Corbin John.  Experiences with the AAMC at Gallipoli  MJA 1916; 1, (6): 111-114. 
© Copyright 1916.  The Medical Journal of Australia - reproduced with permission.



By John Corbin, M.R.C.S. (Eng.), L.R.C.P. (Lond.),
Major, 1st Australian Clearing Hospital.


SYDNEY: FEB 5, 1916


In making a few remarks on my experiences since leaving Australia as a member of the Expeditionary Force, I must ask for your tolerance if there is an excess of the first personal pronoun.

In proceedings that became so great and diversified after the landing in Gallipoli, and indeed before, while the force was concentrating in the Island of Lemnos, it became impossible to do more than grasp fully my own part in the scheme of things, and those events that came under my personal. observation naturally bulk largest in my memory. 


I do not intend to enter into any controversial matters, nor to attempt to explain the why and wherefore of certain events that are now more or less matters of common knowledge.  

It is sufficient to describe the trip on the
Kyarra, which carried five hospital units from Australia, as one of great discomfort, lasting six-weeks before we arrived at Alexandria. On arrival there, on the 14th January, 1915, the officers commanding units were instructed to proceed to Cairo, and there was a general air of doubt as to whether all, a part or none of our units should disembark in Egypt or proceed to France. The men who went to Cairo returned to the ship, having gathered the impression that our large hospital accommodation was quite unnecessary at that time, and the authorities seemed to be in doubt as to what to do with us. The nursing sisters seemed to present special difficulties, and to be quite unnecessary then.

Of course, later on, when considerable sickness had developed amongst the Australian troops, all the hospital accommodation was needed, and there was plenty of work for all, even before the casualties returned from the Gallipoli Peninsula. With regard to the sickness prevalent, a great deal of it was due, in my opinion, to the fact that measles occurred on nearly every transport carrying troops from Australia to Egypt, and in practically every camp, coupled with the fact that influenza was also prevalent in the same manner. All the troops were encamped on the desert, in one of several places. The tent accommodation, in some instances, was overcrowded, and numbers of men preferred to sleep outside rather than in a crowded tent. The change of temperature in Egypt is exceedingly abrupt from night to day. A hot sun and high temperature from 9 a.m. until about 5pm, and then, with the sinking of the sun, an immediate drop of temperature are exceedingly dangerous. By nightfall we were glad to get into several blankets, and, indeed, even then it was cold work sleeping in tents. The dust by day helped to irritate mucous membranes of throat and air passages. The men had heavy "fatigues" and marching, often returning just at sunset, and were not always careful in discarding warm clothing.  One has heard and read a great deal of the riotous behaviour of the Australian troops in Egypt, and much that has been written is ridiculous, and most of it would have been better suppressed. I have spoken to many Imperial soldiers of long experience, and the general opinion is that the troops behaved better on the whole than an equal number of Imperial troops would have in like circumstances, and, except for isolated instances, certainly no worse.

The No. 1 Australian Stationary Hospital disembarked on the 23rd of January, and entrained for Cairo. On arrival we were sent to Maadi, an English suburb of Cairo, near which the Light Horse camp was situated. We there formed a hospital for the troops, partly in a house which was turned into a hospital and partly in tents pitched on the desert. Half this hospital was detached on the 27th of January, under Major Powell, for duty at Ismalia. Colonel Bryant detailed Major Newland and Captain Verco to accompany the half unit, and there was much sadness in the hearts of Wilson; Le Messurier and myself, who were left behind to attend to the measles, coughs, colds and venereal cases at Maadi. However, we learnt a considerable amount of military procedure, and of the difficulties met with in the conduct of a military hospital. As I had the rank of captain and honorary major, my duties were of a humble character, rather corresponding to a house surgeon [surgical intern] at a general hospital. Our greatest difficulty at this time was in the matter of drugs. Orders were issued that our supplies from Australia were not to be opened, as we might be moved on suddenly, and there was the greatest difficulty in getting any drugs at first. Later we obtained permission to buy them, and this was rectified to a certain extent, but there was at first great difficulty in every medical unit, including regimental medical officers and all hospitals, in obtaining supplies. Our life settled down into a dull routine, with the exception of my own, for on the 10th of February I developed a pleurisy and broncho-pneumonia, finally being sent to the No. 1 General Hospital at Heliopolis, where I remained until the 28th, when I rejoined my unit. The following day we received orders to pack and prepare to leave Egypt the next day. We entrained on the evening of the 2nd, and embarked on a transport at Alexandria the following morning and left for an unknown destination at midday.

