“The Long, Long Way to Achi Baba”

During those interminable weeks and months of toil, when every man of the R.A.M.C. in Egypt kept loyally, unremittingly to his task of succouring the sick and wounded that poured into the country from Gallipoli, the thought must constantly have arisen in many minds : – what sort of place could this be, and what the conditions, where such very work of Hades had been brewing?

Those of our Medical Corps men who lived through the dread days of the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula, cannot easily be got to talk of their experiences. There is a point beyond which fullness of heart does not make the mouth speak rather it tends to check utterance, as though words were powerless to convey any true expression of things done and seen. 

There is one fact which stands out very clearly against the sombre yet lurid background of this Gallipoli story. It is the necessity of having in the ranks of the Army Medical Corps a large number of men in the prime of their sturdy youth, equally with those of other services. There are too many uninformed, perhaps uninformable, persons at home who loudly express the opinion that non-combatant units should be composed of men physically, or by reason of age, unfit for the supposedly more exacting duties of carrying arms. There is little profit in attempting to dispel illusions born of ignorance, even if that were either necessary or possible. But the plain, practical testimony of experience can always be depended upon to speak for itself ; and from first to last the story of the work of the Royal Army Medical Corps on Gallipoli is one long tale of triumph over difficulties insuperable for manhood other than at its full tide of youth and strength.

For how else is it possible to account for the facts of the collection of wounded from those early battlefields of Gallipoli ; their medical treatment in the dressing stations and their conveyance to the hospital-ships with such expedition that within the first ten days thousands were landed in Egypt 200 miles away overseas? The physical strain, the mere expenditure of bodily energy, involved in this task, apart from the mental and nervous wear-and-tear, is scarcely to be exaggerated. Indeed, youth and strength alone must have stood between success and failure in the work-success, which meant the saving of innumerable lives and the avoidance of untold suffering ; and failure, which could only have meant for thousands the worst of torture ending in the worst of deaths.

Here is what Sir Ian Hamilton, in his dispatch of August 25, 1915, says of the work of our Field Ambulances on the Peninsula :

“The Royal Army Medical Corps have had to face unusual and very trying conditions. There are no roads, and the wounded who are unable to walk must be carried from the firing-line to the shore. They and their attendants may be shelled on their way to the beaches, at the beaches, on the jetties, and again – though I believe by inadvertence – on their way out in lighters to the hospital ships. Efficiency, method, and quiet heroism have characterised the evacuation of the many thousands of our wounded.”

And here, from the same dispatch, is a picture of the country, and the circumstances, in which the work was done :-

“The country is broken, mountainous, arid, and void of supplies. The water found in the areas occupied by our forces is quite inadequate for their needs. The only practicable beaches are small, cramped breaks in impracticable lines of cliffs – with the wind in certain quarters no sort of landing is possible. The wastage by bombardment and wreckage of lighters and small craft has led to crisis after crisis in our carrying capacity, whilst over every single beach plays fitfully throughout each day a devastating shell-fire at medium ranges. Upon such a situation appeared quite suddenly the enemy submarines.”

“Efficiency, method, quiet heroism “- Sir Ian Hamilton, ever happy of phrase in his official dispatches, could scarce have hit upon words more singularly apt than these in his designation of the work of our Field Ambulances, officers and men alike, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The efficiency and method were there as a matter of course, the common qualities of all trained units; but the peculiar variety of heroism which may be called “quiet” , is not a military trait at all. In soldiers you find stolidity, a sort of dogged dumb indifference, in the face of danger – half the recorded deeds of heroism in this war have been done with the same clenched teeth and tongue-tied, derisive grin that doctors so often see in men suffering from some hideous dismemberment, who are brought to the aid post to be dressed. Magnificent as it is, it belongs rather to the physical than the moral side. But “quiet’ heroism is wholly another thing.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was right when he applied the words to the work of the R.A.M.C. on those back-aching, nerve-racking days and nights that followed the memorable landing near Cape Helles. But he was not wholly right. For he used the words in special commendation as of an extraordinary effort, whereas the sober fact-as all joining the R.A.M.C. should be made to know – is that an ambulance man is useless in warfare unless courage of the “quiet” kind forms an ordinary, indispensable part, a sine qua non, of his professional kit, and as such calls for no commendation. 

