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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XXXII. — Setting Out for Egypt

page 154

Chapter XXXII.
Setting Out for Egypt.

At last orders came that we were to leave next morning to join the transport Scotian, which was taking troops and medical units to Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria.

We started off from Paddington Station on the morning of June 3rd 1915.

Miss Beecher was there to see us off, also Sir Thomas McKenzie, and our old friend, Captain Sutcliffe of the s.s. Rotorua. We were all presented with a tiny New Zealand flag in silk, with which to wave farewell, and I remember the guard of the train was so anxious to have one, that some unselfish soul presented him with hers. I wonder if it was myself; I certainly have not that relic in my possession now!

We spent the night at Plymouth, being billeted at an hotel where a number of Queen Alexandra Reserve nurses were also accommodated. After dinner we strolled up to the Hoe, and thought of the great naval battle of long ago.

I forgot to mention that Miss Beecher at the station had asked me if I would take charge of 70 of her nurses who were also being sent on the Scotian. I, of course, agreed, though I felt the responsibility of so many unknown young women would be great. Unfortunately, she gave me no papers, and on arrival at Gibraltar, where a few of the nurses were to land, I had nothing to hand over to the officer who boarded the transport. The papers page 155 probably followed by post. I found I had rather a mixed lot of nurses; some were old reserve nurses called up for service, some were new recruits and were not too pleased to be under any discipline when not on duty. As there were a number of officers and about 900 troops on board, it was necessary to keep an eye on these young women, and endeavour to see that they were in their quarters in good time at night.

Among the Queen Alexandra Reserve nurses, were some New Zealanders, who had enlisted at Home. These were Miss Allan, Matron of the Waipiro Bay Hospital, Miss Williams, from Hawke's Bay, Miss Herdman, from Dunedin.

These were landed at Gibraltar. We were not able to land, much to our regret, as we lay by the port for several hours.

On board the Scotian were also two New Zealand doctors, who had also offered their services independently to the War Office; these were Doctors Acland and Barnett. It was pleasant for us having them on board, especially for the Dunedin and the Christchurch sisters. Dr. Acland was very good coaching the sisters up in much useful knowledge of army procedure—a distinguished surgeon. Dr. Mayo Robson was also a passenger to the East.

On joining the ship, it had been debated whether the sisters should all mess together, or scatter at the tables among the officers. The latter plan was adopted and rendered the dinner hour very pleasant and sociable. Colonel Bulkeley, who was in command of the troops, was very courteous and kind to us. Service was held on deck on the Sunday, and for one afternoon a programme of sports was arranged, in which the sisters took part, and I page 156 presented the prizes. A tug-of-war between the English and New Zealand sisters was very amusing, the fine, well-built New Zealand sisters won amid cheers from the onlookers.

We often wondered afterwards how many of the gay young officers we had on that voyage of about a fortnight, survived. They went on to Gallipoli after landing us at Alexandria. After Gibraltar, our next port of call was Malta; we arrived about noon one summer day, and as the ship was to be there till the following day, we were able to have several hours on shore. The Queen Alexandra nurses were to land here, and an officer came off to receive them, asked for the Matron-in-charge, and complained of no papers. I introduced Sister Heinrich, as the Senior and most responsible of the party, so he had to be content with that, but I felt that as I had been requested to take charge of the contingent, I should have been properly provided with essential documents.

Our two New Zealand doctors, Acland and Barnett, also landed here.

However, the difficulty of the papers passed, and we all got ready to go ashore in the little boats which were surrounding the ship.

Landing at the Customhouse Wharf, we then had to ascend by a lift 250 feet to the level of the town. As we were in uniform (our cool grey dresses, scarlet capes and straw hats), we were as “soldiers” charged half price.

Our first visit was to the large Hamoun Hospital, a large technical school, which had been transformed into a military hospital. There we found some New Zealand wounded, and some sick with dysentry or enteric; they were so pleased to see New Zealand nurses, and some of us wished we had been staying on duty there. There page 157 seemed so much to do and so few sisters to do the dressings, etc. We found to our surprise two New Zealand nurses, Nurse Collins from Hawera, and Nurse Higginson from Waikato. They were in England when the War broke out and had joined up.

I visited the Naval Hospital and was very kindly received by Miss Greig, the Matron, and shown round the wards. The hospital is beautifully situated, looking over the harbour. It is approached from the water on one side by a long flight of steps at the foot of which one is landed from a dicie or rowing boat. There is a lift to carry patients to the top of the cliff on which the hospital is built.

