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18th Indian General Hospital World War Two
Part 9 of the War Diaries of QAIMNS Acting Principle Matron Lt Col Hughes where she takes charge of the 18th IGH during the Second World War and cares for wounded soldiers and Polish refugee babies and children
Read part eight on the Russian and Polish Prisoner of War Refugees WWII 34th British Commonwealth General Hospital page.
I was waiting for orders when news came through and within a few days another large Indian hospital was coming up the line with equipment for 1,000 beds (this ended up with 2,000 beds). I had to take charge of this, so up went the tents, this time further into the plain. This was the 18th Indian General Hospital, being for wounded soldiers as well as disease. A few Russians were amongst the soldiers, but they had to be kept separate, being deadly enemies. These men were a pitiful sight, their uniforms filthy rags of all shapes and sizes, covered with lice and bugs, and suffering from gangrenous wounds, more typhus and dysentery, malaria, and emaciated, caked with mud and blood. Luckily this hospital had been sent from India well and fully equipped, this making the work much easier. They also sent me more nursing staff, and I was the only British matron in charge of the Indian hospitals. The British hospitals only looked after their own troops.
Some of the new arrivals had walked across the country from Siberia, many high-ranking officers amongst them. They had been Russian prisoners. They were given no food, but just turned adrift and told to make their own way. The Russians were too busy defending their own lines. Only a few survived the ordeal. Hundreds dying before they reached the frontier, all ranks helping each other along. It was hard to believe they were human beings. A few Polish women joined them on the walk, these women showing their marks of ill-treatment. Most of the females were able to go straight to the camp. I found several pregnant, but arrangements were made for their own women to deal with them.
Just at this time the Duke of Gloucester visited Teheran. A garden party was given in his honour at the British Embassy in Teheran, so that he could meet the officials. I was introduced to him, then I presented some of my nursing staff. He was very interested in the work that had been done under such conditions and was full of appreciation. Mr Wilkie, the American Ambassador, also visited us when on his way to Russia. Mr Winston Churchill's plane also arrived on the runway alongside our hospital, and I thought he looked ill. General Sir Edward Quinan was the Indian Army commander-in-chief for Teheran. Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson was also in the area, and it was he who gave the Indian 10th Army the Elephant as a tag, of which they were very proud. General Wavell also paid us a visit.
The winter season was coming on with snow on the plains many feet thick, being crisp and hard to walk on, and the air was like champagne. A fatigue party had to be detailed to go around periodically to knock the snow off the tents, even those the staff slept in, to prevent the weight from collapsing them. The winds in the Persian hills were bitterly cold. The hospital was now very busy. German troops continued to advance and Stalingrad was invaded. They were pushing down towards the Caucasus, hoping to penetrate to the river Araxes in the North of Persia.
Air squadrons began to arrive. They had to have a long fat space to take off and return. As this space was too near our tents for safety, and they had to be given priority, this meant moving the hospital. So tents and equipment were packed up. The Persian Government gave us the use of grounds and a huge gun factory that was not in use at the time. The machinery for making guns stood in the centre of the great building and were railed off for safety. Placing the beds all around the room, it was found that only five hundred patients could be accommodated inside, so tents for another four hundred had to be erected in the open. Though it was getting bitterly cold, the only heat available was from Valor stoves dotted about, Primus stoves being used for sterilising instruments, etc.
More Indian sisters arrived straight from India to be trained for field work, but some had to be sent back to Shaiba as they could not stand the cold. I had to send a signal to Headquarters asking for warmer clothing for the few that remained, what they had brought with them being unsuitable for the cold climate. The authorities down the line had no idea of the bitter weather in the north. The hardened campaigners were used to it, having already sampled two winters, but we also were given warm lambs-wool coats, headgear and knee-high boots lined with wool. The Indian Red Cross looked after their sisters very well and often sent me parcels of warm under-garments and other articles for their use. They did not forget them at Christmas time either.
Settled in once more, my patients improved sufficiently for quite half their number to be transferred to the camp to be looked after by Polish nurses who had been trained in the hospital. At this stage it was feeding-up that they wanted, and their own cooks gave them the kind of food they were used to. Doing the rounds of inspection in the kitchens, I was amazed at some of the queer concoctions, though it smelt good. And how these poor creatures could eat, even those in the hospital, and at any time they went around at night and found a patient quiet to have a good look at him in case he had expired.
General Sikorski and General Anders gave a banquet at their new Persian HQ to meet all the high-rankers of their own army. The Colonel and myself were invited as honoured guests. It was a wonderful dinner, all Polish, and what intrigued me most was that they started their courses where we leave off - they ended with soup. This was the first time for me to taste vodka, but was not impressed. After this, a letter in Polish was sent from HQ Evacuation Base, Polish Army in East:-
To Colonel Senior Officer Commanding 18th Indian Hospital, Matron A Hughes and all Doctors and British Sisters working at 18th Ind Hospital for their hard and devoted work saving sick Polish soldiers, for their careful cure and friendly reference, we beg to send our very cordial thanks. "For truth and strictness" Borycki, Colonel.
