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The New Zealand Dental Services


page 129

THE first commitment of any size made by New Zealand in this war was to send a force of approximately divisional strength to the Middle East. The men were to be initially trained in mobilisation camps and sent overseas in three echelons, to assemble in Egypt to complete their training. The policy was to send the echelons and all reinforcements overseas in a ‘dentally fit’ condition, and with them a sufficient number of the New Zealand Dental Corps to maintain a high standard of dental health.

The general framework of the dental organisation overseas was envisaged in the light of experience in the First World War. This was a convenient, in fact the only, framework on which to build. That it had to be pulled to pieces and rebuilt could not reasonably be foreseen at the time, any more than that the type of warfare would be so different from that of twenty years before. The Director of Dental Services, a veteran of the First World War, laid down the framework and faced the decision of selecting an Assistant Director to build the new organisation.

He needed someone with some knowledge of past organisation and administration. Someone with initiative and organising ability; fit enough to withstand the rigours of a campaign in a difficult climate; strong enough to pioneer an efficient service and impress on all concerned its necessity; tactful, if known and unknown antipathies were to be overcome; young enough for a young man's war but sufficiently mature to have his judgment respected and his authority unquestioned. He chose wisely from among the dentists who volunteered for service at the beginning of the war.

James Ferris Fuller, BDS, had graduated at the Otago University in 1935 and was practising his profession in Masterton. He had interested himself in the work of the Dental Corps, holding a Territorial commission as a lieutenant and had passed the examination for promotion to captain. Enlisting at the outbreak of war, he was posted to Trentham Mobilisation Camp in the rank of lieutenant in October 1939 at the age of 26. His promotion to captain followed almost immediately and, although he was the youngest of the four officers selected to sail with the First Echelon, he was appointed as ADDS. He fully justified the choice by the excellence of his organisation.

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The story of the NZDC with 2 NZEF in the Middle East and Central Mediterranean is his saga and reflects the greatest credit on him personally. He had a flair for reducing intricacies to a common denominator and always a clear view of the objective. He redesigned the foundations on which the organisation was built and vigorously defended them against all opposition. His reward was a dental service second to none, covering all contingencies and running as on oiled wheels.

Captain Fuller's appointment to ADDS was gazetted on 5 January 1940 but was not clearly defined. Much of the business of the Dental Corps at this time was conducted orally, as indeed it had to be with an almost complete absence of clerical staff. The most diligent search has failed to produce written instructions from the DDS to the new ADDS. The only instruction that can be found is one to all officers of the NZDC proceeding overseas, which is in general terms:

You are privileged in being included in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force and you were chosen with the knowledge that you would uphold the honour and tradition of your Corps and conduct yourselves as officers and gentlemen. This is also an opportune moment to thank you for the loyal and strenuous service you have rendered under adverse conditions, the least being inadequate equipment and accommodation….

Overseas you will be responsible to the Assistant Director of Dental Services for the dental treatment of the troops. He will issue his ‘Instructions to Dental Officers’.

With the strictest observance of Service Regulations and Procedures, the continuance of the loyalty and co-operation you have shown, so will that essential Esprit de Corps be built up and the traditions of the New Zealand Dental Corps and your profession upheld.

B. S. Finn,
Director of Dental Services,
Army and Air

Army Headquarters,
1 January 1940

The lack of written instructions in itself was not serious as it was certain that much of the organisation would have to be left to the initiative of the ADDS. There was, however, a looseness of definition in the appointment which added to his administrative difficulties. It is presumed that it was intended that Captain Fuller was to be ADDS of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force about to assemble in the Middle East, as indeed he eventually became. To this end his correct attachment was to the Headquarters of that force, which would be at the Base as distinct from the Division in the field. When the First Echelon assembled in Egypt the base units were small and the Division was not ready for the field. The divi- page break page 131 sional establishment was patterned on that of a British division, which did not include an ADDS, and as Divisional Headquarters acted at that time as Force Headquarters, the ADDS found himself outside the administrative circle. The tail was trying to wag the dog. It was difficult to administer from this position as vital information, automatically distributed to those in official appointments, had to be garnered from personal interviews or received secondhand, possibly edited and mostly late.

colour map of Mediterranean

Central and Eastern Mediterranean

The First Echelon embarked on six transports at Wellington and Lyttelton on 5 January 1940. There was an air of gala about the embarkation, tinged with sadness and not a little envy. Fourteen of the NZDC, consisting of four officers, a staff-sergeant, six clerk orderlies and three mechanics, sailed with the echelon. Equipment was limited to a dental emergency haversack for each transport. As there were only four dental officers, two of the transports had to be without a dentist, but it was expected that on these the medical officer would be able to deal with emergencies. With a few exceptions, all the men had been made dentally fit at the mobilisation camps and the haversacks contained equipment for extractions under local anaesthetic, hand instruments and medicaments for the alleviation of pain, and a vulcanite scraper and file for easing dentures.

For the purpose for which they were issued, the haversacks were a success, but in the light of experience they fell short of the ideal. On the other hand, it must be remembered that there was an acute shortage of dental equipment in New Zealand, where the bulk of the dental work at this time had to be done. A comparison between the instructions issued by the DDS and the report by the ADDS on arrival in Egypt shows the intention, the practice, and the degree of success of the dental service on these first transports to leave New Zealand.