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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Arrival of 1 NZ General Hospital

Arrival of 1 NZ General Hospital

While 2 General Hospital was becoming established at Helwan, 1 General Hospital arrived in the Middle East from England. The six weeks' journey on the liner Georgic had been without untoward incident, and on their arrival the staff were stationed at Helmieh garrison to establish their unit on part of the old camp site of 1 NZEF in 1915. To the green wooded land of their previous hospital, this was a direct antithesis.

A long, narrow corridor of desert sand, adjoining the Helmieh garrison, was the hospital site; it was near the British hospital that had been the home of the First Echelon sisters. A flat, drab piece page 46 of desert, with a few wooden buildings and some rush huts, it was cut off from the desert proper by barbed-wire entanglements. Beyond was vast desert with a few clusters of nomads' huts, made from rusty petrol tins and looking more like homes for fowls than for humans. Black-robed women and ragged children tended their herds of goats or fowls, watching them scratch a living off the barren ground. At night the jackals roamed in packs and rent the air with their dismal howls, and wild desert dogs barked and fought.

In the desert, where for nine months of the year a burning sun beat down from a sky unrelieved by clouds, the wind, at times like a blast of air from an oven, blew swirls of sand into the air, filling eyes and mouth with fine grit. The desert was yellow as far as the eye could see and full of insanitary smells and flies. Flies, as persistent as the glare, attacked the eyes, nose, and mouth. But with the setting of the sun the muddy yellow took on magical lights and shades, from a soft purplish haze to rose pinks and warm yellow ochre. The sand threw out a welcome chill; energy flowed back into sluggish veins; optimism and joie de vivre again appeared, until sandflies and mosquitoes came to disturb the peace.

It was here that the unit established a tented and hutted hospital, quite attractive except in the heat. The hospital began to function on 15 December.

Tents were all dug down about four feet, and two mud-brick walls were built round them—a lower inner wall to hold back the sand, and an outer wall four feet high to protect patients during air raids. The bricks were built of Nile mud and straw, just as in Biblical times, and were made on the spot and dried in the sun. The narrow, sloping passage-way leading down into the tents was a good place for practising sliding, but it all depended on what one might be carrying whether the slide was appreciated. The huts, built on the frail framework of old rush stables, were enclosed in a mud-brick wall up to four feet, with rush and plaster walls above. A duty room and kitchen was bricked in inside each hut, in which were housed more serious cases.

The tented wards for the lighter casualties were made up of two large marquees, holding up to thirty or forty patients each. They were joined together in the centre by a small square tent, used as page 47 a duty room, the whole forming an H. In the centre was a large concrete slab, which served as a bench and a place to keep primus stoves, the only means of boiling water for sterilising or for tea.

This little tent was the centre of the work of the ward. Here sisters read and wrote reports; here were kept all the patients' reports and papers, stacked in order. Orderlies struggled with primus stoves. All military primus stoves seemed old and worn, even on the day of issue, and it was a work of art to get a primus to burn properly. It was not uncommon to see a perspiring, cursing orderly tinkering away at a primus with a bent pin—the pricker always being missing—scraping away great chunks of soot, then pumping madly; all the while being offered advice—not always helpful—by an equally perspiring and inwardly cursing sister, who no doubt was anxiously waiting to get on with her treatments or longing for her morning cup of tea. Sometimes the whole concern burst into flames and, as tents are most inflammable, the primus would be flung out into the sand for safety.

In this little tent the sisters set their dressing trays and sterilised their instruments. Here the meals were served when the trucks brought them from the main kitchen with the cry of ‘come and get it’. At the tapless sinks the dishes were washed, then stacked away in a cupboard in the corner. It was certainly a utility tent, everyone working in together at different tasks.

There was no electric light, no paths, no water laid on, kerosene being the only means of lighting and heating. All water had to be carried; hot water was supplied by soya stoves outside the wards. These stoves were stoked with wood or cotton-seed blocks and had to be filled and emptied by bucket. All was carrying, carting, and lifting in those pioneer days.

To be a good orderly a man needed to be a jack-of-all-trades. For ten hours a day he swept and cleaned wards, sponge-bathed patients, and attended to their wants; he acted as transport mule and carted all day across the pathless compound in the glaring sun; he carried large bundles of soiled linen to the linen store; brought back from Ordnance the weekly ration of soap, kerosene, and spirit; went to the main kitchen for morning and afternoon tea for the patients; carried stretcher patients to theatre or X-ray; and was at the sisters' and patients' beck and call always. In page 48 between times he managed to do quite a lot of scrounging on the sly, and the ward benefited by the many needful extras thus obtained.

From the time the first patients were admitted the sisters did the work that sisters usually do. They washed and tended their patients, made their beds, dressed their wounds, gave out medicines and injections, filled in papers and kept records. They tried their hand at amateurish carpentry, and made shelves and other necessary bits and pieces. They found the patients a grand crowd, those hardy men sweltering in the dry heat that beat down upon the canvas. Used to working and fighting in the midday sun, they took the heat for granted and ate, slept, or played cards, talked or sang, and were quite happy.

Sisters lived in tents, too, quite spacious, with three sharing each. They made handsome tallboys of boxes, wardrobes of rope and poles, deriving much pleasure and satisfaction out of their improvisations. During the Christmas season everything was done to make the time a happy one. The tented wards were decorated with balloons and streamers, with plants and flowers procured from the old native vendor who was allowed to enter the domain with his donkey and cart. ‘Old George’ was quite a personality about the place, with the characteristic native ability to remember everyone. Carols were sung on Christmas Eve; under the cold and starry sky one could not but feel inspired, and the Old Story seemed very real, true, and near.