Jack Rawson - transporting the wounded


This story continues the story of Dick Rawson’s father in World War I. Part I told of Nelson resident, Dick Rawson's father at the outbreak of World War I.

Dr. Jack Rawson joined the war as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and worked on hospital ships, transporting the wounded of World War I. Dr Rawson’s diaries and letters provide an insight into life on board the transport ships, as they carried and cared for the huge numbers of wounded from the battlefields of Europe and the Dardanelles. He also talked about the staff’s relaxation activities on those rare occasions when the ships' hospital beds were empty.

Raswon2 JackJack Rawson and a friend on board ship in World War I

Jack was a regular correspondent. In October, 1914 he wrote to his sister, Elsie:

My last letter to Mother was written on the way from St Nazaire to Southampton. We had about 400 wounded on board about half of which were lying down cases and the rest were able to walk about. We left St Nazaire last Wednesday afternoon after waiting for the wounded since the previous Sunday and got to Southampton on Friday night. We are left in a frightful state of suspense as to when we shall leave a port. When we got to St Nazaire we were told we should get the wounded on the Monday and then did not get them on board till Tuesday and another lot on Wednesday.

When we were coming up Southampton Water we were told to anchor off Netley, we were no sooner anchored  than they told us we were to go up to the Docks. Then a few minutes afterwards we were told to anchor again and then again to go to the Docks where we finally went. It does seem to me that there must be a great deal of mismanagement on the part of the authorities, as it is quite unnecessary to keep changing the orders to us within a few minutes of each other.

Jack comments again about mismanagement on a sailing to Dublin, where there were minimal facilities available for transfer of the sick and wounded to hospitals in Dublin and elsewhere. The men were often transported by horse-drawn dray attended by lay persons. Jack’s letter of October, 1914, continued to write about administration problems when he sailed to Le Havre, where he also wrote about the situation in France:

We are not full yet and are waiting for more; will probably not get off to Southampton till Friday. It was an awful nuisance being sent off so quickly from Southampton as there are lots of surgical necessities we want which owing to our hurried departure could not be got. We are running short of dressings as it is as in a short trip of only seven hours to Southampton one does not want many surgical things but it is necessary to provide for a long stay this side to compete with the cases. We were all allowed shore leave since we have been here but never for more than three hours at a time as one never knows when wounded may arrive. The town of course is full of the military, not so many English troops however as at St Nazaire. One or two troopships laden with English troops arrived since we have been here; - they are all so jolly and full of life, I wonder how many will ever see England again. Several hotels and public buildings have been turned into base hospitals, among them the Casino where wounded English are.”

This and other letters describe the transport of yet more Allied wounded and German prisoners (650 soldiers were mentioned in one letter) on the seven hour sailing to Southampton from St Nazaire, Le Havre and also Boulogne. Because of rough seas, on one voyage to Boulogne they were diverted to anchor off Le Havre before entering the port the next morning. “There was a fleet of nearly forty transports anchored off the town and thank goodness I wasn’t on any of them as they were pitching and rolling to an extraordinary extent.

Rawson2 HMS OxfordshireHMHS Oxfordshire, the first passenger ship to be converted as a hospital ship
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Jack’s letters also spoke of RAMC colleagues, from St Thomas’ Hospital, reflected general feelings towards the war and continued to write about the hospital ships. In a letter of 17 November, 2014, he wrote:

There is a St Thomas’s man on board I know quite well. As he is unqualified he went out as a dispatch rider and got his front tyre blown away by a shell. It must be a very dangerous thing to do…We had a good many of the London Scottish (Territorials) on board, from all accounts they seem to have got pretty cut up, but the general view is that we will win alright but from my point of view it does not do to be too “cocky”. Our men are having a jolly tough fight of it and from what I hear is the fiercest battle of the War, the Battle of the Aisne being nothing (in comparison) to it.....

 ....the Oxfordshire is a magnificent ship, about 8,000 tons with much lovely decks. We are fed like fighting cocks, about seven courses, for dinner lunch and breakfast. We each have a fine deck cabin to ourselves and altogether have a fine time on board. There are 20 Red- Cross sisters on board besides the medical staff which consists of six lieutenants (including your humble) and a colonel who is the Commanding Medical Officer. The Colonel is an awful sport and thoroughly liked but his adjutant, (the Captain, RAMC) is an awful little ass and we are always “pulling his leg” in which the Colonel takes great delight.........the Sisters are an awfully nice lot and we get on very well with them.

Rawson2 LeHavreLe Havre c. 1914
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Jack’s first posting ashore was briefly to the Quai d’Escales, in Le Havre,  then he was surprised and pleased to be sent to a “convalescent” hospital at the Palais des Regales – now occupied by some “fairly bad cases.”

