Michael Galea concludes his review of local newspapers printed in 1916 by highlighting various Maltese contributions to the Allies’ cause in World War I.
On the war front, Malta was giving its good share.
Capt. A.J. Gatt of the Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) was bestowed the Military Cross for ‘Distinguished service in the field’. He was one of the first Maltese officers to volunteer for active service when the war broke out. He proceeded to the Gallipoli Peninsula. After the Allies’ withdrawal from the Dardanelles he proceeded to another front.
Reuter’s, referring to The London Gazette, mentioned three Maltese officers serving with the British Army in France who were recommended by Sir John French for gallant and distinguished service in the field; these were Capt. Henry W. Parnis, RAMC, attached to the Staffordshire Regiment, Capt. Alfred Agius, City of London Regiment, and Lt Arthur Samut, 2nd Weltshire Regiment.
Parnis was the eldest son of Judge Alfred Parnis; he graduated in Medicine at the University of Malta in 1911 and settled in England; he served in the western theatre of war.
Agius proceeded to France and saw much fighting at the storming of Neuve Chapelle. He was awarded the Military Cross.
Samut was the eldest son of Col Achilles Samut, CMG; when war broke out he gave up a good position in Canada and proceeded to England to enlist.
He participated in several actions in France, was wounded in action and conveyed to a hospital in England. He had two brothers at the front, one of whom was 2nd Lt Leonard Robert Samut, who joined the Worcestershire Regiment from the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia (KOMRM). Their father, Col. Achilles, who was on the Retired List when war broke out, was given an appointment in the army.
Also mentioned in despatches by Sir John French was Lt Col J. F. Bernard, who was serving with the Army Ordnance Department in the General Headquarters staff. He was created a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.
Major W. Savona, RMA, who volunteered for active service, was attached to the siege artillery and took part in the battle at Loos.
Lt Charles Alfred Muscat, KOMRM, son of Major J. Muscat of the same regiment, was awarded the coveted distinction of the Military Cross for gallantry in the field.
The London Gazette reads: “Lieutenant Charles Alfred Muscat, Malta Militia, attached to South Staffordshire Regiment. He twice took command of his company and directed operations with great skill and determination at a very critical moment.” He took part in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli operations, served at the Suez Canal and later at the French front.
On the occasion of the King’s birthday in 1916, Lt Col J. Grech, RAMC, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for ‘Distinguished Service in the Field’. He was in charge of a field ambulance in France and Flanders. His service was mentioned in official despatches. He was later appointed assistant director of medical services.
Dr Wyndham Levy Grech, who graduated in law from the University of Malta in 1913, proceeded to England where he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was gazetted a 2nd Liutenant Military Wing. He obtained his ‘wings’.
Lt A. Vella, RAMC, and Dr Joseph Inglott and Dr Victor Mifsud, civil surgeons of the St John Ambulance Brigade, served on board Italian hospital ships that were transporting sick and wouded Serbs from Albania to Italy.
Dr Edward Lanzon, who was first serving at Tigné Hospital, proceeded to England where he obtained a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps at Crockham.
East Lancashire Regt 2nd Lt Arthur Henry Vella Bernard, KOMRM, volunteered for active service and proceeded to Gallipoli, then to Salonika, and saw hard fighting against the Bulgarians, who had joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria in July l915.
Lieutenant Charles Alfred Muscat twice took command of his company and directed operations with great skill and determination at a very critical moment
Among the fallen in the Dardanelles was Lt Herbert Huber of the 1st Batallion KOMRM, who was attached to 1st Bn Royal Inniskillings Fusiliers; he was killed in action at Cape Helles in the operations immediately preceding the evacuation of Gallipoli.
The King and Queen sent a telegram of condolence to Joseph Huber, Herbert’s father and assistant treasurer to the government of Malta: “The King and Queen regret the loss you and the Army have sustained by the death of your son in the service of his country. Their Majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.”
