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The untold stories of the war wounded and those who cared for them

Tragic portrait: wounded New Zealand soldiers on the hospital ship Marama. Photo/Courtesy William Yates family, Fielding library

The stories of the wounded soldiers and medical personnel returning to New Zealand after World War I have gone largely untold. Anna Rogers gives these groups, often profoundly damaged by war, the recognition they deserve in her centenary history With Them Through Hell. 

Words such as heroism are used too easily, especially about World War I. As medical historian Leo van Bergen has written, “War is about everything, but above all it is about killing and being killed.” It is, too, about being wounded, often horribly or repeatedly, and about debilitating illness, disfigurement and psychological trauma.

But war is also about courage – the courage to continue working in appalling, perilous conditions and for inhumanly long hours to save lives – and it is about compassion.

Even for trained personnel, this was a terrible new world. Doctors used to treating patients in comfortable rooms and surgeons accustomed to operating in sterile, well-organised theatres found themselves in trenches and dug-outs, often under fire. Men who had been clerks, shop assistants, students or farmers found themselves staggering through deep mud carrying stretchers while trying to dodge snipers’ bullets. Nurses who had staffed calm, organised wards found themselves in crowded tent hospitals full of severely hurt and dying men with stinking wounds and shattered limbs.

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As soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon rightly said, it was hell, and the brave, skilled and caring New Zealand medical personnel who went through it with the troops must, like them, never be forgotten.

The Armistice on November 11, 1918, did not rule a neat line between conflict and peace. Hundreds of men were still wounded, sick and dying, the New Zealand hospitals in Britain had not closed, and ahead lay the enormous logistical task of getting everyone safely home.

As Fanny Speedy, among the first New Zealand nurses sent to the war, put it, “The whole thing seems too big to realise and too sad to understand.” Nurse Louisa Higginson “did not know whether to laugh, shout or cry … there seems a short distance between laughter and tears”.

The first seven New Zealand nurses to serve overseas in World War I. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Then there was the challenge of providing the right kind of care in convalescent homes and hospitals for all those affected physically and psychologically. Like the soldiers, the medical personnel also faced the prospect of negotiating a much altered post-war world.

To fill the gaps left by overcrowded public hospitals and the inadequate provision of military hospitals, patriotic associations had, with Government encouragement, established a number of small soldiers’ hospitals and convalescent homes, many in buildings offered by wealthy citizens. Most of them eventually closed, but they had fulfilled an important role, providing vitally needed rest and peace. On warm days, during his few weeks convalescing at Taumaru, Attorney-General Francis Dillon Bell’s sheltered and lovely home at Lowry Bay, Wellington, a badly wounded and traumatised Clifford Collingwood “used to lie on the little wharf and boat-house and read my volume of Shakespeare, or take photos”.

There had been complaints about the struggling public hospitals, where returned men had been forced to wait for crucial dressings and massage, but these also had positive medical outcomes. In April 1917, for example, the Auckland Hospital Board could point to “some very successful operations on wounded soldiers”, such as “the uniting of certain nerves that had been severed by bullet or shrapnel, and the correction of various deformities”. At the hospital’s Military Annexe in the Domain, “310 returned men had been treated with the happiest results, though five passed beyond human aid as the direct result of wounds. By July 1919, the annexe, rechristened the Auckland Military Hospital, had, among other new facilities, an up-to-date operating theatre, X-ray and developing rooms, and a “suite … devoted to the electrical bath treatment”.

Healing hands: a nurse massages a patient. Photo/National Army Museum

The returning wounded

Post-war medical treatment could be a lengthy and wearying business; many returned men continued to be public hospital outpatients for years. Some could not face completing their prescribed treatments. After Len Coley arrived on the SS Rimutaka and caught the train home to Palmerston North, he reported, as ordered, to the military ward of the public hospital and spent the next nine weeks there. Despite struggling with his breathing after being gassed, and feeling the concussive effects of shelling “almost every day”, he jibbed at the prospect of 11 weeks of reporting as an outpatient. He asked for his discharge and made use of his free 28 days of railway travel.

