Jack Rawson at Gallipoli


Nelson resident, Dick Rawson, tells the story of his father’s role, as a doctor, in World War I. This is part three of Jack Rawson’s story. Part one spoke of the outbreak of War and part two of the early years, transporting the wounded. It is now 1915. On July 28th of that year Jack wrote from London to his mother in Wellington, about his experiences transporting the wounded of Gallipoli.

“My Dearest Mother, As you can see I am back here on a few day’s leave after having returned from the Dardanelles yesterday. I got a whole budget of most interesting letters from you and Dad at Southampton, the collection of a month, as it is almost impossible to get letters sent on when we are in the Mediterranean. I wrote to you at Malta but am very much afraid I put things I ought not to have said in it and think it very probable that the letter was torn up by the Censor. Censoring is so strict on board that we are not allowed to say where we are or where we are going, in fact nothing of any interest except the bare fact that one is alive and well still.

Rawson Matthew Holmes Frank Davison pose in a dugout GallipoliMatthew Holmes and Frank Davison in a dugout in Gallipoli. Frank was killed leading a bayonet charge on Sari Bair, 3 days before this letter was written. Matthew, an MO ashore on Gallipoli, died in the ‘flu’ pandemic after the war Both were brothers-in-law of Jack Rawson. Both were commemorated by a bell in Wellington’s carillon. Click image to enlarge

Well to start with we left Southampton about the 29th June and got to Malta in about 10 day’s time, we had the most glorious weather imaginable and frightfully hot with the sea like a mill pond the whole way. We passed Gibraltar early one morning and all got up to have a look at it, though it was a good way off the Rock looked magnificent in the early morning sun. We passed closer to the Moroccan side which looked very fine indeed. The next land we saw was the glorious Sierra Nevada and afterwards the north coast of Algeria. We passed a very interesting island called Dansellaria [probably Pantelleria] off the coast of Tunis and belonging to Italy; It is all most wonderfully terraced for wine growing and looks very fertile. Well we arrived at Malta early in the morning and all got up to look at it; I never was so surprised to find it such a barren place and the weird way the houses are built there are most extraordinary. We were not allowed ashore as we were told that we were leaving in an hour but of course we ended by staying till 2pm when we left for the Dardanelles. During the morning the Maltese came alongside the ship in boats and sold all sorts of things, Maltese lace etc which we got very cheaply after beating them down. We lowered baskets over the side of the ship with the money in and hauled up the things. We had a lovely trip up to the Dardanelles passing quite close to Cape Matapan on the south side of Greece but didn’t see much of the Greek islands as it was dark when we passed them. We did not go straight up to the Dardanelles but anchored in a bay of an island about 50 miles away and stayed there 4 days.

………… We left the island on Sunday morning July 11th for Cape Helles which is the extreme end of the Gallipoli Peninsula and got there in about 5 hours. We had no idea we would see so much of the fighting but were told before that we should have the shells bursting not closer than half a mile from the ship. The first thing of the fighting that we saw was some smoke of the guns rising from Cape Helles, then we saw tremendous shells bursting over on the Asiatic side which was about 4 miles away. We were close enough to see the parapets of the Turkish Batteries with the naked eye.

We anchored about ¼ mile from the Cape and the next thing that happened the Turks dropped 4 high explosive shells on the camp on shore which exploded with a terrific report, shaking the ship with the concussion and sending up clouds of dirty yellow smoke and dust. You see on the extreme end of Cape Helles there is a camp and on the edge of the cliff and several of our batteries which fire over at the Turks on the Asiatic side which have a nasty habit of pounding the camp with big shells. Then further inland we could see about 4 miles away the hill of Achi Baba with the valley in front of it where all the fighting is going on. There were an enormous number of high explosive shells bursting in the valley the whole afternoon, the Turks getting the range pretty accurately lots of times.

