The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-1918
The division moved by stages, partly by rail from St. Omer to Abbéville and partly by marches into the Fourth Army Reserve Area in the Somme Valley between Abbéville and Amiens, completing its concentration by the 22nd of August. Divisional Headquarters were at Hallencourt ten to twelve miles east of Abbéville. The division now had a strength of 18,525, and its first units, the N.Z.E. and the Pioneer Battalion, were moving into the forward area about Albert on the 25th.
The ambulances—which had moved with the brigade groups and were billeted in villages adjacent to their respective brigades— put their bearer subdivisions into training immediately after arrival: route marches, physical training and games were the principal exercises practised with the object of getting the men into hard condition for the arduous work to come. A high standard of physical fitness is required of ambulance bearers, whose work demands both strength and endurance, and for which they must be trained as infantrymen.
A large amount of extra equipment was at this time carried by all the ambulances including 150 stretchers instead of 76; 400 blankets; 1000 shell dressings, and other additional supplies. The material was more than the G.S. waggons could carry, so that some of the loads had to be distributed amongst the horse ambulances, of which each unit still had three. For this reason, partly, the dental sections, of which the division had six, were ordered to the base at this time, as it was found impossible to carry their equipment, equivalent to 4800 lbs in weight. Some enquiries were being made at this time by the D.G.M.S. in France as to the establishment of the New Zealand Dental Sections attached to the division: our field dental service had attracted some attention on account of its novelty and efficiency. In reply to enquiries from the D.M.S. Fourth Army, Colonel Begg expressed the opinion that the New Zealand Dental Sections were not satisfactory as field units on account of the weight of their equipment. At Armentières three dental surgeons and twelve mechanics with the heavy equipment had been able to attend to all the dental needs page 190of the division, over 19,000 strong, but he considered that the old arrangement of having a dental surgeon with light equipment weighing only 80 lbs. attached to each field ambulance was preferable. It might be held that despatching the dental surgeons —who after all were then officers of the N.Z.M.C.—to the base was not the best course to take as the heavy equipment could have been stored during the period of active operations and the services of the dental surgeons, which they were most anxious to give, would have been very valuable both at the A.D.S.'s and corps M.D.S.'s where their training would have fitted them to act as officers in a variety of useful employments not wholly medical. If a dental officer was competent to evacuate wounded at Anzac— why not at the Somme? Apparently the services of the dental surgeons were urgently required at the infantry base at Étaples.
Another important medical unit of ours was already established in the Somme area. The New Zealand Stationary Hospital, which had left Moascar shortly after the division, disembarked at Le Havre on the 13th June, under Lieut.-Col. McGavin with a strength of 12 officers; 126 O.R., with No. 10 Dental Section attached. After a short period of training at No. 1 Camp, and a course of gas defence instruction, the unit detached 7 officers and 83 O.R. under Major Acland, N.Z.M.C. to act as a C.C.S. in conjunction with No. 2 G.H. at Quai d'Escale, dealing with large numbers of casualties from the Somme which they tended and transferred to hospital ships. On the 10th of July, the O.C. and his Q.M. proceeded to Amiens where arrangements were made to relieve the 1/1st South Midland C.C.S. at the convent of the Sainte Famille and the Lycée a girls' school. The final moves of the stationary hospital were completed by the 13th when they took over from the outgoing unit: 11 officers, 88 O.R. patients; an X-Ray plant; equipment and accommodation for some 712 patients; the 12th Mobile Laboratory and the Fourth Army Ophthalmic Centre were also attached. The buildings which the New Zealand Hospital took over were historic. In the early days of the War No. 7 G.H. (R.A.M.C.) opened here, in Amiens, late in August, 1934, but on the approach of German patrols the hospital and all its equipment, including the X-Ray plant, had to be abandoned. The Germans entered Amiens, occupied it for 10 days, and utilised the hospital, but owing to the prevision of the Rev. Mother Superior Mc Gaudin, most of the equipment was saved including the X-Ray plant, stated to have been hidden in the cellars. The British red cross flags were still flying when the French returned to the Cathedral City. The 1/1 South Mid-page 191land C.C.S. took over the hospital in July, 1915, so that the original equipment of the 7th G.H. which had served the Regulars, the Germans, the French and the Territorials in turn now became available to the New Zealand unit. The headquarters of the Stationary Hospital were accommodated in the convent; no rent was charged by the good sisters who cheerfully made room for suitable quarters for the seriously wounded. The New Zealand Stationary Hospital became a C.C.S. under the D.M.S. of the Fourth Army and early in August took on strength 19 N.Z.A.N.S. sisters and staff nurses under A/Matron Price, so replacing the British sisters returned to other units. In August, 1297 sick, 97 wounded, were admitted and 274 sick and wounded remaining at the end of the month.
