The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 3 - June 1972

Carry on, Doctors

Julian Orford

A talk given to the Western Transvaal Branch of the S.A. Military History Society

"On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds, and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit ... A hospital alone shows what war is."
All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Victoria Cross, the British Empire's premier award for valour in the face of the King's or Queen's enemies, was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856. It was made retrospective to 1854 to include the veterans of the Crimean War. In June, of 1857, the Queen personally decorated 62 heroes.

In all, 1 352 Victoria Crosses have been awarded, of which one was awarded to the American Unknown Soldier and three were bars to existing crosses. Captain C. H. Upham, New Zealand Forces, was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in Crete in 1941, and received a bar to it in 1942. Surgeon-Captain A. Martin-Leake won the Victoria Cross in South Africa at Vlakfontein, in 1902, and received a bar to it in 1914, Captain N. G. Chavasse, MC, R.A.M.C. won the Victoria Cross in France in 1916, and a bar to it in Belgium in 1917.

It is here that my story begins and I will tell you something about doctors who have, during various wars, held high the standards of their profession, and displayed both personal gallantry and devotion, to what they regarded as being their duty, towards wounded and sick soldiers.

To become sufficiently "worked-up" in battle to win a Victoria Cross is understandable. Under such circumstances a member of the armed forces is armed and able to "hit back". His actions are consequently carried out in "hot blood". But a doctor does not, under normal circumstances, carry arms. His badge of office is a red-cross armband which is flimsy and hardly bullet-proof. One must, therefore, assume that a doctor who wins a Victoria Cross does so in "co1d blood", well knowing what the consequences of his action may be. One must, therefore, take a closer look at this fellow, the doctor at war, and decide whether he was some sort of a nut-case, or a man who was dedicated to his profession. By his actions one must discard the theory that he was somewhat cracked and accept, without reservation, that he was a man dedicated to his profession and still, at that time, subscribing to the oath he took on graduation. The front-line soldier does his best to kill his enemy. Usually he succeeds only in wounding him, thus creating, firstly: work for those gallant men, the stretcher-bearers and: secondly, for the doctor who, because of his profession, endeavours to undo the good work the front-line soldier has been taught to do during his training.

To the doctor a wounded man, be he friend or foe, is a person who, usually urgently, requires his professional skill and attention and that is all there is to it.

Surgeon-Major Cornish stayed behind with the stretcher-bearers on the top of Majuba Mountain. With him were Captain Robertson's piper and two men of the Army Hospital Corps. Carrying a wounded man on a stretcher down the slope of the mountain was no easy matter. They were fired on by a party of Boers and the doctor, who was sitting on the handles of the stretcher, was struck by a bullet in the chest, while those around him were wounded. The piper, seeing his officer fall, went to him, saying, "Oh doctor, I am sorry to see you are wounded". The doctor replied, "I shall not be a doctor long", and shortly afterwards, he died.

Also at Majuba, Surgeon-Major Lawdon met his death trying to mitigate the sufferings of others.

Lance-Corporal Farmer stayed with his doctor, Dr. Mahon who later brought to notice Farmer's gallantry. He raised a flag over a group of wounded and, when shot through the arm, changed the flag to the other hand continuing to hold it aloft until it was recognised and accepted by the Boers. Both he and Dr. Mahon, the only surviving surgeon on the mountain, were awarded the Victoria Cross. In about 1932, when Farmer died at his home in England, it was recommended that a suitable memorial should be erected. So it came about that, in an English country churchyard, there is a memorial over his grave, weighing about three tons, and fashioned from stone taken from Majuba Mountain and transported to England.

Numbers of wounded Highlanders were scattered along the streets of Lucknow, in India, as a result of the efforts made to relieve the garrison of that town during the Mutiny. The two surgeons of the 78th Highlanders frequently risked their lives in ministering to the wants of the wounded and in their removal to a safer place. Their skill, courage and energy were taxed to the full. The soldiers appreciated the courage of Assistant Surgeon Valentine McMaster who bound up their wounds while the enemy's bullets whistled about his head. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to the regiment. One of these "by universal acclamation was awarded to Dr. McMaster for the devoted gallantry with which he risked his life in binding up the wounds and securing the retreat of the men under his charge, disabled by the bullets of the enemy. The same honour was afterwards conferred on Dr. J. Jee, CB, the surgeon of the regiment, who displayed the greatest courage and humanity in bringing in and attending to the wounded.