“Quiet” heroism has none of the physical, it is even beyond the intellectual, perhaps it is wholly a spiritual thing. It has no impulses, nor great vaulting occasions, nor has it anything of the “thunder and blunder” obsession about it, such as made Balaclava. It has no times or seasons : it is as ready at three o’clock in the morning as at high noon. It does not need war whoops, nor screels of bagpipes, to awaken it to instant service. You cannot see it or define it, or associate its possession with outward evidences of noble brow, or flashing eye, or bulldog jaw. The men that have it most are often of the gentle-mannered, diffident type the last men in the world, you would say, to prove of the stuff of heroes. But whatever it is, the sober fact-as proved in this and all other theatres of war- is that our Medical Service men possess it in abundance, from the “attached” M.O. in his dug-out close to the firing- line, with a bullet in his own back, who “quietly” finishes dressing the wound of a man, to R.A.M.C. cook at the dressing station below, who as “quietly’ takes his turn at stirring the dixie while his mate, who a moment before was wielding the ladle, is now on his way to the doctor with shrapnel in his throat.

There is, indeed, no single department of the work of the R.A.M.C. in the field wherein a ceaseless levy on this particular quality is not made; and the story of the Gallipoli Campaign, so far as it deals with the work of our Corps, serves but to bring this truth more vividly into relief, whether during those first critical days, or later, when the opposing forces had settled down into the grim unlovely methods of trench warfare. On that far-off spit of land, cut off from all the world, any and every sort of courage, indeed, was badly needed. It is of course universally known that there was no such thing as a safety zone on the Peninsula. Every yard of ground, from firing line to sea, was open to shell and rifle fire and to bombs from aeroplanes, not to mention the hail of returning shrapnel bullets sent up by our own guns against enemy aircraft. In the summer, the heat and the plague of flies were all but unbearable. The autumn brought storms and floods, when the gullies and ravines, the deep zigzag crevices in the yellow sand- stone heights so characteristic of Gallipoli – wherein our troops lived like rats in a drain-became impassable mountain torrents. Winter came with more gales and deluges, and a cold that seemed to have in it a bitter quality of unearthly searching deadliness. Through it all the work of aid-post, advanced dressing station, and casualty clearing station, the unceasing toil of the stretcher squads, the lading of hospital-ships, fared unconcernedly on. 

Much has been written – more than enough, perhaps – about the deeds done and perils lived through during the first exalting months of the Dardanelles Campaign. Too little, assuredly, is known, or ever will be known, about the life that followed – a life, or, rather, a bare existence, wherein endurance of every conceivable discomfort and hardship and danger became habit engrained, wherein long use brought to men a second nature of skulking in rabbit burrows, and their old birthright of freedom to walk the earth under blue sky and sunshine was whittled down rabbit-like to occasional furtive skurryings from hole to hole. To live that sort of life for long, and keep a sound heart and mind within him, was test of worth for any man.

Luckily for the particular strain of humanity which is attracted to the Army Medical Service, the conditions could be viewed from a different point from that necessarily occupied by the fighting man.. The latter is out to kill – all honour to him for that in the present war at least – but neither his training nor his temperament had in the slightest degree prepared him for what he perforce encountered on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The killing spirit chafed itself sore and raw in the sepulchral environment of dug-out and trench. On the other hand, the healing spirit – the business of staunching wounds, and heartening helplessness and easing pain – which had brought the R.A.M.C. man to the same ominous pass, did not leave him in the like predicament of mind. It is not here contended that the Medical Service man goes to war with cleaner hands or nobler motives than he who seeks and is trained to kill his country’s enemies for the common good. But the fact is self-evident that the one kind of duty tends to nourish faculties which are spiritual, while the other tends to destroy them, or at least to keep them in abeyance and subject to all the perils that accompany disuse. 

