Doctor Agnes Bennett talks about her journey in 1915 from New Zealand to France to work for the French Red Cross. She recalls the trip through the Suez Canal, treating wounded ANZAC soldiers and attending the first ANZAC Day service at Westminster Abbey in 1916.
Agnes Bennett: What were most of us doing and thinking on the eve of the ANZAC landing, that terrible test of bravery and enterprise for our men? I was on my way to France, having been refused work by the New Zealand war authorities, and been gladly accepted by the French Red Cross. I was booked for Marseilles and had joined the good old P & O ship Moorea in Sydney. We were a happy ship, everyone travelling in connection with the war. There were ten other doctors travelling. All young and adventurous and keen to get to active service and report for duty.
There was a company of the Australian Air Force, kept hard at work by their C.O. and indulging in games that looked like killing one another many a time. Dances, games and singing were the order of the day, and on the evening of that fateful April 25th we were all thoroughly enjoying a really jolly dance. All Marconi news was damped down and no suspicion disturbed our complete feeling of confidence that nothing could go wrong with the good old British Empire.
It was at Aden that it was rumoured that a landing had taken place in southern Europe and a landing not without casualties. Six days through the Red Sea took us to Suez, where signs of war really came to us and our bridge was all built-in with bags of sand for the protection of pilots and officers, for pilots had been victims of Turkish snipers, hidden beyond the far too-narrow strip of shoreline, fortified with barbed wire and camps with their trenches.
Some weeks later, Kitchener suddenly visited Egypt and his keen eye saw at once the neglect of proper military preparedness for protection and readiness for any eventuality. He stirred up every unit and everyone was galvanised into action. Although all the equipment was there, the single railway line to Port Said had never been duplicated. Kitchener left no doubt as to what he thought of things and his methods suddenly possessed the military world. Native labour was recruited en masse, so much so that hotels and hospitals had to give up staff and everyone was stirred to unwanted activity.
Canal protection was more than doubled and Turkish snipers were put completely out of action. On ship however, we had our sandbag protection and on the narrow strip of defended shoreline, the activities of camels, mules, horses and Indian soldier camps, officered by Englishmen, provided us with intense interest for the whole passage through the canal.
When the ship slowed down, boats came out rowed by English officers, begging for papers or literature of any kind. We began to realise the magnitude of it all. It filled us with anxiety for news of our own men, for there were few on that ship who had not relatives among the ANZACs.
At intervals we saw groups of crosses, indicating the graves of those who had been killed in skirmishes. A few were blue crosses, marking the graves of Germans. In some places, mounted Indian regiments were parading and drilling, looking very fine with their horses fully accoutred and seemingly very happy and giving the ship a sort of 'hurrah' as we passed. Armoured tugs and French warships and an armed merchantman were about and showed up well in the searchlights which lit up the latter part of our passage.
At Port Said, where I had decided to land, we met lines of ambulances with casualties from the hospital ship, Guildford Castle. Some had been taken from the water from the sunk ship, Gladiator. One poor young deck hand from his stretcher, wished he had not been saved, as all his mates were drowned before his eyes and nothing would cheer him. They were comfortably placed in a hospital nursed by St Vincent de Paul sisters with the help of V.A.D.s from Port Said. We saw tables laid in a big, cool shaded courtyard for convalescents and they made a cheering sight for weary men on stretchers who so badly needed cheering up.
To my joy, I met a Sydney doctor who had just arrived with wife and family and who had to report for duty in Cairo and we all boarded the train for Cairo together. The train was full of interest: Sir Frederick Treves was there with rows of ribbons and a general's wife going to join her husband. A commanding officer of Indian lancers had lost his regiment which had been so cut up in the trenches in France by shot and frostbite, that they were sent to Egypt and he, wounded, sent to England and now ordered to rejoin. His only kit a linen-covered basin which he said he never parted with as it contained his shaving gear. There was a good deal of hilarity about the C.O. who had lost his regiment.
A young Australian shot in the hand five minutes after landing on the beaches, had leave from his Cairo hospital to see relatives on the Moorea and was full of disgust that after five months training in the desert, he only had five minutes fighting. No wonder a British colonel said to the Aussies, "What do you chaps do for sport when there's no war on?"
Another, who had had to join the Army Service Corps because he was on holiday away from New South Wales when the forces were recruited, was doing duty in a landing boat, and when told to get back to the boat to return to the ship, he pushed the boat off and stayed on the beach. "You'll lose your stripe" called out the O.C. - that corporal's stripe which was the first mark of promotion from the ranks. But he could not face a return to that desert camp and all that heat and sharing a tent with nine or ten men.
It was a tremendous asset that the general in command was Birdwood, a friendly Englishman who, of no outstanding physical equipment but no lack of brains or energy. ANZACs had never been hero-worshippers but they fell for Birdwood and many were the stories told in his favour. Birdwood, or Birdie, as he was always called, made his rounds of the trenches in shirt and shorts, so as not to catch the eye of the Turks, and one rather sullen Aussie was carrying on with his ordinary duties during the visit, when his attention was called to Birdie: "If that's Birdie, why hasn't he got his feathers up?"
An A.S.C. driver was struggling with four mules and a lorry just below Birdie's dug-out and a mule kicked over the traces. The driver started to get down and a voice came "Stay where you are lad, stay where you are," and down came Birdie himself and put the mule in the traces again.
There were sinister happenings too, the hideous happenings of war. An ANZAC saw his brother shot down in no-man's land, in an early morning raid. He tried to get him, but was held back by his mates. All day he watched and he saw occasional movement in the prostrate figure. Nightfall came and he was allowed out of the trench and found his brother dead. In a fit of despair, he tried to commit suicide and suffering from dysentery and typhoid, he was admitted to my hospital ward under guard. That was a terrible stigma in the eye of all the ward and it was sometime before we could get permission for removal of the guard.
Such were some of the stories of the ANZACs and such were some of the events that helped graduate them as citizens of the world. Perhaps no one event, more than another, brings home to us that we are justified in considering ourselves citizens of the world, than the magnificent service of remembrance which constituted the first ANZAC Memorial in Westminster Abbey on April 25th 1916. Our King and Queen were there and all of royal blood that were in England at the time. A full choir made the grand old building resound with the time-honoured hymns and psalms of praise and thanks-giving. I was privileged to be there and felt that no greater honour could be done to our men. There were few dry eyes. The ANZACs had indeed, graduated as citizens of Empire.
Transcript by Sound Archives/Ngā Taonga Kōrero