QUETTA EARTHQUAKE AS RECOUNTED BY DR HENRY HOLLAND OF QUETTA MISSION HOSPITAL
By Henry Holland
Henry Holland describes the destruction and rebuilding of Quetta in 1935 when an earthquake hit that town
"Those peak years in hospital, which gave such promise for the future, ended with tragic suddenness. The devastating earthquake in the early hours of May 31, 1935, marked the end of an era in Quetta and in the life of our hospital. Quetta town, which had taken over 50 years in building, was laid flat at a stroke. In less than 30 seconds some 20,000 people were killed, buried in the debris of the city, and outside Quetta itself the earthquake was responsible for the loss of a further 5,000 people. There has been no known instance of such heavy loss due to an earthquake in so restricted a space. Since the disaster came in the middle of the night, the majority of those overtaken and killed were buried under their houses with no chance of escape; over 90 per cent of the corpses found were in bed.
Besides the terribly high death roll, some 10,000 people were injured and a similar number rendered homeless and destitute.
The earthquake was a shaking horizontal movement which some have compared to the shaking of a rat by a terrier. The consequent destruction of property as well as human life was on so great a scale that officers who had been through the war said it would have taken weeks of a severe bombardment to have reduced the town to such a state. There was hardly a building left standing, and in our own mission compound the patient uphill work of very many years crashed in ruins about our ears.
We had experienced slight earth tremors before this, and in 1930 a considerable earthquake some 50 miles south of Quetta was a forceful reminder that we were living in an earthquake area. But there had been nothing unusual to warn us of the terrible catastrophe looming on this oppressive evening in May 1935. Only the persistent barking of dogs throughout the city in the early hours witnessed to a fact brought home to us later, that the animal creation seems to know by instinct when natural disaster, such as an earthquake, is impending. But for the human inhabitants of Quetta city, this had seemed a day much like other days. For us it had meant the usual routine in hospital, though for our Christian congregation in Quetta this Ascension Day was specially marked by a baptism service in St Luke’s Church when a young Sikh – a friend of one of our male nurses – was admitted to the Christian Fellowship.
I was late in getting to bed that night as I was a guest at the Residency, where the Queen’s Birthday was being celebrated. The earthquake broke on the sleeping city at 3:00am. I was soundly asleep, and all I can remember was the sound of a fearful crash.
Before I could move I felt a heavy weight fall on my body, burying me, all but the right side of my head and my right hand. I realized then that I was pinned down, unable to free myself or to move hand or foot. I think the first thought that came to me was that very possibly I was the only one left alive in the house; there were three of us in the bungalow at the time, Harry, Dr Iliff and myself. Imagine my joy and relief when I heard my son’s cheery voice: "Dad, are you all right?" I replied: "Yes, God is good, I am all right, but I cannot move."
When Harry realized that I was completely pinned down, he and two others tore their way through wire gauze over a window and came to my aid. They had great difficulty in digging me out and extricating me, for they had to work in complete darkness and could only feel their way. Later, when I was almost freed, someone arrived with a hurricane lantern. The rescue work was fraught with danger, for following on the main earthquake shock numerous minor shocks continued throughout the night, bringing down more masonry and rubble. While I was gradually being extricated from the debris I felt a rather severe shake and exclaimed: "Hallo, there’s another one." To which Harry replied cheerily: "Only a small one, Dad."
At last I was pulled out, but I was suffering from severe pain in my back and could neither help myself nor others. I was placed on my back in the garden.
I had had a remarkable escape – and so had Harry, as he told me afterwards. Having jumped out of bed at the first shock, he dived underneath the foot of it just before three of the four walls of his room thumped down, one after another. It seemed a providential prompting which had caused him to do this, as he emerged without a scratch, and ran round the bungalow shouting for me.
Within 20 yards of our bungalow, 82 of the 126 patients at that time in the hospital were killed, with many of their friends and relatives. My son and I might well have been among the number. It happened that my wife had left for England just two weeks before.
