Authors: Fiona McIntosh
Fiona McIntosh is an internationally bestselling author of novels for adults and children. She co-founded and ran an award-winning travel magazine with her husband, Ian, before becoming a full-time author. Fiona now roams the world researching and drawing inspiration for her novels. She also trains emerging writers and is a columnist for News Corp's Escape supplement. She lives in South Australia.
In memory of Trooper Darcy James Roberts
of the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment
Killed in action on 6 August 1915 at Lone Pine, Gallipoli
Claire watched the morphine work its magic beneath the flickering lights she'd now become used to. The soldier's body began to relax immediately and, although he had not cried out once, his features slackened as relief arrived through the sting of a needle. She let out a breath on his behalf, glad that he could drift away for a while, and reached for the pencil to record the dosage. It was only in this moment, as she considered the date, that Claire became fully aware she had been on the hospital ship for nearly a month, plying the waters in the triangle of Turkey, Greece and Egypt.
She had finished her nurses' training in Britain and had already been working full-time for two years in one of the top teaching hospitals there. Claire had left Australia, where she'd lived from ten to seventeen, only to sail back to the England of her birth, believing if she could move among the familiar places of her childhood, she might be able to recapture that wonderful, naive happiness she recalled. Claire's yearning, however, had turned out to be more about the people who had populated her childhood than the places. And all of those people she belonged to and remembered with love were now dead. No one waited anxiously for her return in Australia or Britain, nor for a telegram or letter â not even for news on the grapevine of her wellbeing. So she'd gladly volunteered to leave England to nurse soldiers embroiled in this terrible war.
Assuming she'd be sent to France, she had instead found herself on a Greek island with a daring team of medicos who defied the woeful conditions, climate and food supply to set up the tented hospital known formally as Australian General Hospital 3, or âMudros'.
That had all changed in April when the Allies' push for the Dardanelles had become a reality and she once again cast aside fear to join a legion of tanned, joshing young men who had volunteered from Australia and New Zealand for an adventure on the other side of the world. They were doing their bit for King and country, planning to return to their farms and simple lives with heroic tales of war, but theirs was an empty daydream.
In the galley, waiting to be taken for surgery, a young man's laboured breathing turned to a familiar death rattle that Claire's nursing ear was finely attuned to. She quickly hooked the medical notes onto the end of the bed of her sleeping soldier and hurried to the struggling youngster's side. There'd been no time to even learn his name. One of the other nurses looked over in enquiry but Claire shook her head. He would be gone in moments. She took his hand because his gaze seemed to be staring far away. âSay sorry for meÂ .Â .Â .' he whispered. She was mostly lip-reading. âTell Mum â'
was the last word he uttered from cracked lips before he sighed and the Cornish light she fancied she'd spied in his pale blue eyes was smothered like a candle flame. His plea to apologise to his mother sliced through her thin resolve to toughen up. Claire wondered sadly about that mother at home, waiting for her young son's letter, which would be replaced by a bland telegram from the army bringing the devastating news.
Who might the army contact if something happened to me?
she wondered fleetingly.
Claire reached for the slim oval identification disc the soldier wore around his neck on a leather cord. Her finger reverently touched the initials and surname that had been pressed out from the aluminium above his infantry number, unit and religious persuasion. It was the only way she could honour him in this solemn moment.
, her fingers traced as she shook her head. How appropriate. Claire closed the young soldier's eyes and momentarily shut her own in a soft communion of farewell, and her thoughts were drawn to the first morning of their arrival in Gallipoli.
The Turks called it Gaba Tepe. The maps called it No. 2 Beach. But for those on board the converted passenger ship
, the region was already nicknamed Anzac Cove. On the night of April 24,
had been part of a fleet including battleships, minesweepers, tugs and troopships that eased out of Mudros Harbour to glide stealthily several hours later, just prior to 4 a.m., and station several hundred yards off the beach. British ships had then disgorged two divisions of Australians. Beneath the moon's phosphorescence that gilded the dark waters, young braves of the colony had descended rope ladders and clambered into small craft that were towed closer by tugs, before British naval crewmen rowed them to shore.
