New Zealand’s pioneer of marine reserves will be missed.
New Zealand’s pioneer of marine reserves will be missed.
In 1979, we had just moved to Brisbane from Sydney to take a position at the Queensland Museum. In this position, I dealt with the public who came in to report any number of strange things, ranging from petrified frogs, to web-footed furry creatures, to hairy wild man-like beings. Among my responsibilities was looking after those who discovered fossils of prehistoric creatures. And so it was that I met Joan and Pont Wiffen from the North Island of New Zealand. As soon as they began to speak it was clear that, unlike many who came into the museum, they actually knew what they were talking about. They were quite aware that dinosaurs were a specific group of creatures—and not just any big, dead animals—and their visit led to the description of the first dinosaur bone recovered from New Zealand, and to a fruitful collaboration. New Zealand, at that time, was not known to have hosted dinosaurs, although fossils of large sea-dwelling saurians had been known since the 19th century from the South Island. The Wiffens’ discoveries were no matter of dumb luck, but intelligent preparation. I think it was mainly Joan who realised that one did not just go out and look for fossils, but researched where they had already been reported and where rocks likely to yield them were to be found. It was certainly Joan who decided that if there were no professional vertebrate palaeontologists in the North Island to study the fossils they found, then she would need to become one. After all, how hard could it be? Well, in Joan’s case not that hard. Indeed, if one is accustomed to thinking clearly and logically, becoming a scientist is not difficult—provided one chooses a field in which expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators or planetary landers is not required. The bases of science are logic and observation (sometimes disguised as experiment), and Joan was obviously logical and had her own specimens to observe. As for the background knowledge, as long as one can read, the material is there. Joan also realised that finding fossils had broader implications than merely showing that some creatures lived in some place at some time in the past. But her work—which spanned marine fishes, turtles and reptiles, probably five kinds of dinosaurs and at least one flying reptile (pterosaur)—illuminated not only the evolutionary and geological history of the islands of New Zealand, but also that of Antarctica, from which New Zealand separated 80 million years ago. These creatures would have lived in a polar climate, not what one usually thinks of as a dinosaurian habitat. Her work also revealed the kinds of dinosaurs that lived on islands and also when these creatures lived. She also appreciated the role that could be played by detailed microscopic examination of fossil bones, to determine the physiology of the creatures. In particular this revealed that some of the marine reptiles (plesiosaurs) started life near the shore, moving out onto the high seas only when adult, a discovery which had broader implications for those of us elsewhere in the world. Joan collaborated with scientists in Australia, Canada, France and the USA, a serious achievement for someone self-taught in science. On a personal level, Joan was an inspiration to others in the museum in different ways. To some she showed what a determined woman could accomplish, to others that being over 50 was by no means ”over the hill”. But to me Joan’s accomplishment was, in a time when many in this world feel their lives are lacking in significance, to show that with interest and rational thought, one can contribute significantly to the understanding of our world. And that, after all, is what determines our perception of our place, and our significance in it.
My father, Oscar Garden, visited Stewart Island only once, almost 75 years ago; and even though he spent just a few hours there, he is a legendary figure in local history. I didn't know this until I did a lot of digging recently. He made the flight that earned him his reputation on the island some 30 years before I was born, and to me he was a stern and aloof man who never went anywhere or did anything exciting. He seemed content just to work from home as a market gardener, growing tomatoes in glasshouses. His only other interest was horse-racing, and he often wandered up to the local TAB to place bets. Growing up, I was only vaguely aware that my father had had an earlier life—an incredibly adventurous one—as a pioneer aviator. I don't remember him ever talking to me about this life. The first aerial landing on Stewart Island was one of his many adventures—or "close shaves" as he would have put it. In the early 30s, my father was well known for his epic solo flight from England to Australia in November 1930. He had received a tumultuous welcome on his return to New Zealand, and after he had toured most of the country in his plane Kia Ora—a DH 60 de Havilland Gipsy Moth—he decided to cash in on his publicity by taking people for joy-rides. These lasted about 10 minutes for a cost of 12 shillings a pop—a lot of money in those Depression years. My father was down in Invercargill in late February 1931 giving joy-rides from the old Myross Bush aerodrome when a local by the name of Geoff Todd bet him £5 that he couldn't land his plane on Stewart Island. Owing to the rough nature of the terrain and the absence of a suitable landing strip, no aviator had dared to do this before, although a few had