In November, 1916, 2nd Lt Edgar Huber, Herbert’s brother, was killed accidentally at Salonika. The King and Queen caused a telegram to be sent to Edgar’s father: “The King and Queen are deeply grieved to hear that you have lost yet another son in the service of the country. Their Majesties offer you their heartfelt sympathy in your fresh sorrow.”
Major George Monreal (General list) was selected for special duty on the staff of the Admiral Superintendent and Senior Naval Officer, Malta, in connection with the Overseas Trade Division of the Admiralty War Staff. Monreal entered the army as 2nd lieutenant in the Weltshire Regiment in 1896, became lieutenant two years later, and obtained his company in 1902. His staff service included employment in the Army Pay Department and Army Accounts Department. He was also an interpreter in Italian. He retired from the army in 1911.
Major Monreal saw some fighting in West Africa and South Nigeria, while employed with the African Frontier Force. His service gained for him the Medal with Clasp. In 1916 he attended the Allied Economic Conference in Paris.
In October 1916 the ceremony attending the conferment of academic degrees in the church of the University – the Jesuits’ church – in Valletta, featured a very pleasing and unusual episode. Among the candidates for the degree of MD Surgeon, Louis V. Gatt, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, arrived towards the conclusion of the ceremony, immediately after the ship to which he was attached had entered harbour. The young officer in his smart uniform on entering the church was loudly applauded. On approaching the dais he was greeted by Governor Methuen who shook hands with him. Then the conferment followed. It was by sheer chance that the vessel had arrived in time.
In December 1916 the local newspapers announced the death of Captain Paolo Micallef, MD, 2nd Batallion KOMRM, after a protracted illness. He was the son of Achilles Micallef, notary to government, took his degree at the University of Malta in 1901, and was appointed to the post of analytical chemist at the Sanitary Department. Subsequently he joined the KOMRM as second lieutenant in 1897 and was promoted lieutenant in 1900 and captain in 1907. He served with his battalion in Cyprus in 1915 where he commanded a detachment at Nicosia. The funeral of Micallef took place with military honours.
A War Office telegram informed Mrs Abela of Cospicua of the death of her son Charles Abela, who was killed in action. The deceased had left Malta previous to the war and was employed on a torpedo boat, having eventually joined the Cheshire Regiment.
Another Maltese subject paid the supreme sacrifice in the field of battle: Private Edgar Sapienza, 4th Infantry Brigade Canadian contingent. He saw some hard fighting in France. He had first emigrated to America and then proceeded to Canada where he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Also in 1916, the Australian Military Office in London stated that Charles Bonavia, who had been reported missing some 14 months before, was officially reported killed in action at Gallipoli. Bonavia was a land surveyor and architect. After graduating at the University of Malta he proceeded to Australia where he was employed with the Commonwealth government.
On the outbreak of the war he gave up his billet and enlisted as a private. He then joined the Australian Expeditionary Force and sailed for Europe. It was at first thought that Bonavia was killed during the landing at Gallipoli but from the announcement of his death it would appear that he fell while participating in one of the attacks which dislodged the Turco- Germans from their positions.
On the initiative of the Malta Chamber of Land Surveyors and Architects, of which Bonavia was a member, a memorial service was held at Victory church in Valletta for the repose of his soul. The service took the form of a Low Mass de Requiem, with Holy Communion inter Missam. The sum contributed for the purpose was distributed among charitable institutions.
The last batches of the Maltese Labour Battalion returned to Malta in February 1916. They were employed at Mudros during the operations in the Dardanelles “under very trying conditions”. The men presented a war-worn appearance but generally in good health.
In September of that year there was another call of applications for the Malta Labour Battalion. Three hundred stevedores and 500 labourers were required by the War Office for service at Salonika. The terms of service included a three-month engagement subject to renewal, if required longer. Those engaged were subject to military law and were provided free accommodation and medical attendance. Each was provided with rations, mess tin, spoon, fork, knife, blankets, boots, socks, towel, suit, great coat and underclothing. Good characters and men of good physique were wanted, and no one under 18 years of age was accepted.
