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20 Apr 2015

As Australia prepares to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, a chance encounter by AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis has sparked efforts on the other side of the world to preserve the remnants of a little-known chapter in the ANZAC story.

Strategically positioned between the tip of Italy and the north coast of Africa, Malta is no stranger to conflict. At various times it has been fought over by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans, French, Germans and British.

But AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis was nevertheless surprised when he saw the Australian coat of arms engraved on the façade of an imposing sandstone building on the outskirts of Pembroke on the island’s north coast during a visit in August last year.

“I was in the car heading to my cousin’s place when I saw it,” Dr Parnis told Australian Medicine. “I knew wounded Australian soldiers had been brought to the island for treatment, but I had never heard of the building.”

The structure, called Australia Hall, was erected in November 1915 using donations from the Australian public.

It served as a much-needed centre for entertainment and recreation for convalescing troops who arrived on the island in their thousands as the deadly toll of the Dardanelles campaign and other conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean mounted.

In May 1915 alone, 4000 wounded ANZACs from Gallipoli were transported to Malta, and by the end of World War One 58,000 had crossed its shores – including around 200 who never left and are buried on Malta.

Remarkably, the two-storey Hall survived the Second World War unscathed despite the fact that during the conflict Malta was the target of a sustained German and Italian bombing campaign that made it one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

But the ensuing decades were less kind, and the building now sits – roofless, gutted and unused - on prime land.

His interest piqued by his chance discovery, Dr Parnis got in touch with former AMA President and Australian War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson to see what might be done to preserve the building.

Within days he received a call from the Australian High Commissioner to Malta Jane Lambert, who has since become closely involved in efforts to protect Australia Hall, including regular contact with its private owner.

Given the building’s dilapidated state, any restoration work would not only require the co-operation of the current owner, but would likely cost several millions of dollars – money yet to be forthcoming from the Australian Government.

But Dr Parnis praised the efforts of Ms Lambert and was hopeful that Australia Hall will be preserved and restored.

“The High Commissioner has been in constant contact with the person who owns it and brought to their attention the significance of this building to Australia, so that when restoration occurs it will be sensitive to Australian history and sensibilities,” he said.

Planning requirements and delays have meant there is unlikely to be an announcement about the Hall’s restoration on Anzac Day, but there are hopes plans will be completed in time to be revealed on the occasion of its anniversary in November this year.

For Dr Parnis, restoring the building to something approaching its former glory would be a way to ensure the bonds of care and support that developed between injured diggers and local Maltese in the early years of World War One are not neglected.

“It shows that the links between Australia and Malta are much closer than just the post-World War Two period of immigration,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 20 Apr 2015