At the Indian Hospital Alexandria 1915 – Christmas 1915

It was the beginning of March when I first arrived at the Hospital in Alexandria. There was then no mention of the Dardanelles Expedition, and the Hospital was occupied entirely by Indian sick and wounded, chiefly from France. It was the most lovely place, built right down to the sea, and had formerly been a huge hotel. The big “Winter Garden” made our largest ward, taking about 300 beds. The Hospital was equipped for 500 beds, but soon after I arrived it grew to 700, and before I left we had, when very badly rushed, put in 1100 or 1200 men! The staff consisted of English Doctors, eight English Sisters, and a lot of Indian orderlies and followers. The whole Hospital was originally meant for Indians only.

Quite suddenly at the end of April we were given a few hours notice to prepare for a big rush of Australian wounded from the Dardanelles. They were to be the men from the original and now world-famous landing on April 25th (1915). All wounded were to be brought straight back to Alexandria, there being no hospitals on the islands round the Dardanelles as there now are. The worst cases remained at Alexandria, while slighter ones went to Cairo, and still slighter ones to Malta and home.

Arrangements at first went anything but smoothly. Nobody seemed to have the slightest idea of what an enormous and overwhelming rush of wounded there would be. Ours was the only hospital (except the permanent Alexandria Civil one) really ready; schools and colleges were being hastily turned into hospitals when the first rush came in. Before we knew where we were 22,000 wounded were lying in ships of every description at the docks. The authorities were at their wits end where to put them.

Of our little staff several Sisters were taken to go to Red Cross trains to Cairo, so it was a very tiny nursing staff indeed left to grapple with the incoming rush of men. You can’t imagine what a rush it had meant getting ready and changing the place from an Indian to an English hospital! Everything had to be so different, especially the food and feeding arrangements, and the Indians had to be tucked away somewhere. But when the Australians arrived the work really began. They poured in, stretcher after stretcher, just as they had left the peninsular, with their blood-stained, dusty uniforms. The first lot told me they had been several days on the boat (a transport ship, not a proper hospital one). They had been packed like herrings coming over, with no nurses, hardly any orderlies, and only a few terribly over-worked doctors.

The only food to be got was Irish stew, which most of the bad cases had been unable of course to eat. Even the worst cases had had no milk. It was not to be wondered at that many had died on the way and that very many more died as soon as they reached the hospitals. We worked from 3pm, when they started to arrive, till 3am, next morning, getting them to bed, cutting off their uniforms, washing and feeding them, and dressing their wounds. The surgeons and theatre sisters never went to bed at all, as they were working hard all night. It was a continual stream of stretchers going up to the theatre door. At night there was one sister to about 300 cases; we couldn’t spare more, and such cases! In my section of 100 beds only two men could get up, and they worked like slaves, day and night, helping the others. If one had not been so over-worked one might have seen the funny side in our cosmopolitan collection of helpers. As it was we wrestled, with anything but amusement, with our Arab cooks and waiters (they were too hopeless, giving the worst cases most impossible things to eat), our Greek Boy Scouts, who helped in the wards, our Indian orderlies, and our Russian Jew cleaners! None of them talked English. In the end some of the Australian Light Horse came and offered themselves as orderlies. They worked in shifts, often 24 hours on end, and were simply magnificent. Such great strapping, six foot men they were; most of them from wild station life, and none of them had ever seen the inside of a hospital before. I said to one, “I don’t think it’s a bit good for you seeing all this, just before you are off to the peninsular yourselves,” and he said, “Ah, but Sister, seeing all this will make the boys fight like a thousand devils.” And it did.

For many days we worked from till late at night with distinctly sketchy and rushed meals, and for at least six weeks no one ever saw the front door. But it was a joy to work for such men. They were marvellous, so plucky and so cheerful, and just pining to get back. But it made one’s heart ache to walk down the long rows of tightly packed beds and see all these fine men literally “broke” in the wars.

It was the same at all the hospitals; doctors and nurses working day and night, the in-coming wounded meeting the out-going ones on the stairs and going into their still warm beds. Men packed into every corner – on beds, in between beds, in corridor passages, tents, and in kitchens. But gradually out of the chaos a great order grew; more nurses came from home, more hospital ships, more hospitals and now Egyptian medical arrangements can hold their own with any in the world.