As was expected the call attracted widespread attention, as was the case when men were required tor the Dardanelles. The battalion was under the command of Major C. D. Vella. A party of six orderlies of the Malta Corps of the St John Ambulance Brigade Overseas accompanied the Maltese battalion.
Prior to departure, the battalion, consisting of 850 units, paraded in Lascaris Ditch. Governor Methuen inspected the battalion and spoke very favourably of their work at the Dardanelles; in encouraging terms he exhorted them to maintain discipline and behaviour. The Governor’s remarks were repeated in the vernacular by Major Vella. Great enthusiasm prevailed among the assembled multitude.
There were several Maltese military chaplains to the forces serving in Malta or overseas. These included Rev. Mgr Can F. Ferris, Mgr Can P. Muscat, Fr Henry Bugeja, Rev. Can Edgar Galea Naudi, Fr J. Darmanin, Fr Alphonus Attard, Fr Anthony Bajada, Fr A. Copperstone, Fr Can. Cauchi, Fr G. M. Consiglio, OSA, Fr J. Verzin, Fr G. Dimech, Rev. Mgr E. Calleja Schembri, Fr Gabriel Bezzina, OP, Fr Richard Borne, Fr Albert Farrugia Bugeja, Rev. Mgr F. Cavendish.
The King and Queen are deeply grieved to hear that you have lost yet another son in the service of the country- Telegram sent in November 1916 to Joseph Huber
About Mgr Cavendish, who was a canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Malta, Private G.W. Rowe, R.I. Fusiliers, wrote in The Tablet: “Mgr F. Cavendish is well known both in Suvla and on hospital ships serving the British Expeditionary Force. I met him for the first time at Suvla where he displayed the greatest courage and a most peaceful calmness under a terrible fire. There he was ministering to the dying, carrying and helping wounded to more sheltered places, dressing the wounded and – above all – having a word of encouragement and consolation for all. We all wondered at his great energy and valuable help. […] No doubt, I owe my conversion to God’s grace, but after Him to no one else but to Canon Cavendish’s splendid work among the soldiers.”
After having been at the front for a long time Mgr Cavendish was appointed senior Roman Catholic chaplain to the British Forces in Salonika, later promoted to the rank of major. Pope Benedict XV granted to Mgr Cavendish the faculty to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Rev. Fr Bonaventure Sciberras, OFM, who had established himself at Rye, Sussex, England, for many years, volunteered for service as military chaplain in France.
In October 1916, reports from Palestine reached Malta saying that the Turkish government had handed over to the German government the monastery of Mount Carmel; it was seized by the Turkish government as it was under French protection. German Carmelite monks had taken over; Also the Nazareth Hospital, which was under French protection, was now entrusted to the Austrian Brothers of Charity.
Before hostilities with Turkey broke out, the superior general of the monastery was a Maltese priest: Fr Carmelo Del Bambino Gesu of the Discalced Carmelites. He was appointed apostolic delegate in Palestine by Pope Pius X. There was another Maltese Discalced Carmelite in that monastery. The Fathers of Allied nationalities, including the two Maltese, were peremptorily ordered to leave the country.
As the war had reached a stalemate, Germany made proposals for peace. The international press commented: “It cannot be too often stated that in view of the Allied governments’ repeated declarations they would agree to no peace till Germany was well thrashed.”
The German raiding cruiser Emden made history; she captured and sank merchant ships, including a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. She was eventually sunk in the Indian Ocean by the Australian cruiser Sydney. The captain of the Emden, Karl von Muller, was praised in the British press for having treated well the cruise and passengers of the captured ships. The 137 survivors of the Emden were brought to Malta as prisoners-of-war and interned at Verdala Barracks and St Clement Camp.
Erich Fikentscher, 25, lieutenant of the Emden, and Ernest Plentl, 27, an Austrian, escaped from the camp, and together they started on their adventurous crossing to Sicily on a three-and-a-half-metre-long fishing boat with improvised sails from St Julian’s Bay. For their apprehension a reward of £100 was offered. They were recaptured in Ragusa.
It was known that among the war prisoners held by the Germans in the Camp of Ruhleben there was a Maltese, Joseph William Psaila.
