Memoirs of Malta by Grace Durant
In 1912 I was enrolled as a member of the British Red Cross and attended all the lectures, finally passed all the exams, after which I took extra training at the Nottingham General Hospital and Bagthorpe.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 I volunteered to serve where required, and in 1915 was posted to the 4th Northern General Hospital, Lincoln, which was the Grammar school on Wragby Road, which had been taken over for a Military Hospital.
4th Northern Military Hospital, Lincoln
In the building were the Officers’ wards, Dispensary, X ray, Theatre, and Orderly room, also Matron’s quarters. In a field at the back were erected huge huts to be used as wards. Altogether there were 1,000 beds. Several houses on Lindum Terrace were taken over to billet the nursing staff. But all meals were taken at the Hospital. An Irish nurse and myself were billeted at No 4. We became friends and have remained so ever since. It was quite a long walk to the Hospital especially as we had to be there for 7 o’clock breakfast and woe betide anyone who was late.
Duty hours were from 7.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. with two hours off if you were lucky, ½ day a week and one day per month. Night duty was for three months with two nights off at the end and seven days leave at the end of six months. We went for one month’s trial and if found suitable we were asked to sign on for six months. The pay was 1/- per day.
After six months those who were suitable were asked to sign on for the duration, pay rising to £40 per year with £5 uniform allowance. My friend and I signed on the dotted line and had no regrets. The work was hard and the hours long but we were very happy. My first ward was No 14, a heavy surgical, 28 beds each end with the duty room in between. The staff and patients were a grand lot.
Time slipped by and my turn for Night duty came round and I was put on No 13 next door, the skin ward. It didn’t take the Boys long to nickname me “Ichie Coo”. But they really were pets; they always made tea at 6 a.m. and always brought me a cup over. When sugar was in short supply it was sweetened with syrup. One morning they had neither so they used Plum and Apple jam. The day Sister on that ward had sixteen cats. It was a huge joke to the patients. When the C.O. found out they had to be destroyed.
Convoys were constantly coming in, usually late at night. They came straight out of the trenches, just passing through a clearing station to receive first aid. They were a sorry sight. Badly wounded, in blood stained clothes, dirty and often lousy. If a convoy arrived before midnight we had to go back and help get them to bed. It was no little task to get a hundred men or more to bed. It was usually early morning when we got back to our billets. Too tired to get undressed, we just kicked off our shoes and lay on our beds fully dressed, waking up in the morning with sore necks where our collars had cut them. In those days it was stiff collars.
We had to attend lectures in the evenings after duty. Those on night duty had to get up to attend. My friend and I were on night duty and had to get up for the exam which we managed to get through. Forty took it, but only twenty-two passed.
After being on several wards and another spell of night duty over I went home on seven days leave starting Friday evening. I slept all day Saturday, Sunday was spent quietly. Monday morning about 10 a.m. a wire came, saying ‘Return at once, foreign service. Matron’. So back I went and reported to Matron, who told me I was going to Malta, and to tell no one, not even my mother. Also I was to report to the M.O. for inoculations and apply for tropical kit. The inoculations knocked me out the next day, then it was back on duty with no idea when we were to sail. Another nurse was going out with me. Then one day after lunch matron sent for us and told us to take the half day off and pack and report to her the next morning after breakfast. We were to sail on the Asturias. We reported as requested, Matron handed us our embarkation papers, and she and Sister Ward saw us off at the station. We were to spend the night at the York Hotel, London, where a room had been booked for us.
Grace (centre) off to Malta November 1917
We had to get up very early the next morning to get to Waterloo to join the remainder of the draft. My kit didn’t turn up and Matron had forgotten our railway warrants from London to Southampton, so we had to pay our own fare. Luckily the rest of our papers were in order. We handed our papers and our cabin trunks to the Officer in charge and we never saw them again until we landed. I should mention we were on our way to Southampton. Two very nice girls joined us on the train; they were from the Military Hospital, Leicester. We were lucky as the four of us went to the same hospital. When we arrived at Southampton it was a cold, damp foggy morning, November 30th 1916.
The Asturias had been converted into a hospital ship from the Steam Packet line. She was a lovely ship and could carry about 300 patients. In the next berth was the Aquitania, a much larger ship which had been withdrawn as she was too big a target.