We took on a few wounded in the evening; they were brought out in lighters towed by a launch and hoisted on board by a crane. A few of the medical staff on shore came aboard and they told us that what we had seen was quite ordinary and in fact a quiet day. We were told there was going to be a general advance the next day so we felt rather excited. Sure enough about 4.30 the next morning the bombardment started developing in intensity till it was absolutely continuous for about 3 hours making it quite impossible to sleep. An English then a French warship came up and joined in the bombardment and every time one of their big guns went off the concussion shook the whole ship; I can tell you it was mighty exciting. All the morning a tremendous lot of high explosive shells were bursting in the valley of Achi Baba besides lots of shrapnel which latter type of shell looks very pretty bursting in the air.

In the afternoon about 4pm another English warship came up and fired her 13 inch guns at the summit of Achi Baba and also into the village of Krithia where we could see with glasses the shells were doing some harm. The warship was only about ¼ mile from us and it was magnificent shooting to see her great guns sticking out from her side and fire about three of them at once a 12 inch, 6 inch and 9.4 which made a most tremendous report and made the windows rattle on “Asturias”. The warship was firing about 19 shots a minute. There was another similar bombardment on the Tuesday when it said in the paper “we tried to capture some of the trenches we had lost the previous day”.

With regard to the peninsula at the extreme point of Cape Helles there are the remains of the fort of Sedul Bahr with close to it the steamer “River Clyde” which was run ashore and her sides knocked out when the Expeditionary Force first landed. Then about 100 yards from us were the remains of the hull of the “Majestic” quite close to the shore. Then on the cliff facing us were the dug-outs which were simply holes dug in the sandy soil and pretty well protected from the shells. Then on the Asiatic side are two ruined forts but the one that is not silenced is simply a battery behind earthworks where the ruined forts were placed like mediaeval castles with high stone walls around them.

Embarking patients at Gallipoli. Retrieved from The New Zealand Hospital Ships. NZETCEmbarking patients at Gallipoli. Retrieved from The New Zealand Hospital Ships. NZETC
Click image to enlarge

The Australians and New Zealanders are on the other side of Achi Baba so that the Turks are between two fires and also the troops on the Cape Helles side. While we were watching the bombardment on the Sunday a German plane flew overhead but did not drop any bombs and afterwards a French aeroplane.

We took on wounded all Monday and Tuesday and got away early on Wednesday morning for Alexandria with over 1,500 cases on board mostly pretty bad ones. Of course coming straight off the battlefield they were dirty and filthy to a degree. We had so many on board we had stretcher cases on deck as we were full up elsewhere. We were very much under staffed and what with the excessive heat, the smells and the flies it was the most awful experience we have ever had. We were dressing cases from morning to night and even then missed some who were on deck and very bad ones too. To make the heat greater we had a beastly wind behind us going the same rate as the ship and you can understand what it is like without anything to do in the tropics. My wards are down in the steerage and are very dark and stuffy so you can imagine what it was like; one man for instance I found with a stinking wound covered with maggots. That really was the most disgusting sight I ever saw but I had him taken up to the theatre and properly cleaned up and he got on wonderfully well after that. We had about 25 deaths on board on the way to Alexandria from an awful thing called “gas gangrene” which is a frightfully rapid process of mortification spreading from perhaps quite a trivial wound and causing the death of a patient in about 12 hours. We have never seen a case before but we got a regular epidemic of it, think it must have been largely conveyed by flies from one case to another. Of course one must remember that we were doing the work of a Field Hospital, Base Hospital and Hospital Ship all rolled into one as conditions are so bad in Gallipoli with the heat, continuous shelling etc that all the wounded are taken straight on to the ships no matter how bad they are, in fact some came on board in a dying condition and succumbed shortly after being on board. It certainly an awful place, Gallipoli, far worse than France where the conditions are so much better in every way. There is one thing however about the transport of wounded at the Dardanelles and that is there are not all the stopping and changing from train to boat etc. They are simply taken to the Dressing Station, then to the Field Hospital and then straight on to the boat in lighters which must be a jolly sight more comfortable than jolty trains.

