The War Effort of New Zealand
Chapter V. — New Zealand Army Nurses
New Zealand Army Nurses.
The entry of the nurses of New Zealand into the great war dates back to August 15th, 1914, when six of their number were sent with the Advance Expeditionary Force at three days' notice. Eager to go, yet not knowing whither, these nurses set off under Miss Bertha Nurse as matron, and were somewhat disappointed when they found that they were landed far from the fighting front—at Samoa. All however, had afterwards the chance, so hoped for, to go to the other side of the world, and to share to some extent in the dangers and hardships of the troops. For several months it was not thought that New Zealand nurses would be required for our men. The authorities did not then realise the awful need which very shortly arose at Gallipoli for help for the sick and wounded. The nurses, however, made urgent demands to go with the transports, and the New Zealand Nursing Service, which up to the outbreak of war was merely a name, with a Matron-in-Chief as head of a phantom unit, was then rapidly organised, and in a very short time there were hundreds of applications for membership from all over the Dominion.
Many nurses also set off to England and there offered their services, and they, as well as those belonging to the New Zealand Service, did splendid work in many parts of the world. There is not opportunity in this short account to give the history of the many efforts which the nurses made to be allowed to do their share in the national crisis, to accompany the men who were going forth to fight, and to succour them, when sick and wounded.
The party was met at Alexandria by the Matron-in-Chief for Egypt and the Eastern Front, and warmly welcomed by the matrons of the hospitals in Alexandria where the shortage of nurses was very great. The contingent of fifty was then divided between Alexandria and Cairo, and the different Imperial hospitals in Alexandria, the Citadel in Cairo (which is the regular military hospital and which had been the palace of the Empress Eugenie) and the Egyptian Army Hospital, Abbassieh, which had been allotted to the New Zealand troops. It was a surprise to find this hospital run by New Zealanders, and staffed by Australian and English sisters, because the sisters had been so long assured that New Zealand nurses were not needed. This hospital was now staffed by the newly-arrived New Zealand nurses under Miss Bertha Nurse, and here for the next year, were located the New Zealand Nurses' Headquarters in Egypt. The hospital which then provided for only 300 patients, grew until there were 1,000 beds. The nurses had many difficulties to contend with; their quarters were cramped and inconvenient; they were frequently very short staffed, as only a proportion of the nurses arriving subsequently from New Zealand could be sent here; the heat was very trying; and working page 90in tents and pavilions pitched on the sand tested their endurance. The serious cases of dysentery and of enteric from Gallipoli necessitated nursing skill of the highest order, and brought forth all the loving kindness and patience that accompany the skill of a good nurse.
Contingent followed contingent from New Zealand, and during the next few months another hundred nurses arrived and were posted to the various hospitals. One party of thirty-one accompanied the personnel of the No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital to Port Said, and were under the charge of Miss Marie Cameron. There they remained until October under conditions still more unfavourable than at Cairo. Miss Cameron ably managed the nursing in pavilion tents on the sand. The patients were sent there to convalesce, some seriously ill with enteric and dysentery, and some with wounds.
In October they set forth on that ill-fated expedition to Salonika, when on the 23rd, the transport Marquette was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea, almost within sight of Salonika. Ten of the thirty-six nurses were lost, and eighteen of the medical orderlies. This was the greatest disaster experienced by the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, and it was the first of many that during the war befel the nurses of the British armies. Perhaps it was the worst of nurses' experiences not only because of the terrible loss of life in proportion to numbers but because of the long drawn out suffering of those many hours in the water—hours during which strong men succumbed or became raving mad. The accounts given by some of the survivors show the sufferings endured during those awful moments which lasted from 9 a.m. till the time of rescue at 4 p.m. One account by a surviving sister may be quoted:—
Miss Cameron, R.R.C.
"Luckily for us our own English patrol boat saw her movements and became suspicious, journeyed over to see, and caught sight of one of our boats in the distance (we were about seven miles from all this.) She then informed two French destroyers; and all three came to our rescue, and soon we all were picked up and looked after well by these kind men who patrol the danger zone every day. Many died even after the boats were in sight; it seemed too much for them.