I like that phrase - courage and humanity - for it fits so well the actions of many doctors during war and, for that matter, in days of peace.

Dr. A.D. Home, the only unwounded officer in a house, surrounded by mutineers, found himself in a difficult position. He had to direct and encourage the men by his example, attend to the wounded and assist in shooting down their assailants. Dr. Home kept watch at a window and, seeing a sepoy stealthily creeping towards him, shot him dead with his revolver, at a range of three yards. Finally the enemy broke into the lower portion of the house. Raising the most severely wounded in their arms, the doctor and his men rushed towards a shed, running the gauntlet of the fire of 600 rebels. However, only the wounded were hit. The gallant little band moved from place to place, protecting their wounded, and fighting for their lives. The whole story is unfortunately too long to tell here. Eventually they were rescued and the brave doctor, who had been joined by Dr. W. Bradshaw, received a well deserved Victoria Cross, as did his colleague.

The courage of doctors in no way lessened between the years 1857 and 1879. In the latter year Lord Chelmsford's army was overwhelmed at Isandhlwana. A handful of men of the 24th Regiment, with some Colonials, commanded by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, stood fast at Rorke's Drift. Outnumbered by twenty to one they beat off the Zulus. Lieutenant Chard, in his report to Lord Chelmsford, mentioned the gallant behaviour and the steadiness of the whole garrison. Surgeon-Major J. H. Reynolds was mentioned for his constant attention to the wounded where they fell and for voluntarily conveying ammunition from the store to the defenders of the hospital, whereby he was exposed to cross-fire in both directions. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, one of them to Surgeon-Major Reynolds.

On January 14, 1881, Surgeon J. F. McCrea was with the force commanded by Colonel Carrington in the fight at Tweefontein. After the disaster to the burghers he went out under fire and, while ministering to a wounded man, was hit in the chest. He retired, bandaged the wound and returned to continue his care of the casualties. He narrowly escaped death for a second time when the natives charged. Queen Victoria approved the award of the Victoria Cross to Surgeon McCrea and it was presented to him at a parade at King William's Town. He died of pneumonia in July, 1894, and is buried at Kokstad. The funeral was a semi-military one and the coffin, on which his helmet and Victoria Cross were placed, was carried to the grave by his old comrades.

During the Transvaal War of 1880-81, the wife of Colonel Gildea was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria, for her service to the sick and wounded in the besieged town of Pretoria. This appears to be the second time in that war that the service of a woman was officially recognised.

Colonel Bellairs, CB, in a district order dated 5th April 1881, mentioned the heroism of Mrs. Smith, widow of the Bandmaster of the 94th, who rendered great service to the wounded at Bronkhorstspruit and continued to care for them for some three months after the battle. Her services were recognised by the award of the Royal Red Cross.

In the fort at Potchefstroom during the siege, Dr. Sketchley and his family took refuge and, though little has been written about the medical services during the siege of the fort, Dr. Sketchley must have been kept busy attending to the sick and wounded. The conditions inside the fort were appalling for fit men but, for men, women and children deprived of reasonable food, living in the open, and soaked by the rain day after day, the conditions were indescribable. Wounded men were wounded again by the unpredictable roundshots fired into the fort by the Boer cannon, Oude Grietjie. Enteric, dysentery and fever took their toll and among the victims was the doctor's wife.

On the 22nd January, 1881, Lieutenant Dalrymple-Hay led a sortie against a Boer trench which was a menace to the Fusiliers in the fort. Several men fell as they raced across the open. They reached the trench and killed, wounded or captured 11 burghers. On the following day the Boers, under a white flag, sent out a doctor to attend to the wounded. The Fusiliers lent stretchers to convey the wounded to the town. These, on the following day, were returned by the Boers, laden with fruit and medical supplies.

