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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XXXX. — Our Sisters with Imperial Units

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Chapter XXXX.
Our Sisters with Imperial Units.

The New Zealand sisters had a very varying experience in the war, some being lent to the Imperial authorities were sent to many of the fields of war. We have records of service on the Imperial ships going to the Peninsula, to German East Africa, Mesopotamia. They were with units bringing refugees from Siberia; with Indian troops to Bombay; on hospital trains in Egypt, and going to Palestine.

Away in India, at a station called Wellington, was Sister Trask; stationed at a hospital in German East Africa were Sisters Cormack and Barnett, where they heard the lions roar quite near.

One sister wrote from the Persian Gulf, on her way to Basra. Her letter is worth quoting: “The heat was intense, the ship drew too much water to proceed further, and we received a wireless message saying a small ferry hospital ship would come alonside. There are seven ferry ships ‘doing’ the river, and embarking to the bigger hospital ships. In June, 10,000 sick men were sent from Basra, in July 15,000. We embarked our 500 patients, and 79 of them were put on deck. The heat was appalling, and many men were very ill, so that we were taxed to the utmost, and before we had finished our day's work, usually at midnight, we were soaked through and through, as were our white dresses to the knees.

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“Is there any wonder we were run down in a few days? They gave us champagne and special beef tea—we got nasty pains in the left side, and could at times hardly lift our feet to get to our cabins to lie down for a quarter of an hour's rest, for without this rest we could not have carried on.

“We had many heat strokes among the patients, stewards, engineers and crew, and the only way to save their lives was to get them into packs or baths, and give them plenty of iced drinks with stimulant and to keep going till we saw signs of consciousness. We lost twenty-one patients in four days, and some only ill for a few hours.

“On our arrival at Bombay, we were not fit for much, but very pleased we managed to stick to it. There was really too much at stake; the 500 lives in our charge were more important than our own; and that was the spirit of the nurses on the ship and also of the medical men.”

Another sister wrote of hospital ship duty: “We arrived at Gallipoli for the Suvla landing on August 6th, 1915; we could see the fighting quite distinctly, and a few shells burst in the water quite near to my ship, but no damage was done. The hospital ships were used as casualty clearing stations, so you can imagine the state of the patients when we received them. The operating theatre was busy day and night. Hundreds passed through the out-patients' department. We dressed the minor cases and passed them on to trawlers which took them to Lemnos Island. The weather was frightfully hot, and the flies swarmed in with the patients. We worked between the beach and Lemnos Island (a distance of 40 miles), with an occasional run to Malta or Alexandria. We found the dysentery cases the most trying to nurse—how those poor men did suffer.”

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Again another sister wrote of the refugee Serbians: “We took over 300 sick Serbians, and oh! the condition of them was pitiful; you could hardly believe men could get so low and live; they were so dirty and the body lice awful. There were over 60 deaths in a three days' run.”

These few extracts from the many letters I received from sisters serving outside our own hospitals, and hospital ships, show how very varied were their experiences.