We arrived at the harbour of Mudros on the 6th of March, a huge land-locked harbour, surrounded by bare, undulating country, with occasional high, stony hills. The town of Mudros is just a scattered collection of white cottages. We stayed in this harbour for seven weeks, the Stationary Hospital disembarking on the 14th and setting up a small hospital, to take the sick of the transports, which were continually arriving. The scene ashore was like a piece from a comic opera. The small quay was crammed with soldiers of every description: British territorials, Navy men, French territorials, with officers in the most splendid uniform, ditto their naval men. Heaps of Zouaves, in their fanciful uniform, Senegalese, big black men of fine physique, in elaborate uniform, chattering Greek peasants in a variety of national garbs and, through them all, the husky Australian, swearing, grumbling and rough to look at, but doing more work than any equal number of other troops.


There was nothing of great interest from a professional point of view, except the extreme virulence of the pneumonia in some instances. It was exactly of the type of pneumonia that developed in Adelaide during certain influenza epidemics. There were slight physical signs, not much dullness, few crepitations and patchy bronchial breathing, accompanied by considerable expectoration of almost pure blood and blood-stained mucus. The patients were always much more ill than the signs would indicate, and several died.

I exchanged into the Clearing Hospital, with Captain Mattei, of that unit, on the 26th of March. By doing this I obtained a senior position in the new unit, and some opportunity of obtaining surgical work, a possibility exceedingly remote in the Stationary Hospital.  Until the 18th of April we were on the transport Ionian, occupied with routine duties, one of which being the cleansing of an exceedingly dirty transport. Besides this, we were constantly practising landing in small boats, getting wounded off the beach into small boats and various evolutions to fit the men for duties ahead. On the 18th, five officers of the Clearing Casualty Station, as the Clearing Hospital was called, embarked on the Novian, with 60 men and a small portion of our equipment. We were informed that this was the ship we were to go to the Peninsula in. On board we found the 5th Battalion of infantry, under Colonel Wanliss, 500 horses, details of Engineers and. Field Telegraph, Wireless, etc. Later, Brigadier- General McKay and his staff joined us. It was frightfully crowded, and as there was only accommodation in cabins for about nine, officers, and there were between 50 and 60 on board, we had to sleep where we could, which meant, for the majority, on the floor of the tiny saloon or the iron deck. As we were limited to 35 lbs. for officers, we had no spare mattresses and very little covering. Owing to weather, I believe, our starting was postponed until the 24th of April, when we left Mudros at 11 a.m., steaming out through the lines of transports and battleships, with apipers band playing, and proceeded due west. And then north to a rendevous on the other side of Lemnos. We breakfasted at 2 a.m., and found ourselves under weigh in the most absolute silence, no lights anywhere, except the small red lamp astern of the next transport in front of us, There was a ghostly shape on either flank of a torpedo destroyer.


Everyone was on deck, and as the grey of the coming dawn became less dense, we turned in towards the Gallipoli Peninsula and slowly crept in towards the land. As the light became a little more marked we could see a transport on either side of us stealing in slowly, level with us, and gradually the line of coast became apparent as a dim outline. Later on we could just make out dark objects between us and the shore, which were torpedo boat destroyers, crammed with men of the 3rd Brigade. A single shot was heard at 4.30 by my watch. There was silence for a short space, and then the rattle of musketry. Very soon afterwards guns began firing from the right of the position and the warships began to reply. As the sun rose just before 5 a.m. everything became clearer, and we could see where our shells were bursting in the vicinity of the Turkish guns, whose flash could he seen clearly each time they fired, and then, later, would come the smoke over the beach, which denoted the bursting of shrapnel.


One Turkish gun, or series of guns from Gaba Tepe seemed to be the most troublesome, and the Bacchante steamed right in, and went within half a mile of the shore and each time this gun opened fire the Bacchante roared out a broadside. They controlled its fire and made it erratic, but could not put it out of action.


