1918: Australians in France - Unsung heroes - Australia's medical personnel
As well as fighting personnel, there were other large Australian groups that participated in the First World War, and fought their own battles, such as the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC) and the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). Even in the early stages, it was clear to medical personnel that this war would likely result in unfamiliar injuries and illnesses, and on a scale previously unimaginable. From Gallipoli until months after the war, thousands of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, such as dentists, stretcher bearers, Voluntary Aid Detachment workers, veterinarians, and Red Cross personnel, laboured to try to save those who had been wounded or made ill by the unique conditions of the war.
One special person was Vera Deakin, daughter of former Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who headed the Australian Branch of the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. She said, "What we tried to accomplish as a bureau was to relieve as quickly as possible the anxiety of the relatives in Australia, to make the men realise that we were there to help and assist them in every way on our power, and to shield the authorities from unnecessary and duplicated enquiries." After 9 months in Cairo from 1914, Vera Deakin and her staff worked tirelessly in London, organising the thousands of enquiries (27,000 in 1917 alone) from concerned families in Australia. One such letter was:
Dear Miss V. Deakin,
I have to thank you for the kind and sympathetic letter I have received notifying me of the manner and details of the way in which my dear Brother (680 L/C G. Marginson 21st Batt.) met his death in action and the system by which you gain your information reflects great credit on your society which is doing so much now to alleviate the suffering of relations of the men who go out The greatest blow is over now.
Again thanking you I am yours
Gunner Arthur Marginson
Deakin married Sir Thomas White in 1919. They had corresponded during the war when Captain White was an Australian prisoner of war, and he gave the Bureau valuable information about missing men taken prisoner.
Deakin received an OBE for her work during the war. She continued with the Red Cross for the rest of her life, repeating her work in World War 2 by setting up a bureau of enquiry in Melbourne, and witnessing the same scenes of anxiety and heartache.
The majority of the accounts of the last moments of the Australians featured in the 1918: Australians in France exhibition were collected through the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau.
New types of warfare and weaponry employed throughout the First World War, such as faster bullets, bigger guns and shells, chemical weapons and trench warfare, took a huge physical toll on the soldiers who were at their mercy.
Australian medical personnel worked in a variety of settings, from casualty clearing stations close to the front lines, to large general hospitals in France and England, treating many different nationalities- Allied and enemy.
On the Western Front, the movement of the wounded to treatment was a complex, multi-stage process. Time delays were often fatal. For example, many of those with abdominal wounds died within a few hours from loss of blood if not treated. Not enough care and attention given to first aid led to high rates of infection, amputation and death.
As well, the conditions in which wounds and illness were received, the fact that penicillin and antibiotics had not yet been discovered, long delays in treatment, and understaffed medical centres meant that for many men, medical conditions that would not be considered serious today proved fatal.
At the outbreak of war, the Australian Army Medical Service was a small part-time specialised addition to the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). By 1918, it had become an independent force in its own right, and the contribution of its staff was immeasurable. Often short of supplies, and sometimes under attack themselves, the members of the AAMC and AANS saw in a unique way how destructive the war was. They showed great dedication in their service.
One of the most hazardous medical jobs was that of stretcher-bearers and field ambulance workers, who were often the first to see the wounded and to carry them to treatment. Frequently in the French battlefields, this would involve long and dangerous journeys on foot, carrying the wounded through mud and gunfire.
Seeking in the rain
Out among the flying death
For those who lie in pain,
Bringing in the wounded men-
Then out to seek again.
Out amongst the tangled wire
(Where they thickest fell)
Snatching back the threads of life
From out the jaws of Hell;
Out amongst machine-gun sweep
And blasts of shatt'ring shell.
For you no mad, exciting charge,
No swift, exultant fight,
But just an endless plodding on
Through the shuddering night;
Making ('neath a star-shell's gleam)
Where ere a face shines white.
To you all praise be due,
Who ne'er shirked the issue yet
When there was work to do;
We who've seen and know your worth
All touch our hats to you.
- An anonymous tribute to stretcher bearers written by an Australian soldier in 1918, in the AIF magazine, Aussie.
Many stretcher-bearers and medical personnel recalled that the worst part of the work in collecting the wounded was hearing them cry out for their family, especially mothers, which brought home to them how young most of the soldiers were. In addition to collecting and treating their own wounded, Australian medical staff treated many other nationalities, including Germans.