flown over the island. The first aerial crossing to the island had been made on January 13, 1921, by a Captain Buckley and two passengers in a De Havilland DH9. The following day the Southland Times reported that when they reached the island, the aviators saw a beautiful sight below: "The numerous inlets seemed like a large cloth on which were laid a collection of glistening jewels—the bays and inlets in which the place abounds." Being a betting man, my father couldn't resist Todd's challenge. On Friday, February 27, the two of them set out from Invercargill at midday to make the half-hour journey. The people on the island, the majority of whom lived at Half-moon Bay, had been notified to expect the plane at about 1 p.m. down at Horseshoe Bay. Beryl Nielson, now 93 years of age, was living on the island at the time and worked at Bragg's general store. She remembers the "excitement of the day", though admits she wasn't very interested at her age (she was 19 at the time). In any case, she had to stay and look after the shop so didn't witness the event. Most of the other residents did, however. Along with the county chairman and members of the council, they were taken by surprise when they heard the drone of the plane at 12.30, and rushed along the three-mile track to the bay. On the beach, meanwhile, a small crowd of people was already waiting, including the teachers and children from the local school. Several of the children were evidently so frightened at the sight of an aircraft approaching that they ran and hid in the bush. John Tolsen, now 89 but 15 at the time, wrote to me: "We had seen a few planes fly over but never one on the ground. We children had about three miles to walk to school and that morning when we got there we were told 'no school' as Oscar Garden's plane was landing on the beach that morning." However, John and several of his friends had first to deliver a box of fruit sent to his mother on the weekly ferry, a steam tug. "We had just got to Horseshoe Bay when the plane came in to land in front of us. No mucking about. He never flew over the village first." But as my father and Todd were coming in to land they realised they didn't have a straight run. As the name Horseshoe suggests, the beach was curved; it also had a definite camber, and, in addition, a strong nor'westerly was blowing. Combined, these factors made it difficult to land safely. Land safely they did, however, and my father decided to take off again without stopping. But one of the wheels got caught in a lump of bull kelp, which slewed the plane and made it run out into the bay. Todd climbed out of his seat but as he perched on the front of the plane it suddenly tipped up and he was thrown into the water. John said his group had run out to help and managed to bring the tail of the plane down. Soon, he said, there were more helpers, including some girls who waded in after tucking their skirts into their knickers. My father produced a rope to tow the plane out of the tide and up onto the beach. "Oscar was shaking the thing as if it was its fault, together with some under-his-breath mutterings. Everyone knew what he meant." Luckily, the plane didn't appear to have been damaged by its upending in the water, but as a precaution the oil was drained and replaced with motor-car oil. It was decided to hold a civic reception there on the beach itself, and the schoolchildren were given the rest of the day off. My father and Todd were entertained to tea "in a real picnic fashion", and the children who were still hiding in the bush emerged when they saw the lolly-scramble, cakes, tea and lemonade. Most of the residents had never had a close view of a plane before and covered the Gipsy Moth with their autographs. The visitors departed shortly after 4.00 p.m., having received "three hearty cheers and being wished God-speed on their return journey". It was said that the plane took off "perfectly" and was soon a speck in the distance. This first landing has entered Stewart Island folklore as "The Challenge". Photos of the event—Kia Ora in a "nose-dive", my father and Geoff Todd alongside the plane after it had been hauled up the beach, and the island residents gathered around it—adorn the walls of the South Seas Hotel. Tour guide Sam, who drives a vehicle he calls Billy Bus, always mentions my father to the tourists. When I first became interested in this story all I had in my possession that was of any relevance was a small copy of the "nose-dive" photo and an article from an old aviation magazine that gave the occasion a brief mention. From books, magazines and newspapers I managed to dig up more details and get a clearer picture. I spent months—and almost gave up—trying to track down someone who had witnessed the event. In his letter to me, John Tolsen describes the occasion as a red-letter day, and ends by noting that Mrs Elizabeth Murray, a widow from Horseshoe Bay, retrieved the towrope, which was left behind, and that this is now in the island's Rakiura Museum. Historic though the landing was, it wasn't the day's only event of note. That morning saw the birth of triplets to a Mrs Ryan—the first triplets to be born on the island. In a speech, Mr Hicks, the chairman of Stewart Island County Council, said that "to console the airman for this unusual competition in interest", Mrs Ryan had told him prior to the birth that one of the children would be named Oscar. However, the newest residents turned out to be all girls and were subsequently named Ruth, Rona and Elizabeth—although, according to my mother, Osca‑rina was considered.
