On April 26 1915, the day after the dawn landing at Gallipoli, Sapper Duncan McRae (2nd Field Co. of Engineers) was shot in the shoulder by a Turkish sniper. He was evacuated to Egypt and from there to a military hospital in England. Unfortunately it was discovered that the bullet had travelled down his body and lodged in his spine, causing paralysis of both legs. He was repatriated to Australia, where he underwent further, unsuccessful treatment, at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne.
McCrae was born at Bothwell, in Tasmania, and by 1916 he was back in his home state. Despite his disability he campaigned tirelessly for conscription, arguing that his mates at the front needed all the help they could get. Another cause close to his heart was trying to achieve a better deal for wounded men when they were discharged from active service.
A SURGICAL MIRACLE?
In October 1917 the following article appeared in papers around Australia.
IN HOBART HOSPITAL
HOBART, Monday – Dr Ratten, Surgeon Superintendent at the Hobart, performed a remarkable operation today, and apparently with complete success. ‘Sapper’ McRae, when at Gallipoli, was wounded by a Turkish bullet. He was sent to England and attended at various base hospitals, but without getting better, and was then returned to Australia, being treated at the hospitals on the mainland, then ultimately coming back to Tasmania without being cured. His complaint was a form of paralysis. Having confidence in Dr Ratten he went into the Hobart Hospital and was placed under the newly erected x-ray apparatus. The bullet was located pressing on the spine and today an operation was performed resulting in the bullet being safely extracted, and the patient’s condition is very satisfactory.
Dr Ratten had only been at the hospital for a few months, appointed amid great controversy. A dispute between the hospital and the British Medical Association had led to virtually all the other doctors resigning. The board looked about for a replacement Surgeon Superintendent and settled on Victor Ratten. As the holder of an American medical diploma, Dr Ratten was not eligible to join the BMA. He had arrived in Hobart the previous year, after nine years as a general practitioner in rural Tasmania. Eager to prove himself among charges of being a strike breaker, he began feeding the local paper with stories of incredible operations.
His surgery on a high profile Gallipoli hero while war was still raging greatly enhanced his reputation. The general public believed McRae had been cured of his paralysis. This perception would serve Dr Ratten well the following year, when the validity of his medical qualifications was challenged. It was alleged that he had purchased his diploma in Chicago, in 1907…..but that is another story.
In later years Duncan McRae’s family were under the impression that the bullet had never actually been removed, and perhaps it hadn’t. Certainly his condition did not improve, although he disguised it very effectively (see photo below). Nevertheless, he led a full life. In 1922 he married a nurse, Mary Dobbie. While their home was being built on Maria Island he would brace himself against a stump or any other convenient prop, to saw the weatherboards.
Originally a carpenter and joiner he became an accountant after the war, and took a great interest in public affairs. He stood for parliament as a candidate for the Temperance Movement, on a ticket that included veteran’s rights, shipping services, and housing.
Ironically, Dr Ratten would also stand as a candidate some years later
Duncan McRae became an accomplished yachtsman, competing in multiple Sydney-Hobart races.
Sapper McRae served his country at great personal cost. He unwittingly played a part in the story of Dr Victor Ratten, who had also enlisted in WWI. As Regimental Medical Officer of Tasmania’s 12th Battalion, Captain Ratten sailed in the same convoy as McRae. However, his war record and his life were far less honourable.
I would like to thank Sally Steel for providing the photos of her great uncle used in this article, and for the family information she generously shared.
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