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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XXVII. — Formation of New Zealand Army Nursing Service

page 125

Chapter XXVII.
Formation of New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

I have now come to what, during the time I have spent in New Zealand, has been the most interesting though strenuous period I have gone through. The most interesting also, in the memories of the New Zealand nurses of the time. When in August, 1914, we learnt of the entry of Great Britain into the war, and it was decided by the Government that men would be sent from here, nurses felt that they would also be needed.

In 1913, as I mentioned before, I was gazetted Matron-in-Chief, and the regulations had to be formed for the New Zealand service. It was arranged then to appoint the matrons of the four chief hospitals to be principal matrons for the districts of Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. Each was to form a detachment of sixteen and submit names to me for appointment as sisters and staff nurses. The proposed regulations, which had to be in accordance with those of Queen Alexandra Military Nursing Reserve, had then to be sent to the Home Secretary of the Reserve in London for approval.

It was decided that sisters and nurses would be drawn, both from the hospital staffs and private and district nursing, and must be under 40 years of age.

The note I have in Kai Tiaki is that “it is not probable they will be called upon to perform any arduous duties or page 126 do anything in fact, which would in ordinary times interfere with their regular work, but they will be expected to keep in touch with their district matrons so that, if necessary, they may be called out for training or service.”

How differently things turned out! The district Matrons were:—Miss Payne, Wellington; Miss Orr, Auckland; Miss Thurston, Christchurch; Miss Myles, Dunedin.

As I wrote before, we then had to wait for regulations to be approved by the War Office, so although many applications came in, no one could be enrolled, no uniform decided upon. On August 7th, 1914, it was decided by the Government (in response to a cable from the War Office, asking that if able they should seize the Germany wireless station at Samoa), to send ships with troops to take possession of German Samoa. The expeditionary Force was to sail under sealed orders. It was decided to send three nursing sisters in each troop ship, and one morning I received a telephone message from headquarters to come up at once. I was in bed with a very bad sore throat, but knowing there must be something important on hand, I got up. When I arrived, Colonel Will, then Director of Medical Services, met me and told me of the decision about the nurses, and directed me to enrol the necessary number, and have them ready for an unknown destination three days later. My sore throat vanished, and back at my office I was soon busy. There was not time to go far for the nurses, and I quickly selected from those near at hand, some who had already volunteered. Miss Bertha Nurse was the senior of these, and I put her in charge. Sister Fanny Wilson, theatre nurse at Wellington Hospital, Sister Vida Maclean, a Wanganui nurse, then sub-matron at St. Helens Hospital, Wellington, Sister page 127 Louise Brandon, late of Wellington Hospital, Sister Eva Brook, were all at hand, and I telegraphed to Christchurch for Miss Thurston to select a sister and send her up by that night's ferry steamer, which was fortunately, not leaving till 11 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. She selected her theatre sister, Sister Louie McNie, who was away for her day off, but in her absence her nurse friends collected and packed her things so that she was ready, and arrived next morning. The next thing was to get uniforms designed and hurriedly made; I went to the D.I.C. and received the generous offer to equip the six sisters with outdoor uniforms, while Kirkcaldie and Stains offered to make cotton uniforms. I thought it was best to adhere to the same colours as had tentatively been arranged by our unconfirmed regulations, so we chose a nice grey Petone cloth. I have before me the picture of our six sisters, taken at the barracks, Wellington, where they were being sworn in just prior to sailing on August 15th. We may now smile at their appearance with the traditional nursing bonnets, and long plain cloaks over an ankle length frock, but after all, they were dressed very much like the rest of the nurses who went out early in the War. Later, of course, it was realised that garments of a more workmanlike type were necessary, and uniforms underwent a change. The old bonnet was replaced by a serviceable hat, and cloaks by ordinary coats.

For these first nurses, we had little time to consider uniforms at all, and we had no knowledge of whither they were bound.

While writing of this first little contingent of nurses, I must not forget Sister Ida Willis, who was then a a holiday trip to the Islands and was found, when the troop ships called at Fiji, stranded there. Colonel Matthew Holmes, page 128 who was the Medical Officer in charge, enrolled her among the sisters, and took her on to Apia.

