Pope Pius X died in August 1914. The announcement of his death would, at any other time, have thrown half the world into the saddest commotion. But the world was shaken to its foundation by the war. The hoarse roar of battle, the sweep and crash of cavalry and the clash of lance and sword drowned all sounds.
The Pope was the representative of Christ, the divine man of peace, who came on earth to reconcile nations with each other and to heal all the diseases of mankind, of which war is, perhaps, the very worst.
In the first months following the start of hostilities, Malta almost enjoyed the blessings of peace, except for an immediate upward trend in the prices of food and essential commodities.
The government exercised vigilance. To ensure an adequate supply of sugar, it was distributed through government-licenced retail sugar dealers who were obliged to affix in a conspicuous part of their shops their licences and lists of retail prices as fixed by the government. Non-compliance could lead to imprisonment.
In order to ease the situation, the prohibition of the export of foodstuffs from the UK to Malta was withdrawn. Meanwhile, export of potatoes, onion and oranges from Malta to all destinations was not allowed.
Beef was imported for the first time from Australia, though this measure had still to be accepted by the population. Cattle were imported from Tunis and the Sudan.
As a result of the presence of a large garrison on the island, the military authorities offered to favourably consider claims for damages to crops, trees and other private property caused by the troops.
In view of the abnormal and unavoidable higher demand made on the island’s supply of public water, consumers were asked to exercise economy in its use and to prevent waste.
For defence reasons, the export of vessels, craft, boats, lighters and barges to all destinations other than the UK and British possessions was prohibited. Hawkers were not allowed to loiter in the vicinity of military barracks or defence installations, or to sell food and drink to the troops.
Moreover, for public safety reasons, all lights on Benghaisa point on the southwest coast that could be visible from the direction of the sea, had to be lowered so as to be invisible. An official notice prohibited the taking of photographs of any naval or military work, of any harbour, bay, creek, dock, including lights, buoys, beacons, marks for the purpose of facilitating navigation in or into a harbour.
Meanwhile, the Malta centre of the St John Ambulance Association regularly organised special courses in Maltese, free and open to all, on hospital work, first aid to the injured and military sanitation; the lectures were delivered by Dr J. Ellul. Dr A.V. Bernard gave lectures on home nursing.
Even though Italy had not yet declared war against Austria-Hungary and only entered the European conflict on the side of the Entente Allies in May 23, 1915, the Italian consulate general in Malta asked Italian citizens residing in Malta to return to Italy “without delay” owing to the “exceptional conditions of the state of war”. Diplomatic and consular offices were authorised to assist their repatriation.
There were frequent calls for recruitment in the Malta Royal Naval Reserve for service afloat as firemen. In the call, it was made clear that only men of good physique need apply.
There was a call for volunteers at the dockyards to serve on board repair ships either in harbour or at sea. The volunteers were required for Malta and Gibraltar.
A circular issued by Bishop A. Portelli, Vicar General, notified that, in view of the dire need of rain, the prayers prescribed pro tempore belli should be suspended until further notice, and instead the Litany of the Saints with the prayer ad obtinendam Pluviam should be chanted coram exposito.
On the Western front, the German army was gaining the roads leading to Paris; the main body of the French army was being engaged elsewhere with the German forces. The Germans were dropping bombs from aeroplanes and airships. The first line of entrenched fortifications round Paris was at Chantilly.
Alfred Curmi served in the 90th Winnipeg Rifles of the first Canadian contingent in Flanders and France. He was treated in England suffering from the effects of poisonous gas produced by asphyxiating shells used by the Germans
As the conflict continued to escalate, a local newspaper commented: “The earth is labouring now as it never laboured before. Nations were never tried as they are now. They have been cast into war as ore into a furnace, so that the pure metal may be separated from the grosser substances with which it was alloyed in nature. The dross will rise to the top and will be cast away; the heavily sterling, metallic element will pour itself out pure, when liberated, and will be of service to all mankind. Our beliefs are as great as our expectations.”
At a meeting of the Malta Historical and Scientific Society held in March 1915, the outgoing president of the society, Contino Caruana Gatto, said in an eloquent address: “Through this society, which is principally engaged in the pursuit of historical knowledge, let us, in common with the rest of the world, raise our voice in expressing our humble but none the less ardent wish that the storm now fiercely raging may soon die away, that right may shortly spread the wings of victory over brute force, that peace may ere long return to shine with undimmed brightness over mankind.”
