The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-1918
Medical operations of the 17th September, 1916
Medical operations of the 17th September, 1916.
At 3 a.m. orders were issued by the XVth Corps for a resumption of the advance on the 18th. The divisions on the corps front were being relieved; the 41st on our right, by the 55th, whom we had previously relieved. The New Zealand Division alone remained unrelieved on the corps front. To our left, the doughty cockneys of the 47th Division also held out.page 208
By 4 a.m. the barrage on the Crest had slackened and the shell fire at Thistle Dump had so abated that the horsed ambulances were once more able to get up to the advanced A.D.S. The bearers were stated to be "on their last legs" and if more casualties were to occur, they would be unable to carry on. No. 3 Field Ambulance reached Green Dump before dawn and the O.C. Lieut.-Col. Hardie Neil, after reconnoitring the position as far as Bogle's Post found it impossible to get cars down the Flers—Longueval road; consequently, wounded would still have to be carried to Thistle Dump, the nearest point to a road open for vehicular traffic. Captain Gilmour, N.Z.M.C., with 30 infantrymen detailed to act as bearers had proceeded early to Bogle's Post where it was reported there were still some 80 stretcher cases; another party of 95 bearers under Captain Kemp, N.Z.M.C., had advanced at daylight from Thistle Dump. The combined parties soon cleared, and by 10 a.m. Major Martin by personal reconnaissance was able to report that the fateful R.A.P. was practically clear. Captain Reid of No. 1 New Zealand Field Ambulance relieved Captain Bogle, killed in action; Major Martin, Captain Robertson and Captain Prior remained on at the post during the morning.
Lieut.-Col. Hardie Neil, by 10 o'clock, had finally decided to establish his A.D.S. near Carlton trench at Green Dump about 600 yards to the east of Thistle Dump A.D.S., and near the Longueval-Bazentin road down which stretchers could be carried. His Brigade Headquarters were near at hand, and he was fortunate to be able to utilise a large dugout built by the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion when they were camped there prior to the arrival of the division; it had two tunnelled entrances 36ft. long and sufficiently wide to admit stretchers to a central chamber 9ft by 40ft which was suitable for use as a dressing room.
By noon the last of the wounded of the N.Z.R.B. were brought in, a heavy barrage was still falling and there were casualties amongst the stretcher parties; some of the bearers, who showed symptoms of gassing, had to be evacuated. At 3 p.m. the shelling about Bogle's Post became very violent, it was much exposed to view from the enemy positions about Gueudecourt, some 3000 yards away to the right. The few wounded remaining were hurriedly brought into the dugouts or the most sheltered positions; while doing this Major Martin was wounded by shrapnel in the abdomen, the face and the neck. A stretcher party was immediately organised by Captain Prior to carry him back to the A.D.S. at Thistle Dump, he passed through the A.D.S. at Flat Iron Copse page 209at 5 p.m. and, in one of our own cars, proceeded to the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Amiens, where he was operated on; but he died the same evening. Captain Bogle's body was brought in during the afternoon by the Rev. C. Huchen, Chaplain to the 1st N.Z.R.B. and buried in the cemetery at Montauban.
During the day there had been a very heavy bombardment of our front trenches and at Flers. At 5 p.m. the "A" branch detailed a party of 200 men of the 2nd Brigade to search for wounded and clear all the ground between the Flers and the Switch trenches. Major McCormack, N.Z.M.C. 2nd Field Ambulance went out in charge of this party. All R.A.P.'s were reported clear. The search party returned at midnight: they found no wounded lying out, the ground was clear—they brought in no wounded except their own casualties.
We will again take up Captain John's narrative for the 17th: "The next day, Sunday, they opened up on the village with their artillery and gave us beans all that afternoon and night. I expected a shell through the dressing station any minute. Everywhere else we were getting it; we had tear gas into the bargain. It was very curious, our eyes began to smart and run for no apparent reason, fortunately they did not give us any of the real gas." From Captain John's R.A.P. in Flers, the most advanced, the carry was now about two and a Quarter miles as far as Thistle Dump, and about the same to Green Dump, from which point a further carriage by hand of three-quarters of a mile was necessary in order to reach the cars at Montauban; but the best route was still through Thistle Dump. Orders were issued this night for a resumption of the offensive on the 21st. Heavy rain was falling so delaying the operations. A congratulatory message came in from the Army commander, General Rawlinson, expressing high praise of the fine fighting spirit, the admirable energy and dash displayed by the New Zealand Division.
