In coats of grey and scarlet - New Zealand nurses at war

April 2015 Vol 15 (2)

One hundred years ago the first ever contingent of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service sailed out of Wellington clutching bouquets and waving multicoloured streamers. FIONA CASSIE tells the tale of how nursing fought hard for the right to accompany their boys to war and, like them, serve while battling heat stroke and dysentery in the East and trench foot on the Western Front.

New Zealand nurses at war

We’ve all heard the stories. Farm boys riding into town and carpenters dropping their tools to rush to enlist on hearing New Zealand declare war on 5 August 1914.

Less is heard about the nurses who clamoured to serve their country. More than 400 volunteered within two months of the outbreak of war, but troopship after troopship left to defend the ‘home country’ without a nurse on board.

This was much to the frustration of the country’s feisty nursing leader Hester Maclean – the founding editor of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand and the driving force behind the New Zealand Trained Nurses Association – who in 1911 had been given the titular title, Matron-in-Chief, of an army nursing reserve yet to exist.

Her urgent efforts – and those of her predecessor Janet Gillies – to create an army nursing reserve in the lead-up to the ‘Great War’, and in its early days, were continually hindered by a Government reluctant to take the proposal seriously.

Apart from the seven nurses the Government sent to Samoa (not as military nurses but to replace German nursing staff in the hospital in Apia), it was initially the Boer War all over again, with only those New Zealand nurses who could make their own way to Britain able to do what many more nurses were longing to do – care for their brave lads fighting on foreign fields.

Requests to go officially continued to be stonewalled, with Minister of Defence James Allen telling a delegation from the Trained Nurses Association that it would be difficult to have female nurses on crowded troop ships and “until the Mother Country asks us to provide nurses, it would be a presumption to send them”.

Maclean was well aware of hundreds of New Zealand nurses keen to “share to some extent in the dangers and hardships of the troops” so kept pressing the Government until finally, in January 1915, it was agreed to create a military nursing service and send 50 nurses to England.

The matron-in-chief sprang into action, selecting the 50 from hospitals and district nursing services across the country and nominated herself to accompany the contingent to London in April and hand them over to the British War Office before sailing back to New Zealand.

A last minute distraction was a 25 March invitation from the Australian Government for a dozen nurses to be ready to cross the Tasman on 31 March to join an Australian nursing contingent destined for Egypt.

Despite the short notice, the nurses eagerly accepted. Amongst the 12 was Aucklander Hilda Steele, one of the nurses whose stories were told in the recent television mini-series ANZAC Girls and the play Sister ANZAC (see sidebar).

Finally, on 8 April, the first 50 official New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) nurses to leave for overseas service set sail from Wellington on the Rotorua, making what their proud matron described as a “picturesque group” in “their coats of grey and scarlet”. 

These first nurses were feted on both sides of the Tasman with farewell ceremonies and gifts, including silk umbrellas from David Jones in Sydney for the Australian ‘dozen’ and deckchairs and electric torches for the nurses from Dunedin

Nurses of the New Zealand Stationary Hospital France

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Gallipoli, dysentery and heat stroke

As the nurses steamed towards England and Egypt, the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign began at dawn on 25 April 1915 on the tiny stretch of Turkish coastline now known as Anzac Cove.

Upon their arrival in London, the first 50 nurses were given orders to travel on to Egypt to nurse those arriving from Gallipoli with “terrible wounds and the most distressing diseases”. The unstoppable Maclean accompanied them andstayed on in Egypt to await the second NZANS nursing contingent, and then the third aboard the specially equipped hospital ship Maheno.

Maclean had reluctantly left by the time New Zealand’s second hospital ship, the Marama, arrived in early 1916. In all, New Zealand army nursing historian Sherayl McNabb estimates at least 610 nurses served with the NZANS during World War I, with about a further hundred New Zealand nurses serving with British or Red Cross nursing units. 

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The early contingents of nurses were posted to a variety of military hospitals in and around Cairo and the port towns of Alexandria, Suez and Port Said. One of those Cairo hospitals, caring for New Zealanders evacuated from Gallipoli, quickly grew from 300 to 1,000 beds. Maclean says the hospital was frequently short-staffed, the heat was “very trying” and working in tents and pavilions pitched on the sand tested the New Zealand nurses’ endurance to the limit.

Most nurses did find time though for a trip to the pyramids and a photo on a camel. The first New Zealand nurses to come within sight of Anzac Cove were the nurses aboard the Maheno, which arrived in late August as a new attack was launched on the peninsula. For two days the ship’s two operating theatres never stopped as boatload after boatload of wounded soldiers were brought on board so the deck was always overloaded with mattresses and men.

One nurse on board, Lottie Le Gallais, wrote of the “terrible, terrible wounds”. “The bullets aren’t so bad but the shrapnel from exploding shells is ghastly. It cuts great gashes, ripping muscles and bones to shreds,” she wrote.

The Maheno made six trips from Anzac Cove to military hospitals on the Greek Island of Lemnos with 400 to 500 wounded at a time.

In October it finally left the Gallipoli peninsula but, like its larger sister ship, the Marama, its service continued transporting invalided soldiers back to New Zealand. In 1916 both were part of the White Fleet that continually shuttled back and forth across the English Channel ferrying the wounded and the shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of the Somme back to hospitals in England. On one occasion the Marama, fitted with 600 beds “bore no less than 1636 patients from Le Havre”. The sisters and orderlies were engaged all day and night dressing wounds with even the walking wounded often severely injured. 

New Zealand nurses served on hospital and transport ships across all theatres of war – fighting back seasickness and nausea at treating patients with dysentery, lice, fleas and festering wounds. One nurse talked about the “appalling heat” of the Persian gulf, which saw them end the day soaked with sweat and their long white dresses “wet to the knees” from using ice baths to try and revive patients, engineers and crew suffering fatal heat stroke – an affliction that took 21 patients in four days.