When the garrison capitulated Colonel Winsloe arranged to leave two of the Fusiliers in the Boer hospital, the old Methodist Church, where they were well treated but, nevertheless, later died from their wounds.

I have mentioned this episode in our history because it obviously confirms that sick and wounded, whether friend or foe, were always well treated by the medical staff of the other side. This principle applied equally during the Anglo-Boer War, and I have never heard of the wounded of either side being anything but well cared for.

It will be remembered that General Buller's attack on Colenso was repulsed by General Louis Botha's burghers. Colonel Long placed his guns too far forward without infantry support and several young men, including Lord Roberts' son, were killed or wounded in vain efforts to recover them. A liberal issue of Victoria Crosses was made, including one to Lieutenant Roberts, son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, VC.

It was for this action that Major W. Babtie, CMC, received his Victoria Cross. The citation reads: "Babtie, Major W., CMG, Royal Army Medical Corps at Colenso, December 15, 1899, the wounded of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, were lying in an advanced donga close to the rear of the guns without any medical officer to attend them; and when a message was sent back asking for assistance Major Babtie rode up under a heavy rifle fire, his pony being hit three times. When he arrived at the donga, where the wounded were lying in a sheltered corner, he attended to them all, going from place to place exposed to the heavy rifle fire which greeted anyone who showed himself. Later on in the day, Major Babtie went out with Capt. Congreve to bring in Lieut. Roberts, who was lying wounded on the veld. This was also under a heavy fire."

Although Major Babtie was the first of the doctors to win the Victoria Cross during this War, others were to uphold the principles of humanity and courage in attending to the wounded.

"Crean, Surg-Capt. T. J., 1st Imperial Light Horse - during the action with De Wet at Tygerskloof on the 18th December 1901, this officer continued to attend to the wounded in the firing line, under a heavy fire at only 150 yards range, after he had himself been wounded, and only desisted when he was hit a second time and, as it was at first thought, mortally wounded."

Much has been written about the battle of Magersfontein. There was bravery and chivalry on both sides, and the bravery of the medical officers and stretcher-bearers did not go unnoticed.

"Douglas, Lieutenant H. E. M., Royal Army Medical Corps - on December 11, 1899, during the action at Magersfontein, Lieut. Douglas showed great gallantry and devotion, under a very severe fire, in advancing in the open and attending to Capt. Gordon, Gordon Highlanders, who was wounded, and also attending to Major Robinson and other wounded men under a fearful fire. Many similar acts of devotion and gallantry were performed by Lieut. Douglas on the same day."

Corporal John D. F. Shaul of the Highland Light Infantry, who was in charge of stretcher-bearers, also received the Victoria Cross, for attending to wounded in the open, and under heavy fire from the Boer trenches.

Lieutenant E. T. Inkson, Royal Army Medical Corps, was awarded the Victoria Cross for carrying 2nd Lieutenant Devenish who was severely wounded and unable to walk, for three or four hundred metres under heavy fire to a place of safety. The ground over which he had to move was exposed and there was no cover available.

The last doctor to be awarded the Victoria Cross during this period was Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake, South African Constabulary.

During the action of Vlakfontein on February 8th, Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake went up to a wounded man and attended to him under a heavy fire from 40 Boers at 90 metres range. He then went to the assistance of a wounded officer and, while trying to place him in a comfortable position, was shot three times, but he would not give in till he rolled over thoroughly exhausted. All the eight men at this point were wounded, and while they were lying on the veld, Surg-Capt. Martin-Leake refused water till everyone else had been served. We shall meet Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake again in the next chapter.

Let us now turn to despatches written by the Commanders of besieged towns and see what they had to say about their medical staff; but before touching on these towns let us look at Lord Methuen's despatch dated February 15, 1900 - Magersfontein: "... R.A.M.C. Major O'Donnell and Lieutenant Delap were indefatigable in attending wounded men under fire. Lieutenant Douglas showed great gallantry and devotion under a very severe fire, in advancing in the open and attending to Captain Gordon, Gordon Highlanders, who was wounded, also attending to Major Robinson and other wounded men under a fearful fire ...