The word self-sacrifice has been on everyone’s lips since the beginning of this war; but nearly always it has been applied to those who, while exerting every art and device to kill the enemy, have themselves been killed by him. This is self-sacrifice in the truest sense, if you will : although soldiers in general agree that, in this regard, the term has been worn rather thin. Not enough, however, is heard of it in connection with those whose duty carries them equally into the thick of every fight, but who have none of the warrior’s stimulus, the sporting sense of giving blow for blow – the upholding, satisfying spirit which poor humanity will ever find in the ancient doctrine of tit-for-tat. 

Here is the story, simply even baldly told, of one specimen day in the routine of an attached R.A.M.C. Medical Officer to a regiment on Gallipoli, which serves to illustrate as well as another the “quiet” heroism of which Sir Ian Hamilton wrote. It is given nearly in the original words of its recorder. There is nothing remarkable, nor even exceptional, about it. Taking it thus almost at random, the story of all the long weary months of the campaign may be realised as much or as little as we may realise a whole edifice by looking at a single stone : – 

“When the stretcher-bearers pick up a wounded man, they carry him to the Medical Officer in his dug-out. This is close behind the firing-line, and is simply a hole in the wall of one of the main communication trenches, with ledges cut for the doctor and his assistants and any patients who are there, to sit or lie on. Round about are arranged the medical and surgical panniers that are thrown open ready for use now that an action is on. It is imperative that the doctor be at some spot which all the officers and men belonging to his unit know, and to which the slightly wounded can walk and the severely wounded can be carried. This arrangement is necessary, as it is impossible for the Medical Officer to do good work in the firing trenches themselves, which are scattered and cramped. 

“The work done at the Regimental Aid Post, as it is called, is always carried out under grave risks, and the losses amongst medical men who have died at their duty have occurred mostly at these places. During an action the shells and bullets may be falling like hail, and yet there is never a lull in the work of dressing and bandaging. The wounded men sit or lie round, waiting their turn. Every now and then the bearers squeeze along the narrow trench leading to the doctor’s place carrying a man whose grave condition demands immediate attention. The doctor turns aside from the shattered legs and arms, and bends over the prostrate figure, his assistants deftly cutting away the clothes here and there, till the wound is properly exposed. Swiftly he does what is needful or possible. The wound is swabbed clean perhaps a tourniquet is applied to stem the red gush that is carrying life away with it the doctor turns again to the patients whose needs have had to give way before the greater danger, and one by one their wounds are bathed and dressed, and they are carried off by the bearers waiting near. 

“If you are to picture the scene at the Medical Aid Post during an action, as indeed at all the more advanced places of medical treatment, you must realise the awful circumstances of the time. The air is torn with the din and crash of the heavy guns that belch forth destruction on all sides, and with the constant crackle of the rifles and machine-guns. The bullets fly past with a hiss and a hum. As the shells cross a hollow in the ground, the sound of their flight gathers into a roar that is prolonged long after they have passed overhead. It is as if a thunderstorm had burst forth at your very ears and that seems as if it would never cease.

“Every now and then the doctor and those around him stand for a moment listening intently, and then duck suddenly as a shell tears past with a scream and falls a few yards off, shattering everything in its course. A few seconds later, perhaps without a trace of warning, there is a terrific crash overhead as if the storm had concentrated all its fury for one supreme moment. The shrapnel spatters the parapet and the trench with its deadly charge, and the doctor turns again to his work. He feels a sharp twinge in his arm where he thinks a lump of earth struck him, but that is nothing, and his work is pressing, paramount. The man on the ledge before him, whose hand he has just finished dressing, sits for a moment gazing at the opposite wall, and then rolls over heavily with a bullet through his brain. He is carried out gently, and it is then seen that the same shrapnel charge has found two of the other patients, who by this time have collected in a crowd round the doctor’ s dug-out, waiting their turn. They must all be seen to, and sent down the line as quickly as possible : faster than ever the work of bathing, dressing, and bandaging goes on.