Although the loss of life among the patients was so great, it is very remarkable that our staff losses in the men’s hospital were few – Miss Magill, our dispenser and pharmacist; the elder daughter of our Indian colleague Dr Luther; the wife and three of the four children of Jelal, our assistant compounder. Paddy Magill was killed by one of the subsequent earthquake shocks to which I have referred. Her bed was discovered empty, but she was nowhere to be found. Not till three days afterwards was her body discovered in Miss Wheeler’s room, buried under a wall that must have fallen on her when, with no thought for her own personal safety, she had gone back to look for and to help her colleagues with whom she shared the bungalow. We were reminded of the words spoken of our Lord: "He saved others; himself he could not save", for had she not gone to the other part of the bungalow to save her colleagues she would be alive today. The two nursing sisters, Miss Manwaring and Miss Wheeler, were both rescued. Miss Wheeler had miraculously escaped through a small hole in the roof, her only injury being a sprained ankle. Miss Manwaring was suffering from cuts and bruises, as well as shock, when she was extricated from the wreckage. She had wakened as the earthquake began, jumped out of bed and was then violently thrown to the foot of the bed, the roof and walls falling in at the same time
At the Zenana Women’s Mission Hospital, three-quarters of a mile away, the loss of life was as great as at our own hospital and worse among the staff, two Englishwomen being among those killed. Dr Hooton, who was in charge of the hospital, had a remarkable escape. She was sleeping in a small room at the top of the hospital bungalow; when the crash came, the floor collapsed under her and she came down with the falling masonry, but escaped unhurt. Her sister, who had come on a visit, was killed, also Sister Miller, who had only just arrived in Quetta. I well remember Dr Hooton coming over to our hospital in her nightdress with a blanket thrown round her, saying: "I don’t know what has happened to my sister and Miss Miller – I can’t find them anywhere." Their bodies were recovered later in the morning. Dr Hooton herself did magnificent service subsequently for the injured at a camp hospital 30 miles away.
At 6 o’clock on the grim morning following the earthquake Sister Manwaring and I were taken off in an ambulance to a British military hospital, where we received every attention. As I lay on my bed in that hospital where I was dry-docked for repairs, I wondered if our mission hospital would ever be rebuilt. News kept filtering through to me of all who had lost their lives in our hospital. The outlook was not – to say the least of it – encouraging.
When I was extracted from the ruins of my bungalow and taken up to the military hospital, I discovered that I was minus dentures, spectacles and a pipe. It is interesting that quite a considerable item of expenditure under relief work was that of supplying dentures to those who had been buried and rescued! I was more fortunate. I sent my bearer to search in what had been my bathroom in the hope that he might find somewhere under the rubble a tin mug containing what were extremely valuable to me – my dentures. Within two or three hours he came back, triumphant, bearing them in his hand! With regard to spectacles, I was able to get them replaced; and as to the pipe, the wife of the Commanding Officer of the British military hospital came down and said: "I have a second-hand or maybe third-hand pipe, may I give it to you since there are no shops here?" I may say I accepted it with great thankfulness. So pipe, dentures and spectacles were in a very short space of time restored to me.
As soon as I was able to get out of bed and walk about in the hospital – I think it was at the end of the second day – I found my way to the big ward in which were lying the British women casualties, some of them so seriously injured that they were never able to leave that tent alive: I had no Bible with me and could not have read it if I had, as I had no spectacles then.
I walked round the tent and found many of those brave women keeping back the tears with difficulty – not so much on account of their own injuries as for the dear ones they had lost. I longed to be able to give them comfort, and from one end of the tent I recited the beautiful twenty-third Psalm in the Scottish version, "The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want." One could have heard a pin drop as I spoke the words and followed them with a short prayer. I realized that the Psalm had once again given comfort to many, as it still does.
Meanwhile, within a very short time of the disaster, rescue work was being organized on a big scale in Quetta.
By 5 o’clock on the morning of the earthquake the city was full of troops, who had come down to help. The first British officer to reach the city was Major Howe of the Royal Signals. He had been rudely wakened by the crash with which hundreds of brick chimney stacks fell on the corrugated-iron roofs. He at once called two orderlies and went down to the city with a lorry and two men on motor-cycles. He told me afterwards that when he reached the Bruce Bridge which joins the city to the military area he turned on the headlights of his lorry and those of the motor-cycles and saw that Quetta was completely wrecked. He could not see a single human being moving, and realized that there had been a terrible loss of life.