* Allied War Council at Paris December 6th 1915, decided this offensive. The intension being to bring Italy, Russin, France and England into intimate and scientific co-operation. Haig Command p.66.
* This period marks the commencement of the battles of attrition and the abandonment of the strategical aims. Haig Command, page 120.
The medical arrangements which we are about to study were prearranged by the XVth Corps whose D.D.M.S., Colonel F. R. Newland, A.M.S., was to a certain extent guided by the D.M.S. Fourth Army. Surgeon General O'Keefe. The chief centres for evacuation of wounded were two stations: the corps main dressing station, and the corps collecting post, both situated at Bécordel, a ruined village about 2½ miles west of Albert on the road to Fricourt. The corps, being the fighting unit, remained in position the divisions that composed it were constantly renewed, they came and went; the Corps M.D.S. was a permanent establishment manned by the tent subdivisions of the various field ambulances that accompanied the divisions. The senior medical officer for the time being took command; the total personnel required was nine tent subdivisions. "B." Section tent subdivision of Nos. 1 and 2 Field Ambulances, and "C" Section tent subdivision of No. 3 Field Ambulance reported for duty to the Corps M.D.S. on the 12th, opening a New Zealand Section in the standing marquees provided, using their own equipment. No. 1 Field Ambulance less one tent subdivision, in conjunction with the 139th Field Ambulance of the 41st Division formed the personnel of the XVth Corps Collecting Post sited a little north of Bécordel on the main road Albert-Peronne, and adjacent to the C.M.D.S.; Lieut.-Col. E. O'Neil, D.S.O., N.Z.M.C., was in command. The function of the corps collecting post was to deal with all walking wounded, all sick, and the stragglers from the corps front; only a few tents and huts were available. Our Division had two advanced dressing stations, of which the chief was on the left rear of the divisional front at a place whose map name was Flat-iron Copse, from the fancied resemblance of the contour of the now vanished wood that once flanked a narrow country lane leading from Mametz to Bazentin le Grand. The A.D.S. 13 page 194consisted of a few splinter proofs built in the side of a quarry over some deep German dugouts, which gave a limited amount of cover to wounded and personnel. The route to Bécordel lay through Mametz and Fricourt, a distance somewhat over four miles. The successive advances, made in early September had much increased the distance between the advanced and main dressing stations, but no suitable position on a good road was as yet available for advancing the corps stations. Our chief line of communication was along a pavé road, originating in Albert, that led through Bécordel, Fricourt and Mametz to Montauban, where hard by the western corner of Bernafaix wood, the road to Longueval trending northwards, cut it at right angles. The distance from Montauban, which lay behind our right flank, to Bécordel was about four and a half miles. When we speak of the villages along this road, it would be more correct to say the sites of the villages because, by this time, little was left except a few brick heaps to mark the spot where once had been an aggregation of houses and farm buildings typical of this part of France, so unlike the Flemish plain where individual farm houses flanked the roads in a never broken continuity. Water supply, possibly, was the reason for this aggregation of farms, or in remote periods, mutual protection, the solid walls about the farm buildings making a species of fortress. Of this feature the enemy had availed themselves and of the deep cellars in the chalk, to convert the hamlets into strong points, hence the utter obliteration caused by our guns, and later by theirs. To the north of the brick heap that once was Montauban, there was a quarry approached by a sunken road in a small valley known as Caterpillar Valley. At the quarry an A.D.S. had been long established in dugouts made by the Germans: safe enough for them, but for us not so safe as the entrance to the shelters faced towards the enemy lines. Following the sunken road northwards