I officiated at his funeral, which was one of the largest I have yet seen on the island, as he was laid to rest in peaceful Pieta with all military honours.
If you do not kill time, time will kill you. Health making is a complex art; it requires not merely the surgeon and his bottles, but stimulus for the mind and spirit.
The Guild of the United Free Church of Scotland responded to my request by sending out two thoroughly equipped Recreation Tents, well staffed by men experienced in such work. The great organisation the Y.M.C.A. was not idle in the matter and soon they had a dozen or more tents on the island with a staff of thirty workers. Mr. W.T. Wilson so ably laid the foundations of the successful work carried on by the Y.M.C.A. He quickly won the high esteem and confidence of all from The Governor to the Private, who found in him a true friend.
He was succeeded by Mr. T.B. Wheeler who quickly developed the work. The Governor gave the Y.M.C.A. a suite of rooms in the Palace Buildings for Head Quarters, and with the assistance of motorcars they soon had completed an organisation that left no camp uncared for.
Lord Methuen has shown himself a true believer in the power of music to soothe and charm. In this connection there is one name that will be remembered by the thousands whose days of suffering were enlivened by music and song, and that is Major Hasell. He was the man behind the scenes. You had only to give him the order at short notice for a ready-made concert party and the article was promptly supplied. Certainly he never failed. The Y.M.C.A. also did their best to supply this need, and their splendidly equipped concert party became very popular in all the camps.
One great centre of entertainment was the beautiful building erected at Pembroke by money sent from the colonies, and fittingly named The Australian Hall. Here the Red Cross carry on a Recreation Room for the wounded in the Pembroke District and on many nights the large hall is filled to overflowing with an audience of convalescents who listen with great appreciation to the entertainment provided for them.
Maltese ladies have been eager to help and many a private party has been given to Tommy which the world may not hear of, but which he will not forget. The services which Mrs. Bonavia has rendered have earned the gratitude of all, and the special Tea Room at Sliema, run by her and the ladies of the Red Cross has proved a most popular rendezvous for the convalescent soldier.
Malta insists upon doing a little of her own nursing, and right cleverly does she do it. She has a panorama of interesting views with which to soothe the eye. The man who is able to limp on his crutches as far the Porta Reale is soon made to forget his pains. Perhaps nowhere in such little space is there such variety of costume or colour. He is soon as amused as a child looking at some fairy scene. It is a study in lights and shadows for the sun is always blazing except when it is night. Here pass in review the dresses and clatter of all nations. Just now the prevailing colour is khaki, but there is always the background of black, for the faldetta is everywhere; and then there are the shovel-hatted priests who are not few, and the bearded Capuchins, and the sailor ashore for a holiday, and the white uniforms of his officers, with the scenic effect of palaces and balconies, all of which fascinate the onlooker on this real cinema of life.
Two striking features of the work in Malta are ‘harmony’ and ‘co-operation’. This has been true of every department, and particularly so of religious work. The Senior Chaplain of the Church of England Reverend M. Tobias, who has now gone to the Front, was a man of sound common sense that friction in co-operation with him was an impossibility. This was true also of the Reverend Peverley Dodd, the Wesleyan Senior Chaplain, whose aim in life seems to be to smooth the way for others. Reverend C. Harker, the Senior Roman Catholic Chaplain has also co-operated in a most brotherly fashion in common effort. Chaplains have always sought to assist one another by forwarding to the right quarter the names of any soldiers they came across who wished to see their own Chaplain.
August has been very different from July. The funerals have now mounted up to fifteen and twenty a day. One begins the day at the graveside and ends it there. Every morning as I drive out the one mile to peaceful Pieta Cemetery I feel the revolt of Nature at this haunting of Death. At six in the morning Malta is lovely. The sun has not yet got is deadly range and in the soft breeze one feels the wooing of life. Even the solemn cypress trees that keep sad vigil over the graves seem less sombre. For the moment one feels far removed from death, all round there is an awakening to life. Then from a distance on the morning air there breaks in with its dull discord a single beat of a drum, followed solemnly by another and then another. Death is not banished, or silent, but comes to mock the beauty of life. Slowly the cortege nears, men can set their watches by it now in Malta, as they hasten to their work. Not one coffin, but many are laid in the deep stone-lined graves, and the town, as it activities begin to stir, heard again the three solemn volleys and the haunting echoes of the Last Past as soldiers bid farewell to their fallen comrades. The officiating Chaplains part to meet again at the same place at sunset, for the same sad duties.