The week had opened in heavy rain which continued incessantly until Wednesday; the remainder of the week was dull and cloudy, so hindering preparations for a further offensive. The roads and the fore-field were now very difficult to negotiate: all further operations on a large scale were postponed until the 24th Meanwhile minor operations still continued and very determined and costly trench fighting raged on our front in so adjusting our line and flanks as to give the division a dominating position, and the upper hand against the Bavarians. During the day of the 18th the 8th Londons came up on our left fighting their way through Drop Alley; while our right flank was establishing a firm page 210junction with the 55th Division. The famous Quadrilateral was taken and the French had marked successes near Deniecourt. The casualties in the New Zealand Division reported up to this date were over 3000.
On the 19th, in the heavy rain, the bearers were much delayed by the mud; it was taking four hours to complete the trip to the Flers A.D.S. and back with a loaded stretcher through the churned up crater area. The motor ambulances too, were held up by the bad condition of the roads, but by 3 p.m. all R.A.P.'s were reported clear. Extra blankets and stretchers were now pushed up to the R.M.O.'s of the 1st Brigade holding the line. There was considerable shell fire in Flers where some of the New Zealand Sanitary Section were now engaged in testing the three wells located there and which our N.Z.E. were attempting to develop. The sanitary section reported the water to be free from metallic poisons and to be serviceable with chlorination. Of the condition of the fore-field, Captain Johns tells up something: "On Monday night we were relieved and went back about two and a half miles [to Green Dump] for a few days' rest—the most miserable night I've ever spent. We were about three hours floundering about in the mud and the shell holes. Talk about mud at this place! I never saw anything like it in my life—a regular sea of mud—it was so jolly slippery that now and again you would fall full length into it. We arrived absolutely mud from head to foot. I had about half my battalion on sick parade the next morning." It rained hard all that night and no one can doubt but that the allegedly resting brigade bad a very wretched time in their bivouacs. It cleared somewhat during the morning of the 19th, but there was a marked increase in the numbers of sick admitted to the C.C.P. Dysentery had broken out amongst the troops on the Somme, and a few cases of trench foot were being evacuated from the front line. A supply of fresh socks and whale oil was finding its way, with difficulty as may be imagined, to the trenches.
There was bloody trench fighting on the 20th and 21st, at the junction between our left and the 1st Division who had now relieved the hard tried Londoners. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had 150 casualties about Drop Alley in this operation, and the work of clearing the stretcher cases, already very difficult on account of the mud, was much impeded by a gas and H.E. barrage let down between Highwood and Delville wood; masks or goggles had to be worn by the bearers and several suffering from the effects of the gas had to be evacuated. page 211100 men of the 1st Brigade were detailed to assist in the work; they were now able to use portion of a communication trench or avenue called "Turk Trench" a work of giants put through by our Maori Pioneers in an incredibly short time, it traversed the crest and permitted the carriage of stretchers. The going beyond was very heavy, there was some shelling, six bearers were required to each stretcher, the time taken for the return trip, five hours, so that the R.A.P.'s were not clear until 11.45 p.m.
That day a congratulatory message was received by the A.D.M.S. from the D.M.S. of the Fourth Army, which read as follows:—"The D.M.S. Fourth Army, and the D.D.M.S. XVth Corps desire to make known to all ranks of the N.Z.M.C. their appreciation of the work done during the recent operations: the arrangements for evacuation of wounded and the successful way in which these arrangements worked, met with their special approbation. Casualty clearing stations report that the treatment of all New Zealand wounded evacuated to them has reached a very high standard, and that no cases have been evacuated without having received anti-tetantic serum. The D.M.S. has communicated as above to the D.G.M.S., commanders of medical units and regimental officers will communicate this to all ranks under their command." This flattering message was duly published in medical corps orders and gave considerable encouragement everywhere to all ranks of the N.Z.M.C. Up to this date some 3423 casualties had been sustained by the division, of these, 2428 wounded, 495 killed, and 450 missing; of the wounded, over 2000 had been tended by the N.Z.M.C whose losses up to the 21st had been 5 officers, 66 O.R. killed or wounded. During the lull in the fighting it was found possible to rest the bearers, a section at a time.
