As a Royal Army Medical Corps doctor on the front lines of the Salonika Campaign, Alex Bremner was often in as much danger as the soldiers he was trying to save. His light-hearted, teasing letters to cousin Anna are peppered with hints of danger, fatigue, and a longing for home.
15 October 1916: “We’ve done our bit here for a while and I’ve got safely through this time and only a lucky one can hit me now.”
19 January 1917: “You made me laugh when I read your letter saying you might be commandeered. That’s a long word to spell. But cheer up they won’t conscript you yet… What did you do on Xmas day? I had a fairly quiet day. Nothing to do and all day to do it in. Aeroplanes are flying about all over the place and making a horrible noise so if you can’t read this letter just blame the aeroplanes. I can’t remember any girl called Jeanie, but if she’s as pretty as you say it’s just as well for my peace of mind that I don’t remember her.”
22 February 1917: “Here all the moving I do is Front line, Support, Reserve and then the same all over again… I’d risk all the submarines to get home for a few days…”
Alex finally got his wish, and in April 1917 came home for a two-week leave. His young cousins were determined to protect Alex as best they could when he returned to war. 14-year-old Josephine gave him a lucky coin, and 16-year-old Anna cut a farthing in two, giving half to Alex and keeping the other half for herself. He put both in his pocket. Now he would be safe.
After farewells in Edinburgh and a failed attempt in London to be posted closer to home, Alex began what would be a life-changing journey.
Armed with his lucky coins and snapshots, he boarded a ship at Southampton for Le Havre, travelled overland to Marseilles, and waited for transport back to the Front.
Alex embarked on the HMT Transylvania,crowded on board with nearly 3,000 reinforcement troops, nursing sisters and other Royal Army Medical Corps personnel. They set sail on the evening of May 3, 1917 bound for Salonika and Alexandria.
To evade German U-boats, the ship sailed in a zig-zag pattern, staying close to the Italian coast. They were escorted by two Japanese destroyers. However, around 10 o’clock the following morning, while the troops were on parade, a torpedo hit the ship’s port-side engine room. The ship immediately came to a stop and began to sink.
“Women first!” came the shout, and the 66 nurses on board were lowered into a lifeboat and rowed towards shore five miles away. As they set off, one of the nurses cried “Give us a song, boys!” and the troops on deck standing in line five deep “at once responded, singing, first, ‘Tipperary’ and then, with a touch of grim humour, ’Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty’.”
TheMatsu destroyer came alongside to begin a rescue, while the Sakaki attempted to occupy the Germans. But 15 minutes later, another torpedo hit the ship and she started to list heavily. Within 50 minutes she would sink.
Like many others in the R.A.M.C., Alex was most concerned with helping the injured. Up until the very last minute “he stayed with his patients and went down with the ship but came to the surface again and, while in the water for four hours, assisted others onto life-rafts, ignoring his own safety.”
After four hours in the sea, Alex was brought to Savona, where the Italian citizens welcomed the survivors and buried the dead. 89 R.A.M.C. men were lost that day. In total, there were 412 casualties, with bodies picked up and buried in cemeteries in Italy, France, Monaco, and Spain. Many were never found.
A week after embarking on the Transylvania, Alex was back in Marseilles. Left with nothing but the clothes he wore on his back and the two lucky coins in his pocket, Alex’s letter home to Anna was a masterpiece in dramatic understatement:
10 May 1917 [Regina Hotel, Marseilles]: “Back again here. We left here a week ago and arrived back yesterday without any clothes except shirt and trousers and tunic and they were wet with seawater. I can’t say any more as the censor wouldn’t pass it. Thank goodness I can swim even though it was only for four hours.”
However, he did have something to say about another doctor who jumped to safety early on. Perhaps the keen loss of some of his R.A.M.C. friends, who were also returning from leave, prompted Alex to say:
“Dr. ---- is with our party. He was lucky. He was quite dry and had all his clothes. Some people always hurry and only the ones who don’t care a bit and who wait till the last have to swim. I’m all right and hope that we get a move on again. Only two chums left now. We two stuck together.”
To ensure it passed the army censors, Alex could only hint at what had happened and how he was coping:
“You can tell Bella that I’ll write her as soon as things are more normal. I think that you understand what happened to us. Don’t you? I lost all my snapshots etc. but have still got Josephine’s lucky coin and your farthing so I think I shall never be killed. What do you think? It was cold in the water. There is no more news… Love to all from Alex.”
While waiting in Marseilles for transport back to Salonika, two other significant events occurred. First, he was sent on a mysterious mission: “I volunteered to go on some dangerous jobs and am back again all right. I’m glad I went now, but at the time it wasn’t at all pleasant. I wish I were back again in Edinburgh.”
Then, Alex bumped into his Salonika adjutant who was home on leave to Ireland. “He told me that if I didn’t go back to the 7thRDF [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] that they would be very angry so I think I’ll go. Perhaps I won’t be killed and if I am not it will be all right. He told me that unless I went back the other fellows wouldn’t like to go into action. I know they all like me as they know I always go out when they go so I think I’ll go back soon.”
No further letters to Anna remain. But a coin bracelet held together with a bobby pin that Alex sent her from Port Said, hints at his next chapter. Alex signed on for another two years, remaining with the 7thRoyal Dublin Fusiliers. In September 1917 they left Salonika for Alexandria to join the allied offensive against the Turks in Palestine.
In May 1919, he was demobilised with the rank of Captain, R.A.M.C. (T.). A few months later, Alex married Ella Elphinston, a graduate of his class at The University of Edinburgh. They moved to Sheffield where Ella set up a pediatric practice and Alex took on a general practice. Alex also devoted long hours at the Children’s Hospital, was a university lecturer on childhood diseases, and championed the care and rehabilitation of rheumatic children.
Alex was done with war. At least, until 1939.
And the lucky coin? Anna’s descendants still have her half, reminding them of cousin Alex and his World War I story that might otherwise be forgotten.