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Saving Anzacs – the heroic role of medics at Gallipoli

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler and New Zealand Medical Association President Dr Mark Peterson attended a special ceremony at Canakkale in Turkey on 24 April as guests of the Turkish Medical Association to pay tribute to the doctors and other health workers who risked death and serious injury to care for the injured and dying from all sides of the Gallipoli landing 100 years ago.

Below are extracts from the speech they jointly delivered.

“Each year on Anzac Day, New Zealanders and Australians mark the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915. On that day, thousands of young men, far from their homes, stormed the beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

For eight long months, New Zealand and Australian troops, alongside those from Great Britain and Ireland, France, India, and Newfoundland battled harsh conditions and the Ottoman forces desperately fighting to protect their homeland.

The landings occurred in the wrong locations. Instead of gentle slopes, there were steep cliffs and the ravines that would later bear the names of Australians and New Zealanders.

Casualties were heavy right from the start. In the first four days of the campaign 3300 wounded passed through the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing station. By the time the campaign ended, more than 130,000 men had died. Of the 14,000 New Zealanders who fought on the Gallipoli peninsula, 5212 were injured and 2779 were killed over a period of 240 days. Australian fatalities totalled 8709 and more than 19,000 were injured.

The Medical Corps faced huge difficulties and medical arrangements came in for much criticism.

A key difficulty was the lack of communication between the different elements of the medical service. Before the landings started, a draft plan to deal with casualties had been worked out. Tent subdivisions were to be set up on the beach. A medical officer was to triage the wounded, with the seriously wounded to be evacuated to vessels offshore—but only once all the troops had been landed—and the slightly wounded to ambulances. The medical officer would be notified when the ships were full and would move the wounded onto the next vessel.

The reality was very different. The final draft of the medical arrangements had not been received by the Australian and NZ divisions. Communication was poor.

Radio transmissions were not permitted. A signal telling the assistant director of medical services of the ships available to him took two days to cross one kilometre of water.

With no way of contacting the ships, requests for more vessels for the wounded were not received. No triage took place on shore…the wounded were mixed up and were brought out to troopships that were still laden with troops.

All the ships were filled with wounded by the end of the first night.

Those on shore faced bitter cold and intense sniper fire. Treatment for the wounded was basic. Morphia was given by mouth; splints were improvised with rifles and bayonets.

Stretcher bearers struggled up and down narrow tracks, most having removed their white markers to avoid being shot.

For those wounded on Gallipoli, the wait for treatment and evacuation was often long and agonising. Poor planning and the sheer scale of casualties overwhelmed the available medical resources, and poor coordination and mismanagement meant that many serious cases were left on the beach too long; once on board they found appalling conditions.

There were no beds. Some were still on the stretchers on which they had been carried down from the hills. The few Red Cross orderlies were terribly overworked. For 12 hours on end an orderly would be alone with 60 desperately wounded men in a hold dimly lit by one arc lamp. None of them had been washed and many were still in their torn and blood-stained uniforms. There were bandages that had not been touched for two or three days. Most of them were in great pain, and all were patched with thirst.

Writing from the Dardanelles, a sergeant attached to the Medical Corps sent back graphic details about the treatment of Australian wounded:

“After the first fighting a ship came alongside, and at midnight the first batch of wounded were brought on board. Some had their legs off, others lad no arms or hands, some were without fingers or toes. A lot of the poor fellows had terrible head-wounds. Some had their ears blown off, and others their eyes shot out. Nearly all had to be operated on, and this was done by lamp light.”

The role of the ambulance men and stretcher bearers was crucial during the campaign. Writing for the Colonist magazine in 1915, a correspondent described the chaos they faced and the price they paid:

“Too high an eulogium cannot be pronounced on the ambulance department. Unable to take cover, and continually working in fire-swept zones, their casualties have been abnormally high. Dressing station staff are continually being renewed.”

Although acknowledging the bravery of those who cared for the wounded, other contemporary accounts strongly criticised the lack of planning that had gone into the medical arrangements:

“The point of the matter is that there was totally inadequate medical and nursing attention on several boats. How this came about it is hard to explain because several army corps proclamations warned the men to expect heavy casualties, so the slaughter on April 25th was not unexpected.

“Of course, many of the transports went back laden with wounded, but these had in many cases just discharged troops a few hours before, and were quite unsuitable for the nature of work they were called upon to perform.”

Along with the inherent dangers of war, the threat of illness was never far off. Bodies piled up around the encampments attracted flies, and the stench was sickening.

Severe diarrhoea caused by amoebic dysentery and typhoid fever badly affected all those on shore. The conditions resulted in swarms of disease carrying flies.

This could prove as much of a challenge as the enemy. The role of the flies was recognised and a stricter public health regimen came to exist. Waste was disposed of by burning, and care was taken not to leave rations that would attract flies.

Due to these measures deaths due to communicable disease was lower for the AIF in 1915, with around 600 deaths, compared with the South African Wars for the British, where two soldiers died of communicable disease for every soldier lost in battle.

Finally, perhaps the best way to understand what it was like for those who were here at that time is to hear it in their own words. The following extracts are taken from correspondence to the Editor of the New Zealand Medical Journal from a medical officer:—

Gallipoli, 18th June, 1915.

“…For the last two months we have had a hell of a time. We have had to be within half a mile of the firing line the whole time, and for the last two months we have done all our work under continuous fire.

Our operating tent is a most amusing sight; it is more like a sieve than a tent, and yesterday I had my sterilising orderly knocked over by a bullet while at work. I lost five killed and 15 wounded of my own men. I have been very lucky myself, and though I have been hit twice—once by shrapnel and once by the fuse of a shell—I have only been bruised.

I am afraid the casualty list will be a big shock in New Zealand. We are now acting as a clearing station on the beach, where we do all necessary operations. We have done scores of trephinings and laparotomies with suturing and resections of gut. No abdominal wounds survive if not operated on. There are always multiple perforations, and very often the gut is torn completely across”.

This was the first time that both Australia and New Zealand had fought under their own flags. The ANZACs were conscious of this.

When the ANZACs set sail from Albany in Western Australia, they were expecting to go to Europe. The ANZAC troops diverted to Egypt where they continued training. They did not come to fight the Turk and had no idea that they would do so when they enlisted. Turkey had decided to align with Germany quite late and did so for self-preservation as much as anything else.

So we had ANZACs and Turks fighting not because of their antipathy between our nations but rather we had two groups of nations fighting on behalf of other nations. A mystery of human behaviour – but perhaps also another reason for empathy and respect between soldiers in the field.

For Australia and New Zealand, there was a realisation of their unique identities. They were egalitarian. The British class system was an enigma to them. They did not bow to rank but they followed orders.

Anzac Day grew out of this pride. First observed on 25 April 1916, the date of the landing has now become a crucial part of the fabric of national life – a time for remembering not only those who died at Gallipoli, but all who have served their country in times of war and peace.

We also remember the doctors and health care workers that served in war – many of whom paid the ultimate price. We remember their sacrifice and thank them for it. However, the best way that we honour their memory is to advocate for peace.

Lest we forget.”