A short, weathered, Tolkienesque figure tries the door of a decrepit shed at the bush's edge. The shed is the former Paradise School at the head of Lake Wakatipu, and the elderly gentleman is the last survivor of its seven pupils from the 1920s. He is George Adams, formerly of Mt Earnslaw Station and now of Timaru, back visiting family today, and tomorrow tearing around the southern lakes and the South Island's big braided rivers in his personal hovercraft. He is the oldest registered owner of a hovercraft in New Zealand. What sort of man dares to zap around in a hovercraft at age 89, when he should be dozing on a recliner in front of television? This is a man for whom the call of the bowling green will never be as strong as the call of the wild. George has been shaped by mountains and plains and rivers, by horseback and hardship, by a simple and honest life, by two wives and six kids and by a limitless capacity for hard work. Born in Heriot, west Otago, in 1916, the youngest of eight, he came with his family to the upper Wakatipu in 1920-21, when he was five. He almost never made it. "My first memory is of my father cutting oats with three horses and a binder. I was just a little chap, and I got lost in the oats for half a day. They didn't know I was there. When they found me I was carrying my trousers. I probably took them off to lie down and go to sleep. I was lucky not to have been cut up by the binder." The family sold up at Heriot and, like carpetbaggers seeking a new life, left for the two-day journey on the back of their truck to Mt Earnslaw Station. "We had a four-cylinder Chevvy without a cab or body—just the chassis. My father built a cab, seat and deck and transported the whole family on the back from Heriot to Kingston, at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu." From there, truck and family caught the ferry Earnslaw to Queenstown, then to Glenorchy at the head of the lake, and then drove 20 km over a horse-and-buggy track to Mt Earnslaw, fording the Rees River to reach the station. It was, George says with typical understatement, "quite an adventure". At school, in that converted shed under the towering mountains at Paradise, George's classmates were the sons and daughters of the scheelite miners, farmers, sawmillers and gold-miners who populated the region, and in class he was clearly a cheeky little pest. "I got the strap every morning before class started. The teacher, Pearl Reid, said that was in anticipation of my behaviour that day. She was just out of standard six with a certificate in proficiency. She could read and write and do a few sums. There were no exercise books. We wrote on slates with slate pencils. "A lot of the kids in the region didn't go to school at all, like the family down the road. They were tough kids, just like their father, the biggest fellow around, a sawmiller who could lift huge logs. One of the boys had a cat, and when it scratched him he held the cat up and whacked off its head with a tomahawk. They were tough kids all right..." George, although he would never say so, was a pretty tough kid himself. He was thrown from the school "bus"—a horse and gig—when the horse spooked during a storm, breaking his collarbone. There was no local doctor so the bone was left to mend of its own accord. "Six months later, when we visited Queenstown, the doctors had a look and said the break hadn't knitted properly and they would have to reset it. One of them held me down while the other rebroke it with his thumbs without anaesthetic." The broken bones department, which was part and parcel of life in those days, wasn't restricted to humans. "We'd find ducks' nests and break a wing on each of the ducklings so they wouldn't be able to fly, and leave them in the nests. Two or three months later the dogs would hunt them out. The ducklings had fattened up like muttonbirds. They were delicious." Ducks weren't the only wildlife to suffer. Fiordland's famous mountain parrots came in for their share of hardship. "Kea attacked stock, and the local council put a bounty on them. On one hunt I shot 16. I got five shillings per beak." As we drive around George's boyhood turf, more memories come back. "I first went hunting over there as a lad [pointing toward the Rees Valley], where I'd take a pony, a .22 rifle and a blanket or two and sleep out for an early-morning shot at a deer. And Diamond Creek over there—used to be full of 10- and 11-pound trout. See that house? A remittance man from Ireland lived there. Got his own sister in the family way. And over there we had the Spitter. He chewed twists of tobacco and could spit about as far as that fence [six metres. He stank. Don't think he ever washed or took a bath." Isolation ruled those early years, especially when floods roared down the Dart and Rees valleys, smashing bridges and cutting off the family for weeks. There were no roads, just horse-and-gig tracks. The Adams family truck and two ageing buses at Kinloch were the only motor vehicles George can remember in the upper Wakatipu. A trip from Glenorchy to Queenstown took eight hours. Today it takes 40 minutes. There was no doctor, no dentist, no police, no crime to speak of, a newspaper maybe once a week, and the occasional drunk who would wash up on Wakatipu's shores to break the rhythm of life. George's father, a blacksmith with his own forge, would do all the smithy work for the region. He was also