Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Voice From Gallipoli: Part II

The most memorable account I can think of about the BMH Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, is Roald’s Dahl’s in Going Solo. Dahl is best known for having written Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but long before Charlie, Roald Dahl was a pilot in the RAF during World War Two (he was also a secret agent, afterwards, but this doesn’t matter at the present); he crashed his Gloster Gladiator in the desert and his face was reconstructed in Alexandria. I’m going to guess that very little had changed since 1915, when allied soldiers were being sent there from Gallipoli.
Yale Commencement program,1911
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great (no big surprises, there) and is probably best known for its extensive Library. But the Library wasn’t just a library; it wasn’t like your local stopping place for the latest Harry Potter movie…no, this library had all the ancient texts of literature, science, medicine…and was, in fact, only one piece of the Musaeum, a great institution of learning dedicated to the Muses of Greek mythology (‘museum’, anyone?). The Musaeum was like a University long before there were Universities; all the greats came to study there. The place hosted (among others) Euclid, father of geometry, Archimedes, father of engineering, Herophilus, the founder of the scientific method…but most importantly for our purposes, Erasistratus, the man who, in the 3rd century, founded the Academy of Medicine, one of the oldest medical schools ever reordered.
Archimedes' 'eureka!' moment, when he discovered how
to determine the volume of an irregularly shaped object.
eg: a crown
He once said that if he had a lever long enough,
he could move the World.
Galen, one of the very greatest medical researchers of all time, studied there, but unfortunately, the fire that destroyed the Library, also destroyed the medical school. Time wiped away the Musaeum, yet the learning and knowledge that went on there were not completely lost; today our understanding of the world- of physics, engineering, chemistry, mathematics and medicine- is firmly built upon the stones these thinkers carved out of the rock.
The Tower of Hercules in Spain is an ancient Roman lighthouse
built along the same lines as the Pharos of Alexandria
Alexandria is such a strategic locations with its two big harbors, it’s hardly surprising that it played an important role in both World Wars. It served as a British command center, and for thousands of injured soldiers, it was an oasis in the desert, a place where they returned from the front line, little knowing that the methods used to treat their injuries were based on the hard won knowledge of thinkers who had stood on the same ground a thousand years before.
It was from Alexandria that the second letter from Martin was sent. I wonder if he knew the history of the place. Of the Pharos, the giant lighthouse that had once lighted the way of a thousand ships. And of the Musaeum, which shaped the world that came after.
I will stop talking now and let you read Martin’s letter. Please bear in mind that he describes some injuries, so if you are squeamish, proceed with caution. Like the last, original spelling and punctuation have been preserved.
No 19 General Hospital
31st Aug
Dear (great-grandmother’s name),
I wonder if you ever got my little note written from the hills.
Well if you did this is the sequel. I have been one of the lucky ones and still am to be writing this note, but they got me alright. No I in the left thigh and No 2 a little later on, broke my left arm.
Then I went down.
This was on the 10th and I am down splendidly. Blood poisoning all gone, & beginning to sit up and take a little nourishment. 
I hope to be able to go home in about a fortnight. And shan't I just be glad to see the old place again.
A year's soldiering is pretty strenuous!
But fellows are really fighting splendidly, especially the Australians & New Zealanders.
Some of the positions are like going up the side of a house, and directly one shows an eyelid you get shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire simply poured at you. If I come through this show and I ever see a man shooting a rabbit again, I'll kill him. I could tell you quite a lot of interesting things but the censor forbids. The Turkish snipers are the very devil, I caught one up a tree in a sort of green cage. His face was painted green and his rifle and clothes. Truly a hoary old villain, and stacks of a-mution. Their fellows pick off a lot of our men, they are very daring and cleverly conceal themselves.
Egyptian stamp, 1914
You will see form the lists, that my regiment had a bad time, 23 out of 26 officers gone. It's awful to lose you pals like this, & I am afraid in my present state I get awfully depressed.
But we didn't half make some ground! The Turk (?) on the whole is quite a gentleman in his fighting. His German master has taught him some of them some of his dirty tricks.
A captain pal of mine who was hit close to where I was laying wounded, was hit in the thigh by either an expanding or explosive bullet.
It simply blew the whole of his thigh out. He died in about half an hour of loss of blood, and I couldn't move to help him. A corporal in my own lo(?) was hit in the stomach by a similar bullet, with the same result. There are tact's that happened to come under my notice. We ought to do the same, but somehow we simply don't!
I know you are with us in spirit, so you will be glad to know we shall be through the narrows soon. It's costly but it's going to be done.
I am going to stop now I am getting tired. I hope you can read my scrawl, but writing is not quite so easy as usual just now. Kind thoughts to you and regards to family.
Yours very sincerely,

