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.