The other hero of Anzac


Sister Muriel Wakeford

Mopping up 

      Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.  
      – Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873–1961), nurse WWI1

There were to be few wounded.
Shipped up the Dardanelles to Constantinople after victory – 
which would come soon. From the hospital ship Gascon,
excited in the early dark at 3 am, Australian nurses 
watched the narrow beach of Gaba Tepe

Pitch-black silence – even the anchor had not been dropped –
the ship barely moved as barges headed for the narrow beach.
Holding field-glasses, seven women watched young men, tense,
crouch, ready for action. Then as light unveiled the land, 
towering cliffs above for the first time.

Air exploded in a roar thrust from an open-throated sky, 
rifles spitting a rage of bullets.  Sun rose 
blood-orange behind blue skies deadening with haze. 
Shouting was lost in chaos. Soldiers, stores, mules and 
wounded men on stretchers struggled to find vacant space.2 

Muriel Wakeford was stunned to see the ocean suddenly scarlet,
a shoal of new-mown corpses that lay face-down in the sea. She saw
what few steps most men managed before a grey hail began
dropping them like insects sprayed, but this was 
metal that raked the sea violently rocking the ship.

After the first repulse barges were ferrying wounded alongside,
fallen uniforms packed tight as tinned fish, the standing,
a melted body of khaki and blood. In ravines and 
down the spurs, a terrible lonely moaning, cries for help 
from those shattered human remnants stretchers could not reach.

But there were to be few wounded! Taken to Constantinople!
So only one hospital ship to treat four hundred sat ready. 
Now the ship’s doctor set about amputations, extracting eyes 
shrapnel had make useless under a sky darkening with green smoke. 
With five hundred and sixty aboard he insisted they sail for Egypt.

Month on month, ships would ferry cargoes of the mutilated.
Some went to Imbros, Malta, England.
In Cairo so many arrived, the amusement-park ticket-office 
transformed to an operating theatre, its skating rink, scenic railway space
and, without a flutter of irony, its skeleton house, became wards. 

Odd that nurses were led onto drought-dusted Lemnos by a piper.
Matron Grace Wilson and ninety-six women in long serge dresses
with starched white cuffs, disembarked to nothing. No housing, 
no hospital. Equipment had failed to arrive, 
There was no stored water on an island known to be dry.

Wounded lay in the dirt bleeding amid stones and thistles.
Her nurses tore their clothes to bits for bandages
but these barely touched wounds so massive 
all training seemed petty, too nice for this reality,
this new mechanics of war where shrapnel sliced flesh to shreds.

The women gave up their soap, cut their hair short 
hacking out burrs, wrapped themselves tight at night 
against hordes of centipedes. They erected tents over shattered bodies
watched death seep in through infected bandages, gangrene feet.
Grace could only wish all I knew [here] were killed outright.2

They never stopped working, slept rarely.
Water stayed scarce. In summer they bathed in full-length 
swimsuits in the sea. Salt-skin browned like dried fish.
Later, winter winds blew their canvas huts away nightly.
Feet frosted hard, cold took root in their bones.

Water always absent, thirst was never quenched. 
And their hunger for strong young men, backs erect, limbs 
swinging with clumped muscle instead of amputees, sacrifice for
some promised glory, ate into memory. They were called the “die-hard 
Australians”, and I tell you, they do die hard, too, wrote Muriel.3

To Turkey their future had been clear, not in any doubt.
Their defeat of the greatest navy in the world on March 18
would return an enemy in fury from pride alone.
Çanakkale hospital, local infirmaries, were frantically 
converted to twenty-five hospitals with eleven thousand beds.

From Gelibolu, Gulnihal, a passenger ship British-built in friendlier days,
carried wounded Turks across the strait, two to three thousand a day,
and when hospitals were swollen, inland to Anatolia.
Red Crescent had three converted passenger-to-hospital ships,
mirror image of the steaming coffin ships of their enemy. 

Balkan War I had depleted their armies of men and munitions
but it began an opening for women, nobility stepping out first.
When Dr. Besim Ömer Akalin visited New York in 1912 
he saw nursing flowering, imagined green shoots, and returning,
insisted Red Crescent start training volunteer women.
Force-fed courage by sacrifice of brothers, husbands, fathers, sons, 
they pushed themselves out beyond the Great Sewing Campaign
that clothed their men in rough uniform before they marched.
It was time for the unveiling of women, for belief in their own strength,
a fierce compassion that comes out of being sucked into the mire of loss.

Photos show them dressed in white, long headscarves to long skirts,
names unrecorded. Inspired by Florence Nightingale’s work in Istanbul 
when Britain was Turkey’s ally in the Balkan war, they assumed her ideas on 
hygiene, carried a Turkish lamp through wards treating men 
much as The Lady herself had done. Hospital death-rates were low.

Muslim, non-Muslim doctors, worked with nurse volunteers.  
Public buildings, Gülhane and Istanbul medical schools, became wards.
A great vacancy had inhabited them, their students sent to the front,
grade by grade mowed down. Classrooms re-filled quickly with 
boys who had trudged away, now torn, shattered, limbless.