the family shopper, and every couple of years would make an expedition to Dunedin to buy goods and clothes for the whole family. But really he had no idea. "He'd come back with the same size clothes for everybody, including undies. My undies came up to my chest and under my armpits." After 10 years in the upper Wakatipu, the Adams family moved in 1930 to take over Cainard Station at Fairlight, near Garston in northern Southland, where George left school at 14 to fulfil his dream of becoming a high-country musterer—a dream inspired by his first contact with horses, when, as a toddler at Heriot, he left his trike outside the farmhouse one night and it was trampled by a Clydesdale. For the next 12 years George rode Cairnard Station's high ranges, all 64,350 ha of them, up among the clouds and snow, in the sweltering summers and merciless winters. The toughest job as a musterer, he recalls, was snow-raking—freeing up lost, frozen, snowbound sheep and raking (stamping) a trail to guide them out of the drifts and up to the ridges where they could find enough food to stave off death by starvation. "A mob of sheep would get snowed in on the dark side of a gully. We would tramp the snow away to reveal the dirt beneath. The sheep needed to be able to see the dirt to follow the track that we stamped up to a windswept ridge where they could find a bit of pasture and scrub. "We had to get there quickly and work nonstop because the sheep were starving and would eventually eat each other's wool and die. On one occasion we worked 48 hours at a stretch. It was tough. "It was a hard life, but a healthy life. We'd all be as fit as trout." You not only had to be fit, you had to be made of something stronger to go out rabbiting on winter nights, but with rabbits eroding whole hillsides the work had to be done. "At Cainard I once poisoned 1111 rabbits in a night. I picked them up with a dray and had to go back to the farm to skin them. I could skin 100 an hour, so the skinning took more than 11 hours. The carcasses were all frozen as stiff as boards. It was a tough job." That winter he earned £1700—"big money in those days, nearly enough to buy a farm". Those were the days of the Great Depression. "I had five older brothers to help run the place, and we were OK, but they were desperate times. We had 14,000 merinos on Cainard and in the worst year of the Depression we got only £500 for the wool cheque." Despite the hardships, they were idyllic years for a young man, spent close to the stars and the sun, ringed by Tennyson's azure worlds in lonely lands atop God's Own Country. But they were shattered by the horror of World War II, in which George served with Second New Zealand Division in the Middle East and Italy and fought in the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino. "At Paradise I learned reading, writing and arithmetic, but my real education was the war. We don't need any more wars—all those young fellas being cut to pieces ..." After the war George drove tour buses around Southland and the Lakes District. Romance bloomed in the bus-company office in Lumsden, northern Southland, on his meeting the fair-haired, blue-eyed clerk Grace Casson. The two married in Dunedin in the mid-1940s before settling on their first farm, an 80 ha spread at Wrights Bush, central Southland, which cost £9600, and where they raised three daughters. George's most tangible asset has always been his amazing capacity for hard work, and he showed his entrepreneurial flair at Wrights Bush by starting a sideline in gorse-cutting. "No gorse had been cut in Southland since before the war. It had spread like mad and gorse fences had become a chain wide. I bought a Hedgehog gorse-cutter, attached it to a Fordson tractor and went to work. In one winter's cutting I made £1500. A brand-new car in those days cost £900. After getting home from gorse-cutting I used to dig ditches till 11 o'clock at night." At that time too, he recalls fondly, there was the Incident of the Cow Woman. He had arranged through a stock agent to buy a cow from an Ayrshire breeder and had gone to the breeder's farm, where he was about to load the cow for the trip home when a rampaging woman burst from the farmhouse shouting, "If that cow goes, I go with it." "I decided I didn't want both," says George, who returned home cowless. Tragedy struck when Grace died of kidney failure, leaving George with three young daughters to raise, a farm to run and not much money. "I had a hard time for a while." Salvation came in the form of Alwyn Barkman, a dark-haired beauty from Dunedin, a nurse and housekeeper, who had cared for Grace during her illness and who proved to be superbly efficient. People didn't beat around the bush in those days. "My brother told me, 'Alwyn's a great woman. You should keep her.' And that's what happened." The pair married in 1957 and raised two boys and a girl. George's family left Wrights Bush after 17 years, decamping to isolated Mt Allan Station near Hindon, northwest of Dunedin. There, on 2830 ha of excellent land, George carried out perhaps the most remarkable achievement of his life, epitomising the resourceful spirit of the do-it-yourself New Zealander. Mt Allan Station was inaccessible except by horseback. There was no road, just a rail siding at Taioma in the Taieri Gorge, on the central Otago line. The vendor had decided to sell because he was unable to find a manager to