“It is like fireworks from here. But when we get the wounded it is heart-breaking.”

A number of letters from Sister Emily Taylor to her family in West Maitland were passed on to the Maitland Mercury for publication.   Perhaps the most memorable part of her war service were the weeks she spent on hospital ships picking up the wounded from the August offensive on the Gallipoli peninsula. 

Note:  It is important to remember that letters home were censored (see Emily’s comment about having to be guarded in what she writes) and that newspapers may have been selective in which parts of a letter they published.

H M Hospital Ship Dunluce Castle, in Mudros Bay Lemnos,[i] 6 August 1915

We arrived safely in the bay in perfect weather.  It was the most wonderful sight I have ever seen.  We have been called Kitchener’s tourists, and certainly we have had a wonderful trip round.  Here is just like a beautiful day in Sydney Harbour, only the shores are not as pretty.  It is warm in the sun, but a much better climate than Alexandria.[ii]  The shore looks hilly.  There are only Greeks living in tiny villages on the island.  There are no buildings, so we will be camped on the side of a hill, and fix up simply everything.  I wish I could describe all that is in the bay, but as it is a naval base I cannot do so.  I have seen warships and destroyers and submarines, hospital ships and transports of all descriptions.  We have been doing a little helping on the ships to prepare for the wounded.  The colonel and Sir Alexander McCormack came on the ship yesterday, and some of the boys.  They all looked well, but terribly burned.  They are sleeping on the ground under the skies, but won’t let us do that.  We are only about three days[iii] run from the firing line, and that is why we are here; we can save our boys the journey to Alexandria.  …

7 August at Gallipoli

Just as I had finished your letter yesterday the order came for us to disembark at once, because the hospital ship was ordered to sail for the wounded at 6 p.m.  Then we were just on the Simla, where we were to remain, when six of us were ordered off to a French hospital ship to go also to the front for the wounded.  We were busy late last night getting our dressings ready, and were up at 5 o’clock this morning and have been busy padding splints and getting everything ready for over 300 wounded.  It is now 11 o’clock, but we cannot get near till the bombardment ceases, for our wounded.  The Turks are trying to shell our ship from the shore, but can’t get the range.  Our ship quivers with the vibration of the air.  We are in the midst of the battleships – more than I can count – and are watching the bombardment.  The ships are firing incessantly; it is like the continual boom of thunder.  We can see it all – the dense volumes of smoke on the hill which is being bombarded and the earth being thrown up.  Also saw a Turkish shell burst just on the shore.  A shell came close to our ship this morning, falling into the water a few yards off.  At first I was terrified by the scene, but am not now.  Aeroplanes and balloons are all very busy.  We are waiting patiently for our wounded.  I have charge of 60 beds, and there is a doctor for each ward and orderlies.

17 August 17

I am now working hard on this French hospital ship.  I have been on it since August 6.  We made two trips to Cape Helles,[iv] and returned to Imbros,[v] where we invalided our wounded, who were packed in every available space.  We had not even beds for half of them, but, of course, we do not keep them on board.  The idea is to get them off the beaches, where they lie waiting in the hot sun, as soon as possible.  We are now on our third trip to Cape Helles.  We have had 200 wounded in the wards for four days.  Another 300 came on board the fourth day, and then we sailed for Mudros Bay.  We have been at Imbros, where we arrived from Mudros Bay, all night, and now (8 a.m.) are on our way to Anzac.  As it is, some of them have to wait 48 hours and longer in a dying condition before they can be got off.  It seems to me Australia might even send her own hospital ships and plenty more nurses and doctors.  There are not nearly enough to my idea, and that is the most distressing feature of all.  Certainly we sometimes have to wait in order to be safe.  There are four doctors on the boat, besides the O.C., six nurses, and 30 orderlies, so you can imagine how we work, though we rest on the return trip as soon as we finish cleaning, and get things ready for next trip.  There are four wards, also cabins for officers, and a large casualty room.  The wounded get plenty of nourishment.  We make the ideal milk[vi] and beef tea from meat extracts; then we have soft drinks, brandy and champagne on board.  Those who can eat bread and butter have it in any quantity.  There are also jellies and soft milk foods, and good dinners and chickens are provided.  We seem to be feeding them all day.

19 August   [Written from the French hospital ship Formosa, off Gaba Tepe[vii]] We can see the white crosses marking the graves of our brave boys.  We have been waiting here three days, but the engagement has not eventuated.  Firing from the battleships on to the Turkish trenches goes on day and night.  The Turks are also shelling, and we can see the shells bursting on the beach and among the trenches, but our men can’t be getting much damage just now.  Last night we saw two of our batteries searching a ravine, whence the Turks were firing, and today the enemy’s guns are all apparently silenced.   One morning our deck was strewn with bullets that had fallen during the night.  We can see trenches and dugouts and men occasionally.  Yesterday the pier was being shelled unmercifully by the Turks.  Our soldiers tell me that altogether 700 men have been killed there, but no damage was done yesterday apparently, as the shells fell into the water.  We have been in this ship two weeks, and have been three times laden with wounded from Cape Helles.  Sometimes we have to wait till night for the wounded, as the Turks are not particular about firing on them.  If they were not rescued they would perish on the beach where they lie waiting to be succoured.  We expect to remain at the work till all is over on the peninsula, and them return to Lemnos to our No 3 Australian General Hospital.   As I write the guns are roaring and the rifles cracking in thousands, and yet it is not a big engagement.  It is like fireworks from here. But when we get the wounded it is heart-breaking.   …

[written 25 August from No 3 AGH Lemnos.] We returned Sunday August 22nd from the Peninsula.  It is fearfully hot in the sun here, and there are millions of flies and plenty of dust.  Nothing nice about it.  I can’t tell you more yet awhile, though I would dearly love to.[viii]  Imagine living in tents.  We are experiencing a trying time, but will battle through.

Source:  Maitland Mercury, 8 October 1915

[i] Lemnos – a large Greek island approximately 95 kms as the crow flies from Anzac Cove and 80kms from Cape Helles further south on the Gallipoli peninsula.  Mudros is the island’s deep water port.  Lemnos was a base for the Gallipoli campaign, housing rest camps, hospitals and other military infrastucture.

[ii] Alexandria – Egyptian city on the Mediterranean coast.

[iii] Sister Taylor had been misinformed.  She would eventually discover that Gallipoli was hours rather than days away.

[iv] Cape Helles is near the south western tip of the Gallipoli pensinsula.  It was an area of British and French operations.

[v] Imbros – Greek island between Lemnos and Gallipoli, the location of campaign headquarters

[vi] Ideal Milk – a brand of canned evaporated milk

[vii] Gaba Tepe – headland to the south of Anzac Cove

[viii] Letters from military personnel were censored.

© Christine Bramble 2013

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