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Malta-Gallipoli Connections

Today is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. Remembrance services and wreath-laying ceremonies linked to Anzac Day are however also held in many other parts of the world, including Malta, where the first Anzac Day was commemorated on 25th April 1916. After all, Malta has always had a very strong connection to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) which was formed in Egypt in December 1914 and participated in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign shortly afterwards. In fact, Anzac Day was originally meant to honour the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who served and died at Gallipoli, with the date of 25th April being chosen as it was on that day that the ANZACs went into action.

1914 had seen the start of World War One, and in early November, the Ottoman Empire joined the fray on the side of the Central Powers. Soon after, Britain and France devised a plan to knock the Ottomans out of the war. In January 1915, a naval attack on the Gallipoli peninsula was given the go-ahead. Gallipoli guards the entrance to the Dardanelles Strait, and by securing it, the Allied Powers hoped their navies would have clear access to Constantinople, as well as opening a new supply line to Russia via the Black Sea. Unfortunately, the naval attempts to silence the guns at Gallipoli - an important prerequisite before Allied ships could pass through - proved disastrous: a number of British and French warships were sunk or put out of action by shelling and naval mines. It was at this point that the decision was taken to send in ground troops to capture the coastal forts and secure the way for the navy.

The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force assigned to the task included the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, as well as mostly British and some French troops. At dawn on 25th April 1915, the British 29th Division started landing at Cape Helles, on the most southerly point of the peninsula. At the same time, the ANZACs were disembarking, not at Gaba Tepe on Gallipoli’s western shore as intended, but some 2 km further north at Ari Burnu, or Anzac Cove as it would become known. The troops found themselves coming ashore on beaches that were overlooked by high ground and entrenched positions manned by a determined enemy, unlike they had been led to believe. Instead of a rapid advance inland, by evening on that first day, the attacking forces at both landing sites barely clung to small beachheads, having suffered appalling losses. What was meant as a lightning strike to knock the Ottomans out of the war quickly degenerated into a stalemate, as despite reinforcements being poured in, little progress was made in the months that followed, while at the same time, the Ottomans failed to push the invaders back into the sea. Trench warfare quickly took hold and medical facilities became overwhelmed with heavy casualties on both sides resulting from the fighting, rampant disease and the heat. By year’s end, the Allies decided to cut their losses, and in January 1916, Gallipoli was completely evacuated. In those eight disastrous months, over 44,000 Allied soldiers had died, including around 8,700 Australians and over 2,700 New Zealanders. Ottoman dead were estimated at around 87,000.

Malta’s involvement in this campaign began soon after the initial landings. The island would soon become known as the 'Nurse of the Mediterranean' due to its role of caring for evacuated wounded soldiers. As a result of the serious underestimation of the stiff opposition that was put up by the Ottoman troops, the Allied planners had never anticipated the high volume of casualties when the campaign was being planned. At first, the wounded started being evacuated to Egypt, but it was immediately evident that medical facilities there could not cope. In February 1915, an enquiry had been made about the availability of hospital beds in Malta. The answer was not encouraging: there were just four military hospitals, with around 500 beds. The local authorities immediately took steps to expand the existing facilities, as well as establishing new ones by converting a large number of public buildings, including schools, into temporary hospitals. A total of 27 hospitals and convalescent homes would eventually be made available.

The first Gallipoli casualties to be brought to Malta arrived onboard the Clan McGillivray on 4th May 1915, nine days after the landings. 600 wounded ANZACs were brought ashore to be quickly ferried to the Valletta Military Hospital. As the ambulances made their way through the city, large crowds gathered in silence, with many handing out cigarettes, chocolates and flowers to the wounded. Another 394 arrived on the following day, and 641 on the day after. By the end of May, more than 4,000 sick and wounded had landed in Malta. At the peak of the Gallipoli campaign, the average number of weekly arrivals reached around 2,000, although in one week in December there were 6,341! Most of these men would have received very little medical aid prior to their arrival on our shores. Stretcher-bearers would collect the wounded, normally while under fire, and carry them to rudimentary first aid posts, still within range of enemy artillery, before they would be loaded onto hospital ships that took four days to reach Malta. Not surprisingly, many arrived with infected wounds and sepsis, and the first job was to examine and bathe the men, clean and dress their wounds, and carry out any necessary surgery before they could get some much-needed sleep.

Most patients were first taken to the Valletta Military Hospital, nowadays the Mediterranean Conference Centre, where the bed capacity had been increased from 26 to 440 by renovating disused wards. Due to its proximity to the harbours, it was ideal as a sorting base, where the wounded were assessed and then distributed to other specialised hospitals according to the severity of their condition. Dangerously ill cases that were deemed too risky to move were however treated here. Across the harbour, the Cottonera Hospital was the largest military hospital in Malta, while the Royal Navy’s Bighi Hospital also played a vital role. Often, balconies and verandahs were converted into extensions of the main wards in order to increase capacity. An example of the many other buildings that were deemed suitable to be turned into hospitals was the Istituto Tecnico Vincenzo Bugeia - renamed the Ħamrun Hospital. The same happened to most army barracks, especially in the Sliema and St. Julian’s areas; forts, such as Ricasoli and Manoel; buildings in Valletta, such as the Auberge de Bavière and St. Elmo School; and even Fort Chambray in Gozo, which served as a Convalescent Depot. Convalescent camps became important when the first sick and wounded started to recover. They received men who required no further medical intervention but were not yet fully fit for duty. The two main convalescent camps in Malta were set up at Għajn Tuffieħa and Mellieħa, both of which offered cool sea breezes and bathing facilities.