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To the Western Front

The closest that nurses got to the firing lines was when they left the Middle East and Mediterranean to serve on the Western Front.

“They learned to sleep to the sound of the guns and the bombs falling nearby, not knowing when their shelter might be hit. A few could not endure the nerve-wracking strain, but, nonetheless, service in France was eagerly sought after,” recalled Maclean in a history published in 1923. The No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Hazebrouck had to be hastily evacuated in 1917 when shelling became too close – explosion after explosion forced the shipping out of nearly 700 patients in only three hours. The hospital was relocated to Wisques, which was beautiful in summer (see photos) but by winter was found to be damp and swampy.

And, like the lads in those nearby trenches, the nursing sisters at the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital suffered severely from trench feet that winter – a condition similar to frostbite resulting from being continually exposed to damp, cold and unsanitary conditions.

Maclean says the nurses could barely carry on with their work but after treatment made their way around the hospital in large felt slippers covering bed socks and bandages.

“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,” recalled Maclean. “They were not there as patients, however, and they bore the excruciating pain without complaint.”

It was to Wisques that the casualties of the Battle of Passchendaele (which took the lives of 846 New Zealand troops in just four hours on 12 October 1917) were brought, with the soldiers’ uniforms so caked in mud that nurses reported struggling to get to the wounds.

With a policy of New Zealand hospitals for New Zealand soldiers, there were also New Zealand General Hospitals (NZGH) set up in England with nurses serving at NZGH 1 in Walton-on-Thames, NZGH 2 in Brockenhurst, NZGH 3 in Codford and later a convalescent hospital. Between them they cared for tens of thousands of New Zealand soldiers who were left amputees, disfigured, lame, or suffering from severe pneumonia or shell shock by the war.

The end of 1918 finally brought peace and with it the Spanish Influenza pandemic and it was not until April 1919 – four years after departing – that the first large contingent of NZANS nurses returned home.

After the welcome home morning tea at parliament, Hester Maclean once again began lobbying to ensure that nurses who served their country were given not only the same opportunities for post-war assistance as the soldiers they nursed, but also the respect that their officer status demanded.

She was not always successful, but the nurses did get a 28-day pass on the railways, plus those unfit for service were given a pension and one veteran nurse successfully took over a rehab farm abandoned by its soldier owner.

The NZANS was now official and embedded so 20 years later when war broke out again it was only hours, not months, before the first reserve nurses were called-up for overseas duty.

SOURCES:

  • New Zealand Army Nurses by Hester Maclean, Chapter V of The War Effort of New Zealand by Lt H T B Drew. Whitcombe & Tombs (1923)
  • While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899–1948 by Anna Rogers. Auckland University Press (2003)
  • New Zealand Military Nursing: A History of the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps Boer War to Present Day by Sherayl Kendall and David Corbett. Kendall & Corbett (1990)
  • A unique nursing group: New Zealand army nurse anaesthetists of WWI by R E Rawstron. Rawstron Publishing Company (2005)
  • Anzac Girls: An Extraordinary Story of World War I Nurses by Peter Rees. (NB First published as The Other Anzacs in 2008) Allen & Unwin (2014)

New Zealand’s only nurse anaesthetists

At least seven New Zealand nurses underwent three months’ training as nurse anaesthetists and went even closer to the Western Front than their colleagues to work and live under canvas at casualty-clearing stations.

They worked 16-hour shifts, with enemy planes flying overhead every night and anti aircraft guns disturbing what little sleep they could get. These nurse anaesthetists performed 400–500 anaesthetic procedures (using ether or nitrous oxide/oxygen, but not chloroform) under the most challenging of situations and were involved in the pioneering use of blood and saline transfusions to resuscitate the wounded.

When they returned, post-war, Maclean lobbied for the expertise of these women not to be wasted and suggested they could be usefully employed in small rural hospitals. All boards were canvassed in 1919, with seven hospital boards keen to employ them; eight were at least sympathetic and only two expressed outright disapproval.

But while several veteran nurse anaesthetists applied for positions, none was employed and the Director-General of Health officially quashed the issue with a letter in 1924 prohibiting non-medical practitioners from administering anaesthetics (see Rawstron reference above).

Romance amongst the poppies

With the centenary of World War I, writers and producers looking for a fresh perspective on the Great War have turned to the nurses who looked after the soldiers shattered by Gallipoli and the Western Front.

British television drama The Crimson Field, set in a British army hospital in France, opened the BBC’s World War I coverage in 2014 but only ran for one season.

Down under, we had ANZAC Girls – an Australian TV mini-series inspired by Peter Rees’ book The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War 1914-1918.

The book, now re-issued as Anzac Girls, follows the stories of Australian and New Zealand nurses serving in Egypt and France, based on the real stories of five nurses (four Australian and one New Zealand nurse, Hilda Steele).

The play Sister Anzac by Geoff Allen (again featuring Hilda Steele) also debuted in Auckland last year, telling the stories of nurses serving on the New Zealand hospital ship Maheno, which was stationed off Anzac Cove to treat and ferry the injured, the sick and the dying from the battle zone.

Head of New Zealand’s defence force nursing services Lieutenant Colonel Lee Turner felt Sister Anzac was the pick of the three, with the storytelling being “appropriate, relevant and quite moving at times – it was done really, really well”.

Of the other two, he noted there was some “artistic licence”, with quite a lot of focus on romance, which he was sure would have been a “tiny little element” in the nurses’ lives compared with the main event – dealing with the trauma of war. (Only about 14 of the New Zealand nurses are known to have married while serving overseas.)

 

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