Why we should remember the heroic doctors at Gallipoli

Australian healthcare workers were part of the Anzac legend, with more than 270 doctors serving on the frontline at Gallipoli.

RACV Club member and retired GP Dr Murray Verso’s fascination with the doctors who served at Gallipoli began when he travelled to Turkey with his wife in 2006. Arriving at midnight to get a good seat for the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, he had a chance to reflect as he sat in the freezing cold.

“I was thinking, ‘this is pretty impressive, we’re right on the spot where history happened.’ And then I thought, ‘What happened to all the casualties here? How was medical care provided for them?’ When I got home, I started researching it.” Today, Murray gives regular talks to community groups and Rotary Clubs about the doctors who performed incredible feats in terrifying and horrific conditions.

“When people think of medical care at Gallipoli, they perhaps think of Simpson and his donkey. His work was heroic, but he only survived three weeks and was one of several hundred stretcher bearers who worked throughout the eight months of the campaign.”

At the start of WWI, there were only four doctors in the regular Australian Army, but over the course of eight months more than 270 doctors served at Gallipoli and at the hospitals on nearby Lemnos Island. One of Murray’s favourite unsung heroes is Neville Howse, who was the first Australian and only doctor to be awarded a Victoria Cross, which was for his service in the Second Boer War.

“He was the mayor of Orange in NSW when war broke out in 1914 and he re-joined the army,” Murray says. “He was put in charge of assessing the wounded on Anzac Beach, and he and his team had 1700 casualties on that first day and evacuated 500 of them. They worked all through the night”

Howse became the Director of the Australian Army Medical Services later in the war and was knighted in 1917. He became a federal politician and was instrumental in setting up what’s known today as Veteran Affairs. He died of pancreatic cancer in his 60s. Another character was Sir Charles Snodgrass Ryan, who was a senior surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital before World War I.

Against orders he took some photographs of the scene on his box camera, and those photographs are the only record of that day

“When war broke out, he was 61 and really too old to go to Gallipoli, but he was there in May when both sides famously agreed to a 24-hour truce to bury the dead,” Murray says. “Against orders he took some photographs of the scene on his box camera, and those photographs are the only record of that day.

“Even more interesting was that as they were burying the dead, the Turks noticed he was wearing Ottoman medals. They were angry because they thought he had stolen the medals from some of the bodies. “In fact, after he graduated in the 1870s, Ryan had joined the Turkish army as a doctor and served in the Russo-Turkish wars in 1877-78. The Turks had awarded him this military honour for his service in that war.”

Murray says the story of Ryan’s astonishing link to Turkey is well known by Turkish school children but not so well in Australia. He says the doctors who served at Gallipoli had an incredible success rate despite the primitive conditions. Of the approximately 20,000 soldiers who were wounded, about 2000 died, including 13 doctors. In addition, 64,000 soldiers suffered dysentery, typhoid and other diseases and only 600 of those affected died. Toward the end of the campaign, the doctors set up the Anzac Medical Society, holding weekly meetings and lectures in a tent on such issues as head injuries and lice.

Murray says today’s health workers, now in the frontline with COVID-19, demonstrate the same level of compassion and care. “The Anzac legend is built around mateship, solidarity, integrity and facing adversity with good humour,” he says. “Those sorts of traits are apparent in the healthcare professionals we see today.”

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