cover the station by horseback, and his application for a county road had been repeatedly turned down by Taieri County Council. George told the Otago Daily Times in 1965 that, after his first inspection of the property, "I was forced to the conclusion that if a road were to be built, the owner would have to carry out the task himself." Back in Invercargill he bought a 23-tonne D8 crawler-tractor, which had to be juggled slowly up the narrow Taieri Gorge by rail on the back of a flat-bed freight truck. With George astride the bulldozer yelling warnings to the engine driver each time the blades started scraping the rock walls of the gorge, they crept, inch by inch, to the Taioma siding. George started work on the road lacking even the most basic knowledge of engineering. He simply followed a sheep track across the rugged, steep terrain, some of it like granite, some of it crumbling "rotten rock", debris from which almost buried the crawler. He was lucky to get out without serious injury. The road snaked from 50 m above sea level at its lowest point to more than 300 m at its highest. "In some places it was as steep as the side of a hen's face." During much of the construction George camped on the job, sleeping under a covering strung between the crawler and a jeep. He completed this 7 km mission in two weeks. Two years later the family again moved on, to Nimrod Downs Station in South Canterbury, where, at age 50, George confronted and beat the only vice that had ever infected his life: tobacco. There were no nicotine patches in those days, and he didn't use chewing gum or sweets. He used walnuts. "I used to crush walnuts in my hands to do something with my fingers, and the tang of walnut in my mouth helped." After 16 years at Nimrod Downs, George and Alwyn opted for an easier life, running motels in Timaru. But you can't keep a man of the wide-open spaces cooped up in little boxes, and before long George was back out on the highways and byways, driving tour buses from Cape Reinga to Bluff. This he did for the next 10 years. Today, retirement sits uneasily on his shoulders, but his hovercraft takes him back to the land that he loves. For the summer of 2005, he and Alwyn have planned a few trips away in their campervan with hovercraft in tow. "I want to do the southern lakes Tekapo, Wanaka, Wakatipu—and the big rivers like the Clutha, the Waiau and the Waitaki." The 3 m-long hovercraft has a 50 hp light-aircraft motor, a top speed of 80 kph, and cost $38,000. George uses it for fishing and generally hooning around. "You can go anywhere in it—water, land, mud—no problems. You can go out in your slippers and not get your feet wet." Recently, he bought a bicycle too. Bright red with cream tyres. Got it for $11.50 at the Timaru auctions. Riding home after a few plonks with his mates at the Timaru RSA, he took a spill. Walking inside, bruised, grazed and bleeding, the old horseman told his wife: "The bike threw me!"
The worst experience of the Second World War for New Zealand Red Cross nurse Mona Plane was caring for the survivors of Japanese POW camps. “On one stretcher there seemed to be just a skeleton,” she recounted, recalling the day the hospital ship Oranje delivered a cargo of emaciated human figures to the naval hospital in Sydney to which she had been posted, “and then it moved!” With a colleague, she hid behind a door and wept before mustering the strength to start work.“It was worse than wounds or broken limbs,” she went on. “Wounded men had spirit, but with prisoners of war everything had been knocked right out of them. Everything. A lot of them wouldn’t speak at all.” She was in a position to know. Compare the patient at a naval hospital near Portsmouth whose dressings she and another nurse would spend the whole morning changing. He had lost both legs but “used to flirt with us and promise to take us dancing.”Both stories prompted me to raise my eyes from the page, blink and take a deep breath. Reading Anna Rogers’ While You’re Away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899–1948 (Auckland University Press 2003, 364 pp., $39.95), I found myself resorting to this kind of emotional time-out fairly regularly. Much has been written of the New Zealand men who fought overseas in the great conflicts that marred the first half of the 20th century. But what of their female compatriots who, spurred by the same impulses—a sense of duty, the desire for adventure also served, but armed with the instruments of healing rather than killing? Author Anna Rogers plugs this lamentable gap in our written history with efficiency and verve. Read her account and be appalled at what the world might have been had women not stood up to be counted. If ever there were a tale that exposed the sheer brainlessness of male chauvinism, this has to be it. For it is a deplorable fact that for many years army nurses had to fight entrenched male antipathy as they sought to do better by the sick and wounded soldier than the traditionally men-only military medical establishment seemed inclined to do. Only in the 1880s did formal hospital training for nurses become available in New Zealand. Before then, nurses (and midwives) were amateurs—usually married women—who offered a combination of specialist skills, informally acquired, and essential domestic help. By the time war broke out in South Africa in 1899, professional nurses were taking over the wards of public