Red letter day. Shells bursting all round, we are off Gaba Tepe
[Sister Ella Tucker, AANS, Hospital Ship Gascon, off Gallipoli, 25 April 1915, in Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 44]
For Australians, the image usually associated with 25 April, 1915 is that of Australian soldiers charging bravely up the steep and barren slopes of Gallipoli. Less appreciated is the picture of an Australian nurse on that same day attending to hundreds of battered and bleeding men on the decks and in the confined wards of a hospital ship. Wounded men were ferried out to the Gascon lying off Anzac Cove. Among the nurses, doctors and orderlies who attended them there, was Sister Ella Tucker, AANNS:
The wounded from the landing commenced to come on board at 9 am and poured into the ship’s wards from barges and boats. The majority still had on their field dressing and a number of these were soaked through. Two orderlies cut off the patient’s clothes and I started immediately with dressings. There were 76 patients in my ward and I did not finish until 2 am.
[Ella Tucker, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.30]
By the evening of 25 April, 557 wounded had been taken on board the Gascon. Ella Tucker stayed with the ship for the next nine months as it ferried over 8000 wounded and sick soldiers between the Gallipoli Peninsula and the hospitals on Imbros, Lemnos, Salonika, Alexandria, Malta and in England. An entry in her diary for a voyage in May reflects the stressed and, at times, almost surreal nature of her work:
Every night there are two or three deaths, sometimes five or six; its just awful flying from one ward into another … each night is a nightmare, the patients’ faces all look so pale with the flickering ship’s lights.
[Ella Tucker, in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.44]
On the hospital ships off Gallipoli, Australian nurses came face to face for the first time with the reality of the wounded. It made some of them confront the limitations of their nursing skills and the notion of the glory of war. Working on the hospital ship Sicilia Sister Lydia King confided to her diary:
I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had two wards downstairs, each over 100 patients and then I had small wards upstairs — altogether about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful. One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing.
[Lydia King, in Goodman, Our War Nurses, p.39]
Serving on a hospital ship was the closest the Australian nurses came to the fighting during the Gallipoli campaign. Even in the comparative safety of such ships, they were sometimes in danger. On 11 August 1915, Sister Daisy Richmond was nearly killed:
We return to Imbros to discharge our light cases, once more return to be refilled … We are well under fire many bullets coming on the decks. I was speaking to one boy, moved away to another patient when a bullet hit him and lodged in his thigh. It just missed.
[Daisy Richmond, in Cheryl Mongan and Richard Reid, We have not forgotten, p.152]
The Gallipoli hospital ships deposited their cargoes of misery at general hospitals on the nearby Greek islands of Imbros and Lemnos, or at Alexandria, 1050 km away in Egypt. Among the tent cities on Lemnos was No 3 Australian General Hospital (AGH) where Matron Grace Wilson and her staff of 96 AANS nurses tended Australian and Allied wounded.
On Lemnos, Matron Wilson and her nurses experienced the inefficiency of military administration in relation to the hospital. In her diary she described the steady flow of new patients during the August 1915 offensive on Gallipoli and the effect that lack of proper equipment and supplies had on the care of the wounded:
9 August — Found 150 patients lying on the ground — no equipment whatever … had no water to drink or wash.
10 August — >Still no water … convoy arrived at night and used up all our private things, soap etc, tore up clothes [for bandages].
11 August — Convoy arrived — about 400 — no equipment whatever … Just laid the men on the ground and gave them a drink. Very many badly shattered, nearly all stretcher cases … Tents were erected over them as quickly as possible … All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds … A good many died … It is just too awful — one could never describe the scenes — could only wish all I knew to be killed outright.
[Grace Wilson, in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.46]
For the nurses, life on Lemnos was spartan. Louise Young wrote of the difficulties they experienced on the island:
The travelling kitchens would burn on windy days, and people got dysentery from the Greek bread … we did not even have a bath tent as water was so short, and as well the centipedes were very bad! Our hair used to be full of burrs, and in the end many girls cut their hair short. It saved a lot of trouble.
[Louise Young in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 8]
When winter with its bitter winds arrived the exposed position of No 3 AGH added to the discomfort. On 21 October five tents were blown down — four nurses’ tents and one ward tent. Sister Louise Young remembered the weeks around Christmas 1915 when the winds seemed to howl continually across Lemnos:
Hardly a night or day did not pass that a tent did not collapse altogether … I don’t think I shall ever get over my dread of wind again, night after night, every bit of canvas creaking, shaking, straining and your mind always wondering which would collapse next.
[Louise Young in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 48]
When Christmas came the nurses did their best to make the atmosphere in the drab hospital tents as festive as possible for their sick and wounded charges. Sister Evelyn Davies has left us a picture of her first Christmas away from home on Lemnos:
Christmas time on the island was happy. The boys hung up their socks, and I had to sneak round at 3 am and fill them with toys and sweets. Two men saw me and said Father Christmas had a white cap and gown on. There was great excitement in the morning.
[Evelyn Davies, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.48]
However they might have roughed it on Lemnos, one nurse, Nellie Pike, was grateful for the opportunity to use her skills in a forward zone:
We were all glad to be taking part in the great adventure. They were grim and tragic, but somehow inspiring days.
[Nellie Pike, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.42]