The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

Malta in WW1: The ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’ in the eyes of the ANZACs

Albert Galea Sunday, 11 November 2018, 08:30 Last update: about 5 years ago

Malta's involvement in World War II is well known and well documented; but less so is the scale of the island's involvement in the previous great conflict of the 20th century; World War I. With the centenary of the Armistice which ended the Great War being celebrated today, there is even more reason to look into Malta's role as the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean' during the first major conflict of the 20th century.

Malta, being a British colony at the time, was naturally not a neutral in the conflict that began in the summer of 1914. Fighting initially was reserved to either the Western Front in France, or the Eastern Front between Russia and Prussia, and as a result, Malta's part in the war was minimal.

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It was only when 1915 dawned that this began to change. Leaders started to realise that the war would not be an open and shut case, as the fighting spread further afield. Turkey had entered the war on the side of the Germans, and had closed the Dardanelles Strait to shipping - which cut Russian access to the Mediterranean. As a result, British and French armies joined force, and a naval campaign which started in February 1915 was followed two months later by amphibious landings at Gallipoli.

Despite an army of almost half a million soldiers, the invasion was a disaster, with the campaign taking just over 10 months and culminated in a total Allied retreat. Tens of thousands were wounded throughout the campaign, and it was because of these wounded that Malta gained the badge of being the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean' during the Great War. 

Since the island was so far off from the battlefront, it was the perfect medical recovery outpost. The Gallipoli campaign, as well as the Salonika one meant that 136,121 wounded or sick soldiers were treated in Malta. An average of 2,000 wounded soldiers started arriving in Malta from the front every week, while the record for the most patients treated in one day stands at an astonishing 20,994. Malta had, at its peak, 27 hospitals with 334 medical officers, 913 nurses, and 25,000 beds to provide optimum care to those arriving from the front.

A large number of those who were treated in Malta were members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - the ANZACs. Unearthed from the newspapers of 100 or so years ago, are letters that soldiers sent home to Australia and New Zealand which help shed new light on the type of service and hospitality these wounded fighters received upon arriving at the Mediterranean island.

There is general praise for the Maltese regarding their hospitality in these letters. Private O. Waller provided one of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of the reception received upon arrival in Malta, writing: "I think it my duty to let Yorketown people know how well we were treated, when we landed in Malta. Ladies were waiting at the landing stage and gave us drinks, cigarettes, matches, biscuits, chocolates, grapes, etc. We also get the advantage of asking in the Daily Malta Chronicle for anything we want in the form of musical instruments - the people quickly respond to our requests. On certain days ladies visit the wards, bring papers of every description and other comforts too numerous to mention. The nurses are a very nice obliging lot they cannot do enough for us."

Private Sidney Scowcroft wrote in similarly glowing terms, praising both the reception that he had received as well as the quality of the medical treatment: "Once on the landing stage we were fairly rushed by both old ladies and young girls, who were anxious to do us a good turn. They distributed amongst us chocolates, biscuits, cigarettes, matches, soft drinks, anything in fact that helps to comfort the wounded. We were then met by very obliging R.A.M.C. men, who took us to a bath, there to make ourselves fit and proper persons to be received by our English nurses at our various wards. The hospital we are in was once an English barracks, but since the outbreak of war, it has been thoroughly renovated, and now it is one of the most up-to-date hospitals here."

Scowcroft also seems to have had the opportunity to see some of Malta's sites, saying that he and some fellow Australians toured St Agatha's Catacombs and "the Roman Catholic Church" in the vicinity, which could well be St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina, and marvelled at the beauty and intricacy of the buildings.

The Australian soldier curiously also comments on the Maltese ladies, saying that "they are fairly good-looking; in fact some of them are beautiful, and are no darker, if as dark, as some Australian girls I know". The focus on skin colour in Scowcroft's comment is notable, and it represents a much wider phenomenon which was especially present in Australia surrounding racial identity. At the time, many Australian figures were questioning and indeed differentiating immigrants based on their skin colour.

Private Norman Ranson, who was in Malta over Christmas in 1915, detailed the festivities in a letter to his mother, which was later published in the Examiner, saying that he had received a parcel from Australia with some items, and a lavish dinner had been provided with Maltese bands providing the entertainment.