We slept in cots in a very large ward. After putting our hand luggage in the cots of our choice we went on deck to watch the cast off. It gave us a queer feeling to watch the land receding further and further away. We all wondered what lay ahead, because we knew that we were going in the same direction that the Britannia had taken only 8 days previously and had been torpedoed. She had 1106 passengers and fifty were drowned. Still we were young and after a good lunch our spirits revived.
We were issued with lifejackets and told not to let go of them. Next we were shown our lifeboat station and had regular lifeboat drill during the voyage. We slept in our clothes with one arm through the lifebelt. All doors were well and truly fastened back, even the toilets. That was in case of an explosion they would not jam.
We all slept well and ate a good breakfast, but the further we went the rougher the sea. When we got to the Bay of Biscay it was awful. One by one the passengers went down below. I was one of them. Even some of the crew went down; we were ill for days. The Captain told us later he had been through it for twenty years and he’d never known it so bad. The M.O. and staff who were still going strong were most kind to us. To mend matters I had a septic finger.
On reaching Gibraltar it was much calmer. We only stayed there a few hours and no one was allowed ashore. After leaving Gib we were into the Mediterranean. It was much warmer and the sea quite calm and such a lovely blue. We enjoyed the walks round the deck very much. Then the next day a submarine spotted us and gave chase. The Captain zig zagged taking us miles off course. When they fired he swung the ship round. Finally they lost us or we them. I’m sorry to say they did torpedo the Asturias on her return journey, March 21st.
It was late at night when we finally arrived at Malta; the Harbour was closed for the night. No ships entered or left after sunset, so we had to cruise around all night in case any more submarines took a fancy to us. That part of the Mediterranean was infested with them. By the way, we slept in our own clothes most of the way.
We were up early next morning and had a wonderful view of the island. It looked so beautiful, I fell in love with it on sight. It looked what it was, a real Bible island, which of course it is, as it was here that St. Paul landed after being shipwrecked, but more about him later. The houses are built of white stone; all have flat roofs and most have balconies. The blue of the Mediterranean has to be seen to be believed and their sunsets are so wonderful they take your breath away. Well we at last entered the Grand Harbour which is the right name for it. There are so many creeks it can hide no end of ships.
Grand Harbour, Malta
We disembarked on to small tugs which took us up to the landing stage. We were then loaded on to Army lorries, bag and baggage and driven to the various hospitals we were to serve in. We four went to a field hospital; just rows and rows of tents quite close to the sea, so we had a wonderful view of the ships that came and went, and went down (the field hospital Grace was sent to was 62nd, St. David’s Hospital).
The patients were mostly malaria cases and shipwrecked victims of whom I was to see a lot as time went by. The most serious cases on my line of tents had Black Water fever, a dreadful disease. In spite of blood transfusions quite a few died. In those days there were no blood banks to call on out there. When blood was required the bugle was sounded, the R.A.M.C. paraded and the volunteer accepted was placed in the next bed to the patient, the blood being transferred on the spot.
We used to get the tropical storms which lasted for about three days. Sometimes the tents would get blown away; the patients would take shelter in those that were left standing or in the cook house, which was the only building in the camp. It was quite a problem going round the various tents to find one’s patients. On these stormy days we did duty in macs, sou’westers, and wellingtons. There would be another scramble when a tent caught fire.
Grace (right) at St. David’s hospital
One morning we were going on duty when there was a terrific explosion in the harbour. A time bomb had been placed on a troop ship and was timed to go off an hour after sailing. There was also a quantity of ammunition aboard so you can imagine the noise. It appears orders had been changed and another troop ship left first. All M.O.s and available staff were rushed to the harbour. Many brave deeds were done that day. Men crawled through portholes and dragged the wounded out. It was a blessing it happened in the harbour instead of out at sea or more lives would have been lost.
On our half days we would go to Valletta. We would take a carrozzi, a quaint horse drawn open cab with curtains at the sides, to Sliema, then we went on a ferry to the harbour, and up a lift to Valletta, the town. Once on a return journey the carrozzi driver beat his horse so badly we stopped him and got out, then threatened to take his whip from him and give him a dose. Needless to say we had to walk the rest of the way. All the horses looked as though a good feed would do them good.