The Polish Army had been greatly re-formed, having been put into khaki uniform given by the British Government, Even boys of fourteen had to join up as they were needed for further fighting, their one aim being revenge. They certainly appeared very bitter. I met many of their great generals and leaders who were very appreciative of all that had been done for them, and I received many letters from the men and women of Poland.
The British and American hospitals began to get busy dealing with the sick and wounded. Ours were thinning down and we began to pack up once more. The unit was awaiting orders for the next move. One morning, when I too was wondering where our next place would be, I met our Indian Colonel waving his hands over his head and in a terrific flap - they do get very excited when in a fix. The reason was that a ship had been sighted crossing the Caspian Sea. At first it was thought to be an invasion because no one expected any more refugees to come that way as it was too late to escape from Russia unless they tramped over the hills of Turkestan or the Wharf at Krasnovodsk. Already six Germans, including a wireless operator had landed by parachute about seventy miles south of Teheran, three more dropped near Mosul, and three landed in south-west Persia, so the military authorities blocked all frontiers leading into Persia and Iraq with troops. I think that between them they have about eight frontiers.
When the ship had anchored, we saw it was a very small vessel of the type we call a cattle boat. It was very old and one wondered how it made the crossing as it was certainly unseaworthy, but it just made it, though, actually, it was not meant to arrive. The sight of its cargo was again too awful to describe. It was supposed to have aboard one thousand babies from three months to ten years old. There was difficulty in getting to know their ages. The older children could not help us because they were strangers to each other and much too ill and weak to talk. With more than two hundred dead and many more dying, the stench was awful. They were naked and caked with filth, emaciated to skeletons and looked more like very old people. Their eyes could hardly be seen having sunk so far into their sockets. They had blown up tummies, suffering from abdominal tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery. There was no one looking after them on the journey, no food and no one to say when they had last had a feed. They had been in homes and orphanages, belonging to no one, some having been picked up on the streets in Russia where, probably, the parents had been killed. The older children looked at us with fear and terror and it took some time to convince them that we wanted to help them. The OC and his staff were concerned because they were babies and felt it was impossible to do anything for them but when were told they were my responsibility they sighed with relief.
I recruited some kind, motherly women from the camp and a few Polish nurses. There was also a children's hospital matron amongst them. I felt the children would feel more at home with their own people. A large building in the grounds was turned into a suitable place, with mattresses on the floor. They were taken there after they had been cleaned up and given nourishing fluids. Old sheets were collected and torn up to cover their wizened little bodies. I did not think they would survive, but given treatment and good attention from the very kind foster mothers it was amazing how they picked up, and only a few died. Then when the time came to get them up for a little while each day and teach them to walk the question of clothes was again a problem. Our Red Cross could not help us, and I appealed to the American Red Cross. Through the kind and helpful wife of a British consul, within a few days large hampers arrived with lovely woollies, dresses and shoes, also little baby sets, all hand-knitted, having been flown over from America. All had a good rigout, and I don't think the little mites had ever seen or been clothed in such lovely things. Coats, shawls and bonnets also arrived, and it was a pleasure to see their faces. All the Polish women and nurses had a good cry over such kindness. These women are very good at needlework and they set to to make dresses to fit the older children.
The day arrived when we had to part with five hundred of them. They were sent to India to finish their convalescence and to be safe. The very poor women, to show how grateful they were, made a rag doll dressed in Polish national costume and presented it to me with an apology for not being able to give something more substantial, but I loved this little doll - the gift spoke more than words, it was the thought. I had the children for roughly six weeks, and here is a copy of the letter sent to me after they had left:-
The Matron of the Polish Civil Hospital sends her deepest gratitude to the Matron of the 18th Indian Gen. Hospital for her kindness to the Polish children during their stay at the 18th IGH.
In spite of the lack of the knowledge of the Polish language the Matron was always attempting to understand and assist the Polish children, for which we are ever so grateful.
The Polish people shall never forget the acts of kindness displayed at the 18th Indian Gen. Hospital.
Signed H. Wydecka
The men and women that live between the Caspian Sea and the river Cxas are great horsemen and ride at terrific speeds. The men shave their heads and wear headgear of enormous shakos (hats) of dyed sheepskins. They are also exceptional marksmen with a gun. The Russian frontier women dressed like the men and it was very difficult to tell them apart. They were also good shots with a gun and were well trained. There was nothing feminine about them. They served alongside their men in the fighting, sharing trenches.
Acting Principle Matron Hughes journal continues on the 36th Indian British Combined General Hospital in the Desert of Andimeskh WW2 page.
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