The Malta Independent 24 April 2019, Wednesday

Malta And the Anzacs

Malta Independent Sunday, 8 May 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

On 25 April 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) started their nine-month campaign to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula. This campaign is often considered to be the birth of national consciousness in both countries and evolved in four stages. The first consisted of submarine incursions into the heavily mined Sea of Marmara at the entrance to the Black Sea. The second was the naval bombardment of the fortifications at the narrow entrance to the Sea of Marmara. The third was the landing of troops and land warfare, and the fourth evacuation and recovery. The Maltese were active in each of these stages.

When Turkey entered the war, British and French warships and submarines blockaded the Straits of the Dardanelles to prevent Turkish and German ships from entering the Mediterranean from there. When it became evident that a land invasion would be necessary, submarines were expected to take on the more hazardous role of travelling through the mined straits into the Sea of Marmara so as to disrupt shipping. The Gallipoli fronts were in isolated positions that were served by poor roads and no railway. Turkish provisions, reinforcements, food and supplies had to be brought mainly by sea from Constantinople and if submarines could threaten the lines of communication the Turkish positions on the peninsula could become critical.

The first submarine to break through was the Australian AE2 commanded by Lt Commander Stokes. He was soon joined by two British submarines. After causing much damage, including the sinking of a transport carrying 6,000 soldiers and a battery of field guns bound for Gallipoli, the two British submarines successfully returned to the Mediterranean, with both commanders (Boyle and Nesmith) receiving the Victoria Cross. But the Australian vessel was sunk and its crew made prisoners of war. The tremendous difficulties of operating in a small area that was heavily mined and patrol resulted in all but six of the 14 British, French and Australian submarines being sunk, destroyed or captured resulting in the end of this phase of warfare.

The Maltese newspapers of the day wrote freely of the exploits of these submarines and proudly noted that their crews included Maltese sailors. Malta was the base for the Mediterranean based submarines, and at a time when these were still primitive and experimental, that base was kept busy carrying out repairs and remedying defects. The RN submarines frequently encountered faults during their patrols and returned to Malta for repairs before resuming operations in the Dardanelles.

On 18 March, 18 British and French battleships, supported by many other vessels, attempted to silence the forts at the Narrows. It proved a costly exercise. In a short period of time, three of the battleships were sunk and three others put out of action as the result of mines, torpedoes and shelling. The ships retreated to open waters where they continued their blockade. The loss of ships involved significant loss of life. One ship, the French Bouvel hit a mine and sank in under three minutes. Only 35 of its 639 crew survived.

Both the British and French fleets were based in Malta. Though the British had a long time presence there, ironically after kicking the French out of Malta, the French fleet arrived in August 1914. Its stay was sufficiently long for many of the wives and families of officers to take up lodgings in Malta. In a country whose major industry was ship repair, the Maltese were intimately caught up with the preparation and aftermath of the naval battles. The level of shipyard activity at the time is indicated by the six-fold increase in employment as well as the establishment of ship repair facilities at Lemnos by the Maltese. In addition to repairing ships, a large number of Maltese were sailors on both British and French ships. Reports of ship losses invariably included the names of Maltese sailors who were killed because, as the Daily Maltese Chronicle reported, “There is, indeed, hardly a British ship of war that does not comprise some Maltese among its gallant crew.”

The subsequent sinking of HMS Whithead, for example, resulted in the loss of 72 Maltese lives. Of the over 600 Maltese killed, most were killed at sea.

The heavy losses prompted the Allies to cease any further attempts to take the straits by naval power alone leading to the third phase. WWI was marked by large forces engaged in static trench warfare that sustained many casualties. Gallipoli was no exception. About 480,000 allied troops took part in the campaign. They endured nearly 290,000 casualties including 59,000 dead. Turkish casualties are estimated at 250,000 with 65,000 deaths.

The Anzacs suffered 2,000 killed on the first day. One of the first to be killed was Private Charles Bonavista, a Maltese who joined the 11th Battalion in Perth. At least six other Maltese were killed in action serving with the Australians and a much higher number serving with British contingents.

The number of Maltese serving with the Australian is unknown. Mizzi documents another 22 who served with the Anzacs but the exact number is not known because not all records have been preserved, because of the anglicising of Maltese names, and because some served under assumed names. The British War Office did not allow the Maltese to raise their own battalion so they had no choice but to serve in other battalions. Piecing together all the information is difficult, but it has been established that 85 Maltese officers served in various fields with six receiving distinctions for bravery at Gallipoli. Some 650 Maltese served with the British navy and over 300 with Canadian and Australian Army contingents. In January 1915, 550 men of the King’s Own Malta Royal Militia volunteered for active duty in Cyprus, freeing the troops stationed there to join the Dardanelles campaign. The overall contribution of the Maltese can be gauged by the fact that nearly 70 per cent of males who were of military age were directly involved in the war.