"We were then transferred to the Grantully Castle hospital ship, in Salonika harbour, where all were goodness itself to us. Some of us who were fit went ashore in Salonika for a couple of days. It is a filthy evil smelling town, and not by any means a desirable place of abode. In two days we were ordered back on board and taken to Alexandria, where we still are, trying to get equipped; but in Egypt that is no easy matter as things are so dear."
Long after, the fate of two sisters was learnt. A boat in which were the bodies of several soldiers and two sisters was found by a British warship, and brought into Salonika, where the dead were given a naval funeral. These sisters were Margaret Rogers and Helena Isdell. The other sisters who were lost were Marion Brown, Isobel Clark, Catherine Fox, Mary Gorman, Mona Hildyard, Mabel Jamieson, Mary Rae, Lora Rattray. All accounts of the disaster emphasise the splendid heroism and quiet obedience of the sisters. A medical officer wrote, "of their conduct as a whole no words can express our admiration. They mustered quietly and quickly at their alarm posts, and cheerfully, and without the least confusion or panic, passed along the deck to their boats, page 94and never once during the long day did I hear any of these sisters who were able to stick it out make any complaint."
When after the rescue and return to Alexandria volunteers were called to start again for Salonika, there was no lack of response, and disappointment was keen when it was finally decided that the nurses after all were not to accompany the Stationary Hospital. But the effect of the long immersion and the shock has never left some of the sisters. The matron, Miss Cameron, has been totally incapacitated ever since and it was with the greatest pleasure that the news of the award to her of the Royal Red Cross was received. With two or three exceptions, the nurses who went through this terrible experience remained on duty for the whole term of the war, some of them serving cheerfully on hospital ships passing over the very waters under which are the bodies of their companions. Several of these sisters have received decorations and have been mentioned in despatches for their good service. In memory of those who lost their lives on this occasion, and of Sister Hawken who died of enteric at Alexandria, of Sister Cooke who was killed by accident, and Sister Lind who died of phthisis contracted on barge duty in France, and Sisters Wishaw and Tubman of influenza, has been established the Nurses' Memorial Fund to help nurses who from sickness or other cause have been unable to provide for their declining years.
Another hundred nurses were sent from New Zealand in hospital ships—the Marama's first commission and the Maheno's second commission—at the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916. Of these some were landed in Egypt, and some were sent straight to England, where, until the New Zealand Head-quarters were moved to England, they served in Imperial hospitals.
In Egypt the sisters who had first arrived and had been sent to Imperial hospitals had made their mark, and were so valued that they were retained. The British Matron-in Chief, Miss Oram, R.R.C., greatly appreciated the New Zealand sisters: "they were always ready for anything and were so adaptable and resourceful." The surgeons found them well-trained and careful. The nurses were sought after by the page 95matrons of the various Imperial hospitals. When directed to open a new hospital, one British matron said: "I will not mind doing it if I may have some New Zealand sisters." They were given responsible positions and justified the trust thus placed in them. One matron said when so promoting them: "You girls deserve it, for you have helped me through a most trying time and I always feel I can depend on my New Zealand sisters in any emergency. In fact I consider them the backbone of my hospital."
The New Zealand sisters served in virtually all the fields of war. Some were with our own hospitals and hospital ships, and, therefore, their work will be chronicled in other pages; and others were on the staff of many Imperial ships—ships going to the Peninsula, to German East Africa, Mesopotamia; on the run to and from France in all the appalling days of the great fighting; bringing refugees from Siberia; with Indian troops to Bombay; on transport duty to and from New Zealand—on hospital trains in Egypt, and running up to Palestine—fighting against sea sickness, heat strokes, and cold—never complaining. Some were stationed in East Africa; in India; away on the desert at Ismailia; at El Arish. They came back worn and tired, but ready still to carry on. An account by a sister of duty on hospital ship in the Persian Gulf is well worth recording:—
Another sister wrote an account of her work at the No. 15 General Hospital, Alexandria. She was nursing under canvas as supervising sister in charge of tents containing 260 beds, with nine orderlies to help. During the days of the big convoys from Gallipoli they were attending to 166 to 190 dressings a day. Some of the "gun-shot" wounds were terrible, but there was nothing so bad as the frost bite. The hospital was very busy until the evacuation of Gallipoli, and this sister, up to the end of February, 1916, had 3,500 patients in her field of tents.