I had been spending four hours in Floriana Hospital and it was after seven o’clock and I was leaving a ward with the intention of going home when suddenly I heard a faint voice say ‘Oh Chaplain, speak to me’
I stopped and turned, and in the second bed saw a white boyish face. I went over and the lad put his hand out and grasped mine and held on. ‘I am not afraid’ he said ‘Only I would like you to speak to me about God and pray with me. I have to undergo an operation.’
Quietly in a few words I tried to picture to him the compassionate Christ and tell him of the door opened by the Cross. As I went on I became conscious that there were other listeners, and looking round saw standing behind me Colonel Symonds, the surgical expert with two surgeons and nurses. He had motioned to them not to interrupt. When he saw that I have noticed him he touched me on the sleeve and whispered ‘Go on, we will wait. It will be a very serious operation. One leg at least will have to come off. ‘ His day had no doubt been a busy one and the hour was late, yet he would not seek to shorten these last minutes of spiritual consolation. I prayed with the lad, and he held my hand all the time. Poor dear boy, what he needed that moment was a mother’s tender touch. He was about to sacrifice a limb and perhaps life for our sakes. and he so young and gentle.
On returning home four yellow envelopes lay on my table. I knew what these meant, for these are the August days when death is knocking constantly at the door. I knew from experience that a man was dying he must be seen at once. Perhaps he wished a will made out, a last message conveyed to loved ones.
‘Where do you come from ?’ I asked.
He mentioned a parish in Scotland which I knew. When I said so a glad light came into his eye, and a faint colour warmed the pallid cheeks.
‘D’ye ken the hoose on the hill a wee bittie aboune the kirk, that my father’s ?’
‘Yes, and I know this that he will be praying for you tonight’
‘An’ my mither tae-an-an-Mary. Dae ye ken her ? She’s no twalve yet, but she’s the cleverest girl i’ the parish.’
He was thinking of his sister of whom he was so fond.
I will give them all your love and tell them that you will be waiting for them - yonder. He was silent for a moment. He understood my meaning, but Scottish reticence about spiritual things sealed his lips.
‘Will you not be glad to see your Saviour face to face ?’
‘Do you know him ?’
Then the reticence gave way and the dying lad made his first confession.
‘He spoke to me the ither night. I was alane on guard i’ the trenches an’ He seemed a’ o’ a sudden to come that close, an’ His eyes were fu’ o’ tenderness
an’ He asked me if I loved Him’
‘And what did you say ?’
‘Just ‘Ay’ but I meant it sir’
I thought of Christ’s words ‘Let your conversation be yea yea’ and knew that the monosyllable was more than enough.
A large number of our lads from Greenock, Glasgow and the Clyde who had passed through our hands in the hospital wards were about to take farewell to us and go back to the fighting line, so we determined to given them one day which they might remember with pleasure among the hard ones that lay before them. My wife suggested a picnic. There are large numbers of Scotsmen recovering from the wounds of their first action, also we found that we could not limit our invitation but had to include all Scottish soldiers. Then a company of Scottish nurses arrived on their way to Serbia and we thought that it would be nice for them to carry away a pleasant memory of Malta. Thus our picnic grew and grew, on the eventful day it numbered 280.
Long before the hour of departure a large crowd had gathered at King Edward’s Avenue. There also stood the forty brakes and carozzin. Some of the guests were on crutches, but looking very happy; others had an arm in a sling. The majority were once more in full khaki which meant that they were ready to face the foe again. It took much arranging to get them all seated and then our long procession started off. We laboriously climbed the hill to Citta Vecchia, then at the other side of the hill after nine miles of a delightful drive Boschetto suddenly unfolded its charms beneath us.
The Governor, Lord Methuen and his daughter Seymour came to greet us. At last we were all seated at table. How many helpers have I been indebted. Mr. Chalmers of Messrs. Blackley, like his senior partner Mr. Morris, he has grudged no pains to facilitate our work for the wounded. On the occasion of the picnic he excelled himself. Under the shadow of the trees, he had screened off with Union Jacks long tables loaded with tempting eatables.
After our meal games followed and there was a general saunter round the place. All too quickly the shades of night began to fall, and we gathered once more in a large group and sang the Doxology. As I looked up and saw a star suddenly shine through the blue that was deepening into black and looked on that mass of upturned manly faces and caught the swell of their song as it blended into a mighty chorus ‘Praise God from Whom all blessings flow’ I felt within a surge of triumphant emotion.
