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A forgotten memorial

A few weeks ago, this website reported that the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Merchants' Street has been vacated, is to be cleaned and returned to the Archdiocese of Malta.

Other to the exquisite and elaborate sculpture that adorns the apse and doorways, just within the church's main door by the right hand corner is a small marble slab that not many would have noticed or known about.

In 1915, areas within the Pembroke Cantonments were vacated and converted into hospitals and convalescent camps for servicemen wounded during the campaign in the Dardanelles, mainly in the Gallipoli and Salonika theatres. Some merely consisted of a number of weatherboard wards and offices, supported by large rows of tents.

As the number of wounded arriving in Malta rapidly increased, more hospitals were required and St. Paul's Hospital was erected near the musketry ranges, followed by All Saints Convalescent Camp, St. David's Hospital, St. Patrick's Convalescent Camp and even the Officers Mess, later named Juno House, was converted so as to accommodate officer patients.

Due to the shortage of manpower, the Sappers could not cope with all the work and many of the RAMC personnel and the Maltese soldiers in the camp, lent a hand in the construction of these hospitals and camps including the full expansion of St. George's Barracks by late 1915.

Military hospitals were not just in Pembroke but in every part of Malta and even in Gozo. The principal hospitals and camps were; Bighi Naval Hospital, Valletta Hospital, Cottonera Hospital, Forrest Hospital, Mtarfa Hospital and Chambray Convalescent Depot. Other hospitals and convalescent camps were set up including; Hamrun Hospital, St. John's Hospital (in the Sliema Primary School), St. Ignatius Hospital (in the old Jesuit College in St. Julians), Tigné Hospital, St. Elmo Hospital, and Baviere Hospital, Manoel Hospital, the Blue Sisters' Hospital and the Għajn Tuffieħa Camp.

It has been estimated that some 135,000 British, Empire and allied casualties were brought to or passed through Malta during the First World War.

Due to the shortage of doctors and nurses on the island, invaluable service was given by various local doctors, nurses and stretcher bearers were the first to assist the military. Others, Besides the RAMC and Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and other organizations that already had branches operating in Malta, various volunteers came from overseas.

The St. John Ambulance Association, Voluntary Aid Detachment, Young Men's Christian Association, British Red Cross, Scottish Women's Serbian Unit, Soldiers and Sailors Institute, No. 1 Mediterranean Nursing Unit, 1st City of London Field Ambulance, the Guild of the United Free Church of Scotland and St. David's Marquee. One of the V.A.D. nurses who came to Malta was the renowned writer and feminist Vera Brittain (1893-1970), who arrived on the hospital ship Galeka and was stationed at St. George's Hospital between October 1916 and May 1917.

A number of these nurses and volunteers died while serving in Malta during the war.

Towards the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the church St. Mary Magdalene in Valletta was used by Roman Catholic soldiers stationed at nearby Fort St Elmo and Royal Marines and their families from the Camerata Barracks just across the narrow St. Nicholas Street.

My unexpected discovery concerns one of the volunteer nurses who were stationed in Malta during the First World War. Although very little could be found about her locally, the amazing discovery consists of a commemorative marble plaque dedicated to her.

The plaque shows two central figures, a soldier wearing a khaki uniform and Foreign Service Helmet who is having his hands bandaged by a long haired female in biblical robes, possibly Mary Magdalene. Above her head is the badge of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) Reserve. At bottom is a scroll with the legend; WHATSOEVER YOU SHALL DO TO ONE OF THESE, SHALL BE DONE FOR ME (Matthew 25:40), which is slightly painted over. Above at centre is a dedication which although also painted over, some of the text is legible; ......TO THE MEMORY OF ......... MARY A. WALSHE Q.A.I.N.N.S.R. DIED AT MALTA 19 VIII 1915, flanked on each end by a shield, possibly that of St. George of England. The sculptor was C. di Paolo. Her age is not known but Staff Nurse Walshe is recorded as having died at the Nurses Hospital in Strada Maggiore, Floriana, from a disease that she had contracted, possibly from one of the patients that she was attending.

She was buried at the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery. The plaque was erected as her memorial as her grave was located in the ‘public' section of the cemetery and these graves are cleaned and reused.

She is also commemorated on the ‘Five Sisters', the glass screens in the North Transept of York, Minster, England.

Pembroke; From a British Garrison to a Modern Civilian Town', is the first book by the author which will soon be published by the Pembroke Local Council. It narrates the history of the Pembroke Cantonments from the first coastal watchtowers built in the 17th century, the development of the three main British Army barracks; St. George's, St. Andrew's and St. Patrick's Barracks, the Rifle Ranges, forts and coastal batteries, up to present day urbanization.

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