The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Appendix VI. The Third Field Ambulance
Appendix VI. The Third Field Ambulance.
Soon after the mobilization of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, General Henderson, Director-General of Medical Services, decided to establish at Awapuni Racecourse, Palmerston North, the training depot for the New Zealand Medical Corps. Arrangements for this purpose were completed by the end of September, 1915, when two sections under Major J. Hardie Neil took up their quarters there. Drafts for New Zealand's two hospital ships, as well as further reinforcements of N.Z.M.C. personnel, subsequently came in, the strength in camp being thus brought up to nearly four hundred.
There now followed the organization, at this depot, of the No. 2 Field Ambulance, a unit whose subsequent activities were so closely linked up with those of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade that it was commonly, though unofficially, considered to be an integral part of that body. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Rifle Brigade had already moved up from Trentham to their camp at Rangiotu, and after the departure of those units for service overseas the same camp was occupied by the 3rd and 4th Battalions early in December. With these latter the No. 2 Field Ambulance embarked for active service two months later; and when, at the beginning of March of the following year, the troops from this Dominion were organized as the New Zealand Division and the Rifles became the 3rd Brigade, the associated medical unit had its designation similarly altered, being thereafter styled the No. 3, or in common practice, the 3rd, Field Ambulance.
At the Awapuni depot, the preparation of the men for their specialist work in the Medical Corps was accompanied by a thorough grounding in the elements of infantry training and general discipline in accordance with the scheme outlined by Lieut.-Col. Tate, of the Headquarters' instructional staff. The value of this general training, which was carried out to an extent hitherto unusual with medical personnel, was afterwards demonstrated in the unbroken morale and consistent efficiency of the unit throughout its service in the field. The medical training consisted of lectures, illustrated by lantern-work, together with practical demonstrations by the medical page 543officers. Finally the unit was so thoroughly trained in the organization and routine of dressing stations that it was possible to select the most suitable personnel for the various departments and accustom them to their special duties before the departure of the unit from New Zealand. The original section which was organized at Awapuni for main dressing station work continued to act almost without change throughout the period of the Division's activities in France. The Ambulance had the inestimable benefit of the services of Major A. A. Martin, who trained the men at the Palmerston Public Hospital, and of Matron Kilgour, of the Old Men's Home at Awapuni, under whose careful tuition they became remarkably efficient in ward duties and nursing.
It was determined to secure for the unit as many musicians as possible, with the object not only of providing for the welfare of the sick who now came under its care, but also of contributing to the success of the troops at the front, the underlying idea being that healthy, elevating recreation for the men would be of more use from the moral and morale points of view than trite exhortations. Substantial help was received from the Palmerston North Patriotic Society in this connection as in others, and the orchestra subsequently formed, under Capt. D. Kenny, the nucleus of the New Zealand Divisional Pierrot Troupe known as the "Kiwis."
In addition to Major Martin, the section officers were Capt. W. G. Borrie, who eventually became the Divisional Gas Officer; Capt. McGregor Grant, an Auckland surgeon; Capt. T. E. Guthrie, from Feilding; and Lieut. E. M. Finlayson, who was Unit Quartermaster. Sergt.-Major R. Copeland and Staff-Sergt. D. H. Heron were the principal non-commissioned officers. The Camp Adjutant was Capt. P. Baldwin, an officer of outstanding ability and personality, whose name must be linked with the training of the New Zealand Medical Corps. The instruction of the unit was completed towards the end of January, 1916. Mr. J. A. Nash, M.P., Mayor of Palmerston North, by his consistent work and self-sacrifice for their comfort and welfare, laid every officer and man in the Medical Corps who went through the camp under a deep obligation; and the whole population of Palmerston North and Feilding showed so keen a solicitude for the welfare of the Ambulance that their kindly interest must have been an inspiration to the men throughout their subsequent work. Passing through Auckland to join the troopship, the personnel were billeted by the citizens of that city; and the Mayor, Mr. J. H. Gunson, acting on behalf of the Auckland Patriotic Association, further augmented the funds of the orchestra and made its permanency assured.page 544
On February 4th the Ambulance, under Major (now Lieut.-Col.) J. Hardie Neil, who continued in its command until the Armistice, embarked on the transport "Navua" with "C" Company of the 4th Battalion. During the voyage the orchestra regularly entertained the troops, and their concert given to the people of Albany appeared to have been deemed an equivalent return for the great hospitality extended to the men of the troopship.
On arrival at Suez the Ambulance entrained for Moascar, on the outskirts of Ismailia, where another section, with Major A. S. Brewis as commanding officer, was drafted to it. It was now the middle of March, and the details in connection with the organization of the New Zealand Division, to which Col. C. M. Begg was Assistant Director of Medical Services, were already completed. The 3rd Field Ambulance, after a short period of intensive training, embarked with the Division for France during the first week in April.
The Ambulance served the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which was established in a group of villages just west of the Forest of Nieppe. At Thiennes Major Martin set up our first dressing station in France. Thence the unit marched with the Brigade to Estaires, and shortly afterwards reached Armentieres, establishing its main dressing station in the Cercle St. Joseph in the Rue Denis Papin, just behind the church of Notre Dame. The advanced dressing station was in the brick-kiln at La Chapelle d'Armentieres, and here were received the casualties from the New Zealand right sector. The aggressive nature of the New Zealand Division's activities is shown by its 400 graves in the cemetery of La Cite Bon Jean. In July Capt. T. E. Guthrie was killed by a shell from Lille, which struck the 4th Battalion headquarters. This occurred shortly after the treachery of the infamous Nimot, who deserted to the enemy's lines from one of the New Zealand Regiments and probably gave such information as enabled the enemy to inflict numerous casualties. Incidentally, the dressing room of the station, which had been handed over to No. 1 Field Ambulance, was demolished by shell-fire during the same bombardment. At the end of July Major R. Neil Guthrie joined from England, and the unit proceeded to a rest-camp at Morbecque. Subsequently the rest-camp was removed to L'Estrade, between Steenwerck and Armentieres. An advanced dressing station under Major Guthrie was set up at Erquinghem, a spot that will be recalled by those acquainted with "The Three Musketeers." It received many Australian wounded during the attack on Fromelles, in which some six thousand casualties were sustained.page 545
The duties of a Field Ambulance on service are many and varied. "C" Section at this period had charge of the Divisional Baths at the Pont de Nieppe Brewery, where hundreds of women were employed laundering and repairing the garments of the Corps in the area.
Early in August the Ambulance moved up through Nieppe to the dressing station at L'Ecole in La Rue de Messines, Armentieres. The activities of the Brigade in the sector were very marked, raiding and trench work causing constant casualties. The shattering effect on the nervous system caused by minenwerfer fire resulted in many serious cases of shell-shock.