I spent here a pleasant hour or so, and had tea with the Matron in her comfortable quarters.

The hospital was originally for 300, but had been enlarged to 700 by placing beds in all available space.

I was very much struck with the smart uniforms of the sisters, white drill with scarlet pipings, and cape edged with scarlet and a badge worked in silk and gold, a handkerchief cap with a crown and red cross.

In winter, their uniform is dark blue with red.

We visited the wonderful old Cathedral of St. John, and were fortunate enough to see the famous tapestries which are only hung in the Cathedral once a year.

We spent the evening on the ship and while sitting on deck, two New Zealand doctors, who had just come from the Dardanelles with a ship load of wounded, joined us. The conditions on the transport they described as terrible: no proper provisions were made for the men, many of whom lay on the bare deck in their torn and bloodstained clothes; no proper food for them, ship biscuits and bully beef for men with shattered jaws! Our young doctors page 158 were terribly distressed at their inability to relieve such suffering. They had no skilled assistance, the orderlies on board being untrained and, of course, they had no nurses. Apparently it was quite a long time before the authorities woke up to the fact that nurses were as much needed on the transports evacuating sick and wounded, as on the hospital ships, which were too few to cope with the numbers who needed more than mere transport. Later on, of course, nurses were attached to transports and medical stores and comforts were provided. And yet, marvellous to reflect upon, at a still later date, there was the terrible state of affairs in Mesopotamia, when the wounded men were sent down without the slightest provision.

However, this has nothing to do with my life and work.

On 16th June we reached Alexandria; we were eager to get to land, but owing to the congestion of transports leaving, and of hospital ships, we were obliged to lie out in the harbour for 24 hours. I amused myself making some little sketches of what I could see of the town and of the ships and little boats plying about the harbour. In the afternoon of the following day we were berthed; the Matron-in-Chief of that area, Miss Oram, came on board and arranged with me about my fifty nurses. Nurses were very badly needed in Alexandria, where there were several military hospitals very inadequately staffed. One large one, No. 15th General was sent out at first with no matron or nurses, in charge of medical officers only, with a sergeant-major superintending orderlies. The Matron of this hospital was eager to have some of our nurses, and Sister Chalmer with 20 more were detailed here. Much to my surprise, who should come on board, but Fanny Bennett, my old Prince Alfred chum. She was on duty at this same hospital and with her Sister Nelson, page 159 with whom she had started from Australia to offer her services. She had been refused on account of her age by the Chief Medical Officer of Defence, in Australia, and was determined to join the Queen Alexandria nurses. The tables were turned when later on, the same doctor was invalided back from the Dardanelles on the ship on which Sister Bennett was at the time on duty.

Knowing that these two excellent nurses were on their way to England, I had mentioned them to Miss Beecher, who promised to take them on at once. However, Dr. Agnes Bennett, then in Egypt meeting her sister, on arrival persuaded her and Miss Nelson to remain where they were so much needed.

Well, after this digression, I will proceed. Miss Oram had arranged that 24 of my contingent should remain in Alexandria. She asked if any had a midwifery certificate, as there was need for a midwifery nurse at a large hospital taken over from the Germans. Poor Miss Buckley was selected for this service, a great surprise, as no nurse offering her services for the war expected to act as midwife. However, that phase soon passed and she had enough and to spare of the work she wished for. Sister Speedy and Sister Fricker also went to this hospital.

Next morning the rest of us had to be ready to start by the train for Cairo, Miss Oram had promised to see that we had our travelling warrants, and we went to the station expecting to meet her there. However, by some mistake, there was no Miss Oram, and no warrants. The train was shortly to depart and there were 26 women with no tickets.

I was in despair, for to have paid for all the fares would have been difficult. At the last moment an officer who had come over with us on the Scotian, saw my difficulty and with great courtesy and kindness went off and page 160 procured the missing warrants. I never heard what had been the cause of the mistake.

It was a terribly hot day, and of course, we all had our full uniforms on. The train was not very comfortable and was stuffy; the dust was too bad to allow of the windows being opened. What saved our lives were the lovely juicy oranges boys were selling along the line.

We arrived at Cairo about five o'clock and were met at the station by Major Matthew Holmes. Here the 25 sisters left me, some to go to the Citadel Hospital, which is the old military hospital established in the Palace Caladin. Sister Janet Moore, Sisters Nixon and Inglis, were detailed here, while Miss Nurse, Sister V. Maclean, Fanny Wilson and the others went to the New Zealand Hospital at Pont de Koubeh. This hospital was the Egyptian hospital and built as a hospital, though not quite according to our idea. It was staffed by an Imperial Superintendent and a Queen Alexandria Matron, Miss Michel, with a few Australian sisters, among others Miss Conyers, as Theatre Sister, she afterwards became Matron-in-Charge of the Australian Army Nursing Service.

