YOUR MH – ‘A model of what a war hospital under canvas should be’

9 mins read

Michael MacCallan’s grandfather Arthur was an ophthalmic surgeon. He helped convert Travelling Ophthalmic Hospitals into WWI military hospitals for the support of the sick and wounded of the Suez, Gallipoli, and Salonica campaigns. This is his story.

Glymonopoulo Bay, Alexandria, where Arthur was posted until October 1915, when the TOH was moved due to the impending harsh winter.

In 1903, when Arthur MacCallan (1872-1955) had just finished his residency at Moorfields, an oculist in Egypt asked Moorfields to recommend a suitable candidate who could help in the training of Egyptian doctors for the treatment of ophthalmia (financed by a trust established by Sir Ernest Cassel). Arthur was delighted to be offered this ‘glorious opportunity of being independent with £500 a year and the opportunity of foreign travel which seemed to transcend even my dreams’.

Arthur and his team decided to experiment with a Travelling Ophthalmic Hospital (TOH). This proved a tremendous success: the local population could literally ‘see’ the benefits and obtain relief from suffering.

More TOHs were duly established, and, given the overwhelming demand for treatment of this plague, permanent ophthalmic hospitals were also commissioned. By the outbreak of WWI, there were some 14 permanent ophthalmic hospitals, supported by six TOHs. Everyone knew that Arthur MacCallan, through his energy and talent for organisation, was the driving force behind the new service.

Outbreak of war

In August 1914, Arthur was on leave in England. On the personal intervention of Colonel FitzGerald, Lord Kitchener’s ADC, he was instructed to return to Egypt. He set sail on 7 August 1914 on P&O Mooltan, along ‘with 150 generals’. Given the state of war, the long distance to Egypt, and the high probability of attack during the journey, he did not expect to reach Egypt.

Later that year, Egypt became a British protectorate. From Egypt, Arthur wrote a letter to his sister in which he records:

21 December 1914

Yesterday was a great day in Cairo. A British protectorate has been declared, the late Khedive had been dethroned, and the new Sultan had been proclaimed. At 8.30 am we assembled in the enormous square before Abdine Palace (Palais d’Abdine) and waited until 10 o’clock when the Sultan made his entry followed by the diplomatic corps of England. We then went into the Palace and waited until 1.45pm and were received.

Commissioning TOHs as Military Hospitals

The TOHs were duly converted into Military Hospitals to treat war casualties. Each consisted of ‘a large operation tent, completely equipped with ophthalmic instruments, aseptic operation and dressing tables, large autoclaves for the sterilisation of dressings, and water sterilisers’, staffed by Egyptian medical officers. Also available were another five travelling hospitals treating ankylostomiasis (tape-worm). To ensure that the TOHs could carry out their broadened scope of surgical work, they were provided with additional medical instruments and supplies.

In January 1915, three TOHs were transferred at 24 hours’ notice to Ismailia and Suez in order to establish the two clearing hospitals required for treating wounded Turkish prisoners. When serious military operations ceased in May 1915, the prisoners were relocated to Port Said to provide accommodation for the British wounded from Gallipoli.

At the end of April 1915, the French military authorities required accommodation for Senegalese troops wounded in Gallipoli. To address this, other TOHs were transferred to Zagazig, providing for 150 wounded. ‘The tents were pitched on a piece of ground immediately adjoining the permanent ophthalmic hospital, which gave admirable facilities for the performance of operations. This hospital was at work from May until the end of June.’

Gallipoli’s wounded

In the meantime, Arthur had developed a plan for a general ‘hospital under canvas’ for British wounded at Alexandria. He had already outlined this plan to Colonel Sir David Semple, the Director-General of the Public Health Department (PHD). He was therefore delighted when this was also approved by Surgeon -General R W Ford, Director of Medical Services (DMS), Egypt.

For this purpose, TOHs were rapidly transferred from other locations in Egypt to Alexandria and two weeks later were ready to receive British wounded. Arthur describes it as follows:

The hospital was thoroughly equipped with the necessary surgical instruments by the central stores of the Public Health Department (PHD), and had a complete installation of electric light, X-rays, and telephones. It at first consisted of 200 beds, which later were increased to 400, and later still to 550. These increases were effected by bringing in personnel and equipment of hospitals which were treating ankylostomiasis in various parts of Egypt to reinforce the original hospital.

The hospital was divided into three sections, two of which had each a large Swiss cottage tent lined with white for operations, and another similarly and fully equipped for dressings; the third section of 150 beds was reserved for dysentery cases. There was, in addition, an isolation section of 50 beds available for pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin.

A word as regards the site should be added. The hospital was pitched on the cliffs of Glymenopoulo Bay, Alexandria, with the sea on two sides, the western and the northern, and was probably the most healthy place in the whole of Egypt.

 Arthur was commandant of the hospital and acted as principal surgeon, supported by a senior British assistant and 24 Egyptian surgeons. With a proportion of one surgeon for each 25 beds, very careful dressings, frequent when necessary, could be carried out for all wounded.