A grey dawn had lifted the veil on the so-called surprise landing that had called for lights out and no anchors. But the silence had been shattered as alert Turkish troops, nestled near-invisibly on the hilltop, had opened fire with machine guns. Sunrise had given way to a morning of spectacular courage by the ANZACs, who were being peppered with equally determined firepower by the small defending force.
Claire could remember how she'd lifted heavy, borrowed field glasses to a view of dauntingly high cliffs. Her world narrowed to the flash of gunfire exploding from the arid, grey-green bushes of scrub that clung to the incline while the ANZACs swarmed the hill face. Smaller shells rained on the surrounding waters like hail, bouncing dangerously close to the ship as the Turks tried to prevent the British artillery booming from nearby, the sound of those guns reverberating through her chest. Cordite spiced the air with its burnt smell and from what she could see by squinting at the foreshore, the men were being ordered to leave the wounded where they fell.
Claire tried not to focus on any individual. It was too painful to see men trapped, cowering mid-ascent beneath small overhangs and in tiny crags. Even so it was carnage beyond any nightmare. Well-armed Turks with the high ground and perfect views could aim accurately and strafe their gamely ascending attackers with what must surely be German-supplied machine guns, cutting down a generation of young men, weighted heavily by their gear, trying to hold ground they'd occupied earlier. âThe Turks have little more than antiquated muskets, so we're anticipating only lightly wounded,' they'd been told by the head doctor.
Claire thought, watching in silent horror as men, some of whose boots had barely left their print on damp Turkish sand, fell, fatally injured.
The mules were crazed with terror and the screams of injured animals joined the cacophony of explosions, gunfireÂ .Â .Â .Â and the groaning, dying men who began arriving on the ship by the late afternoon.
That was day one. By the time they returned there was better organisation on the ground but the casualties were so many it had been heartbreaking. On the next return voyage into Gallipoli the full horror of war had wormed beneath her best defences and Claire was convinced there was no glory in it for either side. By the end of the first fortnight of her new routine she had tuned out to the firepower sounding its rage around her; instead she closed in on the daily battles in the wards beneath
's deck and the relentless fight to save organs, limbs and lives.
Rosie Parsons, a fellow nurse Claire shared accommodations with, now arrived alongside her, tucking a few wayward reddish curls back behind her nursing veil. She reached for some bandages from the nearby cabinet but squeezed her friend's arm. âI'm sorry about your baby-faced soldier,' she said, staring down at young Cornish. âHe doesn't look old enough to join up.'
âI'm sure he wasn't. He can barely be seventeen.'
âYou all right?'
Claire nodded and took a sighing breath. âGood,' Rosie continued, âbecause Matron's looking for you, by the by, but right now we're both needed in surgery.'
Claire signalled to an orderly that her patient had succumbed to his injuries before hurrying down the corridor to where theatre was likely in full emergency.
âMaybe the Turks don't know what a white ship with red crosses on it means,' Rosie bellowed over her shoulder as another mortar rocked the waters around them. She sounded disgusted. âNow I'll never get to the Heliopolis Club in Cairo for that Pisco Sour that Victor promised he'd make me.'
Claire gave her a look of admonishment when Rosie glanced back at her with a wry smile. Rosie plotted her life in blocks of weeks that revolved around her entertainment schedule and social calendar in Alexandria or Cairo whenever they got leave. There were times when Claire wished she could make her life that straightforward and simply enjoy the good times. âMaybe they've taken offence to us firing on them, in their own country.' She bit back on anything else that threatened to spill; it made her sound like one of those objectors.
Men were dying in concentrated numbers while as many were destined to barely survive their horrific wounds or to wake up more miserable than they'd felt before surgery, like this soldier, whose head she reached to stroke in the hope he might feel her soothing touch somewhere in his dreams.
âHow is this man, in the prime of his life, going to recover mentally when he wakes and realises his legs have been amputated?' Claire asked.