Kimberley, September 13, 1899 - February 15, 1900:

"From Lieut. Colonel Kekewich's despatch, February 15, Kimberley Hospital - Dr. W. Russell, M.D., Resident Surgeon, rendered services in connection with reception and treatment of sick and wounded, of which I cannot speak too highly. Dr. T. L. Shiels, M.B., Assistant Resident Surgeon, did a considerable amount of hard work in attending to wounded. I cannot speak too highly of the energy and zeal displayed by the following visiting surgeons - Drs. E. 0. Ashe, A. H. Watkins, J. E. Mackenzie, J. Mathias, W. J Westerfield, W. W. Stoney." In spite of the fact that he was fully occupied with his work, Dr. Ashe found time to keep a diary which is regarded as being one of the best histories of the siege, and which is often quoted by historians writing about the Siege of Kimberley.

Mafeking, October 13, 1899 - May 17, 1900:

"From Major-General Baden-Powell's despatch, May 17 - Medical Staff. Dr. W. Hayes, Surgeon-Major Holmden, B.S.A. Police, and Dr. T. Hayes worked with conspicuous zeal and skill under a never-ending strain of work, and very frequently under fire, in carrying out their duties, even in their own hospital.

Nursing Staff. The work done by the lady nurses was beyond all praise. Miss Hill, the Matron of the Victoria Hospital, was assisted by a number of lady volunteers, in addition to her regular staff; consisting of Mrs. Parmister and Miss Gamble. Mother-Superior Teresa and eight Sisters of Mercy also worked in the hospital. Lady Sarah Wilson (nee Churchill and Sir Winston Churchill's aunt), assisted by other ladies, managed the convalescent hospital. Miss Craufurd managed the women and children's hospital. These ladies worked with the greatest zeal and devotion throughout. The protracted strain of heavy work, frequently carried out under fire (Lady Sarah Wilson was wounded) told on most of them, Miss Hill being at one time prostrated by overwork. It was largely due to their unremitting devotion and skill that the wounded, in so many cases, made marvellous recoveries and the health of the garrison remained so good."

In the cemetery at Mafeking are several graves of the Sisters of Mercy, the gallant little band who did a great deal more during the siege than the brief note above gives them credit for. Their convent was several times hit by shells fired into the town by the 6 inch Creusot siege gun on the outskirts. Below their graves, near the gate to the cemetery, is the grave of Flight Lieutenant A. F. W. Beauchamp-Proctor, VC, DSO, MC (bar), DFC, air-ace of World War I.

On May 31, 1899, a Roman Catholic priest, five nuns and four novices put the finishing touches to their new convent in a dusty South African settlement called Mafeking. Less than five months later, at 9.30 a.m. on October 16, Boer guns opened fire on St. Joseph's Convent. The story of the part played by the Sisters of Mercy and St. Joseph's Convent during the siege unfolds in a diary kept by one of the Sisters, Mother Mary Stanislaus:

"Sunday, October 15 (Feast of St. Teresa). The Colonel (Baden-Powell) asked Cronje to shell neither the hospital, Convent nor Women's Laager - They can be seen from the enemy lines, the Convent for sure. The Sisters from the laager were recalled and the Convent was fitted up as an auxiliary hospital where the equipment from the temporary stations was collected."

"January 1900. As coffins could not be procured, the dead are sewn up in shrouds. Here all of us who could be spared from the wards helped, praying the while... Nothing would have convinced me that I could become so familiar with death... One poor young fellow, who looked not more than twenty, asked me to tell his mother that he died fighting bravely."

Mother Teresa later received the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria for her services to the wounded.

Nurse Craufurd and her sister, Mrs. Brehan, received the Boer wounded during Cmdt. Eloff's last attack on the town. "The little cottage became a battle dressing station, with dying men, and an amputation taking place on a table. They were written of as the heroines of the Siege."