In the middle of August the Ambulance entrained with the Division for the Somme, after having been relieved by the lst/3rd Highland Field Ambulance, which had come direct from that region. After a period of training at Allery, a quiet village in a beautiful farming district where harvesting was nearing completion, the unit followed the New Zealand Rifle Brigade through the castle-crowned old-world town of Picquigny, and marched to a bivouac behind Albert, whence it moved to Fricourt. The New Zealand Division now took over a section of the battle-front, and the bearers of "A" and "C" Sections, under Major Martin, were detached to the No. 2 Field Ambulance, which was commanded by Lieut.-Col. D. N. W. Murray, and which was doing the bearer-work of the Division. The Headquarters of No. 3 Field Ambulance being in reserve, "C" Section tent subdivision, under Major Guthrie, was incorporated in the personnel of the Corps dressing station at Becordel.
On September 15th the Rifle Brigade passed through the 2nd Brigade, which had captured Switch Trench, and made the memorable attack down the slope of the ridge stretching between Delville Wood and High Wood, and forward to Flers. Here, on the exposed slope, which was under observation from rising ground on the right and from innumerable vantage points on the front, the Brigade fought its way to a position which should ensure the advance of the whole British line in this neighbourhod. Pride in the achievements of the Division was tempered by the knowledge of the commensurate loss sustained, and anxiety was much increased by the reports brought back to the A.D.M.S. that over 100 of the Rifle Brigade wounded were lying on our side of Flers, their evacuation being held up through the inability of the Ambulance bearers to make their way forward owing to the persistence of the heavy barrage which the enemy put down to cut off further reinforcements to the Brigade. On September 16th the A.D.M.S. instructed the officer commanding the Ambulance to explore the possibilities of evacuation by the line of the road page 546that runs from Delville Wood to Flers. On arriving at the Wood in the late afternoon the O.C. found that Capt. A. M. Grant, acting on the orders of the D.A.D.M.S., Major A. Carberry, had taken up a volunteer party of stretcher-bearers from the Horse Transport and had made his way down the slope to the bank behind which the wounded were lying. The head-quarters' staff of the Ambulance, and as many as were available of the "C" Section bearers who had been detailed to help the Division on our right, were collected, and at early dawn on the 17th this party, accompanied by a Ford car, went down the Delville Wood-Flers road. The roadside was littered with broken wagons, dead drivers and horses. On the right was a disabled tank, one of the first used in the war, and strewn around in clusters lay the dead of a West Surrey Battalion. These had come under machine-gun fire of such severity that whole platoons were lying in regular order in their tracks. On the left of the road, amongst the German dead, lay those of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade killed in the rush towards Flers. In the dug-outs which marked the Brown Line, half-way between Switch Trench and Flers, were many Germans whose death from Mills bombs thrown down must have been instantaneous. The country seemed to have been pulverized to a depth of from five to six feet by the hurricane bombardment, first by the British barrage, and subsequently by that of the Germans. Near a bank between the Brown Line and the west end of Flers lay about eighty severely wounded men. They had evidently been struck down while endeavouring to penetrate the barb-wire defences round the village. Their grey, shocked appearance, marked many of them for death. On a stretcher lay Capt. G. V. Bogle, of the 1st Battalion, a greatly esteemed Medical Officer whose death from shell-fire was a loss to the Division. Capt. P. B. Benham, Medical Officer of the 2nd Battalion, who had taken the place of Capt. Falconer Brown (wounded), with Capt. W. S. Robertson, the Bearer Officer of "C" Section, was here attending the wounded. It had been necessary to clear away a large number of German corpses in order to secure what little shelter was afforded by the bank.
The Ambulance headquarters' staff manned every stretcher possible and started a stream backwards. Here the track gave ample explanation of the difficulties with which the bearers had had to contend. It was strewn with livid, dew-soaked dead. In one place a wounded man, now dead, was lying on a stretcher. The rear bearer, with his stretcher-slings still on, had fallen forward on his knees and remained in that position beside him. Along the track the numerous dead bore testimony to the overwhelming nature of the bar-page 547rage, as well as to the endurance of the men who had carried the stretchers. The bearers had to force their way back regardless of the artillery fire, for to take cover would generally have meant desertion of the patient. Here, amongst others, lay Corporal J. Bailey, the originator of the ambulance orchestra. He was one of the many men in the secondary service of the Division who insistently pleaded to be allowed to take some part either in the fighting or in assisting the fighting men.
Farther back lay the Switch Trench captured by 2nd Auckland and 2nd Otago. It presented an extraordinary spectacle. Having been a German front-line trench, it possessed many dug-outs, and had been well manned on the 15th. The bodies of a large number of Germans, some of whom were fair-haired and blue-eyed, were huddled on the remains of the fire-steps, while some lay half-covered by debris on the bottom of the trench which had been so severely battered by the fierce barrage put down. Those who had preferred the safety of the dug-outs had met swift death from Mills bombs, which had a deadly effect in the confined space of these "unterstanden." The dead in the trench were thicker near the traverses and machine-gun positions, and the majority seemed to have met their death by rifle-fire or shrapnel, although some, presenting no marks of violence, had evidently died from the concussion of the bursting shells. The deep lividity of the faces could not conceal in some the pure Saxon type.
We turn now to the sections detached for bearer-work with No. 2 Field Ambulance. On arival at Thistle Alley, towards Bazentin-le-Grand, Major Martin was met at the bearer post, and instructions were given him to join headquarters at Green Dump on the right behind Delville Wood. Here a dressing station was set up in the dug-out that had been made by the New Zealand Pioneers. Heavy work was immediately entailed in dealing with casualties coming through from the right, as well as in succouring the sick, among whom were broken-down men from those English battalions, including a battalion of the Bang's Royal Rifles, that had been shattered in the attack. In the afternoon word came through that Major Martin had gone down to the group of wounded near Flers and had there been struck by a high explosive shell. His death occurred next day in Amiens Hospital, where the New Zealand No. 1 Stationary Hospital had been established under Lieut.-Col. D. J. McGavin. Major Martin's death was deemed a catastrophe to the Division. His standing as a surgeon and his genius as a writer were known throughout the Empire. In his innermost conversation he always expressed his conviction that the Rifle Brigade would attain a place of honour in the records of the Division. His constant wishes for its welfare, page 548and his whole-hearted desire to help the New Zealand soldier on every occasion, manifested the spirit of service by which he was ever actuated.
During the period at Green Dump the work was incessant. Here Major H. M. Buchanan joined the unit and filled the vacancy caused by the death of Major Martin. The area around the station was frequently subjected to shell-fire, and this caused several casualties among the headquarters' staff. Of 90 available bearers, eight were killed and 46 wounded.