Militaries call it mopping up – killing the last vestiges of an army.
Women mean, cleaning up, repairing, making spotless. 
Florence taught what they all learned, west and east –
compassion is the salve beneath the gauze that heals.
Yet for some pain, morphia, good as it is, is not as good as death.4

They stitched, cleaned gastric away, gagged on gangrene stench,
soiled their own skin with blood and spit, shit and foul language.
They held eyes that dangled, shot out; pressed their elbows into holes in backs 
blown away by mortars; stuffed their fists into spurting arteries.
They saw through to the bone in every way.

They learned a deeper pain in nursing, not for health,
but to refit an armed force with patched-up husbands and sons,
knowing that ripped apart in body and mind, as soon as flesh was 
repaired, they’d shrug up their rifles and packs, strap their faces 
into the resignation of obedience, and go back to be shattered again.

1Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873–1961) in The Backwash of War. The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse. American nurse, Author, Journalist, French field hospital WWI, Publishers: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, 1916. Suppressed and republished 1934, p. 55

2 Sister Muriel Wakeford in  ‘Tales of a World War I heroine’,  Illawarra Mercury, Wednesday November 20, 2013 by Jodie Duffy, April 21, 2013, 3:58 p.m.

3Matron Grace Wilson in The nurses' experience of Gallipoli from their letters,

4Muriel Wakefield op.cit

5Ellen La Motte, op. cit

Robyn Rowland

Dr Robyn Rowland AO is a third generation Irish-Australian who has been reading and teaching in Ireland for 30 years. This poem is from her forthcoming bi-lingual book of poetry, Intimate War.

Topic tags: Robyn Rowland, Muriel Wakeford, nursing, health, Anzac, war, modern Australian poetry



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Existing comments

Beautiful, moving comment on this tragic moment. Excellent way to distinguish the contemporary male and female attitudes to war. Well done Robyn. We anticipate the book with relish!

tony | 14 October 2014  

And Tony there were good blokes too-my former deceased PP: "Right in the middle of a furious fire-fight, Father Nobby Earl suddenly appeared, walking with a shovel over his shoulder towards an Australian soldier who had just been shot , and clearly killed, in no-man’s land between the two forces. War or no war, bullets flying or no bullets flying— but by God it was the former— Nobby was going to give the fallen soldier an immediate Christian burial. As soon as he moved in front of the Australian soldiers they of course immediately stopped firing, and then the most extraordinary thing happened… The Japanese also stopped firing. Yes, Father Nobby was clearly distinguishable as a man of God, with his priestly ‘dog-collar’ plainly visible; but it was by no means certain that all of the Japanese soldiers would recognise that, and just one easy shot from one of them would have brought him down. But nary a shot. Maybe it was his simple courage that stopped them;"The two forces waited in the simmering jungle as Father Nobby dug a shallow grave, manhandled the soldier into it, covered it again and said his prayers. Then, equally purposefully, he put the shovel once again over his shoulder and walked back towards the Australian perimeter. At the very instant he was safely out of harm’s way, the Japanese unleashed a fusillade to wake the newly dead. It was back on, and it went through the night…" FitzSimons, Peter (2010-12-16). Kokoda

Father John George | 14 October 2014  

This piece of writing should be force-fed to every politician who has any say in sending men or women to War. A beautiful and terrible poem.

Vin Victory | 14 October 2014  

How this mirrors the probable accuracy of the recent ABC Series which filled out and sharpened my understanding of WWI.

ingrid Clark | 14 October 2014  

Wonderful. I don't think this was centred on male/female divisions, though. I read it as a paean of praise for nurses, female and male, and their glorious tradition, from Louise de Marillac to Florence Nightingale to the Anzac nurses and today. I hope this kind of writing is part of nurse education in every country. (Especially when men are leaving so much mopping up to be done, admittedly).

Joan Seymour | 14 October 2014  

An important piece of writing as we look back on WWI. This moving description also carries obvious parallels with today's issues. Dealing with ebola also requires courage from health workers. And war in our times still causes horrific injuries and calls on medical personnel who provide 'compassion [which] is the salve beneath the gauze that heals'. We need to affirm the courage of medical staff in all arenas.

Name | 16 October 2014  

We need to build the emotional stamina and courage now to delve into these expressions of real war so that we work against it in future. Sometimes it can't be avoided because humanity is fallen and embedded in ways that grew sinful as did Abraham's people - ancient wisdom.Military is a job and good fortune its survivors. Others are dead or maimed themselves and sometimes their families. Thank you Robyn for expressing war so poignantly for us.

Mary | 17 October 2014  

Thank you all for these responses. great feedback. I do hope you like book Tony when it's out. it is called This Intimate War. Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – Içli Disli Bir Savas. Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 , and will be available from Five Islands Press, Melbourne, 2015.

it represents the experiences of both the Turkish and Australians through that part of the war.

Robyn Rowland | 18 January 2015  

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