Very soon the troops in the cantonment were roused, and under General Henry Karslake were moved down to the city. It was estimated that by 7:00am some 7,000 men from the cantonment were hard at work. News of the disaster and urgent requests for help reached Shimla, Lahore, Karachi and other cities by wireless. Within a very few hours, doctors, hospital sisters, nurses and equipment arrived in Quetta by air. Meanwhile some three or four thousand casualties had already been taken to the cantonment hospital by ambulances and lorries.
One remarkable fact of the earthquake was that the cantonment escaped any serious damage. Had the military station suffered as had the city, the death roll would probably have been doubled. The chief reason the cantonment escaped was that the barracks and all military buildings were to the north of the city and were built on gravel and rock, whereas the city stood on alluvial soil. There was a clear line of demarcation between the cantonment and the city in the shape of a watercourse which ran between the two and, after heavy rain, became a rushing torrent.
Perhaps I can indicate the restricted area of the earthquake when I say that if from my home I had driven a golf ball barely 200 yards towards the cantonment, that ball would have reached a part of Quetta almost untouched by the earthquake. Except in the Air Force quarters, which were near the watercourse dividing the military from the civil areas, there were no lives lost in the cantonment; in the Air Force lines some fifty or sixty British troops were killed.
Devastation and rebuilding
But for the presence of the Army, the roll of the dead in the Quetta earthquake would certainly have been twice as great. There is no doubt that many civilians owe their lives to the prompt and efficient first-aid given by the Army. General Karslake was in charge of rescue operations, and without the help of the officers and men under his command the fate of hundreds would have been too tragic for words. Day and night for three days the troops worked in the city, rescuing thousands of lives. It was a merciful provision also that two military hospitals were standing and ready to help with the injured. Over 3,000 injured were taken into the Indian military hospital, and a very large number to the British hospital also. By the end of the second day after the earthquake, just under 6,000 casualties had been dealt with. How they worked, those doctors, sisters and voluntary workers, to try to relieve the terrible suffering!
During the four days before the injured were evacuated, the surgeons were working night and day and gave heroic service – not sufficiently recognized by the government, in my view. I think especially of George Ledgard, who was operative specialist in Quetta, and then went down to Karachi to continue operating there. He certainly was one who deserved national recognition.
On the fourth day after the earthquake, Quetta city was evacuated and surrounded by a military cordon. Within a few days the city had a big barbed-wire fence all round, and was floodlit by night; this was to prevent the inevitable looting which would have followed.
The work of rescue was really magnificent. Besides rescuing thousands of the civil population and taking the injured to the military hospitals, the work also involved the burial or cremation of 6,000 dead bodies. Then there were the homeless crowds to be cared for. Ten thousand refugees were accommodated in tents on the Quetta racecourse, and were fed by the military. To provide 10,000 rations a day was no small item of organization, and this rationing system was kept up for about three weeks, until most of the refugees had been sent down country, free tickets being given to them all.
After four or five days in the military hospital with a very stiff back and neck I had completely recovered, and was appointed Chief Medical Officer of Balochistan. I was thankful to be on my feet again and ready for duty in relief operations.
Meeting the emergency
In my new appointment after the earthquake, my chief work was to look after the injured and also to reorganize what was left of the medical personnel in Quetta. When Lord and Lady Willingdon and the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Philip Chetwode, and Lady Chetwode arrived 10 days after the disaster, I took them round the ruined city. It was clear that we were involved in an immense job of relief and reorganization to meet this great emergency
As chief medical officer I was not only in charge of the rescue work and making provision for the casualties; it was also my responsibility to take the necessary steps to prevent epidemic diseases from spreading in and around the city. The Army health authorities in Shimla feared that an epidemic might break out in Quetta, for at that time many thousands of bodies were only partially buried in the city; moreover, the hospital accommodation of 400 beds was utterly overwhelmed by the sudden influx of more than 5,000 patients. The authorities therefore gave orders that all the injured should be evacuated from Quetta to hospitals in Karachi and Punjab.