He went on to note that:

The comfort and well-being of the patients was greatly enhanced by the indefatigable labours of the lady almoner, Mrs Peckitt of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and a small staff of lady helpers. Very great assistance was provided by the Alexandria branch of the British Red Cross Society, which was organised by Sir Armand Ruffer, CMG.


The best hospital in Egypt

Whilst all this was happening, Arthur continued to write to his mother in England. His letters provide an illuminating, and amusing, picture of his intense commitment and the considerable personal satisfaction he derived during this period. Two extracts are given below:

12 June 1915

My camp of 400 beds is of course the most wonderful thing that has ever been seen.

Sir Courtauld Thomson, Commissioner for the British Red Cross Society, after visiting the camp with Dr Ruffer during the process of admitting 250 new wounded from the Dardanelles, was so impressed that he asked me to dinner and satisfied even my vanity by his praises of my organising skills and the beauty of the camp.

Lady McMahon visited the other day and is sending her daughter to give out Red Cross Comforts with the help of a St John’s Ambulance lady Mrs Peckitt.

Then a few days later, he continues:

17 June 1915

I am having the time of my life!!!!

I have got the best hospital in Alexandria. Sir Courtauld Thomson the British Commissioner of the Red Cross says so. I carry on my business in a better way there than any military hospital in Alexandria. Miss Asquith says so. Altogether I am in the way of having my head turned by flattery!!!

I work from 6am to 7.15, from 8 to 1.30, from 3 to 7. That is for ordinary days. On extraordinary days we go on indefinitely. One day we had 250 admissions: of course had Guys or Barts had so many they would have been totally disorganised.

The Red Cross man and another important fellow came in when I was admitting the last 50 cases of the 250 batch and were surprised to find that the wounded had a meal within ½ hour of admission, were bathed and dressed surgically before evening.



This hospital remained at Alexandria until October 1915. Whilst the Glymenopoulo Bay site had been ideal during the summer months, it was considered too exposed for the winter, so relocated to Cairo and was operational in (Giza) Cairo just three weeks later (by 8 November). To provide additional accommodation, the camp at Port Said was moved to Cairo, bringing the available beds to 650.

The hospital was pitched on an excellent site on the banks of the Nile, with a magnificent view of the citadel across the water. It was organised in four sections, each of which was self-sufficient with its own administrative medical officer, surgeons, operation and dressing tent, kitchen, and dining huts. There was in addition an isolation section where all cases of pyrexia of unknown origin were placed.

At the end of January (1916), the military hospitals being fully able to accommodate the reduced number of sick and wounded, MacCallan’s hospital was brought to an end by the evacuation of the remaining patients.

The hospital had treated some 6,000 cases, of which approximately half were wounds and half were sickness. The number of operations performed was some 640.

The contribution made by the converted TOH hospitals was recognised in a letter from General Ford (DMS) to Colonel Semple (PHD):

28 February 1916

I have the honour to inform you that owing to the large number of beds now available in military hospitals, Egypt, it has been decided that it will no longer be necessary to continue the use of the PHD Hospital at Giza, and I have, therefore, asked Major MacCallan to close it for military purposes.

This hospital has now been in existence for many months, formerly at Alexandria and latterly at Cairo, and has been of the greatest assistance to the military services. I desire to place on record my appreciation of the excellent & helpful professional work that has been carried out by Major MacCallan and his staff, and request you will kindly convey to them my sense of indebtedness for their untiring exertions in the interests of the sick and wounded, especially during the period of military operations at the Dardanelles. Major MacCallan’s hospital has been, in my opinion, a model of what a war hospital under canvas should be.


The survivors of HMS Tara

In February 1916, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was operating in the Western Desert against the Senussi. The DMS (Ford) ordered Arthur to Mersa Matruh (on the Mediterranean Sea coast) as a Special Services Officer; Arthur also acted as SMO (senior medical officer) at the base, with the rank of Major, RAMC.

He became involved with the plans to rescue the survivors of HMS Tara, sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Sollum in November 1915. Its crew of 104 men were being held prisoner near Bir Hakkim, Libya. The British military authorities were, naturally, concerned as to their welfare and tried to send provisions and medical aid. Arthur recorded:

At the beginning of March 1916, I was requested by General Maxwell, General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Forces in Egypt, to volunteer to take provisions and medical stores through the Turkish lines in Libya for the relief of British soldiers, prisoners of the Turks, after wreckage of the Tara on the African coast. I volunteered to proceed through the Turkish lines with provisions, and plans were prepared, but General Sir John Maxwell stopped me going as the Turks had warned the British that they would keep me until the end of the war. I was devoutly glad as the project was ridiculous and I knew it.

Fortunately, an armoured-car raid by the Duke of Westminster’s military force rescued these prisoners on 21 March 1916.

Arthur was mentioned in despatches and received three war medals. He was demobilised in 1917 and returned to his ophthalmic administration, teaching, and surgery.

His immense energy, initiative, and talent for organisation made the TOHs as successful for military, as they had been for ophthalmic, purposes. That he succeeded, and his efforts were appreciated, was reflected in General Ford’s warm compliment: ‘Major MacCallan’s hospital has been, in my opinion, a model of what a war hospital under canvas should be.’



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