The story of how the Germans capitulated and the British flag was raised without bloodshed, is well known. The New Zealand sisters took possession of the hospital. At first, the German staff of the hospital, three German doctors and three German sisters and a matron, were allowed to continue their work, and one sister took one large and one single ward with verandah, and necessary offices, and there nursed their patients.

Later, of course, the German sisters left and our sisters took over the whole hospital, and it has been carried on ever since by New Zealand nurses, whom, while I was in office, it was my duty to select. The climate being very trying, the sisters were not allowed to stay more than two years or less; so frequent changes had to be made. It was suggested at one time that, as Inspector of Hospitals, I should visit Apia, but this never came off, no time and too much expense.

After the despatch of these few nurses, we hoped that others would be required to go with the contingents of men being sent from New Zealand, and constantly applications to join the service came in. The next troop ships were despatched to Egypt. General Godley, then the General commanding the New Zealand Forces, went in command. It was very strongly urged that sisters should be sent on each troop ship, but it was decided that as New Zealand was not supplying a full division, for which it would be necessary under army regulations to provide a fully equipped hospital, there was no necessity to send nurses. The New Zealand contingent would be provided for by the Australian Division to which it would be attached.

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Before this time, we had been thrilled by the cabled news that among the first nurses to set foot in Belgium after the declaration of war, were two New Zealanders. They landed with a party of 10 surgeons and 20 nurses on August 16th. Later, we ascertained that these two nurses were Sister Theresa Butler (now Matron of Raratonga Hospital), trained at Christchurch Hospital, and Sister Jessie McLeod, trained at Invercargill, now Sister-in-Charge at Cashmere Sanatorium.

Sister May Palmer was another New Zealand nurse who was quickly on the scene, joining the French Red Cross. She had previously nursed during the Balkan War. Our nurses envied these sisters who, being on the spot, could so quickly offer their services. There were several other nurses visiting England at the time. Sister Hitchcock and Sister Lind joined Mrs. Bedford Fenwick's French Flag Corps, and were quickly in France. Sisters Eaddy and Ella Cooke also joined, and were working with the French Red Cross; Miss Louise Bennett was another.

Some nurses, deciding not to wait to be sent from New Zealand, took their own passages, and started off at once, Mary Wilson, Lucy Atkinson, Carrie Jones, Mary Purcell, were among the first, and their services were accepted at once.

All attempt was now given up to join the Queen Alexandra Reserve, and an independent New Zealand Army Nursing Service was decided upon and regulations drawn up which were later, by an amendment under the Defence Act, passed. Enrolments of the members of the service were made by the nurses being sworn in, in the same manner as the men, and their names entered in the army list of officers.

This, of course, was not at first, and in the meantime it was decided by the Nurses' Association to have a page 130 deputation to the Minister of Defence to urge the right of the nurses of New Zealand to go with the soldiers to nurse them, when needed. This was to be carried out by the Wellington Branch, but as the Minister was at the time in Dunedin, a telegram was sent to the Otago Branch to get in touch with Mr. Allen (now Sir James Allen), and request him to receive a deputation.

At the time I was in Dunedin, and hearing that he had agreed to receive the nurses, I rang him up and asked if he would like me to be present with him. The reply was “yes,” so next morning I proceeded to his office and was there when Mr. Statham, M.P., introduced the deputation. This consisted of Miss Holford, Dr. Macdonald, President of the Otago Branch, Miss Williamson, R.R.C., Mrs. Macgregor, Nurse Manson (the last three ladies having served as nurses in the Boer War).

The deputation was very kindly received by the Minister, who said he was glad to meet the nurses, and hear what they had to say. Mrs. Macgregor, Miss Williamson, and Nurse Manson referred to their experiences on troop ships and in South Africa, and of the need of qualified nursing care. Dr. Marshall Macdonald told what had been done by Australia, and emphasised the need of nurses, not only to nurse the men in Egypt, but also on the troop ships and transports, when wounded and sick men were returning to New Zealand.

He added that when New Zealand's sons were serving the Empire in the field, it was only right that her daughters, who were willing and able, should be allowed to do so too.

In replying, Mr. Allen gave very fully the reasons; the main one being that as New Zealand was not sending a full division, but joining with the troops sent from page 131 Australia, it was not necessary to provide a hospital, therefor nurses would not be needed. The lack of accommodation on the troop ships was given as a reason for not sending nurses to attend the men on the voyage.