When the news reached the patients and the injured in the military hospitals that they were to be evacuated at 6:00am the next day, most of them were only too thankful, but those among the local inhabitants who were severely injured begged, with one voice, that they might be allowed to stay in Quetta. For them, places like Karachi and Lahore were unknown territory. As I was then in control of the relief work, I went to the senior military surgeon who had received the orders for the evacuation of the injured and explained to him that the women were terrified out of their lives at the thought of going to what to them was an unknown land. He replied that he had his orders from government headquarters in Shimla and had to carry them out.
I then returned to the attack and informed him that the local government were prepared to give tentage and to arrange for camps outside Quetta for the wounded and injured local inhabitants. He still seemed adamant, then finally said to me: "Well, Holland, are any of them your girl friends?" I said: "All of them!" To which he replied: "Well, you can have them."
Word was taken to the patients in the hospitals, and had they been able to do so they would have jumped for joy.
Colonel Houghton, the senior medical officer, told me that those who were to be left behind should have some distinguishing mark otherwise they would all be evacuated when the ambulance staff came round to move them in ambulance lorries. Here I received the fullest cooperation and help of the ladies at the staff college. I explained the position to them and said that if they could be at the hospital by 4 o’clock next morning with a supply of blue cotton bands, these distinguishing arm-bands could be put on the local patients who were to be left behind. Mrs Cyril Noyes led the party; the blue bands were duly arranged and when the ambulance staff came to move those who were to be evacuated they could see at a glance which of the patients had to be left behind. The evacuees were then taken away in ambulances and lorries to the refugee tent-hospital in Pishin.
I shall never forget the expressions of gratitude from the patients who were allowed to stay in their own country. Many of them had not long to live, for there were a large number of cases of broken backs. Before the injured were evacuated from the military hospitals in Quetta, a large number of British officers’ wives spent the day, and many of them part of the night, in helping to look after five to six thousand patients. To many of the Muslim and Hindu patients it was a revelation to find that colonels’ and majors’ wives were bringing them their bed-pans and urinals. They fully realized that the British were out to help them in every possible way, and I know that many who were helped and cared for by British women at that time will always look back on the experience with grateful hearts.
One of the most dramatic and moving incidents in connection with the earthquake occurred on the last day before the city was closed and all troops were withdrawn. Just as three British privates were leaving the ruins of a building, one of them thought he saw a movement beneath the debris; to their surprise they found a Hindu, still alive but terribly bruised and knocked about. He could not move, but apparently was suffering no pain as a result of shock. The three lifted him out with the utmost care, put him on a stretcher, and he was then taken to the British hospital. As soon as he was in bed the doctor came to examine him. The injured man said in the most perfect English: "I was taken out of the city by three Christian soldiers who lifted me with the greatest care and gentleness. I demand the faith which prompted that kind action."
The chaplains were told and they found that he was determined to learn about Jesus Christ before he died; he knew he had not long to live. Eagerly he drank in the truth of the Christian faith. One day as the chaplain was talking to him, he noticed that the man’s hands were held across his chest, and asked him the reason. "I am clinging to the Cross," he replied, "nothing else is of any avail. My Master is always before my eyes, and as long as He is there it does not matter what happens, whether I live or die." When Bishop Barne came up from Lahore he baptized him with the name of Nathaniel, and a few days later he died rejoicing in his newfound faith.
Within 10 days of the earthquake two camps were set up for the injured who wished to remain in their own country; each was about thirty miles from Quetta. At Mastung, to the south of the city, Dr Iliff, a member of our staff, was in charge of a relief hospital of 80 patients, and working with him were our hospital "boys". At Pishin, to the north, another tent-hospital, for both men and women, was in the joint care of Dr Hooton for the women and my son Harry for the men. Although this relief work was carried on under the auspices and at the expense of the government, the staff consisted entirely of workers from the mission hospitals. Thus, though our mission buildings had been destroyed, the work lived on in the help that the mission staff were giving to the people in their great need. When in the late summer Dr Hooton went home, Dr Gertrude Stuart (who had retired just before the earthquake after 27 years’ service in Quetta) came out at once to undertake relief work in the villages during the winter. Her deep love for the people, which called out their love in return, gave her a special capacity to get alongside the women and to bring them spiritual comfort as well as physical relief, in the name of Him who is the true source of all comfort and strength.