Above Lance Corporal Percy Thompson Fricker: 6th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force.  Died 16 November 1915 in Malta from wounds received at Gallipoli

The same Christmas is described in further detail by Private R.W. Glasham in the Observer. Writing to his loved ones, he says "if I couldn't spend any Christmas Day with you at home. I would be perfectly content to spend it in St Andrew's, Malta", before describing the festivities, saying that all the wards had been decorated. All those who were fit had a Christmas dinner made up of "beautiful turkey with vegetables, plum pudding, preserved peaches with jelly and custard, and the choice of ale, stout, or dry ginger beer, to drink". Glasham said that the soldiers weren't lacking in presents either - he calculates that he must have received 175 cigarettes, something which he found rather amusing since he didn't actually smoke.

Other soldiers such as J.J. Doyle, who served in the Australian Army Medical Corps, expressed sentiments about the island through different means such as poetry, with Doyle sending the following poem to the Western Star on the eve of his departure back to active service. Published on 15 December 1915, the poem is reproduced below.

To-night, we leave thee little isle,

To-night we go from thee,

Back to our comrades, away, to the front,

With happy hearts and free.

To us how kind you people were!

Though Strangers here we came,

Australian, British, everyone

To you, t'was all the same.

E'en when we landed, we were met

By ladies fair, not few

Who loaded us with luxuries,

And more they could not do.

Yet better still, the smile that cheers

Was mixed with all, -t'was Heaven.

To us poor Soldiers wounded then,

For the Cross against the Crescent.

And now "God Speed" us, off we go,

By the blessed morning's light

But remember us, aye pray for us,

Adieu kind friends, Good night.

The quality of Malta's medical facilities was also commended. Sergeant Archer Smith, who was operated in Malta after a high explosive shell hit him on the side of the head and drove his skull in, rested on his brain, and left him unconscious for 12 hours, wrote to his aunt that him and his fellow soldiers were being well treated and kept in a "first class manner".

Private F.E. Smith, who formed part of the St. George District Band, wrote from Cottonera Hospital and explained his preference of Malta over Egypt, saying that he had a bullet lodged deep in his shoulder, so deep in fact that following an X-Ray, doctors decided to leave the bullet where it was.

Above Private Robert Edward Riley: 7th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force.  Died 22 December 1915 at St. Ignatius Hospital from pneumonia after being wounded at Gallipoli.

Private George Beness in the Tamworth Observer compared the quality of the Maltese hospitals, saying that the hospital in his hometown of Townsville "could not hold a candle" to those in Malta. The mention of Townsville is one that can be taken as an ironic coincidence; Townsville was the town which had greeted the very first group of Maltese migrants with very unwelcome hostility when they arrived in Australia in 1883. Indeed the public perception of the Maltese by Australians in their homeland could not have been more different. The Maltese were perceived by many, especially the working class, as being cheap labour of an inferior race. In fact, the arrival of two groups of Maltese immigrants in the country in 1916 - with some migrants actually being Gallipoli veterans themselves - was used as a key political lynchpin in campaigns against the introduction of conscription.

One of those two groups of Maltese in fact, consisting of 214 immigrants on the French steamer Gange, was prohibited from entering Australia after they failed a dictation test which was given in Dutch. Australian immigration officials had the right to give such tests in any European language at their discretion, and it is widely accepted that the tests were used so to make sure that the "right class and race" of immigrant entered the country.

Many such anti-Maltese (and anti-immigrant) campaigners in fact tried to discredit the stories and letters which were sent by wounded servicemen in Malta, with the newspaper Worker deriding these tales as "fairy stories" early in 1917.

Despite this, the accounts of ANZAC servicemen who were treated in Malta were widely published and gave the Maltese credibility and a good reputation - something which was exceedingly important in the migration climate between the two countries at the time.

All told, the sentiments of many ANZACs towards Malta can be summed up in the letter of one anonymous Australian officer, whose letter was published in the Zeehan & Dundas Herald on 4 January 1916, who said that the Maltese people "by their goodness, hospitality, cordiality and warm heartedness" had "stirred [their] hearts to the depths".

"Our Australians noted the kindness continued for a period and on a scale that surprised us (and we pride ourselves on Australian hospitality)", the officer wrote, before writing, "if the doing of good deeds means the storing up of eternal treasure then indeed Malta is a community of spiritual millionaires".

Such words no doubt resonated with the thoughts of the many thousands of soldiers who received treatment in Malta after being wounded, and it is through such accounts that Malta truly earned the moniker of the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean' - a moniker the country still mentions with pride, some 100 years later.

 


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