Towards the end of the Division's stay in the line the weather broke, and the mud made the work of the bearers extraordinarily difficult. Fortunately the trench dug by the Pioneers under Lieut.-Col. G. A. King, stretching from Switch Trench right forward to Flers, brought the work within physical compass. The dressing station at Green Dump evacuated the wounded by general service wagons, the stretchers being lashed to duck-boards placed upon the raves. They passed down the hill from Green Dump, skirted the Quarry, and climbed the slope to the church at Montauban, where the Ambulance cars were parked. These took the wounded to the Corps dressing station at Becordel by the densely-crowded road through Carnoy and Mametz.
It is distressing to record that in the first Somme battle 75 per cent. of cases of fractured thighs died. They were prepared for transport by means of Liston's splint, which consists of long laths of wood stretching from the arm-pit to the ankle and secured by bandages to the body and leg, but unfortunately this device failed to steady the fragments. Subsequently, in the battles of Messines and Bapaume, Thomas's splint, a light iron frame-work effecting separation of the broken ends and the immobilization of fragments, was used, and the rate of mortality was reduced to 20 per cent., and, in favourable conditions, to as low as 15 per cent. This diminution may, of course, have been partly due to improved surgical methods in the casualty clearing stations and hospitals; but one is compelled to assign to shock, from injury to the tissues and nerves by the movement of the broken ends during prolonged transport, the major portion of the blame for the previous wastage of life. The New Zealand Division suffered 8,700 casualties in the three weeks' battle against the enemy's prepared positions. The battalions were fighting for the first time under lifting barrages; the resulting obliteration of land-marks aggravated the usual confusion arising from the clash of battle, and the movements of the men were impeded in country pulverized by shell-fire and soddened by rain. Such conditions would try the morale of the stoutest of seasoned veterans.page 549
From the Somme the Ambulance moved up with the Division to the area about Armentieres, where, for the time being, the trenches of the old sector were held by that composite British and Colonial formation known as "Franks' Force." The main dressing station was established in the Rue de Messines, Armentieres, the commanding officer being deputed to act as the Senior Medical Officer of the formation.
In December the Ambulance moved to Estaires, and was established in the Ecole Pensionnat de Notre Dame de Lourdes, a three-storeyed building round three sides of a quadrangle. Here, in earlier days, had been received the British wounded from Neuve Chapelle, and in the garden the sites of the hospital marquees could still be seen. In the town was a large brewery that had been converted into baths and laundry, to which some of our personnel were detached for duty. Near by was the bridge over the Lys by which the Germans had retreated when driven out in the early part of the war. They had placed French women and children on the bridge to deter the French from firing upon it, and finally blew it up. Bishop Cleary, of Auckland, was attached to the Division for a period after its return from the Somme, and was a frequent visitor to the Ambulance. The stories unfolded to him during his calls at some of the surrounding farms aroused his intense indignation, in particular that of a farmer who had hidden in his haystack, and upon being discovered by the Germans was incontinently shot, notwithstanding that he was unarmed, above military age, and in civilian clothes.
The headquarters' mess of the Ambulance was in the residence of a local wine merchant. During the German occupation in the first few months of the war the household had objected to the billeted officer stabling his horse in the kind of courtyard-vestibule of the house. His answer was prompt and characteristic. He opened the door leading from the vestibule to the drawing room and had his steed quartered in that apartment. Luckily the grand piano escaped destruction, and, providentially, according to madame, the only marked damage sustained was the abrasion of the corner of an inlaid ebony table.
In January, 1917, the Ambulance moved to Fort Rompu, a large brewery not far from Armentieres, to serve the northern part of the New Zealand sector. Here, after a short enemy bombardment in the depth of an exceptionally severe winter, one of the companies of the Rifle Brigade suffered a number of casualties from gas-poisoning owing to the freezing of the moisture from the breath as it passed through the thin rubber expiry valve of the box-respirators. The gas used was evi-page 550dently phosgene. In the more serious cases the usual distressing symptoms were displayed,—cough, irritation, pain in the chest, and an increasing production of white frothy phlegm which eventually seemed to drown the patient.
In the spring the Ambulance moved to Nieppe, a village between Armentieres and Bailleul, and established an advanced dressing station at Underhill Farm on the rear slope of Hill 63, which overlooks Messines. Elaborate preparations were made to withstand heavy bombardment. Dug-outs lined with "elephant-iron" were driven into the hill, and the original farm buildings were buttressed with girders and topped with concrete slabs to act as shell bursters. Elaborate precautions were also taken to render the dressing rooms gas-proof, and these measures were necessary, for, as the day off battle approached, the area was frequently subjected to gas-shelling. A few yards behind was a New Zealand howitzer battery; another, belonging to an English unit, almost touched the left of our lines; while at intervals of about 100 yards back there was a succession of batteries of large-calibre guns. The activities of these guns provoked retaliation which seemed to be intensified at night. The burning of an ammunition dump in Ploegsteert Wood, just on the other side of the road on which the dressing station was situated, luridly illuminated the neighbourhood. Seas of gas frequently involved the whole area. The enemy, as was usual on such occasions, added to the turmoil with shrapnel and high explosive, and developed the habit of bracketing the road by which the cars left the dressing stations. Capt. J. McGhie, who took charge of the construction work, made use of 29,000 sandbags, and completed what must be deemed to have been an outstanding work of field engineering by the Medical Corps. The medical arrangements made by Col. McGavin, the A.D.M.S., were complete and ample in every detail, the alternative routes of evacuation in particular being well organized. In the meantime the consistent shelling of Hill 63, Ploegsteert Wood, Hyde Park Corner, and the surrounding area, brought an endless stream of cases, many with severe shell-wounds. The gas-shelling at night increased in severity, and the dressing room required constant guarding against the fumes.
This state of affairs was incessant up to the opening of the battle of Messines just after 3 a.m. on June 7th, when the dressing station threatened to collapse owing to the explosion of the mines under Messines Hill. This was followed instantly by the roar of guns of all calibres and of unlimited number firing apparently from every point of the compass. Conversation was impossible in the open, and indeed difficult even in the shelters. The various sounds of the different arms could page 551not be distinguished in the shattering roar, which was over-whelming to the senses, rocked the earth, and stripped the roofs from the buildings. Within a few moments there was added a quick succession of eight-inch German naval shells, which, being directed at the batteries around the Ambulance, smashed into the surrounding forest, filling the air with branches of trees, masses of mud, and pieces of tiling. In a short time the yards of the dressing station were covered with clay, leaves, and broken tiles, until this material lay ankle deep. Fortunately after a few minutes the shelling of our immediate neighbourhood suddenly ceased. The continuous roar of the bursting barrage seemed to be lifting onward, and one became accustomed to the discharge of the guns near by.
