Life and death in an Ottoman Desert Hospital in WWI

guest contribution by MICHAEL TALBOT, University of St. Andrews

[8] The Red Crescent medical camp at Hafir, 1916.
Library of Congress: American Colony Photograph Department.
A couple of years ago, I found myself seeking a “provincial” Ottoman experience after some time researching in the archives at the Bab-ı Ali. So naturally, I journeyed to the Negev Desert with my long-suffering better-half and her parents to take in the sites under the scorching July heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen, as they say. The trip, however, was worth the sunburn, as one place in particular proved to be quite spectacular: the ruins of a military hospital, a relic from the final days of Ottoman rule in Palestine,  now straddles the modern border between Israel and Egypt. Today called by its Hebrew name Nitzana, this settlement was known in 1916 as Hafir (or Hafirülavce / Hafir al-‘Awja). Through archival photographs as well as my own holiday snaps and observations, this post aims to highlight one of the last major construction efforts of the Ottomans in Palestine, and to provide a glimpse into military and medical life on the edge of empire in World War One. 

[1] The military hospital, view of the main east
entrance. This and the rest of the photographs,
unlessotherwise noted, were taken by the author. 
The site itself is impressive in terms of its size and its remains. The stone hospital is situated on the hill (now called Tel Nitzana), [1] with a sweeping view over the surrounding region. A series of complexes comprising of several buildings in various states of survival--including administrative buildings, barracks, a water tower, and a railway station--lie to the south-east of the hospital in the valley below. [2] The faint outline of the old railway tracks can be seen just north of the modern road that now connects the hill to the railway complex. A large wadi that fills with water in the winter flows directly through the site from north to south, and the hospital also took advantage of underground water sources as well. A  hospital camp run by the Red Crescent--a charity organization founded in the late Ottoman period, based on the model of the Red Cross--was also erected directly behind the hospital to the north-west. Today no visible evidence of the camp remains.

[2] Map of the Hafir complex. Satellite Image by Google Maps, Map by the author.

[3] Interior of a building from Hafir's train station.
Situated on the border established in 1906 between Ottoman Palestine and British Sinai, Hafir became an administrative centre (nahiye) of Beersheba (Birüssebi) only two years later in 1908. Upon the Ottoman entry into WWI in November 1914, the site became a major forward base of the Ottoman army for its operations in the Sinai and Suez regions. By the end of 1916, Hafir boasted its own station on the railway line from Beersheba as well as an extensive military base. The buildings from the train station are still largely intact [3], all typical in style to other such structures on the greater Hejaz Railway network. Hafir's impressive water tower and simple, squat station buildings are comparable to those found at a number of other intermediate railway stations, from Mismiya in Syria to Abu al-Na'am in Hijaz. 

[4] View from the hospital looking south,
 towards the railway complex.
The administrative buildings and military barracks, however, have barely survived. A view from the hill [4] shows the columns of an excavated Byzantine church in the foreground, with the water tower and ruins of the railway buildings further off in the distance. The administrative buildings once occupied the space directly above and around what is now this Byzantine archaeological site, but today little of the Ottoman military complex is visible even at the level of rubble.

Luckily, archival photographs give us a sense of what would have been a bustling military hub. One panoramic image taken in 1916 from almost the same vantage point on top of the hill reveals what the barracks and military base would have looked like almost a century earlier. [5] There are plots for growing food in the foreground, three large administrative buildings to the right, including one (the furthest away from the camera) flying the flag of the Red Crescent Society (Hilal-ı Ahmer Cemiyeti/ Kızılay Derneği), long barrack buildings to the left, watering holes, and numerous encampments in the surrounding desert. There is also an enclosed garden surrounding a ceremonial column, and later photographs reveal that this was used as a camp cemetery. In short, the construction of this settlement--in the middle of a war, thirty-five miles (55 kilometres) from the nearest urban centre, in the middle of the desert–is an impressive achievement indeed. And a photograph taken later in the same year (1916) demonstrates just how rapidly the site was being developed, with the buildings of the railway station in the distance having sprung up in the interim. 

[5] View of Hafir from the hospital hill looking over the military base with the railway complex under construction in the distance, 1916. Library of Congress: American Colony Photograph Department.
[6] View of the hospital from the military complex,
south and east faces, 1916. Library of Congress.