Another issue that had to be dealt with at the start of the campaign was the relatively small number of medical and nursing staff employed in the local military hospitals. By May 1915, these had been complemented by a number of local doctors and nurses who volunteered their services and proved invaluable. In addition, British civilian medical practitioners and trained nurses started to be regularly sent to Malta. Throughout the war, there were over 300 surgeons and 1,000 nurses on the island, including a number of Maltese. Nursing work was physically and mentally exhausting. The constant flow of wounded meant that no sooner had one group been dealt with than another took its place. Nurses worked long hours in conditions that were often far from ideal, especially due to a lack of adequate equipment. In addition, their work was not without danger, as the risk of contracting serious diseases through cross-infection from the patients was very high. Indeed, as the campaign progressed, the number of sick exceeded that of the wounded, with the cause of death often being listed as dysentery, enteric fever, typhoid and the generic “from sickness”. On top of having to cope with the awful sights and smells of suppurating wounds and gangrene, doctors and nurses would not have been immune to the emotional stress of seeing so many young men succumb to their wounds. Indeed, while the majority of troops brought to Malta made a full recovery, for others the island became their final resting place, with up to 20 men being buried each day at the height of the hospitalisation period.

In the meantime, various initiatives were launched to assist in the convalescence of recovering troops. Following an appeal, many Maltese families invited soldiers into their homes, while others showed them around the most interesting places and historical monuments. There were at the time very few places of entertainment except a few bars in Valletta and the Sliema area, and it was felt that some places of amusement needed to be provided to keep several thousand young men out of mischief. The military gymnasium in Valletta was turned into an entertainment centre for recovering troops. It included a library, reading room, a bar, billiard table and a fully equipped stage. The Vernon United Services Club, as it eventually became known, continued operating as a military social club until 1967, when it was taken over by the Maltese Government and became the Central Bank of Malta. To cater for the thousands of convalescent ANZACs from the Pembroke area - the site of a number of hospitals and camps - the Australian Red Cross contributed £2,000 towards the building of what became known as Australia Hall. Built by the Royal Engineers in just two months, it seated up to 2,000 people and was regularly filled to overflowing. Sadly, the building was gutted by fire in 1998 and is today in a deplorable state.

By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, just under 58,000 casualties had been treated in Malta, with the highest number of patients in hospital on any one day being an incredible 16,004! After January 1916, the number of sick and wounded fell considerably as Gallipoli was evacuated, only to start rising rapidly again by the summer, as the Salonika campaign intensified. Malta would once again play a similar role to the one of the Gallipoli campaign as the Allies attempted to relieve Serbian forces fighting the Bulgarian army. The number of hospital beds remained in the region of 25,000 and reached a maximum of 25,522 in April 1917, at which point increasing submarine attacks on hospital ships made it unsafe to continue bringing casualties to Malta. A total of just over 67,000 casualties were brought from Salonika, meaning that in total, Malta had nursed around 125,000 casualties throughout World War One.

Of course, Malta was involved in other ways too. British and French warships and submarines blockading the Dardanelles operated from the island. The number of people employed at the Royal Naval Dockyard increased drastically at this time, in order to cope with the demand of naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition to repairing ships, a large number of Maltese served in the Royal Navy. This is evidenced by the fact that out of the 592 Maltese who were killed in the war, the vast majority died at sea. The navy was not the only service that Maltese people served in though. A significant number of Maltese soldiers saw combat while attached to British units, such as Lieutenant Herbert William Huber of the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia, who was attached to the 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, when he was killed in action on 7th January 1916 in the closing stages of the Gallipoli campaign. In addition, a significant number of Maltese immigrants enlisted in the ANZAC forces and saw action in various theatres. At least seven are known to have made the ultimate sacrifice, including Private Charles Emanuel Bonavia, born in Sliema, who was one of the 900 ANZAC soldiers who fell on the very first day of the landings at Anzac Cove.

There was of course one major Maltese deployment to Gallipoli: the Maltese Labour Corps was a non-combatant unit that played a vital logistical role in the campaign. Following a request for volunteers to form a labour battalion for service with the British Army in August 1915, over 1,000 applied, no doubt enticed by the attractive pay and short-term, renewable contracts. The first group of 864 were sent to Mudros, the main staging post for the Gallipoli campaign, to serve as labourers, drivers and stevedores. Although Mudros was out of the line of fire, 234 of the men volunteered to serve in the ANZAC sector, arriving at Anzac Cove on 27th September 1915, where they helped unload provisions, often within range of enemy artillery. During this time, two of them received minor wounds, while Labourer Giuseppe Camilleri was killed in action on 7th December 1915. Although the battalion returned to Malta in February 1916, some 5,600 men in total would go on to serve in the MLC in other campaigns throughout the war.

Although Gallipoli became just another chapter of yet another conflict, for Australia and New Zealand it means much more. Despite the failure of the military operation, the courage demonstrated by the ANZACs who fought there became part of the national identity of the two countries. This is why Anzac Day is still celebrated today, including in Malta, where after all, 202 Australians and 72 New Zealanders now lie at rest. In 2013, the ANZAC memorial was inaugurated at the Argotti Gardens in Floriana to commemorate these men. While it is undoubtedly a good thing to honour their sacrifice, perhaps it is only right that here in Malta, we also remember the three Maltese who are known to have lost their lives in this campaign:

Lieutenant Herbert William Huber, King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia, attached to the 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Killed in action on 7th January 1916, aged 26.

No known grave, commemorated at the Helles Memorial, Panel 202.

Private Charles Emanuel Bonavia, 11th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force.

Killed in action on 25th April 1915, aged 27.

No known grave, commemorated at Lone Pine Memorial, Panel 33.

Labourer Giuseppe Camilleri, Maltese Labour Corps.

Killed in action on 7th December 1915 aged 27.

Buried at Ari Burnu Cemetery, Row J Grave 4.

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