“The doctor and his orderlies swab and cut and snip and tie until the crush is well-nigh over. His arm has been aching to the socket, but there has been no time to see to it, with so many that must be dressed and passed on, waiting by. His orderly has seen the blood oozing through his shirt sleeve and running down his arm; but there is blood everywhere, and who minds blood on such a day? With the lull that leaves a gap for thought, the doctor wonders if a lump of earth could really cause such pain, and there is a Stream of blood trickling down after all. With a feeling akin to annoyance, he finds a bullet hole right through his arm, and knows now that he himself must be dressed and bandaged, and join the throng that is passing on down the line.

But all this might be anywhere, albeit it bears the stamp of actuality in every line. Here, however, is something manifestly of Gallipoli; and of nowhere else. It is little more than a succession of brief and broken notes for the most part, hurriedly jotted down in the rare intervals of leisure coming in the midst of busy days and nights. The writer was surgeons orderly in an Advanced Dressing Station near the firing line at the top of one of the wildest ravines on the Peninsula, where he remained “quietly”· until the last hours of our occupation:-

“Life seems a weird affair up here, especially towards the small hours of morning. We have just got the last wounded man of the last batch of stretcher-cases bedded down with the rest ready for evacuation on the morrow. The M.O. has gone back to his dug-out pretty well fagged to death, and no wonder. R – and U – are already snoring under their blankets in the corner. By rights I ought to be doing the same. Instead of that, I am sitting on the operating-bench swinging my legs, my pipe-faithful friend through many a trying hour-well alight, and my thoughts browsing over the events of the day that is gone.

“Yes : this is a weird existence. It is quiet enough up here now – quiet, that is to say, except for the snores and groans of some forty wounded men huddled side by side and head to foot completely covering the floor of the long dressing station, and almost invisible under the dim light of the one smoky oil lamp. The big guns on the heights have been silent a long while now, and the rifle fire from our trenches has dwindled down to no more than an occasional shot when some vigilant sniper thinks he has got a chance. 

“It has been an awful day – of the worst I have been through, and I have seen a good many. I get down from the bench and, lifting the moth-eaten blanket that does duty for a door, stand out in the porch for a little while, to think it over. It does not do to go out too far. Though amidst the general hum of the night I can distinguish only the shots fired from the adjacent trenches, the air is full of the sound of passing bullets. They make a shrill high tune in the night as though a cloud of gnats were dancing in the moonshine. Now and again one passes ominously near – a couple indeed in quick succession bury themselves in the bank close at hand. They are spent bullets, mostly, but still capable of harm. I keep well under the iron and earth of the jutting roof-eaves, and turn over the events of the day that has gone. 

“It was Sunday. Word had come down to us betimes of what was brewing, and we had prepared for a busy day. The plan was simple. We knew the sappers had long been at work on a great mine. At two o’clock precisely our artillery was to open the ball, and our riflemen were to keep the Turks busy in their trenches in expectation of attack. Then the mine was to go up, and our men were to go over. 

“Well before the allotted time we had the dressing station prepared to the minutest detail, doctors and orderlies in their places, coats off and shirt sleeves tucked up; panniers open, dressings and bandages, solutions, splints, and instruments ready to hand. Every man of our bearer-section had gone up to the front hours ago. It wanted still some minutes to the time appointed. As we stood about with nothing to do, a low desultory talk went from man to man. But though each put in his word, nobody listened. We had ears only for what we expected outside – the boom of the first great gun which was to be the signal for the “big do”.’ Suddenly overborne by the tenseness of the situation, I came out then as I have come out now – came out to look upon one of the serenest pictures that ever eye could dwell upon. 

“It was a typical Sunday afternoon, drowsy, golden, and still. Above stretched the winter sky, of an unsullied tender blue. The deep ravine zigzagged away below me, its steep sides rising on either hand of a rich tawny ochre streaked and spotted with luxuriant green growth. Sheer above, against the blue sky, a tuft of yellow blossom nodded in the breeze that I could not feel down in the shelter of the gully. In the thicket of the opposing scarp one solitary bird, I knew not of what kind, was singing loud and clear. The flower was the only thing that moved, the bird’s song the only sound, in all the dreamy tranquil scene. I remember an odd catch in my throat as I looked out from the dressing-station door, suddenly aghast at the contrast between what was and what was soon to be. ‘God help us,’ I thought, ‘for a lot of wicked wanton lunatics!’ But had only a moment for this womanlishness. The long expected signal-gun crashed out from the battery on the heights, and the shell flew screaming away towards the Turkish lines. 

