The troop transport Ascanius (A11), at Fremantle, Western Australia, November 1914.Source: Australian War Memorial
Bert’s first postcard to Jean
There is no date on Bert’s first postcard to Jean, however it must have been sent somewhere between 3rd July and 4th September 1915, as this ties in with the dates the 7th Field Ambulance were at Polygon Camp, near Cairo, in Egypt, which was only about a mile away from Heliopolis Palace Hotel.
Postcard depicting Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Egypt, 1915. Note Bert’s notation that the complex was being used as a hospital.
Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding.
Excuse my taking the liberty of writing but I think I said I take cheeky liberties sometimes and write to young ladies even if they had young fellows looking after them. Ask Ernie Price if he knows the writing & you will know the writer. An early reply will give encouragement so don’t forget. We like getting letters away over here. Hope to be in the firing line soon. Kindest regards to all. From a soldier who wishes to be a friend. B.R.
You can read more about Heliopolis Palace Hotel during the war here:
Bert’s postcard only gives a hint as to the grandeur of Heliopolis Palace Hotel. This image from Museum Victoria gives some idea of the true scale of the building. On the ground floor you can see hospital beds lined up.
World War I, Hospital at Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Egypt, 1915-1917
Creator: Sister Selina Lily Mackenzie
Source: Museum Victoria
Bert was soon to get his wish – to be in the firing line. On the 4th September, the unit sailed from Alexandria aboard the transport ship Knight Templar, bound for Gallipoli. They arrived on the 13th September after a short stopover at Lemnos. The following day they marched to Walden’s Point and here “A” Section took over from the 4th Field Ambulance. “B” and “C” Sections took over from New Zealand Field Ambulances at Chalk Hill and Chailak Dere, respectively.
Some insight into the difficulties faced by the unit can be gleaned from entries in the Unit Diary of the 7th Field Ambulance*:
2 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
B. Sec was shelled at CHALK HILL – one shell through hospital but – no one injured. Endeavouring to select safer site, as this sec. is surrounded by batteries. A rumour has been current since we arrived that Turks had threatened to shell Field Ambs. if they were not removed from vicinity of batteries but we are so cramped for room that this position was considered as safe as we could expect to be and all Field Ambs. are in much the same plight. Continually under fire as they are in the area covered by rifle and gun fire.
3 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
B. Sec advise shelled again, one going through a bearer’s dugout. No one hurt. Decided to move if safer site can be found.
4 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
Pte. J. ONEIL killed by shrapnel at ANZAC BEACH, when on duty with a party sent for stores.
8 October 1915, WALDENS POINT, 8pm
Thunderstorm blowing all our tents down. They are old operating tents received from 4th A. F. Amb. Another man of B. Sec. wounded when lying in their bivouac.
10 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
Turks said to have used gas at HILL 60.
A section of the camp of “C” Section of the 7th Australian Field Ambulance at Chailak Dere, Gallipoli, October 1915.
Source: Australian War Memorial.
As well as wounds caused by combat, soldiers (including members of the ambulance unit) were treated for a variety of illnesses & ailments, including: influenza, dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, jaundice, unidentified fevers, acute bronchitis, trench foot and frost bite.
No other correspondence from Bert to Jean while he was stationed at Gallipoli, has survived, if in fact there was any. The next postcard to Jean (still in existence) was sent from France. After almost four months at Gallipoli, the 7th Field Ambulance were evacuated in December 1915 and disembarked at Alexandria on the 10th January 1916. The following day Bert was transferred to the 21st General Hospital, Alexandria, suffering from mumps.
After eight weeks in hospital, Bert rejoined his unit on 6th March, in time to sail for France on the 15th. They disembarked at Marseilles on 19th March. He soon wrote to Jean with news of his new location.
Somewhere in France
By the above address you will see Egypt and Gallipoli is a thing of the past and beautiful France is now our home. It is very cold here now but spring is coming in. Not near so cold as the weeks of snow we had on the peninsular. We are billeted in houses. Not likely to see W. Brooks for a long time. Long letter following at an early date. Hoping you are enjoying the best of health as I am at present. Best wishes and remembrance to all and best love to self.
It is interesting to note here that Bert says he is in the “best of health” at present, with no mention of having recently spent almost two months in hospital with mumps. No doubt it was the least of his concerns. He was about to experience the horrors of evacuating injured men who’d been battered and maimed by trench warfare in the muddy fields of France, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the entire war.
Stay tuned for Part Three!
* Unit Diaries are held by the Australian War Memorial