He said, in conclusion, that he would be glad to inform the Mother Country that many nurses in New Zealand were prepared to serve, and ask if the Mother Country desired that they would be sent.

He also would communicate with the Australian Minister of Defence, and ask if he would accept offers from New Zealand nurses to join the reinforcements.

If these offers were accepted, he would facilitate their going.

Dr. Marshall Macdonald thanked Mr. Allen for his “crumb of comfort,” and the deputation withdrew. The Minister then consulted with me regarding the telegrams to be sent, one to the War Office to the effect that New Zealand nurses were anxious to serve, and that the Government was prepared to send fifty nurses for service under the British War Office, or the French Red Cross, if acceptable.

Another telegram was sent to the Prime Minister of Australia. “Should reinforcements of nurses for Australian hospitals at the Front be required, will you consider the inclusion of some New Zealand nurses?”

To this a reply was received: “Not anticipated any nurses as reinforcements will be required for some months. If reliefs sent will endeavour to include some New Zealand nurses.” This shows how little realised was the great need of nurses for this war.

Shortly after this, a cable was received from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, stating that the Army Council accepts with thanks the offer of the New Zealand page 132 Government to send 50 nurses, providing that they are available for service wherever required, and not only for duty with the New Zealand troops; also stipulating that they must be sent under the charge of a responsible matron.

On March 25th, a cable also arrived from the Commonwealth Government asking if twelve New Zealand nurses, two of the rank of sister, and ten staff nurses could be ready to sail for Melbourne on March 31st. Of course I replied “Yes,” and then the work of collecting them began. We did not have to provide uniforms, as these nurses would be wearing the Australian uniform.

The nurses selected so hurriedly, came as far as possible from different parts of the Dominion and were: Elizabeth White, from Dunedin; Alice Fraser, from Auckland; Ethel Dement, from Wellington; Grace Guthrie, Helen Brown, Dunedin; Hilda Steele, Auckland; Elsie Cooke, Nora Fitzgibbon, Dorothy Rose, from Christchurch; Emily Scott, Auckland; Cora Turnbull, Dunedin; Jessie Verey, Dunedin.

Our Government paid the nurses' fares to Melbourne, and their salaries and allowances at the Australian rates, which were a little lower than those arranged for the New Zealand nurses. We heard later from them of the kind welcome they were given and of how they were met by the Matron of the Sydney Hospital, and accommodation arranged for them till they embarked at Melbourne with the remainder of the contingent, on April 13th. After this, they received their pay and allowance from the Australian Defence.

The writer said nothing could exceed the kindness of the Australian nurses who, though so many were anxious to be taken in for service, showed not a trace of jealousy or resentment at New Zealand being represented in the Commonwealth Contingent.

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It is interesting to record the text of the reply from the War Office, and I copy it from Kai Tiaki of April, 1915:—

From the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor of New Zealand:

“Your telegram of 7th January has been communicated to the Army Council who desire me to express their thanks for offer made, and to say that they will have much pleasure in accepting offer, providing nurses are available for service wherever required, and not only for duty with New Zealand troops. Nurses should be fully trained for three years and should have certificates of efficiency, both from matrons under whom trained, and under whom last served. Maximum limit of age, 45 years. They should be guaranteed by New Zealand Government and sent over under a responsible matron, to look after them in this country till their services can be utilised.

“Applications for service from following New Zealand nurses already in this country, are now being considered by War Office—(names here follow)—can your Government in case of these nurses also give guarantee as to training and efficiency?”

The comment in Kai Tiaki on this:—

The enquiry in the concluding paragraph is a recognition of the State Registration of nurses in New Zealand, and show the great advantage of a central control of the qualifications of nurses.

Some of the names given were not registered nurses, and therefore the Government could not give the guarantee asked for.

At the same time, the standard of qualification required from the Australian nurses was a certificate of three years training in a general hospital of over 100 beds.

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Fortunately for many of our nurses, trained in smaller hospitals, the State Registration of the Government was recognised as a guarantee of efficiency, so many nurses trained in smaller hospitals were able to give their services. Quite a number were already working in England and France, with sisters from the larger hospitals, as well as those more fortunate ones, gave evidence that they were fully capable of upholding the standard of nursing in New Zealand.