The reflection of Christmas first crept over the wan faces of the sufferers as they watched the festoons grow. It has given our patients something else to look at than bare walls. In fact these can hardly be seen now, so covered are they with decorations, mottoes, festoons, crowns, bells and a hundred other old fancies have been worked out of the same material - ordinary tissue paper of every colour. The lettering of white wool was in some cases glued onto cardboard by jam instead of gum or by the remains of certain milk puddings, which some of the men said made excellent sticking paste.
Tea outside ! It sounds strange for Christmas. Yet on the balconies of most of the hospitals long tables were spread, fairy lights hanging from above cast their glow over plates filled with cakes. The best and most appreciated gift was the weather. The clear atmosphere; the bright sunshine that warmed but did not overheat. The weather had its own Christmas decorations. It reserved the best for the sunset hour, then nature began to hang up her fairy lights. What colouring there was in the sky !
Later on we returned to Valletta Hospital to be introduced to Father Christmas. He marched through the wards, and his violin solo took the audience in one of them by storm. His Scottish reel made the men without legs painfully realise their loss. I do not think that even the United Free Church people of Banchory would have recognised their minister. The Reverend William Cowan was putting his talents to splendid service for the welfare of the wounded and in his own parish of hospitals has won the hearts of the men under his charge.
But the season did not pass without a reminder that the angels’ song was falling on deafened ears. Into our service on the Sunday night walked twenty Cingalese. Their ship had just been submarined by the enemy. Without warning their ship, the Ville de la Ciotat, was struck as they were sitting at a meal. At 15 knots an hour she plunged into her watery grave, and in those minutes all rushed on deck. One of the lifeboats filled with women and children capsized and the occupants were thrown into the water and drowned. In high praise they referred to the captain of a British ship which came to their rescue and while the wake of the submarine was still plainly visible, and on this boat they were brought to Malta. After a meal these twenty Cingalise sought out the Presbyterian Church and were in time to join in our evening service. They were sad at heart for they had lost nearly half their comrades.
Six months ago our Scottish Hall was opened in Valletta and everyday has been a Christmas there as far as gifts are concerned. A table has been spread daily for the hungry boys, who, having found their limbs again have also suddenly re-discovered their appetites. They come into this little hall from the ends of the earth. The Australian with his easy stride; the New Zealander, who is a fine compromise between the Scotch and colonial character; the Newfoundlander thick-set and square shouldered; the Irishman, the English, the Welsh and our own laddies, and not least the dark skinned sons of India who drink their tea, and march to the kitchen and salaam to the ladies by way of thanks. From 400 to 500 a day they have come and Scotland bids them welcome. A cup of tea is not much in itself, but an essay could be written on all that is inside and around it, and so it is always Christmas Day in this little hall.
The celebration of New Year’s Day was different. It was more purely Scottish. For night we had arranged a big social for the St. Andrew’s Unit of the R.A.M.C. The hall was packed and we had a real Scottish soiree. Our youngest and most versatile Chaplain Reverend Charles McEchern of Tighnabruaich was in his happiest mood, and with song and story he helped to make the evening a merry one. Staff Sergeant Lee taught us all in five minutes how to imitate the bagpipes; and I am quite sure even a hundred pipers an’ a’ could never give such a startling blast or weird drone as lips and lungs produced that night. Too quickly the hours sped, and the strains of Auld Lang Syne fell on the midnight air, and a little bit of Scotland resolved itself into Malta once again.
My report is not without its sad note. Private Gordon Smith (2947), died of his wounds at St. Elmo Hospital on Saturday, a few hours after being admitted. His home address was 14 Serpentine Walk, Greenock. The first announcement I got of his arrival was the news of his death. He had been badly wounded. His funeral took place on Sunday afternoon. I closed the Bible Class half an hour sooner and drove to Pieta Cemetery in good time. As I stood robed at the gate my thoughts were in Greenock. Then from Porte des Bombes there broke on the quietness of the Sunday afternoon the beat of a drum, slow, mournful; and soon I could see coming down the tree-shaded street the gun carriage with its burden. As the procession turned the corner and moved to the gate, and the soldiers took their stand with rifles reversed, I stepped forward to meet my fellow townsman. Silently his comrades in arms bore him to his last resting place. So we left this heroic son of Greenock with the echo of the parting volleys and the Last Post in our ears, and he left with us a bequest, the greatest of all heritages the example of noble self-sacrifice.
What about the ultimate results of all the war work in Malta ? The fact that nearly one hundred thousand youths at the most impressionable period in their lives, with spiritual instinct quickened by the perils of the battlefield, have had time for meditation forced upon them, has not been lost sight of by those whose special care is the development of the Christian character.
The eyewitness was the Reverend Albert G. Mackinnon, Senior Presbyterian Chaplain to the Forces.
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