On another occasion we got as far as Sliema (it was raining). We went to the rank for a carrozzi and all the drivers crowded round us and started to fight as to who should take us; we were really frightened. But we were lucky; fortunately, the watch on a big warship called the Africa reported it and two Officers came to our rescue and kindly took us all the way back. I gather our white uniforms in the middle of the fray gave the distress signal. When we related what had happened we were told about a Sister that had been shot because she refused to ride in a dirty carrozzi; fortunately it was not serious but it must have been a nasty experience for her. They say the world and his wife meet in Malta and I think that’s true.
Our two friends on one of their half days went to Valletta and ran into two Naval Officers they knew. Their ship was in for repairs so between them they arranged an evening meeting with the four of us and two more of their Officers. We were encouraged to go about in parties and in the evenings when it was cooler. We met them several times for an evening swim and picnic. We were sorry to see them go. They said if we were still on the island when they came in again they would look us up. It sounded too good to be true but the unexpected does happen at times.
Picnic on the beach from Grace’s album
During the next few months many ships went down, including hospital ships so they were stopped from coming in to Malta for a time. It was hard luck as there were so many waiting to go home but at least they were safe on the island.
It was then decided that our hospital should go to Salonica so for the time being we were transferred to Cottonera. However we were there some months. This was a very large stone building. It was the peace time Military Hospital and had a wonderful view of the Grand Harbour. It was a three storey building with balconies all round. The top floor consisted of two very large wards; each was crammed with beds, 92 in each. Practically all had lost a limb, often two. The theatre and duty room was between. On the next floor it was much the same except one ward was a medical ward. In between these were three smaller wards that held twenty-two Officers; this was where I was with a very nice sister. There was also a duty room.
Cottonera hospital ward
We slept in married quarters adjoining the hospital. They were quite comfortable when we got rid of the bugs. They and the mosquitoes had many a good feed out of us. We often slept on the roof. In spite of mosquito nets we got well and truly bitten.
While we were there the M.O. suggested that half the staff should have alternate Saturdays for their half day, and that they should teach us to swim, as we never knew when we would be moved on to Salonica. So we all went down to a small bay called Marsascala and after a swim we had a picnic tea. It was an ideal place with huge rocks for screens for undressing. The Mediterranean sea was so buoyant that it was possible to float standing with arms outstretched. That’s one reason why it was impossible to pick up so many survivors after being torpedoed.
Another idea was to have a workshop for patients who wanted something to do with their hands. It was amazing the lovely things they made in spite of being crippled. The wood was given to them from damaged German ships; they made beautiful Noah’s Arks with all the animals, card cases and lots of other lovely things. It was a good idea and kept them occupied and interested while waiting for transport home.
Our seven days leave came round and we were sent to a convent at Sliema called Villa Portela. In spite of its bareness it was most comfortable and spotless. Our meals were served on well scrubbed tables. It also had a very beautiful garden enclosed with a very high wall. Like all the houses there it had a very flat roof which we were able to walk on. It had a lovely view and we were able to see ships coming in and going out.
We had been there a couple of days when our friends the Navy contacted us. Matron at Cottonera had given them our address. They had been in action and had come in for repairs. As you know, at that time Malta had a very busy dockyard and was a Naval station. In those five days left to us we explored the island; having male escorts we were able to go places safely. It is a very small island, seventeen miles in length and nine wide. Being a Catholic country it has many beautiful churches, convents and monasteries. The churches have many beautiful paintings. Valletta is the main town, Strada Reale is the main street and has quite a number of bazaars with the usual eastern goods and the most gorgeous silks and lace. In the side streets women sat in their doorways making lace. They would cut off any length you required on the spot. Outside the town the roads were very narrow, nothing more than goat tracks.
Valletta has a very beautiful church called St. John’s which at one time had solid silver gates at the chancel. When the Turks besieged the island in 1565 (that is known as the great siege), they were so afraid the Turks would take them so they black leaded them. The island has had a very hectic time at one time or another. In 1798 Napoleon landed and he took the gates away, so they made others of ebony and coated them with silver. In 1880 the French surrendered it to the British and it has remained so ever since. They have quite a few fiestas; the chief one on Ash Wednesday is both colourful and noisy, the idea being to drive the Devil off the island. No carrozzi driver ever sits on his box alone after sunset. They believe the devil will take the empty seat.