hospitals, and some 30 or so served voluntarily—as did the men who went to fight—in what was New Zealand’s first overseas military venture. These pioneers benefited from little in the way of government support. Many travelled to Africa independently, paying their own passage; others were funded by local public donations. All worked under the direct control of the British military medical authorities. It wasn’t until the First World War that a national wartime nursing corps was formally ushered into existence. Come the Second World War, matters had progressed to the extent that the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) was called upon as a matter of course, civilian nurses flocking to enlist. Yet male superciliousness persisted. Even when the fully trained nurse had won widespread acceptance in military circles, she was apt to find herself shortchanged in matters of respect (members of the NZANS were granted officer status but weren’t always treated accordingly), simple politeness and monetary reward, and, during the First World War at any rate, pressured to resign if she married. As for those women who, equally keen to help, offered their services as Voluntary Aids—in the Second World War a VA received only 60 hours’ hospital training as opposed to a fully qualified nurse’s 2000—they offered a fresh target for male condescension and patronising humour. Typical of the sniping—at best teasing, at worst spiteful was the remark delivered by a CO on board the hospital ship Maunganui as he strolled past two weary VAs who had come on deck for a breath of fresh air: “Aren’t you lucky girls—you’d be paying hundreds of pounds to do this in peacetime.” Other tensions arose from national differences. New Zealand nurses posted to British military hospitals were frequently frustrated by what they considered excessive formality, red tape and inspection mania. “Polished floors & square ends to the corners of the beds” appeared more important than personal care for the patient, while the British army nurse could prove a disappointment both professionally and in her condescending attitude towards her “colonial” sisters. If the medical hierarchy was reluctant to recognise what nurses had to offer, wounded soldiers who ended up in their care did not share its misgivings. “The men say it is just like Heaven to be here,” wrote Cora Anderson in Cairo, in 1915. “Some that we get are absolute wrecks, but a few days’ sleep and baths and feeding, books and papers and the chance of seeing some ordinary fellow mortals and a few women about soon set them right again and they begin to look as if they had wakened out of a sleep.” Margaret Tucker, on the hospital ship Maheno the same year, echoed the sentiment: “It makes one weep to see the gratitude shown and expressed at the sight of a plate of bread and butter and a cup of tea articles the want of which we have never known.” The familiarity of one’s own kind, always a tonic, was especially treasured far from home in an uncertain and often frightening world. Most appreciated of all by New Zealand patients and nurses was to find themselves together, the bonds of common identity of shared non-Britishness thrown into sharp relief by the circumstances in which they found themselves. They weren’t always so fortunate, but just as New Zealand soldiers earned a reputation as tough, resourceful and capable warriors, so New Zealand nurses came to be widely recognised for their skill and devotion as carers and healers. Many besides their own countrymen benefited from and praised their expertise. Rogers takes a chronological approach to her subject, weaving her narrative out of crisp, unobtrusive prose and extensive quotations from diaries, letters and interviews. Thus she begins by opening the reader’s eyes to the kind of hellhole to which the sick and wounded were condemned during the South African War. Take Christchurch nurse Bessie Teape’s description of the infamous No. 10 General Hospital at Bloemfontein: “The place was a hotbed of fever, and the dreaded enteric raged everywhere; and no wonder, with no sanitary arrangements whatever, animals lying dead everywhere, water bad, buildings black with flies, and patients covered with vermin. Men were being brought in in hundreds, fever-stricken, ragged, and badly in need of a wash. Here we were in Bloemfontein with the railways torn up, and lines of communication cut, and 5000 enteric fever patients to look after, and supplies running short.” This scandalous state of affairs, once it was denounced in the British Parliament and The Times, did at least result in a Royal Commission, while experience of the primitive hospital conditions in South Africa lent impetus to the formation of the NZANS. Yet for those behind the drive to create the new organisation—notably Janet Gillies, who had served in Africa, and the redoubtable Hester Maclean, who outmanoeuvred Gillies for the position of matron-inchief and went on to become the grande dame of the nursing profession in New Zealand—prevarication by military and political leaders in the patriarchal climate of the day was a constant source of frustration. The First World War was already eight months old, with New Zealand’s finest poised to land on Gallipoli, before the first contingent of the NZANS, 50 nurses in all, finally set sail for Plymouth from Wellington. Between the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914 