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Casanovo Monastery Nazareth World War 2
The war memories of a QAIMNS Matron in Military Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations in Haifa, Jerusalem and Nazareth during the Second World War
Below is the second part of the war diary of Annie Hughes RRC QAIMNS. Part one can be read on the World War Two Diary Palestine page.
On my return to Haifa I was detailed to take the advance party of Sisters and RAMC orderlies to Nazareth. Our evacuation orders had come through officially. We were to take over the Casanovo Monastery occupied by Italian monks who gave us a lot of trouble and flatly refused to come out. I think they did not realise their country had declared war, but as there was a strong armed guard and transport awaiting them, they were taken as prisoners and interned. The place was filthy with bugs and lice crawling up the walls. When mosquito nets were fixed on to the beds the bugs came out in their thousands. It took some time to get rid of them, but this had to be done after we had occupied the building. It was not large enough to take all the patients, so an operating theatre was fixed up in a large room, also a plaster room, and this was turned into a surgical block. Medical cases began to roll in daily with dysentery, malaria, sandfly fever, etc., so another monastery on the opposite side of the road had to be taken over. This was only half built, but sufficient for our needs. Our unit was the only one in Palestine up to this time, but other hospitals were on their way out as it was quite impossible for us to cope, with the troops arriving by the thousands.
Several Franciscan monks had been living in this monastery, joining the Church of the Annunciation, which they looked after. They all had to be turned out and they joined other monks in the monastery on the top of Mount Tabor. These buildings made work very hard as there was no proper sanitation or water laid on. Buckets of strong disinfectant were used, the contents being disposed of in sunken pits dug by the natives employed by the military authorities. Drinking water had to be fetched from Mary's Well, though eventually the Royal Engineers got busy and laid down pipes bringing in water from miles away, but hurricane lamps were still our only means of illumination.
The Church of Annunciation was very well kept by the monks and smelt clean. Down in the crypt, which looked like a cave, with its rough rock walls black with age, is where Christ lived with his parents, Mary and Joseph. The carpenter's shop was close by. The monks intended to build a small chapel on this site later on when funds allowed. Most of the zuk shops in Nazareth excelled in carpentry. They made wonderful gadgets out of almost nothing. They were also good at tinkering.
Having got the patients more or less fixed, now a place for the nursing staff! There was a convent just a few minutes walk away occupied by German and Italian nuns. They too refused to come out, but they were taken away and interned. This was rather a nice place as things went, my only objection being a poor Arab burial ground opposite. Then the servant trouble began again. The Nazareth native never allowed Jews or natives from the Middle East to enter their sacred place, so recruiting had to be done locally. Only the male takes on this work, even the sister's personal servant being a man, but they turned out quite good, even to the cooking. Most of them had been working in Haifa with English families. After they received their wages there was trouble. They used to go away for hours and always found, when rounded up, sitting in the roadside cafes drinking and gambling. The pattern of their clothing and the way they lived has not changed since Biblical days.
The entrance from Haifa to Nazareth was fairly good, with hills and valleys on either side covered with flowers and, down in the valleys, fields of grape vines and other soft fruit. The tilling of the ground was done by oxen and asses with rough, uneven yokes. Threshing of wheat and corn was done by a large wooden raft, attached to oxen and asses moving round in a perfect circle, each team led by a small native boy. The winnowed corn was tossed into the air by women armed with special wood forks, the wind blowing the husks away. Baskets would then be filled and loaded on to camels, this being the only transport, then sent to the market and sold by auction to the highest bidder. Noise and fighting on market days was rather exciting, even the camels taking part. Hundreds of these creatures would be kneeling about taking a rest, some of them having travelled for days in a convoy. They would look around at you with the most supercilious air, though I suppose I asked for it after remarking about their expression, when quite seriously one of the leading men said they are the only creatures who know the hundredth word of God.
