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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

Field Ambulances

page 3

Field Ambulances

When the first shell of battle shrieked through the early dawn-mist at Romani on the 4th. August, '16, a little column of Field Ambulance mobility, with its mounted bearers, its sand-carts, its camels and cacolets, was coming slowly over the sands to meet it, in the spitting "phut-phut!" of intermittent bullet-swarms that had already claimed its casualty—when the shell burst, its diminutive, white smoke-puff looked down on a strange phantasmagory of terrified horses, struggling horsemen, wounded men— happily few—and hurrying bearers. With this incipient chaos was the new era of Light Horse Field Ambulance, in action as such, ushered in.

Romani—to all forces engaged a very different experience from any of the Peninsula, though all Peninsula devices of slaughter were there; added to, indeed, in the squadrons of enemy aircraft humming over the field, bombing at will—was to the little Red Cross of Australia its first experience of open warfare, without trenchwork or shelter; and, to the self-control of the individual was knit also the necessity for the control of that untried will outside his own—his horse's. How nonchalantly the circumstance was absorbed, the unceasing rush of the collecting sandcarts right to the actual firing line, despite downpour of shell and rifle fire, throughout the engagement, amply testifies. The dressing station, at most only 800 yards from the varying front posts, and shelterless save for a small sand-slope on one side, had its rechristening characterised by the unpleasant impartiality of Danger's equerries.

To many, in pre-war times in Australia, the Red Cross brassard signified immunity from danger in the war-zone, despite the fact that its avowed theatre of activities was in those places already proved dangerous through occurrence of casualties there. Stretcher-bearing on the shell-torn and unsheltered beaches and byways of Anzac came as a surprise to such persons. In the Sinai and Palestine danger zones the imperturbable appearance of the little red emblem in sundry unhealthy places has been such a commonplace, as to be a looked for circumstance. At Romani, and later at Katia, it was ubiquitous in the firing-line. At Bir-el-Abd it went further, and, during the hottest portion of the conflict, a fluttering-sandcart-pennon might be seen shepherding the collection of wounded down in "No Man's Land", at a sector of the line where the opposing combatants were just then sighting their rifles at little over too yards. At Magd-haba and Rafa the cool behaviour, under fire, of the Ambulances engaged won even the unstinted encomiums of the press attache on the scene; and in the first and second battles of Gaza the co-partnership of danger and succour was again emphasised, one Ambulance in the latter stunt being bombed two days in succssion, and suffering heavily from enemy aircraft. Later, the abandonment by the enemy of his hitherto fair tactics towards non-combatants, and the apparently intentional and repeated bombing by him of the hospitals at Belah, added further to its roll of sacrifice, in the heavy casualties incurred. And in the big stunt that ousted the Turk from Southern Palestine, both British and Australian Ambulances provided in-nummerable instances of high contempt of danger in the devotedness of their mission, one of the latter proving another heavy sufferer from the visitation of enemy 'planes —the same Ambulance was hard bitten again in one of the more recent raids into Moab.

Apart, however, from the aspect of danger in Field Ambulance work in the. forward collecting zone, there is that other atmosphere of endeavour, the silent ministry of the dressing station. It can aptly be termed the human dry-dock, to which poor battered hulks come in on the backwash of conflict, to be refitted; or "cast" to go out no more. In no part of the firing line is a cooler head required in the direction of operations than there—it is so easy to get panicky or to inspire panic, which means chaos, as the seemingly endless flow of bandaged sufferers rolls in, and the pitifully small
Cacolet Camels.

Cacolet Camels.

stream of re-tended humanity filters out. More often than not shells are screaming overhead, or in the immediate vicinity, which does not help much, especially with "shell-shocks".

When the landscape is a mass of writhing pain, when thirst is calling for alleviation from seven different places at once, when there are few hands and many burdens, when there are more and more coming in to swell the alternating chorus of anguish; then it is that the cool nerve that pilots a successful trench-raid, or brings larger couos de main to a satisfactory issue outside, is called for and is invariably respondent at the field dressing station, where not only "possible danger to life" but "life already in the balance" may be weighted one way or the other, with every chance touch on the scales. "System" is the absolute necessity of the venue—"system" and "sympathy". Formality fades away in the contemplation of suffering. "Mate" or "cobber" is, alike to sufferer and tender, the password into highways of strange, rough, gentleness, in which there is no "out of bounds".

To present a pen picture of an Ambulance in one of it's frequently recurring phases of activity, I will take a dressing station in that Valley, 1000 ft. below sea-level, from whence, guidebooks tell us, even the natives clear out in summer time owing to the intense heat; though our own boys have still shown themselves able to endure and conquer down there.

It is some hours after sunset on a quiet day, perhaps, with only a few patients in hospital silence is gradually creeping through the camp-as the lights along the bivvies die out, sleep spreads its heavy mantle every where—suddenly there is a crash as of thunder out in front, and immediately a hissing, rumbling maelstrom of sound succeeds the silence; glow-worms of gunfire run along the horizon, and little wicks of flame, athwart the darkness, indicate shrapnel bursts; the chain being caught up simultaneously by the great, pure light of star-shells; then comes the dull sputter of machine-guns and later the thudding of the hand-grenades as the attack and defence intermingles. Eventually the thunderous orgy dies down gradually to a disjointed sputter here and there, and an occasional bomb-thud, succeded by the rumble of the sandcarts going out to pick up the human debris of the sudden upheaval.

After a while all is silence again; it has only been a raid or demonstration of some kind. Then the rumble of the returning sandcarts breaks the stillness once more, lights flit round the operating tent, the carts pull up, and immediately willing hands are unloading their badly or slightly damaged burdens. The outburst, perhaps, has already been almost forgotten in the firing line, and the supports out there possibly have turned in again. But for long hours thence, through the night, the white glow of the operating-lamps may blink down on the variously gashed forms on the table in the little tent; the deftly bandaging or probing fingers of tense surgeons may ply their craft untiringly; the flitting forms in the background may ply their attendance silently; and when dawn succeeds the eeriness of night, the labour of "repair" may still be working its way, even to the end of the tally.

Night is the most fantastic of scene painters, while day is the most callous in its glare on gaping wound and welling blood; but night or day, in the field the red-symbolled banneret of the dressing station stands a shrine-lamp of mercy to those broken on the rack of battle; night or day its portal of succour is ever ajar; night or day, to and from its sanctuary, stream war-bruised humans in unfaltering confidence; for the motto of the little crimson cross is In Arduis Fidelis—"Faithful in Hardship"—and it has written its scroll indelibly on the history of all fronts, frequently indeed with the life-blood of its noblest and most privileged disciples.