across the Caterpillar Valley, one would arrive in time at two important trenches, part of the old German front line which we had taken, running east and west, one parallel to the other, Carlton and Savoy trenches, less than three-quarters of a mile in front of the quarry and on high ground from which a view of our front line, a little less than a mile ahead, could be obtained. It was a long, carry from our front line to the Quarry A.D.S., and in order to break the journey a bearer relay post was established on a flat hillock near Carlton Trench called "Green Dump" where relays of field ambulance bearers took over from the incoming teams and completed the transit of stretcher cases to the Quarry where page 195motor ambulance cars could approach down the sunken road at Montauban from their parking place, known as Motor Car Post, in the ruined village. Had we continued our journey along the track past Carlton trench where brigade headquarters were accommodated in deep German dugouts, we would have very soon reached another relay post on the road from Longueval to Bazentin called "Thistle Dump," which was at the mouth of the sap "Thistle Alley" leading up to our front line trenches, 1,200 yards distant at this point. To Thistle Dump the cars from the A.D.S. at Flat Iron Copse could penetrate in good weather along the road through Bazentin, the distance by road being nearly two miles. The journey for a wounded man was probably more expeditious via Thistle Alley to Thistle Dump and thence by car, than through the open to Green Dump and thence to the Quarry. The length of the hand carriage was less to Thistle Dump, say 2000 yards maximum, than via Green Dump to Montauban, say 3000 yards, but there was a tendency for wounded from our division to flow down from the right flank of the position by the latter route because the character of the country somewhat favoured that line as we shall see presently. So then, based on the Corps M.D.S. and Collecting Post, we have two advanced dressing stations: the "Quarry," 4½ miles away at Montauban fed by its bearer relay post, Green Dump, nominally evacuating the right of the line; and Flat Iron Copse, four miles away, evacuating the left of the line. Such were the tactical dispositions of the medical lines of evacuation just prior to the first engagement—the Battle of Flers.
The A.D.M.S. 's operation orders were issued on the 11th, and on the 14th a conference was held at which the ambulance commanders met the A.D.M.S. It was now decided that Lieut.-Col. Murray, N.Z.M.C. commanding the 2nd Field Ambulance should take charge of all forward evacuations from the A.D.S. at Flat Iron Copse; the bearers of the three field ambulances were put at his disposal with all the motor ambulance cars, 21 in number. The 41st Divisional Medical Units were to have the Quarry A.D.S. and Green Dump, and were responsible for evacuations from that sector which might include the extreme right of the New Zealand Division, so that all New Zealand personnel was withdrawn from these posts. Certain important administrative instructions, already issued to medical officers, were discussed in detail: the regimental aid posts were to be supplied before action was engaged with bearers from the ambulances to act as guides to the B.R.P. and to keep up communications. We page 196have seen that each ambulance now carried a much increased number of stretchers and blankets, but in case of need a reserve of both these necessities was kept at the C.C.S. and could be made available to the officer in charge of forward evacuations on his requisition and would be brought up by advancing M.A.C. cars as far as M.D.S. or the Corps Collecting Post, whence they could reach the A.D.S. by the returning motor ambulance cars of the division. In the case of a demand for ambulance cars they could be furnished by the O.C. 27th M.A.C. but only on requisition by the A.D.M.S. as the M.A.C. was a corps unit. Two C.C.S.'s Nos. 36 and 38, stationed at Heilly five and a half miles away, to the S.W. in the Ancre Valley, were to take in wounded alternately: a large notice board, situated at a point of vantage on the route and illuminated at night indicated to which C.C.S. the convoy should proceed.