and the end of the occupation of Japan 34 years later, New Zealand nurses served throughout the war-torn world—in England, mainland Europe, Russia, north and east Africa, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, India, southeast Asia, Japan and the Pacific. They plied their trade in stationary and field hospitals, in casualty-clearing and mobile dressing stations, on hospital trains and ships, under enemy bombardment, amid rampant disease and behind enemy lines. Successive chapters bear us into the thick of these many theatres, revealing the grisly sights and smells nurses witnessed as they tended those crippled on the field of battle or while incarcerated by the enemy: muscle and bone ripped and shredded by shrapnel; feet and ankles blackened and swollen with frostbite; eyes blinded, throats blistered and lungs corrupted by poison gas; the armless, the legless and the paralysed; the severely burnt; wounds putrid, swollen and stinking with gas gangrene (the result of infection by bacteria in the soil); the bloat of famine oedema; organs wasted by malnutrition; men struck dumb, tormented by nightmares or prey to hallucinations. The wounded usually arrived at a casualty clearing station or field hospital filthy and unkempt. From the trenches in particular they emerged in clothes so caked with mud and blood they had to be cut away. During the First World War, although anaesthetics were available, the advent of the wonder drug penicillin still lay a quarter of a century in the future; normal treatment of a wound was thus to clean it, dress it and wait for it slowly to heal. Before being sent on to a base hospital, patients were tagged: GSW—gunshot wound; SW—shrapnel wound; PUO—pyrexia of uncertain origin (generally influenza); NYDN—not yet diagnosed, non-efficient (code for probable shellshock). In the Second World War, many frontline soldiers were issued with a shot of morphine and a stick of lipstick. The former was for the pain relief of a wounded mate, the latter for inscribing an M on his forehead so medical staff would know the drug had been administered. For those with a black funny bone, the occasional tale can be simultaneously heart-rending and humorous. Take the armless man who, with a VA to play his cards for him, won a euchre contest. The prize: a “nice pair of handbrushes in a case.” Or the chap Blanche Helliwell recalled on board Oranje who stood by the door for the entire voyage, repeating over and over, “I’m just waiting for an appointment with Mr Churchill, Sister.” Although generally at a distance from the front line, army nurses themselves could be laid low by disease, suffer injury, trauma or imprisonment and lose their lives. Dysentery, diarrhoea, enteritis, influenza, sandfly fever, malaria and typhoid, as well as such minor afflictions as sinusitis, tonsillitis and boils—all took their toll of nurses’ health at No. 1 NZ General Hospital at Helwan, Egypt, in 1942. In the autumn and early winter of 1917, at No. 1 NZ Stationary Hospital at Wisques, France, conditions underfoot in the crude hospital buildings were such that nurses not only developed colds and chilblains but also trench foot just as severe as, and in some cases worse than, that of their patients. After surviving in the water for nine hours following the sinking of the British transport Royal George in 1915, Ada Michell was, according to a nursing friend, “like a lot of the men. To look at her you would think she was fine . . . but the wounds are there. They are deep. They are painful. And they will leave great scars on her heart.” Reflecting on her time as a member of a mobile medical crew during the London Blitz, Mildred Palmer concluded, “I have actually seen more of war than any of the New Zealand soldiers I have one raid lends her words credence:“. . . the bombs were falling all round us as we worked . . . The doctor and I went out, armed with syringes, while the others stayed in the ambulance, but we were not able to do very much as the only casualties we could reach were beyond our aid. There were 60 people buried under a printing factory . . . As the doctor and I made our way through a pile of debris, something large and soft fell at my feet, it was the headless, limbless body of a woman. It was put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby church with other such pitiful bundles, while we went on into the ghastly For sheer resolution in the face of adversity, however, it is hard to imagine anything that might surpass the ordeal of matron Kathleen Thomson and the British nurses under her charge in Hong Kong following the fall of the colony on Christmas Day 1941. Their hospital was taken over by the Japanese, and Thomson and her staff were sent to a convent to nurse POWs, all of whom “were desperately ill, emaciated with starvation, unshaven with sunken eyes and cheeks. Most were only semi-conscious.” More were delivered by the busload from a nearby camp.mess to look for the living.”With minimal equipment, drugs and clean linen, and food both meagre and unsuitable for the patients’ dire condition, the death toll steadily mounted. Many of the nurses themselves fell ill or became too exhausted to work. When an epidemic of diphtheria swept through the convent, Thomson’s captors refused her access to the boxes of serum stacked in a neighbouring house. Eight months into the occupation, the nurses were told they were to