Then cases began to come through. First came those who had been gassed whilst waiting in the assembly trenches, to be followed soon after by the wounded and prisoners of war from the battle. In order to effect evacuation, the drivers and car orderlies took spades and filled in the shell holes. Then they ran the gauntlet of the fire down the Petit Pont Road to the main dressing stations, fortunately taking no harm beyond damage to a car returning empty. Soon the dressing station was working at full pressure, but without a hitch. The majority of the bearers had been attached to No. 2 Field Ambulance, which was working the sector immediately in front of Messines, but no fewer than 1,167 casualties were dealt with by us between the 7th and the 12th, mainly during the first two days. On the 10th, heavy casualties came in from the Australian Division on the right of the New Zealand sector. Here Lieut.-Col. J. S. Purdy, late N.Z.M.C., who commanded a very fine Australian Ambulance, was in charge of the line work. Sick parades, as is usual after all big engagements, became heavy from all units in the neighbourhood. The constant shelling disinterred many corpses on the slopes of Hill 63 in front of the British howitzer battery, and another cemetery had to be opened in a more sheltered spot.
Prior to and during the battle of Messines, the area of Hill 63 and Ploegsteert Wood was rather insanitary owing to the number of troops in the neighbourhood and to the neglect of previous occupants. Private A. M. Douglas, of the Ambulance, was placed in charge of the whole locality, and so skillfully did he carry out the duty of cleansing and conserving it that he was specially mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches. Throughout the unit's service in France Douglas supervized the erecting of its dressing stations, he being in charge of the constructional and sanitary squad. During the Passchendaele operation he acted as bearer, and on a recom-page 552mendation by the commanding officer of another unit was awarded the Military Medal.
A week after the capture of Messines the unit, relieved by an Australian Field Ambulance, took over from Col. Maguire, of the 9th Australian Field Ambulance, a large dressing station at Pont d'Achelles. Here the Ambulance set up the main dressing station of the New Zealand Division, taking in the wounded from the operations in Ploegsteert Wood, which the Division occupied after the battle of Messines. The station consisted of large Nissen huts for the reception, dressing, feeding and evacuation of the wounded, with smaller huts and marquees for sick and gas cases. Capt. Robert Stout joined up with the unit at this time. The Ambulance was kept fully employed, though its work was carried out under such exceptionally favourable conditions as to permit the administering of the maximum amount of help and comfort to those engaged throughout a very trying period, during which Ploegsteert Wood was frequently saturated with gas. Pont d'Achelles dressing station, being situated upon the main road from Armentieres to Bailleul, had evidently been used as a locating point by enemy aeroplanes, the previous units having made no attempt to conceal lights; and what with exploding bombs, anti-aircraft shelling, and the rattle of innumerable Lewis guns, the area at night time was a veritable pandemonium. Fragments from missiles nightly rattled upon and often penetrated the roofs of our buildings. One of the few cases of an enemy soldier with a bayonet wound passed through this dressing station. It was that of a fair-haired German youth, by that time a corpse, with a bayonet-thrust through the chest from beneath the right armpit. From this station the unit evacuated 6,040 cases of sick and wounded, and served as many as 698 meals in one day. The clearing station which received our casualties was that of the Australians at Trois Arbres, and one may bear testimony to the professional skill and extreme kindness that marked the attention of the Australians to the wounded of the New Zealand Division.
Whilst at Pont d'Achelles the Ambulance had the melancholy duty of receiving and conveying to the grave the body of General Earl Johnston, who at that time had been Brigadier of the Rifle Brigade; and two days later General Young, his successor, was brought in, he having been shot transversely through the centre of the neck. The sniper's missile had traversed behind the gullet in front of the spine, and emerged behind the top of the shoulder. The General's ultimate recovery was as gratifying as it was miraculous.
The Division had only just gone into reserve at Doullieu, after its heavy labours in this region, when the Rifle Brigade page 553was sent to the area north of Ypres for digging work in association with the French. No. 3 Field Ambulance detached a section to serve them. Subsequently the Ambulance had pleasant association with the Brigade at Vieux Berquin, and the personnel were stimulated by the splendid training and bearing of the Brigade Model Platoon, which later unfortunately suffered overwhelming casualties at Passchendaele.
For the Passchendaele operations the headquarters of the Ambulance formed a walking-wounded collecting post, practically an advanced dressing station, at Spree Farm, beyond Wieltje, and was there stationed when the Rifle Brigade was called upon to continue the New Zealand attack on October 12th. At Spree Farm, by the junction of the St. Jean road, terminated the planking on the road which led forward towards Passchendaele. Apart from an interrupted duck-board track leading towards Kansas House, half way to Brigade Headquarters at Korek, the country was a mass of mud beneath which firm ground could not be felt, and the shell-holes filled with water were so numerous as to allow of no direct track beyond a few yards. The conditions were so bad that the removal from the forward area of the casualties of the Division relieved by our own had not yet been completed, and the combined bearers of the New Zealand Division had to slave throughout the 11th at the task of bringing back British wounded who were still lying on the ground as a result of the previous week's fighting. Over one hundred of these were brought in, and their rescue exhausted the first flush of the bearers' energy. One case received at the station was that of a man who had been lying out for five days and nights unattended and without sustenance. He had a large gaping wound in the shoulder, and the work of the numerous flies in the vicinity showed itself in the horrid maggot-infested condition of his wound. His dry tongue and the back of his mouth required cleansing before stimulants could be given him. His condition was typical of that of the majority of the wounded.
Spree Farm consisted of a German pill-box almost submerged beneath earth and mud, and standing in a sea of shell-holes which had to be filled in in order to provide walking space of a few yards around. By means of tarpaulins a dressing shelter and a kitchen for food distribution were erected. The Ambulance Quartermaster, Capt. E. M. Finlayson, scoured the country for additional supplies, and the whole Division is indebted to him for that forethought and labour which enabled him to satisfy the wants of all persons requiring food on the way to and from the front line, and this without discrimination. Many of these extra rations were sent from the Rifle Brigade, who had a surplus owing to their heavy casual-page 554ties. In all, over 1,800 extra twenty-four-hour rations were received and dealt out by the Ambulance between the 11th and the 14th of October.
On the morning of the 12th, anxiety for the Brigades in front, practically isolated owing to the conditions already detailed, was heightened by the feeble nature of the barrage put down for their protection; and soon the wounded began to come in, exhausted, covered with mud, and bringing disheartening reports which were later to be confirmed in a very distressing manner. The Medical Corps was hampered almost to impotence by the unavoidable slowness of evacuation. At least six men were required to a stretcher. The main road leading back was submerged, with the water up to the knee level. Many wounded lying around the pill-boxes perished either from exposure to the elements or from almost uninterrupted shell-fire. The only possible tracks were harried by the enemy's artillery, and it is more than probable that many men, whose bodies were found unburied months afterwards, had been drowned in the liquid mud, which in places acted like a quick-sand.
