Why did Malta become one of WW1’s biggest hospitals?

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1. The nurse of the Mediterranean

In 1915, as Europe’s armies faced stalemate, World War One spread beyond the Western Front. To try to break the deadlock Britain and France led new campaigns at Gallipoli in Turkey, and Salonika in Greece.

New battle fronts meant new places to treat the wounded would be needed. But the allies had more than just combat casualties to deal with. Climate and conditions brought malaria and dysentery. Very quickly, there were tens of thousands of soldiers in need of urgent and ongoing care.

The answer was a tiny rock in the Mediterranean Sea. At a safe distance from the front line, Malta became a hospital island for more than 136,000 men. By the end of the war it had earned itself the nickname the "Nurse of the Mediterranean".

2. A sanctuary across the sea

Although Malta was located relatively near to the new battlegrounds, it was still separated from them by hundreds of miles of sea.

The Gallipoli campaign

At Gallipoli, a force of 70,000 men was sent to attack the Ottoman Empire. British, French, Australian and New Zealand soldiers launched an amphibious assault on the Turkish peninsula in an attempt to take the city of Constantinople. It was hoped that Germany would be forced to divert troops from the Western Front to support their Turkish allies.

The first batch of patients from the battlefield arrived in Malta in March 1915. The soldiers had to travel 850 miles across the Mediterranean to reach the safety of the island. Thousands of patients made the week-long journey on hospital ships. Gallipoli was a military disaster for the allies and after eight months of fierce fighting, both ground and naval forces had to withdraw.

The Salonika campaign

At Salonika, British and French forces landed on the northern Greek coast in 1915, in an attempt to relieve Serbian forces fighting the Bulgarian army. Fighting continued for many months, and the allies were forced to dig in. The sick and wounded were taken from the battlefield and brought to Malta by ship.

In April 1917, after several hospital ships were sunk by German submarines, the allies decided the journey to Malta was too dangerous. Many hospitals on the island were closed and replaced with new facilities in Greece.

3. An island hospital

Malta - An island hospital

Medical Services General History Vol. I By Major-General Sir W. G. Macpherson, Military Hospitals In Malta During The War, By G. R. Bruce

Hospitals were opened up at a frantic pace to keep up with the thousands of sick and wounded soldiers brought to Malta.

4. Pioneering heart surgery

Robert Hugh Martin was shot in the heart at Salonika in 1917. Evacuated to Malta, he underwent one of the first successful heart surgeries of World War One.

5. Rest and recuperation

Medical care on Malta went beyond emergency treatment. The rest and recuperation of recovering soldiers was taken very seriously.

Many of the troops were afflicted with dysentery, fever and malaria and needed ongoing care. Several convalescent hospitals were set up on the island to help those who were still not fit to return to the front.

In May, 1915 tea rooms were set up in Sliema to provide rest and refreshment for the sick and wounded soldiers. The tea rooms were manned by a band of local volunteers and hosted weekly concerts. They proved popular with the soldiers and during the course of the war around 50,000 men were served.

In October a Gymnasium in Valletta was converted into a facility for convalescents. It was equipped with a library, bar, a billiard table and a fully equipped stage. Over 80,000 men passed through its doors. Around this time Australia Hall was built by the Australian Red Cross. It was a combined recreation centre and theatre and provided entertainment for wounded soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

6. A strategic rock at the world’s centre

Despite being a such a small island, Malta’s location has meant it has played an important and strategic role in many historic conflicts.

Great Siege of Malta

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Great Siege of Malta

An unsuccessful attack on Malta by the Ottomans in 1565 marked the end of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleonic conquest

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Napoleonic conquest

Due to its Mediterranean location, Napoleon’s fleet stopped off in Malta en route to Egypt in 1798. They conquered Malta in just six days.

Siege of Malta, WW2

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Siege of Malta, WW2

Malta was a vital launchpad for the British air force and navy in WW2. The island held out for two years against relentless German and Italian bombing raids.

21st Century safe haven

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21st Century safe haven

When violent protests against the ruler of Libya broke out in 2011 British citizens working there were evacuated to Malta.