Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, June 25, 2021

Malta in World War One: The Nurse of the Mediterranean

Wounded Soldiers Arriving in Malta

Malta's involvement in World War II is well known and well documented, but less so is the scale of the island's involvement in the previous great conflict of the 20th century—World War I. With the centenary of the Armistice which ended the Great War being celebrated today, there is even more reason to look into Malta's role as the "Nurse of the Mediterranean" during the first major conflict of the 20th century.

Malta, being a British colony at the time, was naturally not a neutral in the conflict that began in the summer of 1914. Fighting initially was reserved to either the Western Front in France, or the Eastern Front between Russia and Prussia, and as a result, Malta's part in the war was minimal.

It was only when 1915 dawned that this began to change. Leaders started to realise that the war would not be an open and shut case, as the fighting spread further afield. Turkey had entered the war on the side of the Germans and had closed the Dardanelles Strait to shipping—which cut Russian access to the Mediterranean. As a result, British and French armies joined forces, and a naval campaign which started in February 1915 was followed two months later by amphibious landings at Gallipoli.

Royal Navy Ships in Malta's Grand Harbor

Despite an army of almost half a million soldiers, the invasion was a disaster, with the campaign taking just over ten months and culminated in a total Allied retreat. Tens of thousands were wounded throughout the campaign, and it was because of these wounded that Malta gained the badge of being the "Nurse of the Mediterranean" during the Great War. 

Since the island was so far off from the battlefront, it was the perfect medical recovery outpost. The Gallipoli campaign, as well as the Salonika one meant that 136,121 wounded or sick soldiers were treated in Malta. An average of 2,000 wounded soldiers started arriving in Malta from the front every week, while the record for the most patients treated in one day stands at an astonishing 20,994. Malta had, at its peak, 27 hospitals with 334 medical officers, 913 nurses, and 25,000 beds to provide optimum care to those arriving from the front.

A large number of those who were treated in Malta were members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs. Unearthed from the newspapers of 100 or so years ago, are letters that soldiers sent home to Australia and New Zealand which help shed new light on the type of service and hospitality these wounded fighters received upon arriving at the Mediterranean island.

St. Elmo's Military Hospital at Malta

There is general praise for the Maltese regarding their hospitality in these letters. Private O. Waller provided one of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of the reception received upon arrival in Malta, writing: "I think it my duty to let Yorketown people know how well we were treated, when we landed in Malta. Ladies were waiting at the landing stage and gave us drinks, cigarettes, matches, biscuits, chocolates, grapes, etc. We also get the advantage of asking in the Daily Malta Chronicle for anything we want in the form of musical instruments - the people quickly respond to our requests. On certain days ladies visit the wards, bring papers of every description and other comforts too numerous to mention. The nurses are a very nice obliging lot they cannot do enough for us."

Private Sidney Scowcroft wrote in similarly glowing terms, praising both the reception that he had received as well as the quality of the medical treatment: "Once on the landing stage we were fairly rushed by both old ladies and young girls, who were anxious to do us a good turn. They distributed amongst us chocolates, biscuits, cigarettes, matches, soft drinks, anything in fact that helps to comfort the wounded. We were then met by very obliging R.A.M.C. men, who took us to a bath, there to make ourselves fit and proper persons to be received by our English nurses at our various wards. The hospital we are in was once an English barracks, but since the outbreak of war, it has been thoroughly renovated, and now it is one of the most up-to-date hospitals here."

Scowcroft also seems to have had the opportunity to see some of Malta's sites, saying that he and some fellow Australians toured St Agatha's Catacombs and "the Roman Catholic Church" in the vicinity, which could well be St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina, and marvelled at the beauty and intricacy of the buildings.

Vera Brittain Served as a V.A.D. Nurse at Malta

All told, the sentiments of many ANZACs towards Malta can be summed up in the letter of one anonymous Australian officer, whose letter was published in the Zeehan & Dundas Herald on 4 January 1916, who said that the Maltese people "by their goodness, hospitality, cordiality and warm heartedness" had "stirred [their] hearts to the depths".

Source: The Malta Independent, 11 November 2018


  1. Wow! I've never seen that photograph of Vera Brittain before!

    1. That one's new to me as well.

      Good column.
      -signed, another Malta fan