The New Zealand Dental Services
CHAPTER 17 — In Palestine and Syria
EARLY in March 1942 it became known that the New Zealand Division was to move out of Egypt into Palestine and Syria. There was no intention to move 2 NZEF headquarters from Maadi, but an Advanced Base was to be established, probably at Kfar Vitkin, just south of Haifa in Palestine.
The first task of the NZDC was to see that the Division was dentally fit before the move. With the exception of 5 Infantry Brigade Group, this had already been done by February so dental forces were concentrated in Maadi Camp to treat the brigade. The Camp Dental Hospital and the Base Depot Dental Hospital were already there and 1 Mobile Dental Unit was brought to Maadi from Kabrit. This was in line with the usual policy of relying, in the first instance, on the dental sections with the field ambulances and, in this case, a General Hospital and the Convalescent Depot to deal with any emergencies within the Division. Although the Division was going to a static area where full dental treatment could be carried out, it was not considered necessary to send other than emergency dental personnel until it was possible to get some idea of the location of the various units. When this was known the organisation was ready to be put into immediate operation. One small cloud appeared on the horizon during this preliminary stage. As the area to which the Division was going was under British command, the DDDS of the Middle East Forces had drafted a memorandum to his ADDS instructing him that New Zealand dental officers in the area would now be responsible to him, and that all returns and reports must be forwarded to him. Colonel Fuller did not agree and pointed out that the NZDC had no connection whatsoever with the Army Dental Corps and would be controlled by a New Zealand administrative dental officer. This was eventually agreed to by the DDDS.
On 13 April 1942 1 Mobile Dental Unit moved from Maadi to join 5 NZ Infantry Brigade Group, by this time in Syria. On the following day the ADDS left also for a tour of inspection of the area. As this tour included an inspection of every dental section, an account of it will explain the distribution of the Corps and show how completely and effectively a force spread over a long distance could be serviced under the organisation then existing.page 216
On the first day he arrived at Jerusalem for discussions with the British ADDS on administrative and supply problems. Leaving Jerusalem on 15 April on his way to Damascus, he called at Nazareth and inspected the dental section attached to 2 NZ General Hospital. Here he found Captain F. R. Brebner1 working under ideal conditions. On 16 April he arrived at Zahle, a peacetime summer resort in the Lebanon Mountains, and stayed with 1 NZ Casualty Clearing Station, to which was attached a dental section under Captain E. P. Pickerill.2 The surgery was a pleasant room in the hospital building, and although small and curtained into surgery and prosthetic room, had water and electricity laid on, good lighting and, according to Captain Pickerill, a view rivalling anything in the Austrian Tyrol. All troops south of Baalbek came to this CCS for casualty dental treatment. There were British units, Bechuanas, Cypriots, Australian Air Force and American Field Service. Captain Pickerill reported that the mouths of the New Zealand troops were, without exception, in good condition but the teeth and gums of the British troops were in a very poor state.
Next day the ADDS visited the headquarters of the Division at Baalbek. This headquarters, 4 Infantry Brigade Group, 6 Infantry Brigade Group and all the NZASC units were in the Baalbek valley. When he arrived there were three dental sections in the area, 4 Field Ambulance at Baalbek, 6 Field Ambulance at Zabboud and the CCS at Zahle. So many British troops were reporting for treatment that the dental officers could not cope with the work. Relief was urgently needed and, as it so happened, that day 1 NZ Mobile Dental Unit was going from Damascus to Homs by the inland route on its way to join 5 Infantry Brigade Group in the Aleppo area. The OC, Major Middlemass, had come independently to Baalbek via Zahle to discuss matters with the ADMS. In consultation with the ADDS, he decided to detach two sections from his unit to relieve the pressure.
On 18 April the ADDS travelled from Baalbek to Aleppo via Homs and Hama. At Aleppo he found the 5 Field Ambulance dental section comfortably established in a hospital building in the centre of the town. The Mobile Dental Unit arrived on 19 April and was quartered temporarily at the ‘German Barracks’.
The only dental section not so far inspected was that with 1 NZ Convalescent Depot at Kfar Vitkin, which the ADDS reached on 21 April after travelling via Latakia, Tripoli and Beirut. Here was also situated the Advanced Base. There was an establishment page 217 enabling the attachment of a dental section to the Advanced Base, but in view of the fact that all men going to this base from hospital, Convalescent Depot or Maadi Camp were dentally fit, there was no reason to over-organise by filling the establishment, especially as the Convalescent Depot dental section was then not fully employed.
It has been mentioned that many men other than New Zealanders were reporting to the NZDC for treatment and, as it has already been pointed out that the success or failure of the Corps' task with the New Zealand troops was a matter of delicate balance, it became necessary to issue some directive lest the main objective suffer. Every New Zealand soldier was made dentally fit before leaving New Zealand and every soldier had to return to civilian life dentally fit. The NZDC with the 2 NZEF had the task of seeing that that standard of fitness did not deteriorate while the men were overseas. One dental officer to 1000 men was the smallest number considered capable of doing this and allowed little margin for interference with this programme. On the other hand, from an ethical point of view as well as from practical and politic motives, it was essential to provide some facilities for all troops in need of urgent treatment, irrespective of country or colour. It was merely a matter of determining how much treatment was to be given.
Naturally, pressure was brought to bear on New Zealand dental officers by troops other than New Zealanders to do as much work on them as possible. The directive from the ADDS was therefore not only a restatement of the policy of the Corps but an authoritative instruction on which the dental officer could lean to avoid the embarrassment of refusal. It was a commonsense document and can be briefly summarised:
Relieve pain, repair essential dentures and even make new ones if a man is obviously ill through lack of them. In other words, observe the usual code of ethics.
Complete all work for New Zealand units.
If time permits, do more extensive work for other units.
There was some argument that, as the British Government was supplying the stores for the NZDC in the Middle East, the Corps should undertake more treatment for British troops. The ADDS answered this effectively and to the satisfaction of the DDDS at General Headquarters:
British troops did not arrive in the Middle East dentally fit. This fact explains the very large amount of work in arrears which NZ dental officers have observed in the mouths of British troops and in consequence of which they will have realised that the prospects of them now attaining a standard comparable with our own, even with dental officers on the basis of one to every 1,000 men, are somewhat remote.page 218
It is therefore apparent that if officers of the NZDC were to undertake extensive treatment for British troops, the total effect on those troops would be relatively small; this policy would be accompanied and offset by a rapid deterioration in the standard of dental health within the 2 NZEF. There is no room for a relaxation of present efforts.
Thus, it may be said that it is not that the 2 NZEF is over-endowed with dental officers but that, in our opinion, other troops have been short supplied in the past.
It is understandable that the British troops were continually asking for treatment as they had nothing like the NZDC organisation under field conditions. For example, in Syria the OC 1 Mobile Dental Unit reported:
Imperial troops have been presenting for treatment. The relief of pain and the insertion of necessary fillings have always been carried out. Denture work has, however, been refused except for repairs. The English soldier is in rather an unfortunate position in this area as no arrangements seem to have been made for his treatment. There is certainly no possibility of his receiving any work in the way of remodels or new dentures as the nearest dental centre is at Beirut, about 230 miles away.