On the outskirts of Valletta are underground store houses hewn out of the rock, where enough food is stored to feed the islanders for seven years in case of a siege. The second big siege was in 1940 when the Germans attacked them. Their milk was supplied by goats. They roamed the streets and the herdsman would milk the quantity required at each house he came to. My son was there in 1944 and they did just the same. Our milk came out of a tin.
On the outskirts of the town is another famous church called Mosta Dome. The dome is beautifully painted on the inside and is the third largest in the world. There is also the entrance to an underground city, in which we were told the criminals of the world met and no one went down there without an armed guard. To explore the island we hired flat carts and drove ourselves, each cart held four. We took our own food which was packed up in our mess, for safety reasons.
One day we visited a small town called Citta Vecchia. It was beautifully clean; we saw one man weaving and the priest in the cathedral who showed us round, and also the staff which they claim was St. Paul’s when he was shipwrecked there. There was a very beautiful painting of the Madonna, it was the first thing one noticed on entering and her eyes followed you wherever you went, it was most impressive.
Another day we visited San Antonia Gardens where oranges and lemons grow and could be bought in baskets quite cheaply. Huge dragonflies were flying around in great numbers, the colours of their wings were gorgeous and the span of their wings must have been seven inches. The fields were surrounded by stone walls, not very high, the ploughing was done with an ox and ass harnessed together. They grew quite a lot of tomatoes and grapes, all of which had to be well washed before we ate them. The soil is not very deep and is supposed to have been shipped from Sicily.
Another day we visited St Paul’s Bay. This is a small sandy bay, and to which St. Paul with the rest of the company of the ship swam. In the bay there is a huge rock on which their ship was broken, and is within swimming distance of the shore; at a rough guess I should estimate the distance as far as from here to the pond. On this rock there is a huge statue of St. Paul and it’s known as St. Paul’s island. I mentioned earlier it was in swimming distance, I should add providing the sea was calm. But it must have been quite an effort in a storm if it was like the storms I saw, and I should imagine it was.
In that bay was the entrance to the Catacombs. We went inside and saw one that was supposed to be the one in which St. Paul preached to the islanders; they call it the church. At some time or other it had a painted ceiling; the paint was quite visible after 100s of years. This church is built over the cave where St. Paul lived for the three months that he was on the island. There is a light in it which has never been out for years. It was a most inspiring day. It was on the island that I learnt that St. Paul was also a victim of malaria. He was of course a hunchback. The village was called Punta Mijuna.
On our last day we were going to Marsascala for a picnic and swim when we had a very amusing incident. We had the usual two carts with four on each, and after travelling a fair way met a donkey and cart. The road was too narrow for either of us to turn. But nothing daunts the British Navy. They dismounted, unharnessed the donkey and lifted it and the cart over the wall, we drove on a little way and they lifted the donkey and cart back on the road, gave the driver a tip and on we went. We had had a wonderful leave. Thanks to our escorts we had been able to see more of the island than we should have done otherwise. And so it was back to work, feeling fit, happy and ready for anything.
After a few more weeks on day duty I was put on night duty along with my nice day Sister and on the same floor, which was rather nice as we knew most of the patients. But added to our duties were the two large wards with an orderly at each end. We also had the compound with sick prisoners, and some tents.
Over the road was another big building which held a number of prisoners amongst whom were the crew of the famous German cruiser the Emden. We used to see them pass each day on exercise. They were responsible for many of our ships being sunk before H.M.S. Sidney, an Australian cruiser, sank her. One night two tried to escape by tying sheets together and getting through a ventilator. One got down safely but the other fell and sustained a Pott’s fracture. The first one got help and we got the other injured one. On another occasion two got away in a boat using sheets for sails. They were near Sicily when picked up and they had enough food to last three weeks. On the left of our quarters was another prisoners camp, which held quite a number of German bands. We could hear them playing and also hear the sentries calling through the night..