Collingwood still had a long, hard and painful medical journey ahead of him after his time in the Victoria Ward and at Lowry Bay. In April 1918, he had the plaster cut off his leg and a Thomas splint fitted, with a hole bored through the heel of his shoe so he could lock the end to make walking safer. He spent most of 1920 in Trentham Military Hospital having his leg reset. Having refused a further operation and “in a hell of a pain”, early in 1921 he visited a civilian doctor, who prescribed bismuth and opium, which Collingwood took for the next decade. Only in about 1930 was he fitted with an appropriate boot that enabled him to walk in more comfort with his splint.

Early death was not uncommon. Men came home with unhealed wounds that later proved fatal or heightened the risk of death in subsequent operations and from cardiovascular disease. The likelihood of suicide was greatly increased for those suffering from serious mental and physical disability, disfigurement and chronic pain. Often overlooked, too, both then and since, was what historian Marina Larsson has called the “family fallout” from physical and psychological disability. With the longed-for reunion at the quayside, where wives, sweethearts, parents and siblings suddenly confronted the reality of their loved one’s impairments – blindness, loss of hearing, inability to speak clearly or to walk, the vacant stare of a sadly changed personality – an unanticipated new era of hardship began.

The Battle of Chunuk Bair, by IG Brown, 1990. Image/National Collection of War Art

Transitioning to civilian life

Many returned men with significant injuries managed to make a living against severe odds. When farmer Frank Fougere, shot in both forearms on Gallipoli, got home in 1916, he was sent to Rotorua for months of massage treatment, then “just knocked about the country”, living on a mess allowance paid by the army and going into “whatever hospital was handy when an abscess would form upon my [right] arm”. Once he was finally discharged, he took up a bush-covered rehab property that, over 30 years, he cleared and turned into “a real good farm”. “I managed quite well. The Repatriation Department subsidised wages so that employers were more willing to take on partly trained returned men who were not yet able to work at full strength. Men keen to set up small businesses could take advantage of cheap loans.”

Sick and wounded returned men needed medical treatment, which was free, and then financial support in the form of a pension and assistance with finding suitable employment. This process, however, was frequently neither smooth nor problem-free, despite the fact that war disability was “perceived as a more terrible and heroic experience” than its civilian counterpart, and therefore more deserving of expert medical treatment. Reliant on pensions that were sometimes difficult to acquire, and often unable to work, such men struggled even more – and were less regarded as special cases – when economic depression hit the country from the 1920s.

Those who did need more medical attention had to appear regularly before the pensions board “until their disability either healed or stabilised and a permanent pension was granted”.

Simpson and his Donkey, by Horace Moore-Jones, 1918. Image/ATL

As infantryman Sydney Stanfield recalled, “The medical boards you went before were almost hostile. You had to be proof-positive, so to speak, or you didn’t get anything.” He suspected doctors were chosen to suit the circumstances. “They wouldn’t want to be too sympathetic or it would cost the country too much.”

Nurses, too, had trouble with boards. Edith Austen was discharged in April 1919, when all she had wanted was two months’ sick leave to “rest quietly” before returning to work. “I am only suffering from war strain and am really a very strong person.”

When Mary Grigor, survivor of the sinking of the SS Marquette – a transport ship that was torpedoed in 1915 with the loss of 167 men and women, including 10 New Zealand nurses – was boarded on May 30, 1919, she was not examined “in any way” but asked whether she wanted to be discharged and then marked fit for duty. Although she felt “quite well”, a medical board in England had decreed that she would be unwise to nurse for a minimum of a year. “I do not in the least mind working again if it is safe to do so, but I would very much like to first of all be overhauled by … someone who knows something of chest troubles.” Nursing administrator Hester Maclean fought hard for the women to be “treated in the same way as soldiers of similar rank”, finally, in August, convincing the authorities to send her all nurses’ medical board proceedings.

The wartime ambivalence towards shell-shock cases, and the pressure on doctors dealing with the physically wounded, meant that many men suffering from psychological damage did not even report themselves as ill. With some medical boards reluctant to ascribe the condition of returned servicemen to their war experiences, seeking a pension for a non-physical complaint was doubly difficult and many were probably discouraged from applying.

Barges carrying the Gallipoli wounded out to transports. Photo/National Army Museum

Coming home was often no easier for the doctors, nurses, vets, stretcher-bearers, orderlies and ambulance men than it was for their former patients. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Thomas did not return to New Zealand, but he had been worried about the future. “How I am going to make a living when I come back I don’t know,” he wrote to his wife Milly from Gallipoli only three weeks before he was killed.