The star of this complex, however, was the hospital. [6] A joint effort between the Red Crescent and the Ottomans’ German and Austrian allies, the building was simple and functional in design, with a main level of nine rooms accessed by a cross-shaped entrance hall, and a basement for stores. [7] As can be seen from the contemporary photograph, the hospital had plenty of windows to let in fresh air, but the archival photograph shows us that these windows also would have been equipped with covers or shades that kept out the blinding sunlight and choking dust.

[7] Detail of the west face. The entrance to the storage basement is visible on the bottom left.
Yet the hospital proved to be insufficient to deal with the casualties streaming back from the Ottoman assaults on the Suez Canal and brutal fighting in the desert in 1915. As a result, the Red Crescent, along with volunteers from the American Red Cross, established a large medical camp with some eighty-five beds and room for more on the floor on the plain to the north-west immediately behind the hill. Although there are almost no traces of the camp today, I think I have managed to locate its position in the landscape by looking at the archival photograph above [8], which shows the extent of the encampment with the hospital roof jutting out in the background.

[10] Ottoman soldiers in the dining tent, 1916.
Library of Congress.
We must turn again to archival photographs to give us an idea of the harsh realities of the hospital and medical camp at Hafir. Ottoman and German soldiers arrived with horrific injuries from the fighting, [9] and many must have died at the hospital camp. One photograph shows the funeral of a German soldier who succumbed to his wounds--the burial with full military honours perhaps providing an occasion for joint Ottoman-German expression of grief and unity in trying times. Soldiers were tended to by staff of the Hilal-ı Ahmer and German nuns, most likely belonging to an order such as the Borromäerinnen, who had a large convent in Jerusalem. In addition to being confronted with the grim images of the effects of conflict in these photographs, it is quite striking to see the German nuns with crucifixes on their chests and the Red Crescent on their arms. [10] 

[10] Staff of the Hilal-ı Ahmer and German nurses, 1916. Library of Congress.

Some record of life in the field hospital can also be found in the accounts of two American volunteers, Dr Ward and Mr Doolittle, found in Mabel T. Boardman’s Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad (1915). One of their reports describes the arrival of a caravan of wounded at Hafir at night:
Never will these scenes be forgotten. The hurried call for duty that quickly emptied the dining tent, each seizing a lantern as he left; the gruff growling of a hundred camels as they unwillingly knelt and discharged their loads; the wounded, tired, hungry and thirsty soldiers, so glad to have come to the end of the long journey over the sands.[…]There were many difficulties to be faced in this desert hospital. One of the chief was sand storms. These came invariably at nine or ten in the morning and lasted until the late afternoon. The sand drifted under the tents, through the doors and covered everything, tables, boxes, and beds. This was particularly serious in the operating tent. Naturally one of the problems was water. From the one large, deep well of Hafir, a quarter of a mile away, it had to be carried in oil tins on mules, or by the soldiers. The thirsty, feverish patients kept crying for “Water, only a little water,” with which it was hard to keep them supplied.
Having sprung up almost overnight, the desert complex at Hafir was just as quickly abandoned. The hospital, barracks, and station were evacuated in the Spring of 1917 as the Ottoman forces concentrated further north to face off the British assault on the Gaza-Beersheba line, and the buildings gradually crumbled. Modern Nitzana tends to be more associated with the ancient Nabataean and Byzantine ruins, with the ‘Turkish hospital’ an afterthought, and the medical camp and military base almost entirely forgotten. Yet this is clearly a site of some significance for understanding the Ottoman-German alliance in action, and the ambitions and capabilities of the Ottoman Empire in its final period of rule in Palestine. 

More than this, as we edge further towards an extended period of historical reflection on the horrors of the First World War, the ruins and visual records of the Ottoman hospital and military complex at Hafir enable us to focus on the traumatic experiences of soldiers and, importantly, those who cared for them.  With so much focus on big campaigns and mind-boggling death tolls, we should not understate the huge numbers of wounded, the lifelong repercussions of their mental and physical injuries, and the extensive medical infrastructure developed to treat them. To use the words of the American writer Mary Borden, who ran a field hospital on the Western Front and wrote of her experiences of caring for the wounded in The Forbidden Zone (1929): "I thought, 'This is the second battlefield. The battle now is going on over the helpless bodies of these men. It is we who are doing the fighting now, with their real enemies'."

**This piece complements a post on the Red Crescent Archive in Ankara that recently appeared on our partner site, HAZINE, a blog on conducting research in the Middle East. Both Stambouline and HAZINE are part of a new online project called MENAlab. To learn more about MENAlab, click here.

BOARDMAN, Mabel T. Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia & London: 1915), pp. 313-14.

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