Another account of hospital ship duty runs:—"We arrived at Gallipoli for the Suvla landing on August 6th, 1915. We could see the fighting quite distinctly, and a few shells burst in the water quite near to my ship, but no damage was done. The hospital ships were used as casualty clearing stations, so you can imagine the state of the patients when we received them. The operating theatre was busy night and day. Hundreds passed through the out-patients' department. We page 98dressed the minor cases and passed them on to trawlers which took them to Lemnos Island. The weather was frightfully hot and the flies swarmed in with the patients. We worked between the beach and Lemnos Island (a distance of 40 miles) with an occasional run to Malta or Alexandria. We found the dysentery cases the most trying to nurse—how those poor men did suffer." In all accounts given at the time by the nurses it was the sufferings of the men that were emphasised; there was never a word of complaint about their own hardships.
A few words about the Serbians from another sister on hospital ship duty:—"We took over 300 sick Serbians, and, oh! the condition of them was pitiful; you could hardly believe men could get so low and live; they were so dirty, too, poor things, and the body lice were awful. I had 62 patients in my ward when we left Valova and three days later when we arrived at Bizerte, there were only 40 left. It was pitiful and heartbreaking—there were over 60 deaths in a three days' run!"
The lighter side of the nurses' work in Egypt was experienced by the sisters at the Convalescent Home at Aotea, where three New Zealand sisters and some V.A.D. workers made a home for the men in Egypt—"The home away from home," which for rest and quiet enjoyment was most highly appreciated by the men. The matron said: "We try to run this Home as far as possible without rules and regulations." The Home was established in 1915 and was closed early in 1919. The sisters always received a warm welcome there to partake of home-made scones and New Zealand butter.
A privilege much enjoyed by the sisters was the opportunity of visiting the places of interest in Egypt, such as Assouan; and, in the later days of their sojourn there many had leave and went to the Holy Land and saw Jerusalem.
The New Zealand sisters in France had varied experiences, and although most fortunately no casualties occurred among them, they were at times very near the firing line. They had to evacuate at short notice when the Stationary Hospital at page 99Hazebrouck was shelled. They learned to sleep to the sound of the guns and the bombs falling near by, not knowing when their shelter might be hit. A few could not endure the nerve-racking strain, but, none the less, service in France was eagerly sought after. For a time the work at Hazebrouck was very strenuous: 350 cases were admitted during one day and three operating tables were going day and night. The sisters attending had no thought of retiring to bed on such occasions.
During the winter the sisters suffered severely from trench feet. They could hardly carry on their work, but were determined not to give in. It was impossible to put on boots or shoes. Large felt slippers with bed socks and bandages were worn after the feet had had treatment, and thus they went about the hospital regardless of appearance. Many times the sister attending a man with trench feet who was admitted as a patient, could, if she had chosen, show a condition worse than her patient. They were not there as patients, however, and they bore the excruciating pain without complaint.
The sisters' work at casualty-clearing-stations was most interesting. Those stations were staffed by what was known as "surgical teams" consisting of a surgeon, an anaesthetist, a sister and an orderly. They carried along with them all their belongings, bed, bedding, etc., and lived under canvas, which, in the summer, was very pleasant. At times life was very exciting owing to air raids. The enemy planes came over almost every clear night, and at the particular station at which some New Zealand sisters were on duty, Sister Kemp (a New Zealand girl, but not belonging to the unit), an orderly, and two patients were killed, and several were wounded. The sisters as well as the rest of the staff were provided with "tin" helmets and gas masks, and were supposed to go straight to shelter in their dug-out when the noise of the anti-air craft guns started, and, if that was not possible, were advised to lie flat on the ground.
