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26th Indian General Hospital
Part 12 of the Second World War Diary of QAIMNS Lieutenant Colonel Hughes where she takes charge of the 26th Indian General Hospital
Read part eleven on the 28th Combined General Hospital Mosul and Kirkuk World War Two page.
The hospital I was going to was the 26th Indian General, staffed by all Indian sisters and matron, she being the first and only one to hold this position on active service. The hospital was in a compound with one thousand beds for Indians and two hundred beds for Arabs. They were having trouble with the staff and nursing sepoys (orderlies) and they were very undisciplined. The Indian colonel appealed to HQ for help, so I was sent to investigate and, knowing Indian ways, it did not take me long to find out what the trouble was about. The colonel and matron being of the same race she resented taking orders from him and would not co-operate. They just did not trust one another. These women sent straight from India were not trained for active service, discipline and the work expected of them. In India educated women are not brought up to work or do anything for themselves, even in their training schools, servants being plentiful and cheap. They did not wash the patients or attend to them generally, the lower grade and race being employed to do this. I found the wards, which were in tents, very dirty, patients doing what they liked, some very ill and unwashed for days, the sepoys refusing to take orders from the Indian nurses. In fact, the whole affair was typical Indian. Treatment was not being carried out. Instead of being on duty, these women would be found entertaining officers in their mess. It is a true saying: familiarity breeds contempt: you met it here. I was horrified, so decided to take over temporarily, I made my report to HQ recommending that the matron and her senior staff be returned to India by the first boat leaving the Port of Basra, and replacing them with a few QA Sisters. This was done.
The hospital was completely reorganised. The remaining staff worked well, even the sepoys, under the British sisters' supervision. The Indians have a great admiration for British sisters. The junior Indian nurses who had remained, seeing the QAs washing men who were ill, took to doing this task also. In the past they had put their religion before duty, saying that such a task lowered them in the eyes of their own people. This rule was soon broken, and they had a lecture on what was expected of them or be returned to their own country. After a few days all was well, with the patients clean, happy and grateful, having made up their minds to get well.
It was a very busy hospital with good surgical work. On the medical side, cases of tropical diseases, a few cases of smallpox, all responded to treatment, kindness and well-cooked food. Previously the Indian workers had been selling quite a large proportion of the rations to the Arabs and making quite a lot of money. I took over the stores and issued twice daily all that was required for each of the kitchens, eg Hindu and Moslem, their diets being different. I gave lectures to the sepoys, this adding to their interest. They were eventually examined by the RAMC officers and graded. This meant more money for them. They were allowed to give medicines and do small dressings - they thought themselves very important!
In this area the British authorities employed hundreds of Arab coolies. Their own people did not cater for them if they were ill, so the 26th had to do this. When typhus and other diseases broke out amongst them, tents had to be put up a short distance from the main hospital where at times more than two hundred would be admitted. A separate cookhouse had also to be erected. Trouble soon began when they were admitted to hospital. The few dirty rags that covered their bodies were so infested with lice and bugs and the patients had to be stripped and washed in a separate tent before going to the nursing one. This was done by the sepoys, no sister being allowed in this area. The sepoys worked under the supervision of the medical officer, but I paid regular visits when doing my rounds. These Arabs had never slept in beds or between sheets in their lives, their habits being dirty and sanitation unknown to them. The Indian sweeper who attended to the unclean used to get very angry and called them everything under the sun, but he soon got them trained. Sheets used to disappear - where, and how was a mystery in spite of a strong guard around the compound. The Arab is a sly and crafty fellow, and though their friends were not allowed to visit them during their stay in hospital, yet we could see traces of bare feet every morning from under the surrounding wire. One night a special watch was kept, and coolie children were seen crawling on their tummies under the wire and stealing sheets. Military Police generally found stolen articles being sold in the market places the following morning.
I remained at this hospital for five months but before leaving the number of patients had been reduced to two hundred and fifty, all the Arabs discharged and most of the tents taken down. The patients who could stand the journey were put on a hospital ship bound for India, and how thrilled some of them were to start on their journey to their homeland, there to be received as heroes, some limbless, and some incurable, returning to die. I saw them all settled aboard ship with the stretcher cases on deck, and I left them all full of gratitude and smiles. I suppose that if one visited parts of India later these poor creatures would be seen sitting on roadsides and begging for "buckshee".
The day arrived for me to say goodbye to the desert of Shaiba, with no regrets at leaving the area. A few days before I left I was feted at the clubs and officers' messes and given many keepsakes. I left the hospital at six o'clock in the evening to catch the train to Baghdad, with my car driver in his best rigout, his headgear freshly starched, and my bearer who was to look after me on the journey to Baghdad. Incidentally I forgot to mention that the car had been sent from India for my personal use; it was bought by the Lady Linlithgow's Silver Trinket Fund and was being returned after I had gone. Leaving the place will always remain in my memory. When I came out of my quarters to get into the car the colonel and his staff met me and I had to drive for half a mile through a guard of honour formed by the troops. They had asked permission to say goodbye to me in their own way, and at the end of the drive I got out and spoke to them. The last I heard were cheers ringing through the desert. This was not the end! When I arrived at Shaiba station I found my Indian nursing staff and officers lined up outside my coach, the nurses with tears in their eyes. They remained standing on the platform until the train was out of sight. There was something very pathetic about it all, but I loved them and they were like children to me. To the whole unit my word was always a command and so they carried out my orders to the best of their ability.
This is just one more copy of a letter which was sent to me from HQ:-
Confidential. Date: April 12th, 1944. 26th Indian General Hospital.
On the departure of Matron A. Hughes RRC QAIMNS
I desire to acknowledge and bring to notice the exceptional and meritorious service she has rendered to this unit.
When she took over, the standard of nursing and general tone and conduct of the lady nursing staff were such as to cause comment and anxiety. By her energy, integrity and firmness tempered with tact, goodwill and kindness, she accomplished the making of a unit of which she can now be proud, and she is leaving behind her a staff and patients who love her and respect her.
Personally I am losing a valued colleague, association with whom has been to me a pleasure and privilege.
Signed: G. O. Mohan, Colonel, Commanding 26th Indian Gen. Hospital.
The last part of Lt Col Hughes World War Two journal continues on the QAs Journey home from Paiforce Persia and Iraq Force Middle East Second World War page.
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