With the progress of events – still widening in extent and significance – Malta was established as a base hospital for the reception of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors.
On the military side, the island also played its part.
Hector Maistre was engaged as a military interpreter with the French Army and posted to the headquarters of the Fourth Zouaves.
Dr Henry Parnis, eldest son of Judge Dr A. Parnis, living in London, volunteered his services on the outbreak of hostilities; he was gazetted Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in France. William Parnis, son of Judge Parnis, enlisted in England and was given a commission in the Fourth East Kent Regiment. Being the son of a lawyer, he underwent his training with the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps.
Frederick Samut, son of Prof. Dr C. Samut, received a commission in the Worcestershire Regiment.
Arthur Samut, eldest son of Lieutenant Col. A. Samut, Chief Press Censor, proceeded to the front after joining the Artillery Company.
Capt. B. H. Dunbar Vella, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), was wounded in northern France.
Richard Agius received a commission with the army for service at the front. Lieutenant Edgar Agius, brother of Richard Agius, was injured in the face in France and had a narrow escape inasmuch as he was struck by splinters of a shell that killed two men of his platoon immediately behind him.
B.F. Bernard of the Royal Military Collage, Sandhurst, was gazetted second lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was the son of Col. E.E. Bernard Pasha, Financial Secretary to the Sudan government.
Capt. A. dei Baroni Sciberras Trigona was wounded in France and received medical treatment in England.
Lieutenant P.A. Micallef Eynaud, King’s Own Malta Regiment (KOMR), and Lieutenant W.R. Gatt were brought to Malta from the Dardanelles suffering from wounds and from dysentery respectively.
Dr Alfred Vella was given a commission in the Royal Medical Corps. He held several important hospital appointments and his medical skill earned for him flattering testimonials.
Dr Giudo dei Marchesi De Piro d’Amico of the University of Louvain was given a commission in the RAMC.
Lieut. Col. Alfred Vella, Royal Malta Artillery (RMA), joined the regiment in 1883, was made captain in 1892 and obtained field rank in 1897; he was active in Egypt during the Sudan Expedition in 1885; for his services he received the medal with clasp and Bronze Star. He commanded the RMA contingent at the Coronation festivities in London in 1911.
Second Lieutenant A.H. Vella Bernard, 1st Batallion, KOMR, joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. He later arrived from the eastern theatre of war suffering from frostbite. He saw active service during operations in Serbia. He was treated at the Manoel Hospital.
Captain R.A. Montanaro, son of Col. Alfred Montanaro, who served with distinction in the Indian army, was the first Maltese to be decorated with the Military Cross for gallantry in the field. He was one of the youngest officers of that rank in the British army.
Capt. F.M. Stivala served with the Mounted Infantry in the Transvaal and received the medal with four clasps.
Lieutenant A.G. Dandria, Second Lieutenant J.E. Agius, and Second Lieutenant C.A. Muscat all volunteered for active service.
Lieutenant H.W. Huber, KOMR, was attached to the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers; he was wounded in the trenches at Gallipoli, and was transferred to the base hospital at Alexandria, and later to Malta.
A number of Maltese officers proceeded to the Gallipoli peninsula with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (Malta Labour Corps KOMR Second Lieutenant E.A. Mifsud, H. Von Brockdorff and L. Samut; RMA Second Lieutenant H. Curmi and J. Mifsud; Mifsud and Von Brockdorff were later invalided to Malta suffering from dysentery.
Lieutenant J.L. Muscat, KOMR, was wounded in Gallipoli and invalided. In Malta he was treated at Tigné Hospital.
Lieutenant P. Savona, RMA, and Lieutenant R. Mizzi, RMA, served as gunnery instructors.
Private Nicola Vella of the 10th Highland Light Infantry was wounded in action and conveyed for treatment in a general hospital in Rouen.
Alfred Curmi, brother of Second Lieutenant H. Curmi (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) was the first lieutenant in the Granadier Guards. He served in the 90th Winnipeg Rifles of the first Canadian contingent in Flanders and France. He was the first Maltese to obtain a commission in the British overseas forces. He was treated in England suffering from the effects of poisonous gas produced by asphyxiating shells used by the Germans.
Joseph Frendo, also from the Canadian contingent, suffered from poisonous gas at Ypres and received treatment in the 4th base hospital at Versailles.