........this is an awfully nice hospital, beautifully situated practically on the beach with light and airy wards – it used to be a very fashionable yachting club, in fact the elite of France, the Royal Yacht squadron of France. We have very nice rooms apparently formerly used as bathing rooms in the lower part of the building on the beach.—there are only the CO, three of us RAMC men and a dentist so we are considerably smaller lot than at the Quai d’Escale. We are quite luxurious here in the matter of beds, all of them having sheets including the MO’s --- there is electric light everywhere. This is quite the fashionable part of Havre.---- There is a chance of my getting more surgery to-day and the CO asked me if I would like to do an appendix so I will probably be given the next one that comes along.

After this was written Jack was transferred to HMHS Asturias and they set sail for the Mediterranean in 1915. In ideal conditions with empty hospital berths he wrote to his mother describing shipboard life:

We have been having a deck tennis tournament which has been great fun and has passed the time nicely. I and my partner have not done at all well as we haven’t won a single set – usually we are beaten six/love! Each couple has to play every other couple and as there are 17 of them we have to play 17 sets each which takes some time. I and my partner have 5 more to do which we will finish to-day.

We had great fun yesterday when we had an “Advertisement Tea” – each of us dressed up to represent some advertisement. The padre was about the best; he appeared in a seaman’s rig-out with sea-boots, oilskin and sou-wester and carried a great fish on his back. He represented the famous poster of “Scott’s Emulsion” and looked every bit like the original. I went as St Jacob’s Oil. I got some tow and made a long beard and wig  and put a rope quoit on my head to represent a halo. Then I put on an operating gown and held aloft a small bottle of water. A few guessed it but not very many; some of the sisters thought I represented Eno’s Fruit Salts which isn’t unlike it.

On another voyage he wrote:

During the days we were cruising about we fellows played hockey on the deck with a bit of rope as a ball and walking sticks as hockey sticks. It was very hot work and we all felt the better for it as we all want exercise” --- “we had a whist drive which we all enjoyed very much. Before we sailed I got a lot of very nice gramophone records, chiefly Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedies which will be nice for the “Tommies” We have had it going nearly every day and often take the gramophone up on deck. The padre has some absolutely topping Harry Lauder records which the “Tommies” will be hugely delighted in, I’m sure.

Later in 1915, this time on the troopship Knight Templar (“an old tramp with iron decks”), he wrote:

..... during the latter part of the voyage the orderlies had their sports, deck quoits etc. which were quite good and one evening they invited all the officers to the canteen where we had singing and drinks. I sang “The Admiral’s  Broom”1 – a very fine stirring song and several of the others sang too.

Little did they know that this seemingly luxurious cruise was heading to disaster. After a brief stopover at Malta they were told that that HMHS Asturias’  next destination was a sheltered Dardanelles harbour in the island of Moudros. Here they were to become moored with the battleships HMS Glory and HMS Gloucester Castle as HQ ships, then HMS Agamemnon (a “dreadnaught”) and HMS Aragon.

Rawson2 HMS AsturiasHMHS Asturias
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Back in London on July 28th, 1915, Jack wrote a detailed account of not only the bombardment at Gallipoli but also a lengthy and graphic account of the management of multiple casualties evacuated to his ship, HMHS Asturias,  and their transport to Alexandria then back to England. After Gallipoli Jack was transferred as an RAMC officer to a troop carrier. He wrote a detailed letter, this time from Salonika, Greece:

.....we are still at anchor waiting to be disembarked. Things are in a very extraordinary state here; there are any amount of different nationalities on shore – Turks, Bulgarians, Germans. Austrians & Greeks. The town is full of all these people mixed up with Greek soldiers, French & British. As Greece is still supposed to be neutral there are the German and Austrian consulates and they have a guard of German soldiers. The Turkish population is quite large and one sees quite a number of them ashore. The people are an awful cut-throat-looking lot and all officers walk about armed. I have not got a revolver yet but will get one when I have a chance but they are all so expensive. The Greeks all wear khaki and look very much like our soldiers but the officers wear yellow shoulder straps and yellow tab -- I haven’t seen any German officers myself but that there are some is a fact. The CO of the ship saw an official of the Austrian embassy the other day, the Austrian coat of arms on his cap! Weird situation if you like!!! Of course all movements of ships are carefully watched by all these rascals . The sooner Greece joins in one way or the other the better for all concerned I think I told you that the Asturias was in – well we moved closer in with the band playing and anchored quite close to her. I was simply itching to get on board but did not like to ask the captain for a boat as we had one out in the morning – I was very annoyed with myself as she went out next morning. Some of the officers here went on shore up to the Allied camp and said they could hear the guns at the front quite distinctly as it is only about 25 miles away! I went on shore yesterday with some sick to send to hospital and was told that the hospitals here are all under canvas. It must be awful for the poor fellows and especially for the nurses as it is awfully cold and foggy weather. Ever since we arrived  there has been a dense fog most of the time that we have to steer by the compass to row ashore.This is a dreadful country, nothing but rain, cold and fog and what it must be like up at the front, goodness only knows. We are all pretty sick of sticking on the ship so the last few days have been having boat races.....

2014 (Updated July 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Listen to Peter Dawson singing the Admiral's Broom on Youtube:

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