A little known fact about the Gallipoli campaign is the Maltese Labour Corps. This consisted of 1,000 workers under the direction of Maltese officers who unloaded ships and performed other activities at Anzac Cove. Most of the provisions for the 24,000 men in Anzac Cover came from Malta, including the water that was towed in water barges. Men of the Maltese Labour Corps worked in the leeway of a hill with enemy fire either landing short or sailing overhead into the sea. Remarkably, only one was killed and two slightly wounded. Two of the Officers later served as Maltese Commissioners to Australia.

Another little known fact is that a number of Turkish prisoners were kept in Maltese prison of war camps whose most famous occupants were the crew of the German raider Emden which was sunk by HMAS Sydney at North Keeling Island.

Malta was also an important staging post for those making final preparations for Gallipoli. In 1915 a Maori contingent spent several weeks in training there. In his book, The Maoris at War, James Cowan writes: “At this time Malta was an immensely important and busy place.” He adds that at one time there were 200 different units from New Zealand, Bermuda, Canada, Australia, France, Italy, Greece, Serbia, East Africa, Somali, India, China, and of course, Britain. “The arrival of survivors of submarined transports,” he writes, “enlarged the variety and excitement of the camps.” Regretfully, five of the Maoris who returned to Malta to convalesce died of their wounds.

Malta’s most acknowledge role in the campaign was that of the “Nurse of the Mediterranean”, thanks largely to Rev. Albert Mackinnon who, as Senior Presbyterian Chaplain to Malta, wrote a book by that name.

Malta was declared a military hospital base in early 1915 and within a short time was in a position to cater for 20,000 convalescents. A large number of public buildings, including schools, were converted to hospital use. In all, 27 hospitals were established. The convalescent camp at Ghajn Tuffieha, which had over 4,000 beds, was one of two tent cities catering for the wounded.

The first 600 wounded arrived in May 1915 and by March of the following year the Governor estimated that over 60,000 wounded had been cared for. Mackinnon wrote: “They come in an endless procession, halt maybe for a few days or weeks, and then pass out. Some go to join colours, and step our briskly to the sound of drums; some with a smile on their wan faces go home; others are carried out to their long home.” It is estimated that the hospitals and convalescent depots dealt with over 135,000 sick and wounded, primarily from the campaigns in Gallipoli and Salonika. This included 20,000 Anzacs.

Though Malta was an ideal hospital location in many respects – sunny, friendly and relaxed with good medical facilities − a reading of the Colonial Reports of the day suggest a number of complications. These reports imply that a number of virulent diseases resulted in civilian deaths, as did leprosy.

In his account, Mackinnon noted that the mosquito could be as deadly as the Turkish bullet. A reading of the cause of death of Anzac soldiers interred in Malta supports this account. While “died from wounds” is a common enough entry, other causes include malaria, dysentery, enteric fever, pneumonia, typhoid, pleurisy and the imprecise “from sickness”.

At the height of the hospitalisation period, the records show that up to 20 soldiers who served in Gallipoli were being buried each day. Malta is a limestone outcrop in the Mediterranean and when speaking of ‘burying’ one is referring to the digging of communal graves through this limestone.

While the vast majority of Anzacs transported to Malta did recover and returned to Australia or to the European Front, for others Malta was their final resting home. The number of Australian deaths would have undoubtedly been higher but for the work of one Maltese doctor who served with the Anzacs. Dr Mattei had migrated to Western Australia in the 1890s. He served with the Western Australian contingent in the Boer War as well as with the Anzac. He landed in Gallipoli with one of the first waves and immediately established a sanitation station at Anzac Cove. He was rapidly promoted to major and then lieutenant colonel and was mentioned in despatches. His recommendation notes that the “low percentage of sickness among the troops of this Division is largely attributable to his work”. In the first four months of the campaign, the dressing station at Anzac Cove treated over 15,000 wounded.

On 15 April 1916 the first Anzac Day was commemorated in Pieta Cemetery, possibly the first Anzac ceremony in the world. At that time there were 107 Anzacs laid to rest in the cemetery. The number had increased to 204 Australians and 72 New Zealanders by the end of the campaign. It increased further as the result of WWII and today about 220 Australians are buried on the island. To date, there is no memorial to these Australians on the island. A committee is currently trying to rectify this situation and I commend its efforts for your consideration.

Professor David Plowman was born in Malta

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