On one of my days off I visited the Sea of Galilee area. Leaving Nazareth behind and climbing a fairly steep hill, with fields on either side and groves of lemons, oranges, grapes, pomegranates, etc., I came to a small mud-hutted village called Cana of Galilee. Here there was a narrow cobbled street with a very small church, which would hold about fifty people, and by the entrance stood a large stone pitcher in the same pattern as the one used when Christ turned water into wine, and this was the place where it happened.
Leaving here, my next stop was at the village of Tiberias. This lay at the foot of a steep hill and inhabited entirely by Arabs. I found a nice hotel. It was a very hot day and as Judy, my doggie, wanted a drink, and so did I, in we went. The waiters made a rush and offered to get me a real English tea - it was a poached egg on toast and a good cup of tea. Judy had a good basin of milk and a fuss made of her.
Tiberias is noted for its natural hot springs, coming straight from the earth. I must mention that during the short stay in Nazareth my little pal lost the use of both her back legs. The vet could do nothing about it, so I used to take her each day for a week in my little two-seater car to the springs and she recovered completely. After this the troops used to be sent there for treatment.
The next place after Tiberias was the Sea of Galilee, with the Syrian hills on the opposite side. It was all so peaceful that I put on my bathing costume and had a dip. It was beautifully cool and smooth, but suddenly a deep undercurrent could be felt which made it dangerous. The fishermen still use the fan-shaped nets and small boats mentioned in the Bible. Native children collect very tiny shells off the stony beach, dye then with the coloured juices of flowers and make rather attractive necklaces to sell. In the distance could be seen the Horns of Hatten. On these hills the Crusaders surrendered to the Saladines. They could not stand the heat and sun, which is strong at this point, and they also had no water and could not get down to the sea.
Walking along the sea wall I came to a monastery with Franciscan monks in residence. They always give visitors a good welcome and allow them to walk around their well-kept garden. The chief monk was called Father Tabgha. The garden was called Capernaum where they intended to build a small church, but had to suspend building owing to the troubles. This church was to commemorate the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The altar was finished and was laid out in white tiles with paintings of loaves and fishes. Tall old palm trees grew around the garden.
I used another slack day to complete my travel along this road as it was so interesting. I climbed another steep hill, a continuation of Galilee. The top was called Hill of Beatitudes. On this hill Christ began his sermons. Further along was another steep hill called Safad. This was a small village but called a City on the Hill that could never be hidden. This city is mentioned in the Bible.
On another day a party of us went to see Mount Hermon. This is actually just over the border in Syria. It is very high and always covered with snow. We looked at it from across the Hule Lake in Rosh Pinna. This was a pretty little village, closely guarded by our troops. We had to have special passes to visit here, and leave our cameras at the post until our return. The troops had dug-outs and strong concrete guard boxes because at this time the enemy was very near the border. A few days after this visit Syria had been declared an "open city". We felt sad at seeing places we had grown to love and respect being bombed.
During our stay in Nazareth we experienced two earthquakes, one during the night, which was pretty awful, and the other on a Sunday at midday when we were having lunch. All the glasses and plates slipped off the tables, and the natives ran out of their mud houses crying and screaming, saying the end of the world had come and putting the blame on us.
In December 1939 other hospitals had begun to come from the United Kingdom, also American and Australian. I was detailed to visit a Casualty Clearing Station in Jerusalem where they were over-crowded with casualties from the Black Watch, Scots Greys and Warwickshire Regiment, to see if they could be got home to the UK. It was a long journey, this time passing through Nablus and Samaria. Nothing could be done for a few days, so I completed the remainder of my tour, in spare time, starting from Bethlehem. The natives here dress and live as seen in Bible pictures. They are very poor, earning their living chiefly by carving olive wood into various articles and collecting pearl shells from the Dead Sea and making them into trinkets and book covers.