Sir G. White, VC, in his despatch dated Ladysmith, December 2, 1899, brings to notice the following as being eminently deserving of reward:

"Colonel R. Exham, R.A.M.C., did all that a M.O. could do in organizing the medical services under circumstances of exceptional difficulty, and with personnel and material both inadequate for a siege of such long duration, accompanied by such a great amount of sickness.

"Lieutenant Colonel R. Mapleton, R.A.M.C., in charge of Intombi Hospital Camp, was placed in a most exceptional position, in charge of a neutral camp where maintenance of discipline, in the ordinary way was impossible, but in face of all difficulties he did everything possible to maintain sanitation of the camp and to ensure the well-being of sick and wounded."

Action at Moedwil:

"Royal Army Medical Corps. Major T. G. Lavie and Civil-Surgeon W. S. Kidd, wounded early, but continued at their duties for many hours."

Tweebosch, March 7, 1902:

Lieut. General Lord Methuen, in his despatch dated Klerksdorp, March 13, 1902, reporting on the engagement which took place on March 7th, between Tweebosch and Leeuwkuil in the Lichtenburg district, writes:

"Colonel E. Townsend, CB, my M.O., remained in the fighting line until he had received three wounds; he has, from the commencement of the campaign always acted most gallantly."

At the battle of Tweebosch, Lord Methuen was twice wounded. His horse standing next to him was shot dead and, falling on him, broke his leg. When the wounded General was found by the Boers on the battlefield someone, probably Colonel Townsend, had roughly splinted his leg with two rifles. When General de la Rey arrived on the scene he instructed his doctor, Dr. Von Raankamp, to assist Lord Methuen's doctor, Dr. Prentice, to attend to the wounded General.

My father came out to South Africa during the Boer War as a Civil-Surgeon and later commanded the surgical division of No. 3 Field Hospital near Kroonstad. There were many wounded Boers among his patients, including the late Mr. N. C. Havenga. The few notes he kept make interesting reading.

World War I
The South African War, the prelude to World War I ended in 1902. The British had time to lick their wounds and prepare for the greatest conflict that the world, up to that time, had seen. Many of the lessons learned in South Africa, particularly in the medical field, were carried forward and improved upon.

When War broke out in 1914, the regular army was almost immediately sent to the front. But the new warfare was something entirely different. In South Africa there had been no real limit to mobility, but now, in France, there were restrictions to movement. Mons was the beginning of a long agony. From positions along the Canal banks, Britain's Regular Army opened rapid fire on the advancing German infantry, mowing them down, pouring 15 well aimed shots a minute into their ranks. The retreat which followed ended on the 6th September, when the allies stood at bay. With it came the end of the Regular Army.

There followed the long drawn out suffering of trench warfare - shells, rats, lice, bullets, gas, sickness, shattered nervous systems and battle casualties by the thousand. The total weight of all the shells fired in South Africa during the Boer War was fired in one barrage - in exactly 35 minutes. The shelling never ended. Patrols were sent out into no-man's land to capture prisoners. Wiring parties were sent out night after night. Guns were placed wheel to wheel, machine guns never stopped chattering. Bayonets inflicted terrible wounds. Generalship was often murderous, costing thousands of lives and causing tens of thousands of wounded to flow into various medical establishments in a never-ending trail.

Yet, in spite of all its dreadfulness, the Allies held on and the doctors found their hour of glory. In regimental aid posts, dressing-stations, casualty clearing stations, field and base hospitals human wrecks were treated and their suffering alleviated.

During 1914 two doctors won the Victoria Cross. At Haute-Avesnes, on September 19, Captain H. S. Ranken, R.A.M.C., showed conspicuous courage in attending to wounded when under rifle and shrapnel-fire, and on the following day his leg and thigh were shattered while at work. Even after this severe injury, he kept to his task, but the strain was too much for him and he died without knowing that he had won the Victoria Cross.

