Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Nurses' stories – photographs of Lemnos

The 3rd AGH (Australian General Hospital) Lemnos Island, Greece, 1915

The 3rd Australian General Hospital, AIF, was set up in response to a request from the British War Office by Thomas Henry Fiaschi, a well-known Italian surgeon. Fiaschi had had a distinguished career as a military surgeon serving with Australian forces during the Boer War where he was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and he was appointed the commanding officer of 3AGH. On 15 May 1915, the new unit sailed from Circular Quay, Sydney, on the Mooltan just one month after its formation had been requested. On board were a number of AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) nurses. As recalled by Sister Anne Donnell, their uniforms were heavy and the weather on the voyage warm:

We had another full dress parade this a.m. and sweltered in our heavy serge dresses, and wrung the perspiration out of them afterwards. Words fail me while this heat lasts - honestly we haven't ceased sweating since the third day out from Australia. A Sergeant-Major died suddenly in the small hours this morning - owing to the heat.

[Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920, pp.9-10)

EnlargeAustralian sisters on board S.S Mooltan, 1915
Australian sisters on board S.S Mooltan, 1915 [AW Savage, photo album, PXE 698, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

The Mooltan arrived in Plymouth, England, on 27 June and the unit travelled to London. There, preparations were made for their service in France at Etaples. However, on 1 July, 3 AGH received orders to proceed to Mudros on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea near Gallipoli. They were advised that a site had been selected for the tent hospital and that it would be provided with huts about six weeks after their arrival in Mudros.

The days before embarkation were spent in organisation. Both the Australian Red Cross and benefactors in Australia had assisted with equipment and donations for the hospital. All of these, as well as further purchases made in London, including a small laundry plant, had to be loaded on the supply ship, Ascot. On 12 July, Colonel Fiaschi and most of the male personnel embarked on the transport, Simla at Devonport. The men arrived at Mudros on 27-28 July, before the arrival of the Ascot.

The nurses, who had remained in London, embarked in two groups, six days after the men. Sailing on the Themistocles and the Huntsgren, they disembarked at Alexandria on 30 July-1 August. Those who arrived first were distributed between other Australian hospitals pending their embarkation for Lemnos.

At 5 pm on 2 August 1915, the nurses sailed for Mudros on the hospital ship, Dunluce Castle. They reached Mudros on 5 August to find that the Ascot still hadn't arrived:

The officers and men are bivouacking amongst the rocks and stones and thistles of the camp site - there are no tents: no store-ship.

[Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, '3rd Australian General Hospital', manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224]

EnlargeArrival of first detachment of Sisters on Lemnos Island. They marched to the hospital headed by a piper.
Arrival of first detachment of Sisters. [AW Savage, photo album, PXE 698, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

With no accommodation ashore, the nurses were transferred from the Dunluce to the Simla, anchored in the harbour. Six of the nurses left for 10 days temporary duty on board the hospital ship, Formosa.

By 7 August, after lots of hard work, the hospital site was pegged out and some marquees that had been found in a small ordnance store were erected. At about 7 p.m. on 8 August, forty of the nurses were landed and, accompanied by a piper, were marched into their new tents. The remainder landed at North Pier the next day, the day the hospital opened. [Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, 3rd Australian General Hospital, manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224]

Before breakfast on 9 August, more than 200 wounded and sick had been admitted to the new hospital. Four days later, there were more than 800 patients:

The officers' mess and all utensils were given up today for wounded as was the orderly office marquee. Still no store ship and making do … AGH personnel still bivouacking … Sick and wounded on ground on mackintosh sheets and blankets or palliasses on floor of tents

[Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, 3rd Australian General Hospital, manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224]

Enlarge The firing after a burial, Lemnos Island
The firing after a burial, Lemnos Island [AW Savage, photo album, PXE 698, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

The entries in 'The Register of Deaths' of 3AGH showed the different causes of death during the Gallipoli campaign. For example, the four soldiers who died on 9 August – the day the hospital opened - all did so from gunshot wounds. Indeed, between 9 August and 22 August, 32 men died of wounds and only one of disease. These days marked the height of the 'August Offensive' on Anzac and thousands of wounded were being brought to all the hospitals on Lemnos. Although it was an Australian unit and the policy was, where possible, to treat Australians in Australian hospitals, the 3AGH admitted large numbers of wounded from all the allied armies. Of the 32 who died of wounds at 3AGH during the 'August Offensive' only seven were Australian soldiers. After the end of August 1915, most of the deaths at 3AGH were from disease.

The first entry in the 'Register' is for Private Eric Bloom, 2nd Battalion, AIF, who died from a severe gunshot wound. He was actually 'admitted dead'. It is likely, although not certain, that he received his wound during his battalion's participation in the Lone Pine battle of 6 to 9 August. Over those three days, 172 men of the 2nd Battalion were either killed or wounded.

The Ascot, carrying all the 3AGH's main stores, finally arrived at Mudros on 20 August. However, in late October, when Staff Nurse Anne Donnell arrived at Mudros, she wrote that although huts were being prepared for them, the Australian nurses were still in tents, unlike their Canadian and English colleagues who were already living comfortably in huts on the island. The 3rd AGH was not the only hospital on Lemnos. There was also the 2nd Australian Stationary Hospital, the 1st and 3rd Canadian Hospitals, convalescent camps and various English hospitals situated at Mudros and East Mudros. Sister Donnell recalled the miserable autumn at Mudros:

Enlarge Winter time
Winter time [AW Savage, photo album, PXE 698, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

The weather is terrible, bitterly cold, with a high wind and rain. We are nearly frozen, even in our balaclavas, mufflers, mittens, cardigans, raincoats and Wellingtons. It's a mercy we have ample warm clothing else we should perish. Last night five tents blew down, one ward tent and four Sister's tents.

[Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920, p.58]

She also lamented their diet: no fruit or vegetables and butter and eggs only once a month.

On 4 November, Colonel Fiaschi, who was seriously ill, was evacuated to London and Lieutenant Colonel Constantine De Crespigny took over as Commanding Officer until the 3rd AGH left Lemnos for Egypt in January 1916. When the 1040 bed hospital closed in Egypt in January 1916, it had treated 7400 patients of whom only 143 had died. The hospital later went from Egypt to Brighton, England, and then to Abbeville, France where it was based until 1919.

Sources:

  • Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, '3rd Australian General Hospital: Formation of at Sydney, NSW, April 15th 1915, voyage to England and to Lemnos 1915, establishing at Mudros West, Lemnos', manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224.
  • Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920.
  • 'Register of Deaths', 3rd Australian General Hospital, Mss 408, Australian War Memorial 224.
  • 3rd Australian General Hospital war diary, Unit War Diaries 1914-18 War, items 26/18/19, Australian War Memorial 4.
  • For more information on Thomas Henry Fiaschi see the Hawkesbury District Health Service website.