I went on by myself to the Continental Hotel where Major Holmes told me Dr. Bennett was staying, here I found a pleasant room with a balcony, and I was glad to have a hot bath and change. Dinner was at eight; I found that Dr. Bennett was away on duty as Orderly Officer for the night at the New Zealand Hospital. It was terribly hot still, a hot wind blowing and I was told that it was a Khamseen, which meant great heat and dust.

Dinner was served in the dining hall of the hotel instead of on the open-air place above the street where, as a rule, everyone dined and sat, in the cool of the evening.

After dinner was over, I took an arabeyeh, a low open carriage with one horse, and tore along at the breakneck page break
At A N.Z. Casualty Clearing Station in France

At A N.Z. Casualty Clearing Station in France

N.Z. Stationary Hospital at Wisque, France

N.Z. Stationary Hospital at Wisque, France

page break
Miss J. Bicknell, A.R.R.C.

Miss J. Bicknell, A.R.R.C.

Photo S. P. Andrew Miss H. Maclean, R.R.C.

Photo S. P. Andrew
Miss H. Maclean, R.R.C.

page 161 speed these drivers use to see Dr. Bennett at the hospital, she having asked me to do so by telephone. My first drive through Cairo was full of interest, the picturesque garb of the men, and the gay trappings of the donkeys, on which one saw huddled women clad all in black; an occasional camel sauntering superciliously along, all so strange and foreign to my eye, made my drive seem very short. It was already late, so after seeing my friend and exchanging our news, I returned to my hotel feeling rather lonely after being one of a large company.

Next morning I set forth again, but this time, to visit the hospital, and see the nurses I had sent there. Miss Nurse introduced me to the Matron, Miss Michel, whom she was to succeed in a few days, as soon as our nurses had become acquainted with the many military rules and regulations. Miss Michel was a “regular,” a very charming' and capable woman, as I found on further acquaintance. She was much impressed with our New Zealand nurses and always endeavoured to have some on her staff. After handing over to Miss Nurse, she was to open a large hospital, the 21st general, in the old barracks at Alexandria where some of our succeeding contingents of nurses worked under her, and I, in the course of my duties while in Egypt, met her again several times.

The Port de Koubeh Hospital, when taken over for the New Zealand Forces, had only 250 beds. It was built in pavilion form, with wide verandahs, which allowed of an increase to 300 and over. Also large marquees and hospital tents were pitched on the desert sand of the enclosure in which the hospital stood. The front was a garden with shady trees under which the convalescent patients could sit. There was a separate isolation building which was almost always full with enteric dysentry, and other complaints. Sister V. Maclean was put in charge of this isolation, and Dr. Bennett was the Medical Officer.

page 162

The hospital was right in the desert between Cairo and Heliopolis, and from the flat roof there was a glorious view away to distant hills, which at sunset, take on hues of faint purple, while the sky is rose-pink and crimson.

Looking towards Cairo, too, one could see the outline of the mosques and minarets against the sky. Looking the other way, one could see the beautiful buildings in creamy white, of the new city of Heliopolis, which lies near the site of the ancient city, but was only built about eight years before. Here a great hotel, the resort of the wealthy in times of peace, had been taken over by the Australians, and transformed into a hospital for 1,000 beds. Near by this hotel, also was a great building called Luna Park, which had been turned into a hospital No. 1 auxiliary, and No. 2 auxiliary. The Atelier (workshop) contained over 400 beds in one large hall.

Again near by, in No. 3 auxiliary, a large hospital of open air space, which were tennis courts, etc., lightly covered in, were shelters, merely roofed in with matting, and necessary bath-rooms, etc., added.

As this was not the rainy season, no more permanent protection was needed; all these were under the Australians, and provided over 4,000 beds. The beds, I may say, were the usual Egyptian ones, not too comfortable, rather reminding one of large fruit crates than beds.

On duty in these hospitals, I found several of our New Zealand nurses, who had gone with the Australians. Sister Turnbull, X-ray Sister at the Palace Hospital, White, Verey, Guthrie, among them also, greatly to my surprise and interest, I found on duty at Luna Park, my old friend of the Women's Hospital, Melbourne, Miss Cornwall, who succeeded me as Matron. Truly the world seems small.