At 5,30 a.m. we could see the cliffs and recognize their steepness and the difficulties. Our men could be seen climbing up wherever there was foothold and disappearing over the first ridge. At this time a pinnace came alongside with a man shot through the chest, who died in five minutes after getting him on board, and another A.B. who was shot through the arm. These two made one realize that it was not a pageant for our amusement, but a serious and horrid affair, and that the pretty puffs of smoke, like cotton wool, contained shrapnel bullets, which killed and maimed men. A little later another boat brought a dead private of the 12th Battalion and seven wounded. These had never landed at all.


Just about 7 o'clock the big guns at Chanak opened fire on the transports, and one shot fell within 30 yards of our stern. Orders were given to get out further, and this delayed our landing. We did not get a tow ashore until just after 10 a.m., and this journey, in crowded boat, towards the beach was one of the most uncomfortable I have ever undertaken. The period of inaction, sitting quite still and trying to calculate whether you would get ashore during, before, or after a round of shrapnel from the Turkish gun was one of abject misery to me at any rate. It was a relief to get ashore, amongst a crowd of shouting, shoving, heaving men, all giving orders it seemed at first, all trying to get ammunition, food, troops, mules, anything and everything on to the beach. There were wounded everywhere. We were shown a spot for our dressing station, about 20 feet wide and from the cliff down to within six or ten feet of the water's edge. The whole beach, we found later, was 600 yards long, and nowhere was it more than 18 to 20 yards wide. I have never seen anything that looked so like absolute hopeless disorder, and nothing in my life has given me such an impression of human energy as that beach. It was not in disorder really ; everyone was doing his job. But it was so cramped and so much was being done on it that it was bump, hustle and strive to get your own job done and room for your mules, food, ammunition or sick as the case might be.

   Concentration on your own job and total disregard of the other fellow was the only way the whole thing got pieced together and was carried through. Fortunately, we had work to do from the moment of landing, and no room for fear. Nothing removes this hideous feeling of emptiness in the pit of the stomach and strangles out fright like having something you must do and which you can't do without using your mind and concentrating your attention. During the first four days we were working almost continuously. There were five officers - Colonel Giblin, Major Richards, Captain O'Brien, Captain Atkins and myself - and sixty men. Of course, after the first 24 hours we tried to get regular relief of one or another, and snatched short periods of sleep, but this merely meant lying down on the beach in our clothes, and covered with a single blanket, we slept, thoroughly exhausted, until roused to work again. Food of course, was scanty. We had tea constantly and had biscuits, but practically nothing else for the first. few days. During those first four days 3,300 wounded passed through our hands. We gave up recording them, as our only book was filled up on the first day, and simply counted them. During this time all urgent operations were done, including necessary amputations, tying of arteries, several belly eases, depressed, compound fractures of skull, bladder cases and big, compound fractures of the thigh. All these necessitated anaesthetics, which were administered in nearly every instance by non-commissioned officers or by privates.


We could not get any wounded off the beach until night, as all boats and tows were needed to bring in supplies and troops. We began to evacuate them at 5 p.m., and got about 600 of by 8 p.m. They lay, during the day, all along the beach, for several hundred yards, in what shelter we could devise, much of its inadequate, of course. They were all given surgical care and some food, tea, bovril, biscuits, etc. Many were hit by shrapnel while lying there, and had to be re-dressed.


Of course, later on we had help. After Thursday the Marine Light Infantry Ambulance came ashore and were very helpful, and when they left the 4th Field Ambulance came into their position, and helped with the treatment and evacuation of the wounded. After the first rush, things quietened down. Except when some advance took place there was not a tremendous number of wounded daily, and we were enabled to make better provision for their surgical needs. There was plenty to do every day, as we had to act as medical officers of practically all the beach parties, as well as dressing station and evacuating station. As days went on there was a very large number of sick, and each week the number evacuated grew greater, and the condition of the men evacuated was worse. Their endurance, not only of pain when wounded but of the steady, dull routine, not without danger to life in the trenches and their resolution not to report sick was most striking.