be repatriated, but following the breakdown of negotiations they had to endure three more cruel years in captivity. Freed at last, they were as fleshless and wasted as the men they had so conscientiously continued to tend. Something beyond ordinary compassion must have had its wellspring in Thomson’s heart. Having kept a secret list of names and addresses of all those who had died in her care, she subsequently wrote to every one of the families concerned, thus bringing closure to the bereaved. Prominent among those New Zealand nurses who paid the ultimate price for heeding the call of duty are the 10 who lost their lives when the British transport ship Marquette, en route from Alexandria to Salonika, was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915. Rogers devotes an entire chapter to the disaster, in which a total of 167 people perished, among them also 22 New Zealand orderlies. Elsewhere, nurses were carried off by a variety of illnesses, including influenza, tuberculosis, enteric fever and beriberi, struck by trains, killed by enemy bombs, or otherwise dealt some fatal misfortune. For all the suffering nurses witnessed, the exhaustion they endured and the dangers they faced, a hospital ward could be a place of great spirit. Nurses frequently recorded the patience of their charges and their seemingly unquenchable optimism. “The men bear pain wonderfully well,” wrote Jean Muir for the nursing journal Kai Tiaki while on board Maheno in 1915; “they never complain, never grumble.” “[H]ow extraordinary it is,” WAAC Neva Morrison noted in her diary 29 years later on a visit to 1 NZGH at Senigallia, in Italy, “that in a military hospital, where rows of men lie slightly or shockingly wounded, there is more light-heartedness than I have seen anywhere, ever before.” Under the extraordinary conditions of active service, nurses and aids—the same as soldiers—forged close and binding friendships, shared their own brand of sanity-saving humour and accrued unforgettable memories. Inevitably, after years of high adventure, the return home could be a trial all of its own. Domestic routine and family duty were the inescapable lot of many. Following the First World War, VA Gladys Luxford was typical in having to care for her ailing mother, which meant sacrificing her desire to train as a sister. Demobilised nurses who sought assistance in obtaining paid employment, or support under the postwar land settlement scheme, generally found demobbed soldiers were given priority. Marriage, it was deemed in official circles, would provide for the ladies. While some nurses who had been granted leave of absence from their prewar civilian posts for the duration of the conflict were fortunate enough to be accepted back into the fold, others received no such welcome. Awarded the prestigious Royal Red Cross and made a CBE for her war-time nursing services, Mabel Thurston was told by her civilian employers in 1918 that her long absence had “adversely affected the hospital,” and her appointment was terminated. Those who came home sick or exhausted but still keen to work for the military, nursing the many men who yet required care, could find themselves, after the most cursory examination by a male doctor, either summarily discharged or pronounced fit for duty, rather than given the chance to recuperate. After the Second World War, too, nurses returned to find the traditional roles of men and women unchanged, although the process of rehabilitation was better managed. Prewar jobs were held open and financial support was extended to those too ill to take advantage of this arrangement. An effort was also made to deal a fair hand to all nurses—those who had stayed behind to work on the home front as well as those who had ventured overseas. Nevertheless, anyone who hadn’t seen active service was unlikely to comprehend that experience, and the sense of dislocation for the returnee could be profound. Back in Christchurch, Margaret Webb felt she “could knock the Cathedral over with one hand . . . it seemed so small. And everything seemed just the same, nothing seemed to have altered. . . I don’t think they understood.” The lack of understanding became all too clear to Anne Sandford when she was in New Zealand on leave at the time of the Battle of Cassino. Almost in tears, she read aloud from the newspaper casualty list, shocked at the meagre expressions of sympathy from her companions who barely interrupted their discussion of butter rationing. I closed the back cover of While You’re Away at a familiar loss as to how I might mentally embrace the stark fact of the two world wars. Whenever I read about this period of history, I feel the same way. The sheer scale of the conflict, the powerlessness of the individual in the face of such upheaval, the numberless unspeakable acts of mutilation and annihilation—I just can’t get my head round it.I could only think that if ever I were a casualty of war and came to consciousness in a military hospital, what a salve it would be to find myself in the care of such gutsy, nurturing women as these.
The South African war was was New Zealand’s first opportunity to take part in an overseas war, and most New Zealanders were eager for the colony to become involved. Indeed, Premier Richard Seddon, reflecting the mood of imperial patriotism, pledged troops weeks before the conflict began.
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