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General Hospitals

General Hospitals

The chaplains who worked at Base were by no means confined to Maadi Camp. Each General Hospital had an establishment for three, usually consisting of one Church of England chaplain, one Roman Catholic, and one other. Hospital work was hard and specialised, and, though not lending itself to headlines or glory, it supplied scope for some of the best work done by the Department.

Duties were many and varied and fell into several well-defined divisions. On the staff side were doctors, nurses, and orderlies, all page 84 of whom required a chaplain's help and advice. The officers' mess was composed almost entirely of medical practitioners and hospital chaplains must have received their fill of medical ‘shop’. The sisters, nurses, and voluntary aids formed a large and important section of hospital life, and like everyone else needed spiritual help and comfort. The orderlies and other men working in the hospital were nearly all men who could not serve in the front line. Some had been seriously wounded and were not fit for further combatant service, while others had been medically regraded before seeing any action. There was always a third group consisting of conscientious objectors who were not prepared to act as combatants. All medical units had their quota of conscientious objectors and it was noticed that these men with sensitive consciences seldom excelled the others in hard work or loyalty to the unit. Of course there were splendid exceptions, but many people felt that it would have been easier to admire these men had they served as medical orderlies with the infantry in the front line, sharing the same dangers and hardships as the common soldier.

A General Hospital with these diverse elements on its staff was a difficult unit in which to foster esprît de corps and there was plenty of work here for the chaplain. But his main work was with the sick and wounded and it was impossible to devote too much time to regular visiting. The three chaplains co-operated and usually worked to some rough plan whereby each bed-patient was likely to see at least one chaplain every day. Those men on the Dangerously Ill and Seriously Ill lists were visited by the chaplains of their own denomination at least once a day, frequently more often, and sometimes during the night, for the chaplains were on call every hour of the day and night.

When the chaplain began his daily round of visits he usually carried a supply of Red Cross comforts, writing paper, and library books. He would try to speak to each man in each ward. Some who were feverish or in pain would want just a word of sympathy and a prayer, while others would welcome a much longer talk which frequently led to religious discussion and instruction. When a man was completely incapacitated by bandages or wounds the chaplain would write letters for him. Of course the chaplain had a big correspondence of his own as he answered questions from page 85 next of kin or tried to comfort them in the death or illness of sons and husbands, but frequently he found time to act as amanuensis in the wards. The story is told of one soldier, a Maori, who was lying prone in bed, begging a chaplain to write some letters for him. The chaplain looked sympathetically at his body covered by the bed clothes, and, sitting down by the side of the bed, he wrote five letters.

‘You seem fairly fit,’ said the chaplain when he had addressed the last envelope. ‘Where are you wounded?’

‘In the foot, Padre,’ was the answer.

‘But why don't you write your own letters?’ the chaplain asked.

‘Oh, I thought your handwriting would be better’, said the Maori.

There were always a number of Empire and British troops in these hospitals, and occasionally Germans and Italians, besides the New Zealanders. The chaplain's visits had to be carried on day by day, week by week, and he needed great reserves of energy and will-power to keep up the standard of his work.

In addition to visiting the bed-patients the chaplain looked after the walking wounded and when possible arranged trips and concerts. In each hospital a room or a tent was set aside for a chapel, which the chaplains furnished and used for the celebration of Holy Communion, small services, and as a place for private devotion. On Sundays there would be services in the chapel and a unit service in some larger place for the staff and walking wounded, while special arrangements would be made for the bed-patients. Short services would be held in some of the wards and Holy Communion administered privately to patients in bed. At Christmas time a carol choir composed of staff, nurses, and patients used to go round the wards.

The chaplains at these hospitals were given an office where they could hold private interviews and distribute comforts and books to those patients who could walk. Much of the unit welfare work fell upon them, and although it was extremely valuable and necessary, it was always liable to encroach on their main work—the spiritual care of those in bed. The supply of work was never-ending and the conditions were difficult. The Middle East climate was exhausting for a man who had to be continually on his feet, the sticky heat page 86 sapped his mental energy, and the very nature of a hospital had a depressing effect on those not hardened to a medical regime. There were frequent deaths—and that meant death-bed prayers, funerals, and letters to the next of kin; there were men in great pain, splendid young bodies smashed by the senselessness of war; and there was the pallid boredom and misery of malaria, dysentery, and jaundice.

The pluck and spirit of the wounded set a high standard for all who worked in a hospital. The chaplain could only do his best. He watched the convoys of ambulances come in after a battle and had a brief word with each man. There was not much that he could do on those occasions except be friendly, answer questions, and arrange to send cables or letters. Later, when the men were settled in the wards, the chaplain came to know them better, and these friendships grew until the day when they were cured and left for a Convalescent Depot, or were fit enough to leave on the hospital ship for home. Not every good chaplain made a good hospital chaplain, and when one was seen to succeed in this difficult work every effort was made to leave him undisturbed. Padre R. T. Dodds1 and Padre A. MacFarlane2 were very successful and spent their whole war service working in General Hospitals.