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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

CCS Journeys to Zahle

page 196

CCS Journeys to Zahle

On 15 March the CCS received its first movement order. The unit was to move to Syria to provide a hospital, pending the transfer of 2 General Hospital from Gerawla to Nazareth.

Friday, 20 March, dawned dull and overcast. It was perhaps this that caused the pickets to sleep late and thus call the cooks late for the breakfast appointed for five o'clock. And it was perhaps the cold morning that made many of the men rise behind time, resulting in much hustle and bustle at the last minute, rolling up blankets and making final adjustments to packs preparatory to departure. But at ten minutes past six goodbye was said to Q Area and Maadi as four trucks left to convey nine officers and 74 other ranks of the CCS and personal baggage to Cairo main station. All entrained at seven o'clock, and soon they were on their way to the new country that was to provide for every member of the staff a pleasant interlude in his life in the Middle East.

A five-hour trip past the palm-fringed mud villages of the Delta brought the party to Kantara. At various stations the train was besieged by dozens of ‘Georges’—and their children, when the local policeman wasn't looking—all selling ‘eggs-a-cooked’, ‘eggs-a-bread’, bottles of doubtful-looking coloured water, or ‘very sweet, very clean, very hygiene’ water melon. The persistent efforts of these bewhiskered, cunning, and crafty hawkers to convert their wares into piastres provided interest at each station, but they soon became an unbearable nuisance.

On arrival at Kantara it was necessary for everyone to shoulder personal gear, detrain, wait in turn to cross the Canal by barge, and then walk to the Kantara East railway station, where there was a long wait for another train to take them through Palestine. Meanwhile, nearly everyone elected to change Egyptian for Palestinian currency, a proceeding that required much thought and calculation in order not to be bested by the wily and prosperous roadside money-changers.

Throughout the long night hours the train lurched and swayed, with occasional halts at small unknown stations. Some time during the night it crossed the Egyptian border, and the early light of dawn showed the cultivated green fields of Palestine slipping past the carriage windows. With daylight the view on either hand became page 197 very pleasant, and soon there were agricultural scenes reminiscent of New Zealand. After recent weeks of desert surroundings, this journey through the ordered and fertile countryside of the land of the Bible was a welcome and refreshing experience. It was springtime, and the fresh growth on cactus fences lining narrow country lanes, and the gay profusion of wild flowers—poppies, anemones, and marguerites—was a tonic to the eyes. Jasmine, too, was everywhere.

Breakfast consisted of dry rations again, but most of the men filled up with oranges. During the early part of the morning the train passed through the heart of the citrus-growing district, with orange groves stretching far on either side. Hill and valley were a mass of dark-green trees heavily laden with the bright fruit, while the sweet scent of its blossom pervaded the air. From time to time the train would halt at a station or railway siding, and here there would be scores of people with cartloads and baskets of large juicy oranges. For less than a shilling one could buy 40 or 50 of the choicest Jaffa variety. Anything that would hold them was filled, and eating oranges became the chief pastime.

Skirting the Mediterranean, the train arrived at Haifa. After a ten-thirty breakfast at the local Naafi, the unit moved to a transit camp at the foot of Mount Carmel. High up on its summit could be seen the modern building of the famous Carmelite Monastery built over the ruins of the one destroyed by the Turks in 1821 and which, tradition says, was originally erected over the cave where once dwelt the prophet Elijah. The journey on from the transit camp was made in civilian buses. Upholstered seats were a novel experience after the indifferent springing of Army trucks. All enjoyed the ride through Haifa's Kingsway, with its modern buildings, and north onto the coastal road running round the Bay of Acre. On the right could be seen an old Turkish aqueduct still carrying water from the distant Kabri springs.