Post-earthquake measures of relief, whether for the injured or in the interests of public health, had to be taken almost simultaneously. One of the most pressing problems I had to face immediately after being appointed Chief Medical Officer was how to deal with the fly-infested bodies which were still lying about in the city unburied. I realized the great danger to public health of fly-borne infection. The question was how to dig out and remove those half-buried bodies. While I was pondering ways and means, there arrived from Lahore, to my joyful surprise, Squadron-Leader Hogg with 25 Rover Scouts. I had known Hogg for some time; he was the life and soul of the scout movement in the Punjab. He greeted me with the very welcome news: "I have come from Lahore with these Rovers to report for duty." I asked him what they were prepared to do and what they felt their special work should be. He replied: "We are prepared to do anything even to clean out latrines."
Being at that time Provincial Commissioner of Boy Scouts in Balochistan, I was deeply touched and thankful the more so since these lads represented all creeds, Christians, Muslims, Parsees, Hindus, including the highest caste of all, the Brahmin. I told the Squadron-Leader of the most urgent task before us: to rid the city of the menace of hundreds of bodies, many of them half-buried, some lying in the open, a prey to the swarm of flies which might well cause the spread of disease. If he and his Rovers would recover the bodies from the debris and bury or burn them, they would be doing a splendid job of work.
He said at once: "Of course we are ready to do that – we will start straight away." They all took it in their stride, accepting a task from which many might have shrunk, and carried on with this work of burning and burying bodies for a matter of two months. They not only carried on, but did their work with cheerfulness, so great was their devotion to duty. When at the end of the first month some members of this troop had to return to their work in Punjab, the vacancies were quickly filled by other volunteers from Punjab and Sindh.
Despite their different religious faiths, the Rovers lived together, fed together and were co-partners in this courageous piece of social service. They were naturally faced with certain difficulties regarding the disposal of the bodies, particularly when the condition was such that it was impossible to say whether they were Muslims or Hindus. Whereas for Hindus cremation is the customary form of disposal of their dead, and burial is objectionable, the exact reverse is true for the Muslim. When the Rover Scouts found bodies in such an advanced state of decomposition that it was impossible to say whether they were Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs, they had to use their judgment, often being guided to some extent by the area of the city where the bodies were found. Several thousand were buried as Muslims outside the town, and others were cremated.
One morning I was working with Hogg on the outskirts of the city, actually in the cantonment. We were digging for bodies in the sweepers’ quarters. I saw two of the Rovers dig out and lift from the ruins the body of an "untouchable", a sweeper. Hogg turned to me and said: "Do you see the man who is doing that? He is the son of one of the most distinguished Brahmin pundits in Punjab."
I was amazed. It showed me what the scout promise can do, and how fine is the spirit of service which it inspires. That a Brahmin should take part in this work of lifting out dead bodies, carrying them to the lorry and either burying or cremating them hardly seemed possible. For a Brahmin even to touch a dead body especially that of a low-caste worker was considered defilement.
When I wrote to tell the great "B.P.", Chief Scout, of the grand work that the Rovers had done, he and Lady Baden Powell were delighted to hear of their wonderful service to Quetta. It is a fine tribute to the spirit of service with which Squadron-Leader Hogg and Hardial Singh had inspired their Rovers that this difficult work was ever attempted, let alone carried out so successfully.
In those early days after the earthquake all possible measures were taken to reduce the risk of epidemics and the spread of disease. The director of health services sent us a large contingent of medical officers for preventive work among the people in the villages around Quetta. Thousands of injections were given against cholera. All the surrounding villages were visited and the patients were treated, with the result that no serious epidemic of any kind followed the earthquake disaster.
One minor though troublesome form of infection resulting from the earthquake was that of leishmaniasis or "frontier sores", sometimes called "Delhi boils". The infection is carried by the sandfly. Usually the sandfly attacks cattle rather than human beings, but it so happened that among the ruins of Quetta there were no cattle; the sandflies, having no cows to bite, turned their attention to the human race. Dr Hooton and my son Harry, for example, suffered from a great many of these sores. Where they are not treated early and successfully, they leave behind them very bad scars; but gradually the cases of leishmaniasis lessened as the heaps of rubble were removed.