I apologize profusely for my absence all this time. I have not been at all well these past six months; sometimes it is a struggle to even get up in the morning, and trying to write a blog post with my foggy brain is pretty much impossible. I hope you will continue to stick with me, anyway.


  1. I'm getting a bit teared up just reading that letter; I mean, it's mostly a very straightforward, matter-of-fact letter, but ... the poor fellow. Man. I don't get choked up too easily.
    Have you ever tried to find him? Find a grave, maybe, or something? I can't remember if you mentioned whether you even know his last name.
    Also, if you don't mind a bit of a personal question, why don't you let us know your great-grandmother's name? Not a criticism, just curious :D I think it's amazing that you have these letters, written years ago by someone who has probably been forgotten by everyone else in the world. I hope he made it through that awful war alright, and got back home (didn't he say in the other letter that he'd just gotten married?).
    I hope you yourself are feeling much better; my prayers are with you!

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Psyche, and I'm with Laura Elizabeth as above: have you tried to trace him?
    Hope you're feeling better soon,

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Since you both ask the same question, I'll answer you together.

    Tracing him would probably be possible, but it would be a monumental task. I don't know his regiment, or his last name. One envelope is missing, the other is redirected: sent care of someone else. There is no address. There are probably hundreds of Lieutenants named Martin who served at Gallipoli and later ended up hospitalized in Alexandria.Trying to find any information about the BM Hospitals in Alexandria, let alone records of patients, is next to impossible. Military records are a challenge because everyone remembers something different and war diary excerpts generally cost something to view. Not too long ago, we were trying to trace the exploits of my great Uncle (who fought and died in WWII) and despite knowing his name, serial number and squadron, we still can't figure out anything about what he did, or what rank he was (somebody forgot). I'm afraid the secret of Martin died with my great grandmother in the 1970s; she never spoke of these letters to anyone.

    Martin definitely returned to England. He was being invalided home, and unless his troop ship was torpedoed he would have made it back. However, I don't know if his injuries were extensive enough for him to stay home for the rest of the war.

    Thank you so much again, for your comments!


  4. One tiny fact in his second letter gives Martin's Regiment! He mentions "23 out of 26 officers gone." This was the number of officers and fatalities for the 6th Yorkshire Battalion of the 32nd Brigade (Alexandra Princess of Wales Own).
    I quote from (cross referenced) Wikipedia: "The 6th Yorkshire Battalion of the 32nd Brigade was the first Kitchener Army unit to be involved in a major offensive operation of the war. Their action at Lala Baba Hill, on 7 August 1915, during the Suvla Bay landings, was costly, the commanding officer – Lieutenant Colonel E H Chapman – was killed as were all but 3 of the officers"
    Martin, as he wrote, was lucky.
    It would also seem he carried on being lucky, because I have searched the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, and there is no grave or memorial for any Lieutenant forenamed Martin, killed after the date of his letter. Therefore, invalided out of the forces or sent on to the Somme with his regiment, Martin survived the war.
    If I find more, I'll let you know.

    1. Wow, thank you for finding that information! If he was from Yorkshire, specifically Wakefield, he was possibly a relative of ours (however, I think that's probably unlikely). I looked for his name here: but didn't find him. Today is one of my 'I can't think clearly' days, so I'll look again later.

      If you do find out more, do let me know, and thank you /so/ much for what you've done already.


    2. Wow, thank you for finding that information! If he was from Yorkshire, specifically Wakefield, he was possibly a relative of ours (however, I think that's probably unlikely). I looked for his name here: but didn't find him. Today is one of my 'I can't think clearly' days, so I'll look again later.

      If you do find out more, do let me know, and thank you /so/ much for what you've done already.


  5. Have not found any more info on Martin, but the following link is to a photo of the 6th Battalion's officers just prior to embarkation, so Martin should be in it!