Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
6 Field Ambulance
On 10 March 6 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Furkert, left Kabrit with 6 Brigade units for Aleppo. By road the transport party followed the coastline of Syria, skirting the Lebanon Range and the stony, terraced hillsides along the sea coast to strike inland north of the mountains, whose snow-covered heights were enveloped in fleecy clouds. Over the large, flat, fertile plains of the high country, the road led through the towns of Homs and Hama, past buildings of ochre stone and great water-wheels up to thirty feet in height. The reddish-brown soil was cultivated in amazingly long straight furrows. In the fields were peasants in tight-legged, baggy-seated trousers or women in coloured blouse and skirt with the bottoms of long trousers poking out below, and often Arabs in loose sheepskin coats and Bedouin headdress. Scattered everywhere were Kurdish villages of strange mud-brick huts, chrome coloured and conical in shape like giant beehives. Often, too, they were walled and fortified and perched on hilltops. Quite remarkable was the almost complete absence of trees of any sort over all this country.
Then, coming over the brow of a hill, the convoy came in sight of Aleppo, a white, cold, and forbidding city, dominated by its medieval, moated citadel. But Aleppo was to prove more friendly than its cold exterior indicated. The ambulance, taking over from Australians, established an MDS in an Italian hospital building. With quarters in a block of modern flats nearby, the officers and page 194 some of the men took up duties in the hospital. In the flats they enjoyed comfort they had not experienced since leaving New Zealand.
With 6 Brigade to the Turkish border went B Company, 6 Field Ambulance. For a few days the company camped on the rolling broken country within half a mile or so of the huge stone archways which marked the frontier. One ardent malaria squad treating ponds and water-holes with an anti-mosquito preparation ventured over the border, but as zealous Turkish guards had fired on some British planes which had strayed across the demarcation line, it was thought advisable not to provide them with more targets.
At Aleppo the MDS was almost a miniature general hospital of 100 beds. Six Australian sisters remained at the hospital until the arrival of four New Zealand sisters later in March. The ambulance men staffed medical and surgical wards, theatre and Medical Inspection Room, laboratory and dispensary, and assumed many other duties required in running a hospital. Never had the unit worked under conditions such as these. Long wards were complete with bedsteads, enamelled lockers, plenty of bed linen, and numerous cupboards. There were also handy little side rooms for nursing more serious cases, and bathrooms and cookhouse connected directly with the wards. The little two-roomed theatre was well equipped. Refugees from across the Turkish border were medically examined and their clothing disinfested.
The MI Room was a busy place. Its clientele consisted of New Zealanders, British troops stationed in the city or near it, and members of the local populace whom doctors and orderlies endeavoured to question in half-remembered scraps of high school French. There was always somebody requiring treatment for some sore or minor injury.
In the wards, orderlies experienced only in field hospital or dressing station practice at times fell short of the sisters' hospital technique, but the sisters found them able and willing, if at times rather blunt and apt to dispense with formalities. One report on a patient left for the sister by a night orderly ran, ‘Had the runs all night and dry retched so I gave him bismuth and soda, but he still feels pretty crook this morning.’
At first patients for evacuation to hospital were carried back over the long journey of 200 miles or so to Beirut, until 1 NZ CCS set up page 195 at Zahle. Over these journeys cars of the American Field Service, a volunteer organisation, carried many of the patients. This was the New Zealanders' first contact with these fine young Americans, who were to establish a firm and genuine friendship of long standing with the Division.
The hospital wadi near Sidi Rezegh after its capture by the Germans
Of more than usual interest to the men in Aleppo, this closely packed city of white stone buildings, were the medieval citadel and the Souk, Aleppo's unique markets. Almost all visited the massive stone fortifications of the citadel and walked around the thick walls which skirted the large circular plateau on which it is built. The markets drew many back again and again to bargain for brocades, hand-worked linen, or silver filigree trinkets. The Souk was a maze of miles and miles of lanes and alleyways packed with row upon row of small open stalls. Being completely covered with a roof, the market gave the impression of being underground. In each small street were stalls selling one particular line of merchandise. One wandered through streets of coloured cloths, streets of shoes, streets of silver and gold work, streets of skins, streets of fruit and vegetables, and streets of many strange foods. Each had it own distinctive odour, and all presented a fascinating and colourful picture.
For a little over a month 6 Field Ambulance operated the Aleppo hospital. The wards were always full and there was plenty of work to do. Some of the men had found their way into the homes of the friendly and hospitable Armenians and had made the acquaintance of American missionaries in the city, and it was with some regret that they handed over to 5 Field Ambulance in mid-April and moved south to a camp in the Orontes valley.