The A.G.G., Sir Norman Cater, was one of the many whom the sandflies attacked. He went down to Sibi for a week and the surgeon sent down a nurse to look after him and give the appropriate treatment. The A.G.G. was a bachelor, and an amusing story was told regarding the nurse’s arrival at the Residency. Sir Norman’s English-speaking personal servant caused great amusement by going into the drawing-room, which was full of British guests, just before dinner, and announcing: "Please sir, your midwife has arrived!"
Amid so much that was grim and grave in the days through which we had been living, we were thankful for the sudden sparks of humour as well as the shining courage and unselfish service of so many in our midst.
Resurrection of a hospital
From the moment that I recovered from the first shock of being buried in the ruins of my home and work I felt quite certain that my life had been restored to me in order that I might continue this same work for which I had originally come out to Quetta to win the peoples of the Frontier for Christ and to serve them in His name.
In a matter of weeks and months we could say: "The work has not ceased." For Pishin and Mastung were soon well established as temporary centres for medical missionary service. When patients arrived having walked many days’ journey to see me, it gave one fresh heart to plan and look forward to a new beginning in a new Quetta when that should prove possible.
As one tried to see ahead at the outset of this post-earthquake era, finance loomed large on the horizon. To find the money needed for a new and if possible earthquake-resisting hospital was a formidable task. Yet I knew that at all costs we must stand by the people whom we had come out to serve. It must never be said that we had deserted them: Earthquakes or no earthquakes, I felt sure that somehow we should be enabled to carry on. My own urgent representations to the Church Missionary Society at home that withdrawal of the medical mission at this juncture would appear to the people to be base desertion were strongly backed by the local government and by the Bishop of Lahore. It was our unswerving opinion that rebuilding must be undertaken as soon as circumstances would allow.
At first I was at a loss where to begin. But from the outset those of us who remained of the hospital staff made it a matter of prayer that the way would be found to raise the money to build a worthy hospital. Quick action was called for. Within less than a fortnight of the earthquake an appeal was issued for financial aid to rebuild.""
A doctor’s experience of an earthquake
Way back in 1983 when the Aga Khan University was established and I was called upon to put together its Medical College Library, the founding dean, Dr Cheever Smythe, gave a working formula for collection development. It was 5:3:2 – you should add books in that order – five clinical books, three basic sciences books and two general books.
Obviously clinical and basic books and their selection was the domain of specialists, teachers and practitioners, but the budget for two general books was to be discreetly used in acquiring reference books like medical dictionaries, medical history, encyclopaedias, etc. In this area my special craze was medical biographies – biographies of such doctors who would serve as role models and inspire our young generation to serve humanity with dedication. I could check a long list in any authentic bibliography on the subject but nearer home, I knew about a book called Frontier Doctor by Henry Holland published in 1958. I looked high and low for it and a copy was luckily found in a city library and at once I had two photocopies made of it.
The closing lines of his autobiography that appealed to me most were, "The question of vocation goes deep. It is quite possible to take up medicine as a profession, but that is very different from taking up the medical profession as a vocation. To know that one is ’called’ to be a medical missionary means facing the question of total dedication – which is neither easy nor pleasant."
Sir Henry Holland spent 50 odd years in Balochistan and the Frontier where he established his eye clinics at various points. He landed up in India in 1900 and it was a sad day when he left the country in April 1948, but he still could say, "There was life in the old dog again." He had accolades heaped on him and in 1960, at the age of 85, he was awarded the Ramon Magsasay Award for public service. He was the first British (Pakistan-based) awardee.
The entire autobiography is enthralling but after a few narrow escapes from death, he still survived the May 30-31, 1935 quake to serve the people in Balochistan. A few pages relating to the 1935 incident may be relevant at this time when natural calamity has stricken Pakistan. This should be of special interest particularly to doctors and more so when the time of rebuilding starts. – Moinuddin Khan
Frontier Doctor: An Autobiography
By Henry Holland
Hodder & Stoughton, London (1958)
Third Impression 1959
Tagged: , DR , HENRY , HOLLAND , ‘QUETTA , MISSION , HOSPITAL”QUETTA , EARTHQUAKE , ‘1935