News received from the firing-line of the death of Lieut.-Col. Winter-Evans from hæmorrhage occasioned a sense of personal loss, for he had come with the Ambulance in the transport "Navua," and was a kindly friend.
Day and night the work of rescue continued, and every available man who could be sent forward as a bearer was pressed into this special service. Medical comforts, in the shape of spirits and other restoratives, were obtained by one means or another from all depots in the neighbourhood, and these, supplemented by the rum ration which, owing to the difficulty of carrying up supplies, had been cut off from the troops in the front line, were served in the form of hot drinks. The 12th, 13th and 14th passed, and still the work was unfinished. On the evening of the 14th fifty men from the Field Artillery reported at Spree Farm for bearer-duty. Accommodated with us for the night, they were sent forward next morning, and during the day they completed the clearing of the front line area. The unit thereupon handed over to No. 2 Field Ambulance, and moved out a few minutes before some high explosive from an enemy battery, which had frequently shelled the station, effected a direct hit on an ammunition dump a few yards behind. The Ambulance baggage awaiting removal suffered almost complete destruction.
The Brigade and Ambulance went into rest in the area near Boulogne. Up to this period battle casualties had changed the personnel of the Rifle Brigade twice over since its landing in France. After some time spent in refitting and page 555training, the Ambulance moved up to l'Ecole Bien Faisance on the Menin Road, and about 1,000 yards in front of Ypres. Though a charity school, this building had been a palatial two-storey structure, with a tiled central pavilion and four wings, and had accommodated over 1,000 boys. Everything above ground had been reduced to little more than rubble, but the ample cellars beneath had been converted into dressing rooms and made use of by the various Ambulances that had previously served the sector. About a mile and a half along the Menin Road was Hooge, the principal feature of which was a great crater that had resulted from a mine exploded by the 5th Division when the first of Kitchener's Army went into the front line. Immediate preparations were made to serve the troops engaged in the attack on Polderhoek Chateau. Major Neil Guthrie was in charge of the bearer work at Clapham Junction, in front of Hooge, and it was mainly owing to his fine efforts and personal supervision that the wounded from this operation were so quickly brought to shelter from a heavily shelled area. The carry, across a broad plateau, was exceedingly long and exposed, and the N.C.O. in charge of the bearers, Staff-Sergt. Heron, gained a well-merited Military Medal.
During the month of December, when this area was ice-bound and frequently under snow, the centre of activity was Polygon Wood. Artillery fire had obliterated much of the Wood, and the country was everywhere pitted with shell-holes. The condition of the wounded from the front area round the Polygon Butte, a tunnelled mound just forward of the Wood, required the strictest attention. Their injuries were frequently attended by shock, which the intense cold served to aggravate. Six bearer posts were placed along the track from the Butte to the dressing station at l'Ecole, a distance of about four and a half miles. Primus stoves and hot water were always in readiness at every post. Fortunately the dressing room arrangements for the re-heating and general comfort of patients were very complete and effective.
After a stay with the Brigade in the area west of Ypres, the unit, towards the end of March, 1918, moved down to the Somme. This was the very anxious time when the Fifth Army had been driven back by overwhelming superiority of numbers after having been subjected to a deluge of gas. The tide of civilians and straggling military straining towards Amiens formed a distressing sight, and portended an irresistible advance against which the New Zealand Division, now thrown into the breach about Mailly Maillet, could only hope to form, as it were, a rock in a swirling stream.page 556
The Ambulance bearer work devolved on the No. 1 Field Ambulance under Lieut.-Col. G. Craig. Our unit was in reserve at the start of the operation, but Col. McGavin, A.D.M.S. of the Division, received information that a railway line, with engines and carriages complete, had been abandoned by the French at Acheux, the nearest available point on a light-railway line. Accompanied by the O.C. Ambulance he went into the matter, and at once determined to set up a receiving post at the railway station. He authorized arrangements for an attempt to reinstate the running of trains as an extemporized Ambulance service, but the French employees, having in mind the numerous German balloons with full observation of the position, were unwilling to bring up the train. However, the Ambulance itself provided a qualified engineer and stokers, and in a few hours the train was ready. Its first freight comprised the wounded from the 2nd Auckland Battalion after their brilliant achievement about the Serre Road, as well as a large number of English wounded from the Aveluy Wood on our right. By an extraordinary coincidence, the first train, which, owing to confused conditions, had been sent away to the indefinite neighbourhood of Doullens, was enabled to unload its wounded into a casualty clearing station which was just opening at Gezaincourt, near that town. A walking-wounded post was established by the unit beside the main dressing station at Beaussart, in the rear of Mailly Maillet. By the 29th a complete system had been established for the removal of all wounded to the railway station with the minimum amount of inconvenience.
A few days after our arrival in this area, General Fulton, of the Rifle Brigade, was mortally wounded by a shell which demolished the cellar behind Colincamps in which his headquarters had been established. He will always be remembered in connection with the formation, the excellent discipline, and the fine achievements of the Brigade. Amongst those killed, and whose body the Ambulance conveyed to the cemetery at Doullens, was Major "Bob" Purdy, M.C., the Brigade Major. He was a clever, gallant and kindly young officer, the son of Lieut.-Col. Purdy, N.Z.M.C., who had borne the brunt of the earlier work of mobilizing the New Zealand Medical Corps.
On April 4th a wireless message emanating from Berlin appeared in the Continental Daily Mail, stating that the Germans had captured Colincamps. This was evidently an anticipatory notification of the driving back of the New Zealanders, for which preparations of such a nature had been made that success seemed assured. The attack on Colincamps was not made until the following day, and the anticipated capture failed to materialize. Early in the morning of the 5th a bar-page 557rage commenced on our front line and worked backward, and this was of such intensity as profoundly to modify opinions regarding the unique severity of the British barrage at Messines. The depth of the tornado of shell-fire was so great that casualties came in not only from the forward area but also from about a mile behind Colincamps. The walking-wounded post had its remaining windows shattered, and the walls were so perforated by shrapnel fragments that it was necessary to make use of the cellars around. Fears for the safety of those in front were aggravated by the absence of reports, and by the commencement of a stream of wounded who came from the support area behind the front line. However, the Rifle Brigade met the oncoming waves of Germans, who, with full packs up, advanced in such formation as would be adopted by those who deemed all resistance in front completely shattered. Passchendaele was then well avenged. The slightly wounded amongst our men were so frequently possessed of binoculars and valuables that the reported slaughter of many German officers seemed to be amply confirmed.