It was dark when the buses climbed into the hills that swing out to the coast at the northern border of Palestine, and it was almost midnight before the convoy arrived at a transit camp at Beirut. Heavy rain was falling; everyone was tired. Laden with bedrolls and packs, many of the men searching for their tents floundered off into the darkness through muddy ground into water-filled ditches page 198 and barbed-wire fences. Many were wet through. In crowded, leaking tents, the only thing they could do was to sit around on packs and wait for daylight.

Late next morning the buses climbed the Lebanons. The road was steep and winding. Many fine houses, the summer homes of Beirut residents, were to be seen. Aley, a well-known tourist resort, looked particularly attractive with its first-class hotels and stylish French residences, as, too, did Bhamdoun and Ain Sofar.

There was thick snow as the road neared the summit, where the scene became more rugged and where, suddenly, the shrub-covered, fertile coastal side of the range gave way to the barren eastern slopes. Magnificent views of the white Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and especially Mount Hermon, were obtained throughout the long winding descent to Shtora. The buses climbed another hill and came to a halt at the hospital, the home of the CCS for the next few months. There below, all at once, was Zahle, a picturesque village nestling in the hollow of the hills.

The building that had been taken over was well suited to the unit's purpose. Funds for its erection as a hospital for the poor of Zahle had been contributed by Americans formerly resident there. Construction work had ceased in 1918, to be resumed again in 1938. A few interior details yet remained to be completed. It was built of grey stone in the form of a square, the centre of which was a paved courtyard. There were two floors as well as an attic.

The first few days after the unit's arrival on 22 March were extremely cold. Battle dress, which in Egypt had seemed so hot and uncomfortable, was now most welcome. Rain, sleet, and snow prevailed; it was said locally to be the coldest March for 60 years. In such cold and miserable conditions, memories of the heat and glaring sands of the desert became dim.

Because of the large numbers of poor village folk who persisted in grouping round the hospital—some in the hope of obtaining clothes to wash, others out of idle curiosity—it was necessary to picket the building and the surrounding area. The people seemed slow to realise that their hospital-to-be had now become a military one. Efforts to convince them of this gave rise to many humorous incidents because of the language difficulty. Though obviously desperately poor, these people seemed to be of a much better character than the Egyptians.

page 199

By 1 April—two days before Easter—the Casualty Clearing Station was ready to receive patients; the first eleven cases were admitted that afternoon. Soon the building took on the appearance of a well-run hospital, with some 120 beds neatly arranged throughout the various surgical and medical wards. Eight nursing orderlies were appointed to each ward.

On 4 April eight sisters, with Sister Hodges5 in charge, joined the CCS. Pending the construction of a stone hut—incidentally not completed until two months later—they lived in tents adjacent to the hospital. A stone cottage served admirably as kitchen and mess room. Two local Lebanese women, Yvonne and Adele, were engaged to attend to sundry tasks. For their mess the officers had the use of another house higher on the hill to the south-west of the hospital. Tents pitched on the slopes below this served as their sleeping quarters. On arrival at Zahle the men were quartered in the main hospital building, shifting later to the attic. This was not convenient for long, so in the first week of April some of the unit tents were erected and occupied instead.

Patients were evacuated by ambulance cars of the American Field Service. Five cars, a small sub-section of this organisation, were already at the hospital when the CCS arrived. The drivers' duties entailed trips to Rayak, Baalbek, Damascus, Beirut, and Nazareth. Representing almost every state in America, the drivers of the AFS served without pay. Well educated and from wealthy American families, most of them had given up good positions to volunteer for the work. Their association with the CCS was happy; their personality, efficiency, and obliging readiness for any extra tasks made them well liked by all members of the staff.

In the AFS lines near the hospital, there was a little ceremony on 1 April when the Stars and Stripes was raised. This was believed to be the first time the American flag was flown in the Middle East since the United States entered the war. Lt-Col Ardagh presented the flag on behalf of General Freyberg.

A few days later there was another parade when the whole unit assembled to say farewell to Col Ardagh, who was relinquishing command of 1 CCS to take up the position of ADMS 2 NZ Division. Lt-Col L. J. Hunter took over the command.