During the advance immediately following the landing, the work of the regimental surgeons and stretcher-hearers, and the work of the officers and men of the stretcher-bearer sections of the Field Ambulances was beyond praise. Nothing could exceed their fearless devotion to duty, the way they exposed themselves to risk in order to carry help to the wounded was beyond praise, and the physical labour of carrying men up and down precipitous ravines, covered in prickly bush and dense undergrowth amazed me. The men of the Casualty Clearing Station behaved in the most exemplary manner. The beach, from the moment of landing up to the time of my leaving, was described by men in the fighting here as the most "unhealthy" spot in the whole position. I can vouch for the unpleasantness of life upon it, and reference to my daily diary shows that in 18 weeks there were only five days in which no shrapnel was fired on it. Despite this, the men of the unit, I refer to privates and non-commissioned officers, worked cheerily, efficiently and well. When it is remembered that they were drawn from all sorts of ordinary avocations - black-smiths, builders, architects, clerks, fruit-growers, miners, club stewards, etc.- and that there had been little opportunity of training them, or rather very little time, in their special duties, it is amazing that they adapted themselves to the emergencies of the situation so ably.


They dressed hideous wounds efficiently, helped us intelligently to adjust splints to hateful compound fractures, gave chloroform hundreds of times and assisted at operations. All this was done in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, no fainting, no vomiting, just a steady attention to duty and listening to commands and profiting by instruction. Just one more instance of Australian adaptability. Their courage, too, was fine, for, remember, they were under fire more or less all the time. The stretcher-bearers of our unit went up the hillside all along the beach and on the piers and never failed in this necessary and very dangerous duty.


After the Turks had succeeded in getting a .75 gun in position on our left, from which they could enfilade the beach, our hospital position became one of very considerable danger. Several of our men were put out of action by shrapnel bullets, the shelter shed for wounded was pierced by a huge explosive shell, which killed a sick man lying on a stretcher, wounded another and so shattered the leg of a member of our unit that it had to be amputated two days later on a hospital ship, and he died.

After many days of talk about it and considerable argument, we were moved into a position nearer the centre of the beach on July 2nd. The Engineers dug out the cliff and made a more commodious place and one infinitely safer. It was in this position that we were when the fighting on the 5th and the 6th of August took place, and later the fighting from the 7th to the 12th August, following upon the Suvla landing.


We really had the direction of the evacuation of the wounded, not only from the 1st Division, but also a large part of the Australian and New Zealand Division, and later on, when it was found almost impossible to cope with the wounded from the new British Division on the left, a large proportion of their stretcher cases, and nearly all their walking cases came through us. In just over 50 hours roughly 5,000 were handled by our station. Of course, at this time, all the tent subdivisions of the Field Ambulance were ashore, and they did a large part of the dressing, splinting and necessary operating, so that, except where splints had slipped, dressings become soaked or disarranged, or operative cases been forwarded direct to us instead of through a field ambulance, we had nothing like the same amount of surgical work in proportion to the number of cases to do. In addition to this, there was infinitely better and more ample hospital ship accommodation, and so many cases that we would have done under other circumstances were rushed on to the hospital ship for operation. Still, the work entailed in providing for the dressing when necessary, their feeding and safe and comfortable housing while in our hands, and the most important work of getting them safely and easily transported from the shore to the ship was very heavy.


I really think that, owing to the organization and the efficient and skillful work done by the noncommissioned officers and men of the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, these huge numbers of casualties were handled in such an orderly and quick manner that the authorities themselves do not realize how excellent was the work done by this unit. There was never disorder or chaos, and the men's comfort and welfare was attended to continuously and well, and the greatest expedition was obtained in getting the wounded on to hospital ships. Under present conditions these constitute the three greatest duties of a casualty clearing station.


I could talk for hours of the dash, heroism and amusing characteristics of the Australian troops, both in action, in trenches and when wounded, but I have already doubtless tried the patience of some. There are many points concerning military matters and administration which I should have liked to touch on, but you can understand that this is quite impossible. I could tell you many amusing stories of the soldiers and details of Cavanagh Mainwaring, thin as a herring, grey as a badger, loving his work, doing it fearlessly and conscientiously, and loved by his men; of young Fry, doing splendid work with the 3rd Field Ambulance; of Goldsmith, with a permanent cigarette in his funny little holder, quite unchanged by war's alarms; of young Nott, with a fierce, black beard and looking after his wounded in a fearless way and Meikle we saw often on the beach. Young Gordon was greatly admired by the men of the 4th Field Ambulance, and his death greatly felt.


I could go on to scores of men you know, and might be interested to hear of, but I could not say ill of one man whom I met on the beach at Anzac, fighting men, stretcher-bearers, army service corps, padre men, all have done their bit and done it well, and I am truly proud to have been associated with them.


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