History of health, medicine and naval history
Photographs can tell a story just through their visual impact, but sometimes they can be frustratingly silent about who the actors are in them. When I first saw the photograph in the collections of the Australian War Memorial of wounded soldiers being treated by the Australian Fifth Field Ambulance at an advanced dressing station near Ypres on 20 September 1917 (E00715), the image leapt out at me and just seemed to epitomise the horror, chaos and confusion of front line medicine in the Great War. Not only was it a photograph that spoke to me, but it was an image that caught the imagination.
On one level, it does tell us a lot. When discussing with my publishers a cover for my book Fighting Fit: Health, Medicine and War in the Twentieth Century, that image seemed to be the only one that would do for the cover. It is effective and does convey what I wanted it to do. However, I could not help wondering just who were the people depicted and what were their stories. Luckily the Australian War Memorial had indicated who some of the people were and I was able to trace the people named through the embarkation lists, nominations for military honours and the roll of honour of the war dead.
The Australian War Memorial has identified the medic whose ministrations dominate the right foreground of the photograph as he stands and bandages a patient’s left arm, as Private Frank McCaffrey (service number 6127), a fencer from Clermont, Queensland who had joined up at the age of 18 on 5 October 1916. McCaffrey received the Military Medal in 1918 for his actions in capturing 15 German soldiers at an enemy post at Villers Brettoneux near Amiens on 8 August 1918 and, on another occasion, when his comrades were all wounded, singlehandedly advancing the line. However, this identification seems unlikely as Frank McCaffrey was a private with the 26th Battalion and had no known connection with the medical services. Assuming that the surname is correct, there are three possible members of the 5th Field Ambulance who sailed from Sydney on HMAT Ajana on 31 May 1915 who may be more likely to be the man in the foreground: Henry Gerald McCaffery (2782), a 24 year old draper, Alfred James McCaffery (2795), a 21 year old clerk, or Richard Daniel McCaffery (2816), a 28 year old plumber, all from Croydon, New South Wales. Henry and Alfred had joined up on 22 February and Richard on 15 February 1915 respectively. One of these three brothers may be the man in the photograph. This shows up the dangers of accepting everything as correct on catalogues or even in original records. Misidentifications do happen. It would be nice to know who is shown, though, but sadly we may never know.
Henry Gerald McCaffery was awarded the Military Medal for bravery on 10 October 1917 while carrying out the evacuation of casualties north of Westhoek during a heavy shrapnel barrage when he ‘set a splendid example of courage by calling on the men to make squads to carry through, and repeatedly himself carried patients through the barrage’ and ‘by his coolness and example he encouraged all the bearers who were working in that area.’
Standing at the back of the photograph and attending a head injury is 21 year old Sergeant Cecil Walter Smith (service no 9722). What adds bitter poignancy is that he was to be shot through the chest at Polygon Wood near Zonnebeke (Ypres) on 25 September 1917, only six days after the photograph was taken, while out with Colonel Scott. Lance-Corporal Miles stayed with him until he died and he was then unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave near to where he fell. His friend A.W. Browne, who recorded with restraint and sorrow that ‘this man was my mate’, wrote to his parents. Smith had embarked on HMAT Orsova from Sydney on 11 March 1916. Before joining up on 10 July 1915, Smith had been a plumber or engineer from Abbotsford, New South Wales. He sailed as part of a dermatological hospital unit and had experience of service in the sanitary section and a stationary hospital, as well as in casualty clearing stations. With all this experience behind him, his death would have been a loss to the field ambulance at a time when his experience was much needed. When his family requested a photograph of his grave in 1919, it could not be located. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate.at Ypres.
The book cover does not show the left hand side of the original photograph but in the foreground is Private Albert Doust (4186), a 31 year old teacher from Inverell, New South Wales, who had joined up in the 5th Field Ambulance, on 18 April 1915 and had sailed from Sydney on HMAT Marere on 16 August 1915.
Behind him, and only partially visible, is Basil Cecil Barwick (2807), writing up the dressing station’s records on a pad. Barwick, a 24 year old butter maker from Hinton, Hunter River, Sydney, had sailed with the 5th Field Ambulance from Sydney on HMAT Ajana on 31 May 1915, having joined up on 15 February 1915. Barwick was awarded the Military Medal in 1917 with three of his colleagues from the 5th Field Ambulance for forming a stretcher party on 3 May 1917 during ‘the intensity of the bombardment’ north of Noreuil. With ‘utter disregard of danger’ the stretcher party had ‘attended the wounded and carried them away to safety, in spite of the intense enemy barrage’ following an explosion near a trench mortar shell dump. They had carried wounded continuously for 36 hours, only stopping to attended to the wounded on the way. Barwick was later awarded a bar to the Military Medal in 1918 for having saved two wounded men from the wreckage of an overturned Artillery Transport wagon shelled on 5 October 1918 at Toncourt, during operations at the Hindenburg Line, ‘regardless of heavy shelling’ and displaying ‘the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty’.
It would be wonderful to know who the other members of the Field Ambulance were, who we can see at their work in the photograph, and to know something of their stories and of their subsequent lives. Also the anonymous wounded being treated in the confusion and chaos of the dressing station must all have tales to tell. Most of them have haunted, dazed expressions; the boy, seen next to the man with the wounded right arm being treated by the medic working just behind McCaffrey, in particular looks like he has come through great horrors.
Only one of the wounded, the man seated behind the soldier with the sling, has been tentatively identified as Private Herbert Alfred Hunter (3109A)). Hunter, a farmer from Wagin, Western Australia, of the 5th Pioneer Battalion, was later killed in action on 30 July 1918 aged 26 and is buried at Beacon Cemetery, Sailly-Laurette, France.
Finding out more about these ‘cover boys’ was not essential for my book, but it was something I personally wanted to know about. If these young men from Australia were to grace the cover of my book, the least I owed them was to try and find out more about them and their fate. They deserve to be known.