It was while on night duty I was taken ill with Sheigia (shigella?) dysentery. We had an officer admitted for one night; he was transferred the next morning to the isolation hospital at Imtarfa. All I did was to give him his medicine; the orderly did the rest. A day or two after, I went down with it and I too was sent to Imtarfa. To make things worse the serum injected was too new and formed abscesses which had to be lanced and tubes inserted.
I don’t remember much if anything of the first three weeks. When I did come round and they removed the screens it was to see my nice Sister in the opposite bed and next to her one of the lady Doctors. Sister had caught flexenia (shigella flexneri?) dysentery from a German prisoner. She had only sat with him for an hour to relieve the other sister. Flexenia is a less serious form than sleiga but bad enough.
Nine doctors came to see me. It appears very few get over it. I looked like a skeleton and was put on chocolate ration. Our own Cottonera M.O.s used to cross the island to visit us and were most kind, bringing me tins of chocolate. When the little Maltese Doctor heard I was on a chocolate ration he brought me tins and tins. When I was allowed up I couldn’t walk, then I was able to shuffle along with the aid of a couple of sticks. With Sheigia you get dysenteric joints which is very much like arthritis. (Shigella flexneri is the species that causes Reiter’s syndrome, a type of arthritis that develops as a late complication of shigellosis.) Strangely enough when George (Grace’s son) was there in 1944 he saw his plate on the door and wondered if it was the same Doctor B….. I had spoken about. He thought he would enquire, it was and he was delighted to see him and insisted he and his friend should stay for dinner. After which he showed them some snaps of us all at Cottonera.
In due course a medical board invalided me home and recommended I go on the Gurka, a hospital ship, as a cot case. Miss Roberts the assistant Matron at Imtarfa was to be Matron and would keep an eye on me. But I begged and implored Matron and A.D.M.S. to let me stay until I could walk a bit better as I thought if anything happened, if I couldn’t swim much I could float. So my wish was granted which proved another blessing to be thankful for. The Gurka had only been out an hour when she got a huge hole blown in her side and had to be towed back into the harbour. The patients had to take to the boats.
I think it was about a month later that the Braemar Castle, another hospital ship came from Africa where she had been for repairs after being torpedoed, so we were all put aboard her. Miss Roberts as Matron was transferred to her along with staff and patients off the Gurka. There were 22 Officers, 22 sick nurses and 250 Tommies.
HMHS Braemar Castle
There was a big swell on when we sailed. The sea seemed to stand up in mountains. I don’t know which is the worst: a Mediterranean swell or the Bay of Biscay. We only did twelve miles that day, which was a Monday. By Wednesday we had gone 245 miles, but we had to slow down as a T.B. boy had died and was buried at sea. The next day another T.B. boy died and we again stopped for another burial service. It was so sad as these boys had been waiting for nearly a year to get home.
On Saturday we had to stop again as we had engine trouble. However, we got going again, then Sunday morning we were boarded by the Germans who searched the ship. Fortunately for us we had a Spanish Officer on board. They accused hospital ships of carrying arms and ammunition so King Alfonso suggested putting a Naval Officer aboard all hospital ships going through the Mediterranean as a guarantee that they did not. After searching the ship they left and when we got to Gibraltar the Spanish Officer left us and we were on our own.
We finally reached Avonmouth safely and were put on a hospital train for London. The sick sisters were admitted to the Queen Alexandra’s Hospital for Sick Sisters at Westminster. It was very late when we arrived. The staff were most kind in undressing us and putting us to bed. We had of course slept in our clothes and you can imagine what a joy it was to get them off, and to top it off with a glass of hot cow’s milk; no drink ever tasted better. We were there several days for checkups and medical boards. I got one month’s sick leave, after which I had to report for another and again got another month, then report again.
The M.O. tried to persuade me to give up nursing but my friend at Lincoln came to see me and Matron told her to tell me if I was passed fit she would write to the War Office to get me back, that was the best compliment I ever had. After the M.O heard that he let me go back. So back I went to the 4th Northern Lincoln and joined my Irish friend. I was put on night duty on the Officers’ ward. The majority were crash cases. I stayed at Lincoln until it closed and my friend and I were the last two on duty there and to be demobbed.
Note: this memoir is held in a private collection at the Imperial War Museum archives, London. It was transcribed by Pauline Woodhouse.