Rawson family imageMembers of the Rawson, Holmes and Davison families. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-014652-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22851155. The author’s grandparents, father’s two sisters and four first cousins. The two boys (one being the baby) are Davison brothers being fatherless sons of Frank Davison, killed at Gallipoli. The two girls are Holmes sisters whose father Matthew was also at Gallipoli, as a medical officer. He died of influenza in 1919. Click image to enlarge

On the ship to Alexandria there were about 20 operations a day chiefly amputations of arms and thighs for this beastly gas gangrene. It is absolutely appalling how many poor fellows were thus maimed for life if they ever recovered. We got to Alexandria on Friday only 2 days’ steaming and there disembarked all the light cases and took on about 200 convalescent. We left on Saturday evening and from there home we could cope with the cases better as we had a good deal of help given us by medical officers who were coming home on leave and also by some very efficient RSMC who were patients. However there were still a great many deaths from gas gangrene and some from tetanus and there were a continuous lot of funerals every day, the cases being buried at sea. Fortunately we took on a Presbyterian parson at Alexandria to conduct the funerals as it was really too much for the C.O. who was nearly worked to death with operations. We were all very glad to get away from Alexandria as the heat was really beyond a joke and we were all getting knocked out by it. It was very hot though through the Mediterranean but we had a nice breeze up to Malta which cooled things a bit. The authorities wanted to send on more wounded but suddenly changed their minds and sent us off. We called at Gibraltar for water last Friday and arrived at Southampton on Tuesday morning.  We were all very taken with Gibraltar though we were not allowed ashore, it is much bigger and more fertile-looking than I thought and what a beautiful bay that is with Algeria on the other side of it!

Rawson HPR Alice Frank marriageFrank Davison weds Jack’s sister, Alice, in 1912
Click image to enlarge

When we were at Cape Helles I inquired after Matthew and Frank but couldn’t find out anything about them but they were probably with the Australians [see caption in top image]. Two of my patients were New Zealanders but they belonged to the one and only battery that was operating with the British troops – all the others were with the Australians. Just before we got to Southampton I came across a sergeant in the NZ forces who had his thigh amputated and likewise was wounded in the other leg. He said the Australians mistook him for a Turk and turned a machine gun on him and wounded him in the leg but the wound that necessitated amputation of the thigh was done by a Turk. Well, this man’s name was Clark and he comes from Wellington. He has been in the firm of David Nathan & Co for 20 years and knows Dad by sight. He belongs to the same swimming club as Walter Rawson ………………………………… He seems a very gentlemanly sort of man about  45-50 and wears a ginger moustache and beard like the King. Very extraordinary meeting him, wasn’t it? He said I was the first Wellingtonian he had met and seemed greatly pleased about it.

Oh by the way, I heard from an Australian Army Medical Corps orderly who came back with us from Alexandria that Matthew was with the Australians in charge of a Field Hospital at a place called Gabademe on the Peninsula and that the Turks had been shelling it very heavily. All the Tommies speak very well of the Turks, say they play the game and don’t do dirty tricks. Certainly when we were laying off Gallipoli it was the easiest possible thing for the Turks to fire on us and if one of their shots at the warships went a little wide it might easily have hit us. The Turks don’t deliberately fire on hospitals but as a battery is often placed near, one cannot be surprised if a hospital gets hit. Most of the officers seem to think they ought to get to Achi Baba soon but realise they have a tremendous task in front of them. I certainly think the Turks must be getting short of ammunition as they scarcely ever reply to the warships fire and never do  any big gun firing at night so that the nights are almost quite quiet with the exception of some rifle firing.

Well must really stop now, only have four days leave this time, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me very much as it is so difficult to get letters off on board.

Much love to all, Your loving son, Jack”

2014 (edited July 2020)

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