The duties of the corps collecting post were mainly classification of all that mass of men lightly wounded, sick, gassed, suffering from shell shock, or hysterical conditions, or battle stragglers, not obviously unfit for service. A police posse, provided by the corps, was stationed at the post, where men not clearly disabled by injury or sickness—after a careful examination by a senior medical officer—were collected, the military police being charged with the duty of returning the stragglers to their unit; at the A.D.S. there was also a police posse with similar duties. A nominal roll of all stragglers handed over to the police was to be furnished daily to the A.D.M.S. Of the methods adopted to ensure adequate sorting of this mixed bag, we shall enquire more fully at a later period. In all these arrangements dictated by the D.D.M.S. at corps headquarters we see the first clear indications of the growing importance of the corps medical staff as a command and the massing of the ambulance resources to clear the corps front; each division was still responsible for its own forward evacuations but beyond this point the medical arrangements were now in the hands of the D.D.M.S. and there was to be an expansion of the corps control and some increase in the responsibilities of the D.D.M.S. as time went on—conditions resulting from the close order fighting of position warfare and the battle of limited objectives.
The battle about to be engaged, which we call the battle of Flers, was a very important operation destined to clear the flank of Combles so that the town might be pinched out rather than crushed out by our artillery fire, and was to comprise the united efforts of two British and one French Army. On the 13th, page 197General Fayolle, commanding the French Army, on our right, in front of Peronne, had carried the village of Bouchavennes, to the south east, and it had been agreed by Generals Foch and Haig that Combles should not be directly attacked but should be "pinched out" by the two armies, each moving up to envelop it. The objective of the British battle was to clear the French flank by our advance to Les Boeufs and Morval. The operations were to be carried out by the whole of the Fourth Army and one corps of the Fifth Army, the Canadian Corps, which had relieved 1st Anzac about Pozières and Courcelette. The order of battle was: from left to right, the Canadians, a Scottish Division, Northumberland Territorials, the 47th London Territorial Division, the New Zealand Division, the 41st Division, the 44th Division, then came the XIVth Corps with the Guards Division on the left, a Regular Division came next, and on the right flank of the Fourth Army was a Territorial Division. The whole front covered some five to six miles and was manned by no less than ten divisions. John Buchan says:—"This was a battle of British corps d'elite"—and they were opposed by the best of German troops: the Prussian Guard facing the Canadians; some of the best of Bavarian Divisions facing the Fourth Army. For the enemy we had a terrible surprise in store: the heavy machine gun section, known as "Tanks," now to be used for the first time in the war. There was a chance that this new weapon might cause such disorder in the German ranks that when the third line positions were penetrated a break through might occur; for this eventuality a mass of cavalry was brought up and stood in readiness to work through to the rear of the Bapaume defences. Indeed there was every probability that the combined effort would result in a striking victory.
Facing the New Zealand Division were four important lines of trenches: the Crest trench, some 200 yards ahead of their assembly trenches, the Switch trench just in rear of it, the Flers system covering the village 1000 yards away, and the Gird system the last of the organised enemy lines covering the village of Gueudecourt, two kilometres from Flers. The village of Flers did not form a part of the New Zealand objectives, it and the road which approached it from Longueval was in the territory to be taken by the 41st Division on our right. Two battalions of our second brigade were to take the first objectives the Crest and the Switch, the 3rd, (N.Z.R.) Brigade was to pass through in four waves of battalions to the further objectives. It is hardly necessary for us to recall the slow pulverising bombard-page 198ment of the past three days which had theoretically reduced the German positions to a chaotic lunar landscape, nor of the rolling barrages under cover of which, and from the flame and smoke of which, our men were to spring with threatening bayonets upon the terrorised defenders—all this has been written.