An account of life in France under constant aeroplane bombing, sent by a New Zealand sister, gives some idea of its nerve-racking strain and of the spirit of our sisters. After deploring the loss of nine W.A.A.C's (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) who were killed in a trench, the sister writes:—"If anything happens to us, it is different, for we are doing our own work, and it is 'in the game' for us. We go into trenches at night dressed in tin hats (to keep the falling shrapnel from our heads) pyjamas and bed socks and a few warm coats. The first few nights we simply went like this, but as we got 'blasé' about it, many were the accessories—cushions, rugs, ground-sheets, camp stools, thermos flasks, sandwiches, etc. It might have been just a freak party that an American had thought of. No one showed it even if the 'wind was up'—the only time the chatter would cease would be when the bombs were dropping close, or when we heard a 'dud' shell descending, or, most tense of all, when we looked up and saw the German plane right overhead caught by the searchlight."
In this brief chapter, it is impossible to tell of all that our nurses did to help and comfort the men who fought for us. A few lines written by a New Zealand soldier at the New Zealand General Hospital, Egypt, show the estimate in which they were held:—
"Not even Florence, in the dark Crimea,
Tending her stricken heroes, lamp in hand,
Surpasses these who came from our dear land
To do this work of love and mercy here.
Tongue cannot utter, pen may not express,
Their sympathy, their kind and gentle care.
How oft ascended an unspoken prayer to Heaven
For blessing on such gentleness.
And e 'en the sentry passing through the gloom
Of that dark garden where the nurses slept,
Bight glad in heart, proud of the watch he kept,
Softly and lightly tiptoed past each room."
On Home Service.
Throughout the years of war, too, the nurses in the home hospitals worked splendidly and never more so than in November and December, 1918, when the epidemic of pneumonic influenza played such havoc in New Zealand. At that time when the supply of nurses was not in any way equal to the demand, the sisters at Trentham, Featherston, and at the Rotorua Military Hospitals, showed wonderful endurance, and remained on duty even when seriously ill themselves. One nurse, Sister Wishaw, fell victim herself and died of pneumonia. She was accorded a military funeral, her coffin heading a melancholy procession of six.
On transport duty, when there were outbreaks of illness, the nurses performed splendid service. Sister Maxfield and the staff under her accompanying the 40th reinforcements on the Tahiti, received the highest commendation for their work in the terrible epidemic of influenza, when every doctor on board was ill, as well as the greater number of the sisters. Sister Tubman fell a victim, and she died shortly after reaching England.
Twelve New Zealand sisters gained the Royal Red Cross, 1st class. The first to win this coveted honour was Miss Bertha Nurse, who was Matron, first of the Samoa Hospital and then of the Pont de Koubbeh Hospital, and later of Brockenhurst, England. Others to obtain it were Miss Thurston, Matron-in-chief of the Expeditionary Force; Miss Maclean, Matron-in-chief of the Army Nursing Service, at Head-quarters, New Zealand; Miss Brooke, Miss Wilson, Miss Vida Maclean, Miss McNie, Miss Ingles, Miss Pengelly, Miss Price, Miss Anderson and Miss Clarke. Sixty-four gained the second-class of this order. Many sisters were also mentioned in despatches.
A branch of the Army Nursing Service was the Massage Corps. This was established when the need for such treatment was demonstrated, and there were among the 579 members of the Nursing Service thirty-one masseuses. The page 104masseuses performed splendid and valuable work in aiding the recovery and restoration of the men to normal life.
On the termination of the war, the nurses as they returned to New Zealand, were either retained for home service in the military hospitals and wards, or were demobilised and placed on the Reserve. They were given twenty-eight days' leave, and, a privilege which was much appreciated, a twenty-eight days' pass on the railways. Those unfit for service were given a pension. The Nursing Service, represented by a large contingent returning on the Tainui and by those who had already returned and could be gathered together, were given a hearty welcome and were entertained at a very pleasant function at Parliament Buildings by the Acting-Prime Minister and Minister of Defence (the Hon. Sir James Allen), who paid a fine tribute to what they had done on active service.
Here, I think, we may leave the New Zealand Nursing Service, so hastily formed but so well established. The services of our devoted nurses will not be soon forgotten by the men who came under their ministrations.
Miss H. Maclean, Matron in Chief