“There is one word to which, in his letters home, the soldier invariably resorts when he is trying to convey a notion of what a real engagement is like. But to call war Hell, in letters to home-keeping English folk, is of little avail, seeing that it is but comparing one unknown quantity with another. War, at least in its modern form, is really indescribable, incomparable. All you can do is to set down the facts in plain unvarnished words, and leave their sheer accumlulation to work what it can. 

“The warning shell flew northward. We never heard it burst, for within the merest fraction of time all the guns of our batteries had got to their work, and every rifle in the trenches had joined in the fell chorus. We could hear nothing but the one mighty sound. The ground trembled underfoot as though we stood on the deck of some fast-going destroyer. The earthen wall at the rear of the dressing station threw out a dry sweat of dust and little stones and flecks of soil. If one wished to speak to one’s neighbour, it could only be done by shouting in his ear.

“The Turk soon joined in. To the uproar from our own batteries and trenches was now added the sound of enemy shells. These began to fall uncomfortably near. Peering through the wirework and cotton netting that served us for window glass, I saw spurt after spurt of smoke rise from various parts of the ravine – smoke white, and grey; clouds of greenish-yellow, shaped like toadstools, sprang up in an infinitesimal space of time; huge, soaring, top-heavy cloud-pillars of Cimmerian black. These last were always the biggest, and brought with them a hideous double thunder-clap that was the very voice of mischief.

“The minutes dragged by for us in what nothing else than an Inferno of inactivity. Half an hour passed. And then the winding sunken path that led from the gully-track to the dressing station filled up with a jostling crowd of men. 

“From that moment until long after dark we were dressing and bandaging for dear life, in the literal as well as the figurative sense of the word. The laden stretchers, or as many as the place would hold, were brought inside. The rest were set down hurriedly without, and each bearer-party seizing a fresh stretcher from the pile in the corner, made off back to the firing-line for another load. With the bearers had come many wounded men who could walk, and these waited in a long queue outside. 

“Can words ever tell to those who have never been through it what it means to do a day’s work like that? I have heard men of the R.A.M.C. say that they soon got used to the horror of their trade, and came to think no more of handling shattered human bodies than of anything else. I envy them, but cannot understand them. All that long use ever brought to me was a great endurance, more readiness of resource, more dexterity and celerity of hand. To grow hard and callous in the face of unimaginable suffering may be a great comfort : it can never, I think, be anything else than a great misfortune alike to the dresser and the dressed. I never worked under a surgeon really high in his profession, who was not, beneath his surface of calm, firm capability, all pins-and-needles and tenter-hooks of compassion. In his humbler sphere, the surgeon’s dresser does well to be the same.

“That day ran through the whole of war’s gamut of horrors there was scarce any kind of dreadful laceration that shot and shell can produce that did not, at one time or other, come dripping and groaning through our door ; or come with that stark silence, that uncanny shapelessness, most hopeless of all. We kept doggedly on, hour after hour, and at last the full tide of wounded slackened, the stream thinned to a mere trickle – now and then a stretcher case, the bearers staggering and dragging their feet from sheer exhaustion ; now and then a couple of walking cases delayed on the shell-swept road; last of all, one who had missed the path altogether. And then darkness and the gradually slackening fire. Midnight saw the work finished, and our first chance with the bully and biscuits, and the dixie of tea that had been cold these last three hours. 

“Yes this is a weird existence ; and standing out here in the darkness under the great canopy of flinching starshine, puffing at my pipe and listening to the song of the bullets, I can see no end to it all.

Within a month Gallipoli was surrendered – gloriously evacuated with all the triumphant subtle art of retreat which is finer than victory, if you will. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was back at its base in Egypt. Already the new Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Murray, was at work on his great scheme of Egyptian defence which was destined

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