Angels in the meat-grinder, Les Cleveland

While You’re Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899-1948
Anna Rogers
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869403010

Nursing might be one of the few remaining professions not entirely driven by greed or self-interest. Anna Rogers assembles a chronicle of service by New Zealand nurses in last century’s wars that amply supports this dictum. She relies mostly on archival sources, books, articles and interviews with survivors, but there is the occasional anecdote or reminiscence that breathes extra life into the material and saves it from lapsing into a pedestrian narrative. Of some 68 illustrations, a number convey direct, memorable, visual impressions from the field: a group of nurses hiding in a cemetery during the retreat from Greece; the four occupants of the Popp Inn Nissen hut at Wisques in WWI; wounded men waiting to board the hospital ship Marama in 1917; and German POWs at a field hospital in France.

The book is an attempt to set the historical record straight by telling “the story of the New Zealand women who nursed overseas” and who enlisted for reasons of “duty, patriotism, adventure”. This approach avoids inconvenient ideological questions like whether, on moral grounds, women should have any part of war at all, let alone as partners in its dreadful, mangling machinery. Or whether as the equals of men they should have been conscripted for active service like a great many reluctant warriors in the two big world wars. The story moves from the work of New Zealand nurses in South Africa to the formation of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service and its adventures in WWI, and it takes in the involvement of New Zealand nurses in the Spanish Civil War and the extensive activities of the service in WWII. A chapter is devoted to the work of the voluntary aides who did so much of the unglamorous drudgery around the hospitals. Other chapters deal with nursing in the hospital ships and the activities of nurses in the Pacific and Japan. There is a concluding treatment of New Zealand nurses in other services and an interesting account of the sinking of the Marquette in 1915 when 10 New Zealand women perished.

Rogers makes out a case for New Zealand nurses as angels of mercy, who were more relaxed and adaptable than their British counterparts, but this may have been more a matter of style than any significant national characteristic. A more interesting question is how some nurses managed to withstand the psychological stress of dealing with battle casualties and with exposure to suffering on a repetitive, systematised scale.

Perhaps service protocols helped. So, too, the odd romance and the occasional wedding as well as the ability to crack a few jokes and jolly people along. We know that surgical teams sometimes relax the decorums of rank to banter with each other just as soldiers spin yarns, resort to pranks, sing crude songs and laugh at their superiors. The humourless 2NZEF command in WWII once tried to stop Kiwi soldiers from singing “Lili Marleen”, the one great song hit of WWII (can’t have people singing enemy songs), but the troops wouldn’t be gagged and came up with a parody instructing Peter Fraser (the wartime prime minister) to bring them all home or they would vote against him in the next election.

During the Italian campaign I once visited a friend in the main surgical ward of the big hospital in Senigallia. He had a shattered pelvis and was strung up in traction, enduring a lot of pain. To distract himself and the rest of the ward who were immobile in their own individual islands of suffering he sang snatches of light opera and Italian pop that beat a frantic counterpoint to the groans and mutterings of the other occupants. I crept humbly back to the line pondering the disturbing realisation that we were all enmeshed in a gigantic meat-grinder and were powerless to stop it. How could nurses and VADs endure such miseries day and night? How could they manage the stress of other people’s pain on a purgatorial scale? They couldn’t really kick up their heels and engage in escapist deviancy like the ordinary soldiery. They were symbols of propriety maintaining a cool social distance from the other ranks. Sightseeing and occasional leave may have helped, and Rogers describes them playing gramophone records in a WWI ward. Radio had therapeutic uses in WWII if you could access a receiver, but the wards were no rest-home.

Reading While You’re Away in the course of a long journey in the clutches of various airlines, I remembered that some nurses in fact had formidable reputations. We called one no-nonsense woman “Spandau” after the German machine gun of fearful capabilities. She was so forceful that even the Maori soldiers were frightened of her. In an interval of disturbed sleep somewhere over Arizona I dreamed that “Spandau” materialised as a flight attendant to announce that my leg would have to come off in the morning! One wonders if Rogers might have enriched her account by interrogating a few survivors about the grim actualities of care rather than relying on censored letters and the softened memories of oral history contributors.

For instance, Jim Henderson, author of Gunner Inglorious while in Lower Hutt Hospital getting an artificial limb fitted, collected songs, poems and doggerel to paste into his sister Hilary’s old dressmaking notebook. He concluded his collection with “Jolly Laughing Song” to the tune of “Broken Doll”, sung by WWI amputees at their hospital in Oatlands Park, Surrey:

I lost my poor old leg a year ago
They told me they were making legs for show
I soon learned what pain was
I thought I knew
My poor old stump is slowly turning red white and blue
The Matron said you’re walking very well
I told her she could take the leg to Hell
And as I limped away
All my comrades did say
I see you’ve got a “Rowley” too.
[A “Rowley” was probably the name of a WWI manufacturer of prosthetics].


Rogers concludes with a facile assertion about war and the work of nurses contributing to the forging of a mysterious New Zealand identity which has been invented by the writers of several popular histories in an attempt to make sense out of random chaos and meaningless catastrophe. Her account of the homecoming of several veteran nurses seems more significant than speculations about national identity. One woman (like many returned men) found it difficult to adjust to life in Christchurch: ”nothing seemed to have altered.” Others found that people weren’t particularly interested and “nobody seemed to want to know or hear about what had been going on over the past six years.”

Even more disconcerting was that, as far as the occupants of Christchurch and other Lilliputian citadels of respectable order and reassuring routine were concerned, the gender map of accepted relationships that defined men’s and women’s roles was unchanged. Arbeiten  does not make you free but merely imprisons you in the current web of expectations, illusions, impositions, outrages and follies as a devious preparation for the ultimate appointment with mortality that visits each one of us, some sooner than later.


Les Cleveland was a soldier in a rifle company in WWII. He is writing a social history of the 2NZEF rank and file in the Middle East and Italy.


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Posted in Health, History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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