A grand football match on the Mile End Sporting Ground, Ħamrun, between the Cavalier Team and the 2nd Bn KOMRM was played in aid of the Maltese prisoners-of-war in Germany and Austria – “a ring of patriotism and echoing sympathy”.
In November 1916, a storm swept the Maltese islands “during which rain fell with torrential force, the elements being at war in a rapid succession of thunderous peals and continuous lightning flashes of intense brilliancy. The force of the wind was manifest in the violence of the sea which covered the breakwater and lashed the foreshore with majestic waves”. The hospital camps suffered heavily: many of the tents being blown down and carried away together with the furniture, which was scattered broadcast to the discomfort of the convalescents who had to seek shelter amidst deluging rain.
The contents of one of the recreation tents, including a piano, tables and chairs were swept away. All those under canvas had a very anxious time during the prevalence of the storm, which was generally described as “an unprecedented experience”.
Timely preparations for Christmas were set in motion for the entertainment of the sick and wounded in the hospitals and camps. It was hoped to provide for old-time enlivenment, recalling happy memories of the homeland. Local talent among the social community were invited to take part in Christmas concerts. “It behoves us to assist in cheering our brave boys, more especially during the forthcoming season when we may do much to lighten separation from home sweet home.”
A Christmas Week was organised, which included a twilight concert and a bazaar at St Patrick’s, Sliema, in aid of blinded soldiers and sailors. There was a special message from General Sir Douglas Haig: “It does seem to me a very fitting thing that a special effort should be made to provide for our soldiers and sailors who sacrificed their sight, perhaps the most precious possession of man after life itself.”
Consignments of Christmas puddings were received in Malta from the proceeds of the Daily News and Daily Telegraph funds for distribution to hospital patients, convalescents, British and Maltese troops in the garrison.
In a Christmas message to those serving overseas, George V said: “I send you, my sailors and soldiers, hearty good wishes tor Christmas and the New Year. My grateful thoughts are ever with you for victories gained, for hardships endured and for your unfailing cheeriness. Another Christmas has come around and we are still at war, but the Empire, confident in you, remains determined to win.
“At this Christmastide the Queen and I are thinking more than ever of the sick and wounded among my sailors and soldiers. From our hearts we wish them strength to bear their sufferings, speedy restoration to health, a peaceful Christmas and many happier years to come.”
On Christmas Day the wounded and convalescents were presented with a sterling silver safety pin brooch.
The accompanying photos, which appear in the 2014 book Malta in World War I: Photographic Postcards by The Malta Study Circle, are reproduced with the kind permission and co-operation of the publication’s editors Roger Evans, Alan Green and David Ball, sponsors Maltapost plc and publishers BDL Ltd. Thanks also to Charles Debono, curator, National War Museum, for his advice.
Other newspapers snippets
• There was a handsome response to an appeal by Dr Giovanni Rutter for used Malta postage stamps in aid of the Bahamas Red Cross Guild.
• Throughout the war years, courses on first aid to the injured, home nursing, and home hygiene were held by the St John Ambulance Association (Malta Centre).
• From March 1916, government monthly health demographic statistics started to be issued, including the mortality rate in the Services under separate headings, namely naval and military.
• Admiralty introduced a pensions scheme to all minesweepers personnel injured or disabled in the course of duty (not through culpable negligence), and in the event of a man being killed, a widows’ allowance.
• Lieutenant A.V. Laferla, KOMR, who carried out the duties of adjutant at Għajn Tuffieħa Camp, was presented with a set of pipes by members of the Debating Society in recognition of his untiring efforts on behalf of convalescents at that camp. The new hospital at Għajn Tuffieħa was designated St Barnabas Hospital.
• The government notified that Giorgio Roncali, LL.D, was appointed to act as public custodian of enemy property in the Maltese islands.
• The offices of the senior censor and that of the press censor were transferred from Auberge de France to Auberge de Castille, with entrance in Strada Mercanti, while the Army post office moved to the ground floor of Auberge de France in Strada Mezzodi, with entrance in Strada Zecca.
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