In Bethlehem is the Church of the nativity where they ring the bells that by means of radio can be heard all over the world. I stood under these bells when they were ringing out on Christmas night, I was thinking of friends at home, and they made me feel very home-sick; if only I could have sent a message! After the bells stopped ringing there were services of many denominations held in different parts of the church. It is a large building, being entered by means of two small doors. If a tall person wanted to enter he would have to bend down, this being to prevent anyone gaining admittance without being observed. There are valuable things inside that are very old and irreplaceable. Each religion has its own altar and portion and they do not interfere with one another. Thousands of people gathered here this Christmas, many having travelled for days as it was really a pilgrimage to them. They sang carols together in the courtyard. It was a lovely night and all the stars shone so brightly. I looked down Mary's Well on my way just to see if the star did shine, and it did, so the Wise Men were right! For the service I went down to the crypt where the manger or hole in the rock is, the walls black with age. Two nuns took part in the service. One held a small baby in her arm, and it made everything so real. On the floor of the crypt was a large silver star and it was at this spot where the birth actually took place. I was told that it was not the original star. The first was stolen and caused the Crimean War. A small altar was in one corner built over the spot where the Wise Men offered their gifts on the twelfth night.
On to Bethany. This is also a poor and dirty place, with mud huts where people live all huddled up together and where sheep and goats share the living quarters. The Tomb of Lazarus is in a cave in the centre of the village. His house was nearby, where he lived with his sisters. Lazarus was cured when Christ visited them. The Tomb of Simon the Leper is also in this village.
The Jericho road leading out of Bethany is a lonely and dangerous road, better known as the Valley of Thieves. As is usual, I made this journey accompanied by an armed escort, as the wadis and hills on either side make good hiding places for bandits. It is very barren in parts, with no trees, grass or bird life, with the only sounds being those of wild beasts on the prowl. On the road was the ruins of an inn with a sign reading "The Good Samaritan Inn". This is supposed to be the place where Christ told the Parable. It is still used by wayfarers and shepherds when moving their flocks, the ruins giving them shelter.
On the old Jericho road is a large monastery built on rocks where the ravens were fed by Elijah, and also on the road are signs in four languages warning you not to let the Dead Sea water get into your eyes as it is caustic of potash. The notice also gives the following information: The sea is forty-seven miles in length, ten miles wide at its broadest part, lies 3800ft below the Old City and 1300ft below the level of the Mediterranean. On one side of the Dead Sea is an oddly shaped salt formation. The local inhabitants say it is supposed to be Lot's wife when she turned into a pillar of salt after looking back to watch the ruins of Sodom and Gomorah. On the south-end side of the sea lie huge salt works. On the beach is a small hotel, open for only three months in a year as it is too hot to live there. We were allowed to swim in the sea, and as its density is so great one could lie and float quite easily. On coming out, our bathing costumes and skin looked like glass, with icicles hanging from our eyelashes. We followed our bathe with a shower in the hotel. It was a wonderful experience, the water in the sea being of a very pretty shade of green.
Our return journey was over the river Jordan, which was in flood at the time. It was still very hot with flies and mosquitoes buzzing around. This area is 200ft below sea level. Here, on the banks of the Jordan, we halted for refreshments which we carried with us. My little dachshund Judy rather felt the heat and, being a wise dog, had a good swim. I filled a bottle with the water and later had it distilled so that it would keep fresh to bring home. On my return to Rhos-y-Medre this was given to the parish church.
In Jericho banana trees were growing on the roadside and you could always help yourself to the fruit. Crossing the Allenby Bridge brought to mind the fact that it was built by our troops in 1917 when advancing towards Jerusalem.
Returning to the CCS, I had to make arrangements to get some of the very badly wounded to Egypt so that they could be embarked for the United Kingdom.
Part three of Matron Annie Hughes war diary and memoires can be read on the Diary Ambulance Train Jerusalem to Ismailia British Hospital then Suez WWII page.
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The Drummer Boy continues the adventures of QARANC nurse, Scott Grey, who has the special gift of seeing military ghosts. In this novel he is haunted by the ghost of a Gordon Highlander Drummer Boy from the Battle of Waterloo. It is based on the legends of the Tidworth Military Hospital Drummer Boy.
Chapters take place in modern day Aberdeen, at the Noose & Monkey bar and restaurant as well as His Majesty’s Theatre and Garthdee. Other scenes take place at Tidworth and during the Napoleonic War where I describe battlefield medical care of this era.
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