In December 1914, Lieutenant A. Martin-Leake VC, won the same award for the second time. He won it for 'most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty throughout the campaign, especially during the period October 29 to November 8th, 1914, near Zonnebeke, in rescuing, while exposed to constant fire, a large number of wounded who were lying close to the enemy's trenches." As the Cross could not be granted twice to the same man, Lieutenant Martin-Leake was granted a clasp to it on February 18th, 1915. You will remember that we previously met Lieutenant Martin-Leake at Vlakfontein, where, wounded three times, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for the first time. Captain F. A. C. Scrimger, a Canadian Medical Officer, also won the Victoria Cross at this time.

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, MC, MB, R.A.M.C., was awarded the Victoria Cross for courage and self-sacrifice beyond praise. At Guillemont, France, and Wieltje, Flanders, he tended wounded in the open under heavy fire the whole day, and frequently in view of the enemy. That same night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy's lines for four hours. Next day he went out with one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under intense shellfire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being himself wounded on the journey. That night he rescued three more wounded men from a shellhole near the enemy's trench. Altogether he saved the lives of some 20 badly wounded men, to say nothing of the ordinary cases which had passed through his hands. On 15th September 1917, Captain Chavasse was awarded a bar to the Victoria Cross. In the official report of his second honour it was stated that, though severely wounded in the action at Wieltje, Capt. Chavasse bravely refused to leave his post and for two days not only continued to perform his duties but, in addition, went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to wounded who were lying out. "By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the weather conditions." He subsequently died of wounds.

Captain Harold Ackroyd, MC, MD, attached to the Royal Berkshire Regiment also received the Victoria Cross. Utterly regardless of danger, he worked continuously for many hours at Ypres tending the wounded and saving the lives of officers and men. His duties took him under heavy fire and, on one occasion, he carried a wounded officer to a place of safety, regardless of shells and bullets. Later he was killed in action.

At Tel-el-Khuweilfeh, Palestine, Captain John Fox Russell, MC, MB, displayed most conspicuous bravery until he was killed. He went out repeatedly under continuous fire from snipers and machine guns and, in many cases, where no other means was available carried in the wounded himself. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Captain John Leslie Green, R.A.M.C., lost his own life while trying to save others. "At Fonquevillers, France, being himself wounded at that time, he went to the assistance of an officer who was hung up and wounded on the enemy's barbed-wire entanglements." He succeeded in dragging him into a shellhole, where he dressed his wounds, notwithstanding that bombs and rifle grenades were being hurled at him at the time. In endeavouring to bring the wounded officer to safe cover, Capt. Green was killed. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

"Conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty" earned Captain William Barnsley Allen, MC, MB, his Victoria Cross. Gun detachments were unloading high explosive ammunition from wagons which had just come up, when the Germans suddenly shelled the battery position. The first shell fell in one of the gun-limbers, exploding ammunition, and causing several casualties. Captain Allen at once ran across the open, under heavy shellfire, and by his promptness in dressing their wounds saved many men from bleeding to death. He himself was hit four times.

The finality of the Dead March and the pathetic shudder of the Last Post sounded for them, has long since become one with the echoes of eternity. Old Hippocrates has, I am sure, leaned forward many times from his seat in the shades, to watch intently the actions of doctors down the ages. I am equally certain that when the spirits of Dr. Chavasse and those others, who gave their lives in the service of humanity, entered the Portals set aside for the Bravest of the Brave, he joined in the standing ovation which awaited them. They are indeed the Valiant of Heart who became immortals through the dust of conflict and battle flame.

Let us, with humility and pride, remember them.


"South African War - Honours and Awards - 1899-1902."
"A Popular History of the Great War" - six volumes.
"Forest, Field and Flood". Ward, Lock and Bowden.
"A Narrative of the Boer War". T.F. Carter.
"The Diaries of the 21st and 58th Regiments".
"Royal Scots Fusiliers and Northamptonshire Regiments".
"Mafeking". Brian Gardner.
"Men of Our Times" Rand Daily Mail 1905.
"Family Documents".

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