The desperate results of the attempt of the 5th of April staggered the enemy in this sector, and, with the New Zealand Artillery now well established, both sides settled down for the time being to trench warfare, our leading troops occupying, for the most part, the old British front line as held before the advance of 1916. Owing to enemy shell-fire the dressing station was presently moved back to the next railway station, which was at Louvencourt. Here was met the Ambulance of the French 21st, the famous "Steel Division," which had been sent up to be in readiness to reinforce the New Zealanders' line. Judging by the paramount importance given to the matter in the Parisian daily papers, there can be no doubt that the French public realized that the New Zealand sector was truly a vital point. After a few days the French were apprised of the situation, and the "Steel Division" was sent elsewhere. The Ambulance had the very melancholy office of transferring in the train the bodies of Capt. A. M. Tolhurst and Padre A. Allan, both of the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, who had been killed in the aid post at the Sugar Factory in front of Mailly Maillet. Capt. Tolhurst, who had been detached from the Ambulance to the Battalion, was a man of high professional attainments, had a charming personality, and had won the admiration of both units; while the Revd. Allan's kindliness and self-sacrificing services were not unknown to the personnel of the Ambulance.
During this period the early spring weather was cold, the roads muddy, and only the fighting-kit was carried. This meant that the blankets and overcoats had been discarded, the page 558waterproof sheet being the only source of protection and comfort. The Ambulance had to exercise much care and discretion in avoiding unwarranted evacuations from minor maladies, and at this very trying time, when the maintenance of man-power was of most vital importance, the New Zealand Division had the lowest sick-rate in the Army. The unit was very busy with its train, nevertheless, and also with the dressing station in the schoolhouse. It commandeered, as additional quarters for patients, the haylofts and outbuildings of seven farm-houses in the neighbourhood, as well as the entire accommodation of a large chateau. During the first few days of the stay in Louvencourt the Ambulance received a visit from the Senior Medical Officer of the Army, who questioned the advisability of retaining so many patients near the front line. The reply of the O.C. Ambulance was that six trains could be arranged for daily, that he knew the Division in front, and that he was sure of at least twenty-four hours' notice.
After being in rest at Authie, where the Ambulance was inspected by the Rt. Hon. W. F. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward, the Division once more manned the front line on the eastern slope of the plateau over which the Germans had hoped to advance to Doullens. The Ambulance, in its turn, took up front line work and established an advanced dressing station, with headquarters at Bayencourt and another station at Fonquevillers. As is usual, it was reinforced by bearers from other field ambulances. Major H. M. Goldstein, M.C., here joined the unit, and thereafter had charge of the dressing room up till the Armistice.
About the middle of July it was determined to drive the enemy from Fusilier Trench, on the edge of the plateau, east of Hebuterne, which overlooked the valley beyond. On the farther side of the valley was the ridge of Puisieux, which in its turn gave a commanding view over Bapaume and the surrounding country. The attack of the 1st and 4th Battalions of the Rifle Brigade was brilliantly successful, though it cost two officers and forty other ranks. On subsequent days 100 wounded passed through the Ambulance, most of the casualties having been caused by retaliatory shelling. Among them was the Brigadier, General A. E. Stewart, who had been wounded while inspecting the new line. General Stewart's enforced departure from the Brigade was deeply regretted. It is impossible to forget this gallant officer's action in halting his battalion on the way out from the line at Flers to help with the evacuation of the wounded. As shewing the definite nature of the observations carried out by the General Officers of the Division, it may be noted that the number of killed and wounded amongst these officers was proportionately higher page 559than that in any other of the grades or ranks. The greater an officer's experience in war, the more considerate and kindly did he show himself towards the medical service. This may possibly have been the result of past personal experience, for every General Officer in the Infantry of the New Zealand Division was, at one time or other, a battle casualty. Fortunately the G.O.C., whose frequent visits to the front line were a source of anxiety to all concerned, escaped lightly, his most serious injury being a scalp-wound from a sniper's bullet.
The combat at the Fusilier Trench was the first blow of the series which sent the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line. Their retirement, though gradual at first, soon gained momentum, and became hurried when the British Army as a whole forced its way onward. At the head of the valley between Gommecourt and the Puisieux—Serre crest was Rossignol Wood, and here, immediately after the success nearer Hebuterne, a series of severe encounters took place. The enemy, fully recognizing the importance of keeping the New Zealanders away from Puisieux, was firmly entrenched, and many casualties were sustained by the Division. Fortunately the dressing posts and stations were well forward, with communications effectively organized for rapid evacuation. In the Wood, from which the enemy was eventually cleared, was a large dug-out that had been crushed in by one of our heavy shells. The practical Germans had simply closed it up with its contained dead, marking the place with the usual sign and inscription.
In the last week of August the Rifle Brigade, now under General Hart, carried Puisieux, established itself on the farther slope towards the Ancre, and overlooked the country about Bapaume. Summer was now well on, and, the roads being in good condition, the light Ambulance cars were brought into use, and the wounded from this fighting were thus able to receive what virtually was immediate attention.
In connection with the next advance, the capture of Bapaume was assigned to the New Zealand Division. For some reason the warning notice to the No. 3 Field Ambulance, which was then in the line, did not come to hand until the evening of the 23rd of August, though the battle was to take place on the following morning. The dressing stations in front of Gommecourt and Hebuterne were at once abandoned, the bearers and equipment hurried to Bucquoy, and a dressing station selected, perforce, in the dark. Although a ruin above, the building chosen proved to have ample white-washed cellars below. The A.D.M.S. had arranged with Col. Avery, A.Q.M.G., for 100 reserve infantry to be attached to the Ambulance as bearers, and these were reinforced by a number of page 560bearers from the other Field Ambulances. Parties with wheeled stretchers were attached to each battalion of the attacking Brigade. Light cars with shell-dressings, stretchers, blankets and water were assembled under cover at Achiet-le-Petit. In front of this village was a collection of iron huts, and here, on the Grevillers Road, an advanced collecting station was set up for the transfer of cases to the larger Ambulance cars.
The 1st and 2nd Brigades fought their way close up to the north-western outskirts of Bapaume, and the Rifle Brigade, crossing behind through Biefvillers, moved eastwards to relieve the 2nd and carry on the advance round the north of the city. The Ambulance placed posts in Biefvillers, in a factory on a road leading down to the Monument on the Bapaume-Arras Road. Here Major F. N. Johns, M.C., with four of his men, was killed near the 2nd Brigade headquarters. He was an officer who had been through every engagement from the first Somme battle, and was throughout a fearless bearer commander.
