Recruitment poster for volunteers from the First World War“When one takes a walk one always meets with the same thing: yells, smells, bells.”

Louisa Higginson kept a diary of her work as a British Red Cross nurse in the First World War. Louisa left her family in New Zealand to volunteer at hospitals in Malta and Egypt. On the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli, her diary reveals the sights, sounds and smells of hospital life as she treated wounded soldiers from the battle.

Getting ready

Louisa helped to set up a hospital in Malta before the first patients from Gallipoli arrived. It was not glamorous work.

“Spent the morning sewing at the hospital and the afternoon sewing uniforms for ourselves. We hired a machine in a dirty house – the machine was a good one and the collections of fleas were given gratis….

“Spent the day at the hospital scrubbing and cleaning, trying to make it look shipshape – we must have washed thousands of dishes today.”

Help for casualties

Meanwhile, as the battle raged, wounded soldiers were passing through a Red Cross casualty clearing station.

Map of Gallipoli from 1915

Map from 1915

The less serious cases were sent to a hospital at Mudros on the island of Lemnos. The Red Cross opened a free refreshment buffet in the harbour that served 17,000 patients.

The badly wounded and sick men were sent by hospital ship or hospital carrier to Egypt or Malta, and in some instances straight to England. The Red Cross gave each casualty warm, fresh clothing for the journey.

Louisa’s long wait

As Louisa and her friends waited for the first patients to arrive, suspense grew among the young volunteers about what they would have to deal with.

The volunteers (VADs) did their best to prepare in difficult circumstances, resorting to ingenious (or should that be alarming?) alternatives to hospital instruments…

Wednesday 9 June 1915: “Waiting for patients all day but they are to come in tomorrow morning… I do hope we will be able to look after our patients well for I hear the cases are the worst that have arrived so far in Malta.

“We went out this evening to try and get some instruments but found very hard to do so. We got knitting needles for probes (Mary’s idea).”

Sweat and sandflies

When the patients arrived, they came thick and fast, “nearly everyone a stretcher case. With spraying and dressing we did not get off till 11pm. We have been going for all we are worth.”

Louisa quickly got to know her patients. A week after the first arrivals she writes: “Lost our first patient, a head case named Rogers.

“The poor chap was only 17 and so nice, it is dreadful to see all the suffering though it is marvellous how the other cases are getting on.”

Louisa writes vividly about hospital life. Nursing was hard work in the boiling heat.

“The heat is awful, one is in the state of mopping one’s face the whole time.

“The chief things to worry me are sandfly bites and I am bitten over the arms and face.”

Anyone who has ever worked night shifts will also sympathise with her struggles to get enough sleep. Her mood and health were both affected. Each day brought highs and lows.

“Felt this morning life was not worth living but after a sleep, felt better.”

“We lost one of our patients today (Barratt) and we felt very broken up about it. He was a nice boy, only 20 years of age… A party of French people came and gave a variety of entertainment and it was good, especially the conjuror.”

To find our more about this nurse, read Louisa’s personnel card.

Red Cross work during the battle of Gallipoli

Throughout the Gallipoli campaign, Red Cross volunteers like Louisa helped to provide a huge range of services including:

  • casualty clearing stations
  • hospitals
  • convalescent depot
  • hospital ships
  • a Red Cross fleet
  • store rooms of vital equipment
  • refreshment buffets and recreation rooms for wounded soldiers
  • an enquiry bureau to search for wounded and missing soldiers.

Find our more about our work during World War One

Delve into more Gallipoli history by visiting our VAD records. Type Mudros in the box labelled location/hospitals and hit ‘search’.