22 Apr 2015

New Zealand's unsung WW1 heroes

11:28 am on 22 April 2015

From the first days of fighting at Gallipoli, the New Zealand nurses who worked on hospital ships and in field hospitals were some of the First World War's unsung heroes.

New Zealand nurses on board SS Rotorua,  May 1916.

New Zealand nurses on board 'SS Rotorua', May 1916 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

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The first nurses to arrive off the coast of Gallipoli did so in August 1915, on board the hospital ship Maheno, while others were stationed at the hospitals in Egypt that received many of the wounded from Gallipoli.

The ship's arrival coincided with the bloodiest part of the eight-month long campaign.

The Maheno was requisitioned from the Union Steam Ship Company and refitted as a hospital ship at Port Chalmers in May 1915 before heading overseas.

It carried 14 nurses, along with doctors, orderlies and crew.

Gavin McLean, a historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, wrote a history of hospital ships, The White Ships.

He said after news of the horrific casualty rate at Gallipoli reached home, urgent steps were taken to outfit the Maheno.

On arrival off Anzac Cove, the nurses quickly found themselves close to the action.

"Gallipoli was such a disaster. There was no separation between the front-line and the rear as on the Western Front. So the hospital ships were literally within gunfire and, in some cases, even the machine gunfire from the Turks."

Mr McLean said the Turks did observe the Geneva and Hague Conventions.

He said, while conditions on board for the nurses were good, they were a godsend for the wounded.

"You were within spitting or firing distance of the Turks all of the time, so to be able to get aboard a New Zealand steamship with New Zealand accents, with beds, with sheets and fresh bread - the men all talked about fresh bread and butter. Simple things that just were not available at Gallipoli."

Nurse and patients in NZ Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France

Nurse and patients in NZ Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Anna Rogers wrote a history of New Zealand nurses at war in her book While You're Away.

She said nurses from this country were keen to serve overseas but there was an initial reluctance to call on their services.

"Britain had said that they didn't want any New Zealand nurses and they didn't need any and our government just followed the party line and, if that is what the Empire said, then that is what they would do.

"It took a while for them to work through that and to realise that actually we should be sending nurses from here particularly to nurse our own men."

The first New Zealand nurses to serve overseas were posted to Samoa in 1914, and the first nurses to serve under the command of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service were sent to Egypt in early April 1915.

Sheryl Kendall co-wrote (with David Corbett) A History of the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps Boer War to the Present Day, which she is currently updating.

She said the nurses, both on land and at sea, worked long hours under very trying conditions.

New Zealand nurses on board HMHS Egypt.

New Zealand nurses on board 'HMHS Egypt' Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

"The men were coming in, they were extremely dirty, filthy and many of them were infested with lice, which meant the nurses had to be extremely careful and they were rushing off every now and then to check themselves, to make sure that they didn't have any extra passengers."

The Maheno made a number of trips shuttling the wounded from Gallipoli to Lemnos, in Greece, and Alexandria, in Egypt.

Ms Kendall said the work on board would have been relentless.

"All wards would have had to be scrubbed clean. Fumigated and beds changed and dressings prepared ready for the next lot [patients] to come on, so there was very little time for any relaxation at all and it would have been pretty stressful, I would imagine."

Mr Rogers said the medical care given to the wounded was professional and up-to-date for the time.

"It would look barbaric to us, because of course there were no antibiotics and all of those sort of things that we take for granted, but in terms of being up-to-date for their day and well trained, there was no doubt about that."

In October 1916, 10 New Zealand nurses drowned after the transport ship they were on, the Marquette, was torpedoed in the Aegan Sea.

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