On August 26th the Rifle Brigade advanced and captured a section of the Bapaume-Beugnatre road, but, owing to the cover afforded by the railway material at the St. Aubin siding, and to the fact that the buildings of Bapaume provided secure nests for the enemy machine-gunners and snipers, little further progress was made till the evening, when the 2nd Battalion succeeded in establishing itself on the railway beyond St. Aubin. In this fighting the sons of two medical men were killed, Lieut. L. I. Manning, M.C., of Christchurch, and 2nd Lieut. P. G. Clark, of Auckland. The conflict was very severe and the casualties were heavy. The regimental aid post and the Ambulance advanced bearer post were established in the Quarry west of the Monument. Round about it were the bodies of many British soldiers who had been killed by machine-gun fire. The enemy evidently deemed it to be the loca-page 562tion of a battalion headquarters, for it was soon enveloped in a tornado of bursting shells, and it was only when our heavy batteries engaged in a smashing battle with the German artillery that Capt. W. H. Davy, medical officer of the 2nd Battalion, could escape with the personnel. From the elevated position of Biefvillers, the Arras Road near by could be seen with shells from guns of all calibres bursting on it every few yards. The trees in front, momentarily silhouetted by the lurid glints from exploding shells, swayed and crashed, and the smoke columns merged above to form a pall that caught the rays of the setting run. From all points bearers could be seen making for the bearer post. Evacuation of the wounded was effected without interruption during the night, the cars being pushed up to the advanced posts, thus reducing the work of the bearers to short carries. The falling of a shell into the car post at Biefvillers resulted in the blowing off of the tops of two large vehicles, luckily empty at the time, and the only casualty caused by it was a Y.M.C.A. attendant, who lost a leg. The Y.M.C.A. organization during this Bapaume operation sent parties forward to advanced posts, from which they dealt out, without charge, comforts, food and drink to all men passing through. Let it here be said that those who contributed to the support of the Y.M.C.A. may rest assured that their gifts were expended in a manner which earned the praise of all who were personally acquainted with the activities of the organization at the front.
The Rifle Brigade having forced its way on to the Bapaume-Cambrai road, Bapaume fell into the hands of the New Zealanders, and a dressing station was established at Grevillers. It was considered advisable to avoid the schoolhouse where the Germans had had their main dressing station, as the cellar beneath had evidently been used at some time or other as their Corps telegraph station. German prisoners were employed to clean up the yard of the farm-house, from which had to be removed some dead Germans who, from all appearances, had been just emerging from a cellar when the 2nd Auckland men rushed the village.
The 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade attacked Fremicourt at the end of August, and at the same time the 2nd Auckland and 1st Wellington Battalions struggled for the possession of Bancourt. It was necessary to clear these places in order to complete the expulsion of the enemy from the Bapaume neighbourhood. The fighting at Fremicourt appeared to be very severe, judging by the roar of machine-gun fire and the large number of wounded prisoners that came through. The satisfaction felt by the prisoners at being safe was demonstrated in one case by the hysterical outbursts of a wounded page 563German, whose unstinted praise of his British brothers in general, and of the Ambulance in particular, came out in gasps between his gulpings of the food given him. In response to a request for a verse of the Hymn of Hate, he cried out in broken English, "No, no! No longer will I England Gott strafe! My hair is white and my eyes are blue. The English are Saxons, the Germans are Saxons, we are all brothers. Down with the capitalism and the industries!" Meanwhile Lieut.-Col. Austin, of the 1st Battalion, was brought in with a dangerous wound caused by a fragment of shell which had passed through his side. In the role of wounded men, he and Lieut.-Col. R. C. Allen, his successor, were previously well acquainted with Ambulances. Lieut.-Cols. Stephen Allen, of 2nd Auckland, and Beere, of the 4th Battalion Rifles, were also amongst the casualty cases received during the fighting about Bapaume, and a few days later Lieut.-Col. Bell, commanding the 3rd Battalion, was brought in with a severe wound.
The 2nd Auckland and the 1st Wellington Battalions continued the engagement with the enemy about Bancourt. Fire from machine-guns, anti-tank rifles and field-guns at short range, particularly that from an exposed flank, inflicted serious casualties upon them. The passing back of the wounded was a perilous business, but, the roads being suitable, the light ears ran the gauntlet of the barrage and maintained an uninterrupted though precarious evacuation. The burial of 110 dead in the cemetery between Bancourt and Fremicourt attested to the severity of this conflict. Nearly all the remaining veterans of that fine fighting battalion, the 2nd Auckland, were killed or wounded. A station was established in an old field hospital close to the ruins of a sugar factory at the nearest point on the Cambrai Road. Here the bodies of some Germans, who had been caught by our barrage, lay amongst the huts. Little medical equipment was found, for, apparently, the Germans did not have their ambulances actively operating as near the front line as did the British.
The area on the east of Bapaume was at length cleared. The enemy was then swiftly driven to the outskirts of Havrincourt Wood, and General Young's 2nd Brigade pushed them farther east beyond Metz-en-Couture, where the Guards had met and driven back the Germans advancing after the Cambrai counter-attack. The dressing station in a German field hospital at Bertincourt, being rather far up and in the midst of our artillery, was moved back to Haplincourt. Here it experienced a severe aeroplane bombing, happily without casualties. The wounded, who, in their mental anxiety, always yearn for removal from the shelled area, suffered additional terrors that night.page 564
The Rifle Brigade now took up the line again, and during the second week of September forced the enemy up the slopes of Trescault Ridge, along the top of which ran part of the outworks of the Hindenburg Line. The eastern portion of Havrincourt Wood was lined with our guns almost literally wheel to wheel. Our artillery was subjected to heavy gassing, practically the whole of one battery becoming casualties. The car post was at Mill Farm, on the southernmost portion of the Wood, and an advanced dressing station was established in the village of Neuville. Heavy rain came on at this time, accentuating the miseries and dangers of the wounded. Here the Ambulance received a typical stretcher-bearer affectionately known to the men of the 3rd Battalion as "Dad" Vernor. He had been dangerously wounded in the thigh by a ricochet shell. He felt that he was dying and asked how his pulse was, remarking that he knew one often judged a man's condition by it. In spite of the gum solution put into his veins he rapidly sank; but before he died he said that he had carried out many who were "for it," but they were, he averred, better men than he. He was typical of the regimental stretcher-bearers, those hardy men, usually volunteers, whose frightful mortality was the measure of the danger of their work, and who were universally classed with the bravest of the brave.
Passing through Metz to the forward bearer posts, the O.C. Ambulance, owing to some temporary artillery activity on the part of the enemy, deemed it advisable to draw the ambulance car under cover off the main road, whilst he himself retired into what apparently had been a village sick inspection room. There he found a German lying dead upon a stretcher. He had received a severe thigh wound, and had evidently been dead two or three days. In his hand he held tightly a copy of a German trench booklet, the title of which was "The Lying Press of Our Enemies."
