Friday 24 April 2015

Great War diary of Dr John Corbin

John Corbin

The centenary of Gallipoli is here but many of us would not know that there was a Corbin among the Australians who landed at Anzac Cove on April 25th 1915.

He was Dr John Corbin, one of the South Australian Corbins. He was a son of Thomas Wilson Corbin who migrated to Australia in 1865. John was born in 1878 in Adelaide. At the time of the Great War, at the age of 36, he left his practice as a surgeon in Adelaide to serve as a major in the Australian Army Medical Corps.


Dec 4th - SS Kyarra in Melbourne,
day before departure
Like many servicemen, John recorded his experiences in a personal diary. The first entry was dated December 5th 1914, noting his departure from Australia - 'Left Melbourne 6pm, SS Kyarra'. The Kyarra was a hospital ship used to transport medical units to the war. The battlefield destination, presumed to be in Europe, had not yet been decided. After passing through the Suez Canal, on January 14th 1915 they 'entered into Alexandria [in Egypt]. An enormous harbour packed with interned German vessels'.

While encamped in various parts of Egypt, the troops drilled and the medical units prepared, but their first assignment was still unknown - 'We are stuck here waiting... London does not seem in any hurry to direct us'. With no wounded soldiers to worry about yet, the medical preparations sometimes seemed bizarre - 'The place fairly reeks of hospitals, permanent and temporary... they don't know what to do with them. Saw the Indian hospital today - 500 beds, no patients'.
Officers of the First Australian Stationary Hospital
Major John Corbin at far right
It seems that John was initially with the 1st Australian Stationary Hospital, a unit that would operate well back from the front line. He wanted a more forward position - 'Wish to goodness I could transfer to the clearing hospital. Giblin [the officer commanding] is so keen and smart and active'. He got his wish and was transferred to the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, now he was to be working close to the troops and the battleground, wherever that may be.

Eventually, late in February, the picture began to clarify. February 24th - 'The First Division at Mena have orders to move on Saturday. No one knows where to, but it seems either Syria or Europe'. February 26th - 'Rumours of work for us all in Syria or Dardanelles'. March 1st - 'Orders to prepare to leave at a minute's notice. Packed all night, took down all available tents'. March 3rd - 'Steamed off in SS Malda. We are told we are going to Lemnos (then) to Gallipoli on the main land and from there I suppose follow the troops... we are going to be useful at last'.

At Lemnos, a Greek island less than 100km off the Gallipoli coast, the gravity of the situation started to hit home:
Warships at Lemnos
Foreground - towed landing-craft training exercise

March 7th - 'Saw marines who tried to land on the peninsula at Gallipoli. They got cut up horribly'. March 8th - 'Went to the battleship Lord Nelson that came from the Dardanelles this morning. She has been hit in several places by the guns from the Turkish fort'. March 10th - 'We shall probably need 100,000 men to be safe at all'.

On April 7th John and his unit transferred to the troopship 'Ionian' which was to take them to Gallipoli. With several days on board before they left Lemnos, John's high standards and self-confidence came to the fore:
Got on board late in evening and found men housed in a sort of stinking black hole of Calcutta on lower deck... Ordered to act as ship's sanitary officer... made formal report to (officer commanding) saying that the whole ship was dirty and unsanitary, and making recommendations.
Had a strenuous day instilling enthusiasm and thoroughness into boy officers and men. Finally got some cleanliness into troop decks. Young Owen Smyth says the password on the ship now is 'Look out here comes Major Corbin'.
I became very unpopular at first but now it is nearly finished, and the men appreciate the difference, I am not regarded so fiercely.
And so the big event approached. April 17th:
Today we received orders that we are to land 5 officers [doctors] and all our men in a day or two in the immediate wake of the landing... We shall have no tents and no accommodation to start with. We may be shelled all the way from the boats to the beach. If the troops make good their position, we shall land the rest of our men and stuff, and establish a proper clearing hospital. The whole job looks like being extremely dangerous and quite unlike any of our expectations... It is a strange feeling - all this waiting and preparation and apparent waste of time is to come to an end, and with a dramatic suddenness.
April 18th:
I have the operation tent and sorting of cases committed to my care - a responsible job and one that will keep me so busy.
April 24th - battleship Queen Elizabeth departing
 Lemnos to support troop landings on Gallipoli 

April 24th:

Left (Lemnos) at 11am. Steamed out with pipers band playing cheerily at my suggestion, through the remaining ships and round to a rendezvous... We are to be fed (tomorrow) at 3.30am, start landing at 5am and should all be ashore or sunk by 8 o'clock... We are on the verge of a very big undertaking, how big no one can estimate. Messages have been read [to the troops] from the King and Kitchener... saying that the eyes of the world are upon their doings and that they are asked to take positions claimed by the enemy to be impregnable.

It is strange and interesting to be in the midst of it and to notice the bearing of the officers and men. The latter do not for a minute grasp fully the desperate work ahead of them. They are for the most part as unconcerned as if on a pleasure trip... the officers for the most part the same, the senior ones a little quieter perhaps.

My thanks to Stephen & Jane Gow of Armidale NSW for contacting me through my website and for providing much of the material in this article, especially the diary. The original diary was donated to the Australian War Memorial, however there is no digital copy online at this stage. Jane Gow (nee Bromley) is a granddaughter of Dr John Corbin.

Tomorrow, the 100th Anzac Day, I will post some more quotes from the diary.