Bitter Medicine

Florence Nightingale would not have felt out of place on Gallipoli. There were dead and wounded from the moment of landing, and the one casualty clearing station that went ashore with 1st ANZAC Corps headquarters on April 25 had a complement of only 63 men. While each unit provided stretcher-bearers and some medical staff, the mounting numbers of unburied dead and of wounded awaiting treatment often became unmanageable, especially after heavy fighting.

What mud would do on the Western Front, the fly did on Gallipoli; it became an implacable enemy. The combination of open wounds, heat, dirt, lice, fleas, lack of water, an unsatisfactory diet and fatigue were all compounded by flyborne diseases. There was no chance to bury many of the dead of either side; while strict control of hygiene was imposed wherever possible, latrines were crude; Turkish hygiene was less controlled, and human faeces were added to the food scraps and mule droppings that littered the lines. And when wounded and sick men were evacuated to Mudros (a town on the Greek island of Lemnos approximately 100 kilometres from ANZAC Cove), conditions there were only better in that the men were out of range of Turkish guns. Even the nurses and doctors on Mudros were savaged by the prevalent illnesses of dysentery, diarrhoea and gastroenteritis. The flies were with them too.

That so much was done for the ill and the wounded was largely due to the unremitting efforts of Colonel Neville Howse, Chief Medical Officer of the lst Australian Division. As a young lieutenant in South Africa, Howse galloped into Boer fire to rescue a fallen trumpeter and treat his wounds and was honoured with the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. At Gallipoli he was the driving force behind the attempts to cope with the enormous medical problems the ANZACs faced. It was at his insistence that dentists were finally sent to Gallipoli midway through the campaign, and the incinerators he ordered built to burn soiled dressings and other litter were the only useful disposal system on the peninsula. Howse became Director-General of Medical Services for the Australian Military Forces and later, as a federal parliamentarian, Minister for Defence and Health, but it was in the field that his worth was recognised by the men whose lives were saved by his medical skill and organising ability.

There has never been a clear estimate made to show how many of the 10,000 ANZACs who died at Gallipoli were the victims of disease or of the impossibility of treating wounds properly under conditions as bad as any in war. Among the battles fought on that primitive peninsula, none was as unrelenting, as bitterly fought as that by the medical staff. But, like the campaign itself, it was a battle that ended in defeat - yet without loss of honour.