The roar of artillery heralding the launching of the attack by the Rifle Brigade was very comforting, and the large number of new German graves that were subsequently found near Gouzeaucourt on the hill testified to its deadly effect. General Hart's headquarters were established in the small mausoleum at the shrine on the road leading from Metz-en-Couture through the neck of the Wood to Trescault, and, although much cramped, he forbore to make more room at the expense of the coffins. One is afraid that compunction of this kind would not have appealed to the Germans. In the sunken road running alongside the Shrine a bearer post was established. The accuracy of the gas and general shelling was extraordinary, and as the route lay through a fierce retaliatory barrage a number of the bearers were disabled. The prisoners were page 565freely employed at the task of currying back the wounded, but one unfortunate party of four Jager bearers were all killed by a shell which left the man on the stretcher untouched, and only slightly wounded on the heel the bearer in charge. The bearers were fearless and efficient veterans, and the award of the D.C.M. to our Sergt.-Major Roberts, M.M., was thoroughly merited. Particularly fine work was done here by Capt. P. G. McEvedy, one of the unit's medical officers attached to the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, whose dressing station seemed to be in the vortex centre of the artillery "hate" put down to hamper the bringing up of reinforcements.
On the right, the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, under Lieut.-Col. L. H. Jardine, was maintaining a characteristically tenacious grip on the edge of Gouzeaucourt Wood. His contra-regulation request for Ambulance bearers to assist his regimental aid-post staff was acceded to as a tribute to his judgment of an emergency situation. Prominent in this combat was Lieut. J. G. Holmes, who had joined the Brigade from the 3rd Field Ambulance, in which he had been from its inception an excellent sergeant-clerk. He had a lucky escape from a bullet which glanced off a safety-razor in his knapsack. At the same time another of the former N.C.O.'s, Lieut. E. Farnsworth, M.M., who had just joined the 3rd Battalion, was killed; and Lieut. J. N. R. Jones, late sergeant in the Ambulance, but now a 4th Battalion officer, was severely wounded. Yet another former Ambulance sergeant, Lieut. J. H. Straw, of the Otago Regiment, was killed in this area. This was only in keeping with the casualties sustained by the Division's promoted N.C.O.'s, who, as subalterns, were prominent in every fight.
A few days later the Division was withdrawn to rest near Bapaume, and thus closed one of the most brilliant phases of the war. On March 26th the Division had met the Germans advancing victoriously towards the coast, and had stemmed at Mailly Maillet the tide that was threatening to sever the British Army. After having successfully withstood the impetuous attack, the Division had established a firm line on the eastern edge of the Hebuterne Plateau; then, having shaken off the enemy's hold upon Fusilier Trench, it had driven him east-wards, and, gathering momentum in the severe conflict at Bapaume, had pursued and forced him back to entrench in the Hindenburg Line whence be had thrust his way in the March offensive. Twelve hundred New Zealand dead lay on the battlefields around Bapaume, and these, together with the 4,964 wounded, of whom one in eight would die, attested to the price the New Zealanders paid for the honour of having been, as a senior English medical officer declared, "the spearhead of the Army."page 566
The 3rd Field Ambulance was in charge of the rest station during the operations leading to the Escaut at the beginning of October, but supplied the main dressing station in connection with the advance beyond that canal. It was here that Capt. P. A. Ardagh, M.C., an officer originally attached to the unit, gained the D.S.O.; while Capt. H. Paterson, another of its former officers, did some fine work with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade at Crevecoeur. At Solesmes the unit put up the main dressing station for the Division when in front of Le Quesnoy, and while here an opportunity was taken to record, by means of flashlight photography, the details of the working of a dressing station.
Elaborate precautions were taken to counteract the deadly shock produced by the action of cold upon wounded men. Teams of three were trained just as precisely as a gun-team, each man being allotted a particular task which he alone was permitted to perform. The senior soldier was the surgeon's immediate assistant. The second placed waterproofs and towels in the desired positions, and stood by to hold the bowls of lotion or the tins of dressings, The third cut off the soiled clothing and first field-dressing, held the limbs in position as directed by the surgeon, and, where necessary, also held an electric torch. The teams were under the control of a senior N.C.O., who directed the rendering of further assistance when required, called for the evacuating stretcher-staff waiting in readiness at the door to remove the cases dealt with, and gave the word for the bringing in of the next cases for treatment. In addition, there was a separate staff detailed to attend to the special heating arrangements and to the feeding of the patients. Each case, whilst being treated, was placed over a blanketed frame heated by oil stoves. Over 20.000 sick and wounded were taken through the Ambulance during its work in France, and definite organization such as that described was necessary in order to ensure efficient and expeditious treatment.
Through the station at Solesmes came the wounded of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which attacked and captured Le Quesnoy. The many expressions of gratitude to the men of the Brigade must indeed have been genuinely sincere, for the tales told by the inhabitants when the Ambulance established in Le Quesnoy itself the last main dressing station of the New Zealand Division during the fighting in Flanders, were borne out by the haggard appearance and pitiable physical condition of the children of the town. The dressing station was located in the general hospital buildings, the modern or military part of which had been used as a German hospital, and the civilian, portion partly as a stable and partly as accommodation for the page 567sick amongst the British prisoners of war. The deaths amongst these unfortunate men, hastened by ill-treatment, were so frequent that. Sister St. Jean, one of the Sisters of Mercy who remained throughout the occupation by the Germans, declared that a day passing without one of them being carried out to the well-filled cemetery was exceptional.
The town-crier was sent round with an invitation to all willing to assist in the cleaning-up of the hospital, the Germans having left it in a very insanitary condition. German prisoners of war were secured from the Brigade and compelled to make amends for the gross delinquencies of their comrades. They were made to clear up also the beautiful little hospital chapel, one wall of which had been partially destroyed and the interior littered with wreckage and rubble. In response to the earlier invitation a small army of girls and young children appeared. Their rush-brooms and tongues flew in unison, and in a remarkably short space of time the place was made presentable. On the completion of their labours, these young volunteers were entertained at the Quartermaster's store to an "afternoon tea" of biscuits, cocoa and chocolates, luxuries to which they had been strangers for many months. Their rapturous singing of the Marseillaise, and their loud cries of "Long live the brave New Zealanders and the good chocolate!" came from full hearts; for many had obviously suffered from restricted nourishment and from those other measures of repression which the Germans so readily employed.
Beneath the hospital was a series of underground caves. Those nearest the outlet had been occupied by the Sisters and their staff, while those farther in had contained a number of extemporized beds. The latter, it transpired, had been made use of to conceal the refugees suspected and sought for by the Germans, but these, under cover of darkness, were passed by the devoted nurses into the Forest of Mormal, close by. Thence they proceeded towards the border, and, if fortune favoured them, finally reached safety in a friendly or a neutral country. Sister St. Jean organized the chain of deliverers, the last link of which was that lady of immortal memory, Nurse Edith Cavell.