11 November 2018 will mark one hundred years since the official end of the First World War. Over 18,000 New Zealand combatants were killed in the conflict, and many more were wounded or fell ill. Their experiences were so harrowing that most survivors, even years after returning to civilian life, would never speak of what they had endured during the ‘war to end all wars’.
Serving alongside them in that hellish world were the men and women of the New Zealand medical corps. A century on, Anna Roger has written a comprehensive history of this ‘other army’, which was charged, not with ending lives, but with saving them. The result is a rich tribute to the courage and compassion of those who worked “in appalling, perilous conditions and for inhumanely long hours” to alleviate the suffering of others.
With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War is a very handsome hardback production. The bright red lettering of the title leaps off the cover. The book is permeated with this colour – the colour of blood, and also of the Red Cross. It has a crimson spine, a crimson bookmark ribbon, and its chapters are separated by crimson page dividers. The design is crisp and clean, and the many illustrations are well-chosen and clearly reproduced. This is a volume that will grace any bookshelf or coffee table but don’t expect anyone who casually picks it up to merely flick through and then put it down. This book draws you in and doesn’t let you leave unchanged.
The combination of researched detail and high quality storytelling makes for compelling reading. It’s chock-full of factual information about the war’s chronology, geography and events, but wherever possible Rogers tells what happened through an intimate, thoroughly human lens, often utilising extracts from journals and personal letters. With Them Through Hell begins with the outbreak of war in 1914 but extends its reach far beyond the cessation of hostilities four years later, with attention also to post-war rehabilitation and to the ongoing disabilities and distress that reverberated on through the survivors’ lives (and through their families’ lives). Rogers takes a refreshingly multi-disciplinary approach, writing not only of the doctors and nurses, but also of the important roles played by stretcher-bearers, orderlies, ambulance drivers, dentists, chiropodists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, chaplains and veterinarians.
As well as suffering wounds caused by bullets and shells, troops were poorly nourished, plagued by lice and felled by disease and infection, including (but by no means limited to) measles, meningitis, dysentry, typhoid, venereal diseases, gum disease, trench foot and trench mouth (on the Western Front) and malaria (in the desert campaigns). Treatment was carried out wherever needed: in trenches, under canvas, in hospital ships and in repurposed buildings. Transport from the battlefield to treatment station could often be an excruciating business. In Palestine, for instance, the wounded were packed onto camel-borne stretchers (cacolets), which resulted in agonising rolling journeys across the sands.
With Them Through Hell is a gripping, well-researched and fluidly written history. It’s a milestone volume. Anna Rogers fully succeeds in her aim of ensuring that that the courage and compassion shown by the New Zealanders who cared for the wounded troops and animals in the First World War will never be forgotten.
With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War by Anna Rogers is published by Massey University Press, 2018.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
See also “My dearest Lizzie” by Pamela Wood.