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Friday, April 25, 2014

Anzac Day 2014: Remembering Lemnos

Anzac Day 2014 and a particularly personal one for me as I have just returned from a visit (a pilgrimage) to the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Island of Lemnos (or Limnos). As you read this I will have joined the crowds at the Australian War Memorial ... far from the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli.

The reason for the trip primarily came from an idea of my husband’s to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, E.A. Bottrill (EAB) who served with the 22nd Battalion AIF. EAB was among the second contingent of Australian troops at Gallipoli. EAB’s story is not mine to tell but in the quest to walk in his shadow, DB expressed a wish to visit not only Gallipoli but the small Greek island of Lemnos, which played a crucial role in the Gallipoli campaign, and so off we went.

Why Lemnos?

Lemnos itself lacks the glamour and romance of the southern islands such as Santorini and Crete (and I think I can confidently attest to possibly being the only tourists on Lemnos in late March). It lies in the far north of the Aegean Sea and it is in its geography that you can see its importance, not just in 1915 but in ancient times.  Historically it boasts some of the oldest ruins of a “city” ever found - Poliochni - with close ties to Troy. Guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles,  it lies just sixty miles off the Gallipoli peninsula and Moudros harbour is a large, deep, natural harbour, well concealed from a casual passing ship. It played a small, but crucial role in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

(Ironically even before DB mentioned a desire to go to Lemnos, I had been researching its role from the perspective of the nurses who served in the Australian hospitals stationed on Lemnos between August 1915 and January 1916.)

The first soldiers landed at the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25th 1915. In February of that year, the Greek Government had offered the island of Lemnos, with its deep water harbour, as a base for the naval attack on the Dardanelles (which failed). It was decided to use Lemnos as the staging point for the land attack on the Gallipoli campaign. The geography of Lemnos does not lend itself to large scale habitation, however temporary. It is a dry, rocky and hilly island with a chronic shortage of water but by 21 April, thousands of allied troops were gathered on the island itself or in boats in the massive harbour of Moudros.

Nurses arrival on Lemnos
Originally it was planned to use Lemnos for the lightly wounded troops but early casualties quickly overwhelmed the facilities and it soon became apparent that there was a need for a closer medical facilities. In August 1915 the first Australian nurses (led by the redoubtable Matron Grace Willson) arrived on Lemnos to set up the Field hospital. They found the conditions dire. Wounded men lay on the open ground and lacking any supplies, the nurses had to tear up their own clothes for bandages.

Two areas were set aside for the wounded. The main Australian encampment comprising No. 3 General Hospital and No.2 Stationary Hospital (along with a British and Canadian Hospital) were sited on a promontory known as Turk’s Head (Moudros West). A second encampment was based around the little town of Moudros.

By mid October 4000 cases had passed through No.3 GH: 30% Australian troops, 13% NZ and 57% British and Indian troops. In the two months to October 57,000 sick and 37,000 wounded men were evacuated from Gallipoli. The hospital accommodation was increased to 9000 beds, accommodated in tents. Ships, known as the “black” ships, transported the casualties on to Egypt, Malta and England. In total from August until October 100,000 sick and wounded men left Moudros.
No. 3 General Hospital on Turks Head

The conditions the nurses worked under were atrocious. There was a chronic water shortage, making the washing of soiled linen almost impossible. This in turn led to illness caused by the insanitary conditions. The flies were atrocious and the rations sparse. Once winter came the conditions became even worse, the dust turned to clay so thick the women had to wear army boots. They lived in bell tents that provided inadequate protection against the cold winter wind.

In December 1915, the allies withdrew from Gallipoli. Having survived his Gallipoli experience unscathed, EAB spent several weeks recuperating on Lemnos before being shipped back to Egypt for exercises in the Sinai desert before being sent to the Western Front. The nurses left Lemnos in January 1916 aboard the Oxfordshire, profoundly grateful for comfortable beds, fine china, table linen and decent food. However as one wrote “… we can’t have worse times than we had for the first two months on Lemnos. Still I never regret going there…”*

Today on Lemnos there is nothing to see of the encampments. The only indication of the island’s involvment in the Gallipoli campaign are the two beautifully tended war cemeteries…one at East Moudros and one at Portianos. There you can see the beautifully tended graves not only of those soldiers, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and Indian but also Egyptian workers. Turk’s Head remains a wild bluff inhabited only by curious sheep.

Site of the Military hospitals on Lemnos 2014
With the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015, the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee has been established and you can read about its activities and the history of Lemnos’ contribution to the Gallipoli campaign on its website. Click HERE or visit them on FACEBOOK. They are raising money to build a proper memorial to the work of the nurses on Lemnos.

Pontias Military Cemetery 2014
*For more information on the World War I nurses, I refer you to THE OTHER ANZACS by Peter Rees.