“This life entirely unfits you for general practice. Besides, I am getting too old to start and build up a practice again. Mine will have practically speaking left me. I don’t think there is much chance of my getting a military appointment in the medical branch of the service because I was never a Territorial. Besides, there are others after the jobs who are senior to me because they were Territorials. None of them have anything like the service that I have got. In any case, I don’t suppose the appointment would be worth very much.”

Some New Zealand Medical Corps men never recovered physically from their war service and died too young. Private George Knox, who had been wounded in France in May 1917, died on November 16, 1920, of “pneumonia – accelerated by gas poisoning”. He was 34, as was former Dunedin Hospital house surgeon Cyril Baigent, OBE, wounded at Gallipoli, when he died of kidney disease in 1923. After establishing a large practice in Ashburton, Baigent “found that he had not escaped unscathed from the privations of the war, and about six months ago he was able to diagnose a trouble caused in the first instance by a severe chill or exposure”. Despite knowing that the condition was incurable, “he nevertheless decided to carry right on, which he did, and he successfully performed a serious operation on the morning of his collapse”.

The long journey to recovery: a wounded man is carried to a waiting ambulance in Wellington. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The war nurses

Returning to civilian life was often hard, too, for the nurses and VADs, members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who assisted with domestic and nursing work. “I missed the companionship that nursing carries with it, but I had to settle down, as many duties fell to my share after my father’s death and the frailty of my mother, who became my responsibility.” VAD Gladys Luxford’s sad and stoic words echoed the experience of many women forced to exchange the adventure and high emotion of wartime service for the yoke of family expectation or the much duller routine of non-military nursing. Physical exhaustion was common – “quite a number were war-worn and not really fit for duty”.

At the end of 1919, many nurses were “still retained in the service and their posts” at military hospitals and convalescent homes. At Trentham, for example, nurse Vida MacLean, who worked at the hospital in former German protectorate Samoa during the war, had a staff of 63 New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) nurses; Bertha Nurse, the matron at Rotorua’s King George V Hospital, was managing eight. Eva Brooke, who had served first in Samoa, then on the hospital ships Maheno and Marama, and in military hospitals overseas, was matron of the Military Convalescent Hospital at Narrow Neck. In 1921, the year after she was demobilised, this remarkable woman, the only New Zealand nurse awarded the Royal Red Cross and Bar, became matron of Christchurch’s Rannerdale Home for disabled veterans.

Mabel Thurston. Image/National Collection of War Art

As had been the case with doctors, the loss of so many nurses to overseas service had caused a severe shortage of experienced senior staff in hospitals. A number who had been on leave returned to their pre-war posts, but former Christchurch Hospital “lady superintendent” Mabel Thurston was not among them. She had been granted leave of absence for the duration of the war, initially to become matron at Walton-on-Thames on little more than half her Christchurch salary, and publicly lauded for her patriotism. Her devoted work in the challenging New Zealand Expeditionary Force matron-in-chief role, which involved supervising the NZANS nurses on active duty in England, France and Egypt and organising the supply of nurses and VADs to New Zealand’s military hospitals in England, earned her both the Royal Red Cross and a CBE.

At the end of August 1918, however, the North Canterbury Hospital and Charitable Aid Board wrote to say that her long absence had “adversely affected the hospital” and forced the acting matron to turn down job offers. Thurston’s appointment was terminated.

The board was not swayed by her eloquent protests and explanations, which were backed up by letters of support from Brigadier-General George Richardson and William Parkes, among others, and by a meeting of angry locals. Thurston had to resign. She became matron at King George V Military Hospital at Rotorua in January, 1920, before assuming the same role at Hanmer, and, between 1923 and 1927, at Pukeora.

Nurses were officially included in the land settlement scheme aimed at putting returned soldiers on farms of their own, but only after a legislative change. Ellen Schaw was one of just a half-dozen or so nurses who seem to have applied. According to a newspaper report, she was “the first woman in the Wellington district, and probably in the Dominion”, to obtain land under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act. After being invalided for some months on coming home, she “got the very section she wanted”, four acres at Cloverlea near Palmerston North, in a soldiers’ land ballot. She began with “one cow, horse and trap, three chickens, three cats, one dog”. A few months later – as soon as the fowlhouse could be built – she was planning to start a “little poultry farm with more fowls, and also getting more cows. Fruit trees are also to be planted.”

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.