âI can't answer that,' Rosie replied with a grimace as she prepared her tray of equipment, âand I can't let myself think about it.' Despite the hardness of her words, Claire had seen the sorrow in her friend's eyes.
had four hundred cots but Claire suspected twice that number of beds wouldn't be sufficient for the casualties and demand for transport away from Turkey. But those decisions were not hers and, rather than struggle with logistics she could not control, Claire lost herself in her work, moving from patient to patient, never knowing their names or where they hailed from â only the nature of their wounds. She was assisting a new doctor, and a freshly qualified nurse was helping her hold a man still who was not fully sedated while the surgeon dug shrapnel out of the corner of his patient's eye.
âBe still, there's a good fellow,' the English surgeon said in a mild tone.
âWill he lose his eye?' Betty wondered aloud and Claire gave her a look of admonishment.
âHe can hear you,' she mouthed and on cue the blond-headed boy, surely not even out of his teens, cried out; he was another one begging for his mother and Claire blinked away how sad that made her feel.
âI can't say if he'll lose the eye,' the doctor continued softly, matter-of-factly, âbut looking at the mess of his shoulder, I suspect he will lose his arm. We'd better prep for an amputation.'
Claire wished she could shoosh the doctor too but dared not. She deliberately kept her face blank and recorded everything she could. He belonged to Bed 200 and his name, he had told them, was Billy Martin. He was just eighteen. Billy began to cry, tears leaking to sting his wounded eye further and drip across his spotty cheeks.
âDon't take my arm off,' he pleaded. âI have to help run our farm. I've only got sisters.'
Claire glanced at the doctor.
âGive him the chloroform,' he instructed.
She stopped herself from remarking yet again on the absence of the more sophisticated equipment that they'd been promised, but the surgeon seemed to read her thoughts and gestured towards the bottle. âYou'll have to learn to be quick and deft with the chemical, NurseÂ .Â .Â .?'
âNightingale, sir. Claire Nightingale.'
He smiled. âNurse Nightingale, eh? Most appropriate.' She'd heard it dozens of times since her training began at the Eugenie Nightingale School in London. âPretty. It suits you,' he said, less predictably. âI'll need you to administer the anaesthetic daily from now on when I'm on duty, Nightingale. I'd feel more comfortable if one person I trust takes on the job and does it how I want it. All right?'
âHave you had much experience with anaesthetic in the colonies?'
âI actually did my training in London, sir.'
âAh, very good. At St Thomas's, I presume?'
âThat's right.' She paused, hoping he wouldn't refer to her surname again â an odd coincidence but nonetheless identical to the London hospital across from Westminster. âAnd later at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital,' she added, watching him place a dressing across Billy's eye.
âI thought we had only Australian nurses on board.' He frowned, indicating for her to take over the bandaging.
âIt's a long story,' she murmured, glancing at Rosie with a slight shake of her head, who, though working alongside a different patient, was nearly touching shoulders with her and could easily join in this conversation. Claire didn't want her life story explained to the surgeon.
He shot her a puzzled glance but couldn't pursue it. Time was short and he began readying himself for the bigger, uglier task of his patient's arm. âNow we'll fix up the rest,' he said kindly. âI suspect we're going to be seeing a lot more head wounds today.'
âWhy, sir?' Betty queried, keen to catch the surgeon's attention.
âThese poor wretches don't seem to have tin helmets. The Australian army had better hurry up and supply their boys with some or there'll be plenty more eyes, ears, noses, jaws lost.'
Claire looked up anxiously from where she had helped Betty cut off Billy's shirt and isolate his arm. Her companion was drenching the left side of his body with iodine. âBut we're not equipped for anything reconstructive,' Claire warned.
He shook his head as though helpless. âAll we can do is patch them up and move them on, Nightingale. This boy will be sent to Cairo and then, I hope, to England where they'll be able to do a better job. If I thought that shoulder could wait, I would, but he's already had hours of filth and flies in that wound. See this?' He pointed and pressed where Claire saw a brownish-red swollen area. âPress it,' he said to her, ignoring Betty.
Claire hesitated, not enjoying being singled out by him but intrigued by the chance to improve her skills.