Charles Laferla of the same contingent suffered the same fate in Flanders and convalesced in England.
Second Lieutenant A.H. Vella Bernard, 1st Batallion, KOMR, joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. He later arrived from the eastern theatre of war suffering from frostbite. He saw active service during operations in Serbia
Private E. Micallef, 4th Batallion Canadians, died in the trenches in Flanders. A solemn funeral service for the repose of his soul was held in the parish church of Ħamrun on the initiative of the Spartans Football Club of which the deceased was a member.
Private Joseph Mifsud, a settler in Australia, who joined the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force soon after the war broke out, was among the wounded.
Groups of Australians who had recovered in Malta were despatched home. It is recorded that a second such group on board Ballaraat was accorded a grand demonstration on arrival in Sydney. Sir Gerald Strickland, then Governor of New South Wales, delivered a speech of welcome.
Enlistments of Maltese with the forces of the Overseas Dominions continued unabated in the various ranks of the Australian or Canadian forces.
Among the fallen officers at the Dardanelles was Major Herbert Joseph Sammut of the 1st Essex Regiment. He joined the regiment in 1890, became lieutenant in 1894, captain in 1900, and major in 1913. He was commander detention barracks at Mauritius when the war broke out, but soon rejoined the regiment. He had the South African War to his credit, including operations in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, and received the Queen’s Medal with four clasps.
Antonio Sciortino, the well-known Maltese sculptor, wanted to volunteer his services through the British ambassador in Rome. But Sir Renner Rodd advised Sciortino to stick to his studio and artistic activities.
Every time a detachment of Maltese Stevedores – Malta Labour Corps Mediterranean Expeditionary Force – returned from the Anzac zone to Malta on the expiration of their contract, large crowds of relatives and friends gathered at the Custom landing place to greet and welcome them with loud and long cheers. Some of them returned wounded. The endurance of the men was described “as extraordinary and their discipline and general behaviour exemplary to the extreme”. Whenever there were calls for enlistment, there was always a good response, which included parties from Gozo.
While carrying out an inspection of the Allied position in Gallipoli, Lord Kitchener visited the Maltese Corps. He complimented the Maltese detachment for “the good work they were doing and sent to each one of them several articles of warm clothing and other comforts in the shape of cigarettes, tobacco and a box of chocolate bearing Lord Kitchener’s photo.”
For the first time, a detachment of the Malta Corps of the St John Ambulance Brigade consisting of a quartermaster, a sergeant, a corporal and five men, proceeded to the Dardenelles for services with the Maltese Labour Corps. The detachment, which was under the charge of Dr Alfred Marras, Superintendant Civil Hospital, was composed of quarter master E.Cumbo, sergeant P. Scalpello, corporal J. Labadie, C. Vassallo Ross, J. Mizzi, P. Cachia, M. Antoniadis and J. Daney.
As winter approached, an appeal was made to provide the corps with shirts, pants, jerseys, mitten, comforters, socks, cups and other woollen articles.
Among the officially gazetted Roman Catholic chaplains to the forces were Rev. Fr J. Verzin and Rev. Mgr Canon P. Cavendish, who proceeded to the Dardanelles together with Maltese officers. Both had served with the British contingent in Crete during the insurrection in 1896. While serving in Gallipoli, Fr Verzin fell ill and was invalided; he was a patient in a hospital in Alexandria before he returned to Malta.
Other military chaplains were Rev. Mgr Canon F. Ferris, Rev. Fr G.M. Consiglio of the Augustinian Order, who served in one of the hospital ships, and Rev. Fr G. Dimech from Mosta, who took spiritual charge of the Maltese stevedores of the Maltese Labour Corps Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in Lemnos and Gallipoli.
The first Roman Catholic service for French families in Malta was held in the church of St Barbara in Valletta. A large congregation attended, so much so that the church did not offer sufficient accommodation; several of the congregation had to stand throughout the whole service.
Madame Chochprat, wife of the distinguished admiral, greeted the ladies as they arrived. Rev. Fr L. Barthet, superior of the Franciscans Order of Friars Minor Conventual, celebrated Mass and delivered a sermon in French, which was listened to with great attention and highly appreciated. The congregation included persons of every rank, from the ordinary seaman to the captain of the man-of-war.
(To be concluded)
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