We now may be permitted a moment to review the train of events that had befallen since the opening of the engagement. The casualties in the medical corps seemed inevitable owing to the very heavy and continuous shell fire and the very long routes of evacuation. Bearers were killed even in front of the A.D.S. at Flat Iron Copse; no place seemed to be exempt The loss of two such brilliant officers as Bogle and Martin on the same day, and at the same post, was keenly felt by the corps. Martin was a dexterous surgeon, endowed with a maximal energy and indomitable courage. After a brilliant career as a student at Edinburgh he served in the South African war, and after taking his fellowship returned to New Zealand where he was appointed surgeon to the Palmerston North Hospital. In 1914 he page 212was in America doing post graduate work, and on the outbreak of war had returned to England where he at once joined the R.A.M.C. going to the 15th Field Ambulance B.E.F. in September, just a few days before the fighting at the Aisne where he merited a mention in despatches for gallant and distinguished services; later he was appointed a surgeon specialist to the 6th General Hospital at Rouen. He returned to New Zealand in 1915, and, as we have seen, sat on the Trentham Camp Commission as a medical member. In February, 1916, he joined the Rifle Brigade Field Ambulance of which he was senior Major. His book "A Surgeon in Khaki," published in 1916, made him known and admired by a wide circle of readers, but to his friends his breezy nature, his attractive personality, and his strong, confident optimism, made him very dear, while in the field he was bold, resolute, resourceful and brave to a fault. He was not to be spared; we could ill afford to lose him. So equally, of Bogle, who was undoubtedly the best R.M.O. in the division. An Edinburgh rugby "blue," he was a leader in all forms of athleticism. He joined the 1st Battalion of the N.Z.R.B. in 1915, and sailed for Egypt in October, seeing service at Mersa Matruh during the Senussi rising. His brother officers of the battalion held him in the highest esteem, they found that to his men he was a real friend, trusted, beloved, and appealed to in every difficulty; no day's work was ever too long for him no duty too irksome. One officer of the battalion wrote of him:—"He was the finest gentlemen it has ever been my good fortune to meet. His capable and untiring work have been the admiration of us all; where all men were heroes his courage shone conspicuously. He always seemed so absolutely part of the battalion—in the mess— on the march—in the field, and was always so helpful to everybody that there is no one who could be so missed by officers and men." The three days, having cost us three medical officers wounded—Captain Duncan, Captain Brown and Captain Good of the 2nd Otago Battalion—and two killed, the A.D.M.S. issued special instructions to medical officers warning them to avoid needless exposure, and he instructed the field ambulance commanders not to proceed beyond their advanced dressing stations except under very special circumstances.
At the Corps collecting post Lieut-Col. O'Neil had devised a well organised scheme for dealing with the large numbers of wounded sick and stragglers, sometimes reaching a total of over 3000 in a day, coming down from the corps front in the 21 ambulance cars, 15 char-a-bancs and 7 lorries utilised in this service. By the use of extra marquees, some timber, many ammunition boxes and a few tarpaulin covers, a series of rooms had been constructed—the ordinary tentage of the field ambulances was of course quite inadequate for so large an establishment. The patients on arrival passed into a receiving room where they were seen by a medical officer called a "spotting" officer. His duty it was to sort out the more urgent cases so that they might have immediate attention and to place on stretchers and evacuate immediately to C.M.D.S. such wounded as were obviously not "sitting" cases but whose injuries were of a more serious nature. On leaving the reception room the patients filed through a recording office where the A.F.W. 3210 "buff slips" and the A.F.W. 3118 field medical card, not yet completed, but enclosed in the waterproof envelope were tied to the soldier's tunic. Other clerks in this department were constantly engaged in compiling the A. and D. books of the unit and the Form A.36, a nominal roll of casualties, and the A.F.W. 3185, a daily summary of evacuations by divisions; of these, A36 was the more important as it was the document by which casualties by name were notified to the base. With his "buff slip" and his field medical card, the wounded man was conducted to the waiting and refreshment room where, on seats improvised from ammunition boxes and warmed by charcoal braziers, he was regaled with hot drinks, food and cigarettes. In his turn the now somewhat comforted man was admitted to the dressing room where he first received his injection of A.T.S., the operation duly noted on his field card, buff slip, and on his wrist, where a large "T" in indelible ink was inscribed by the specially trained medical orderlies who alone controlled this department. Passing now into the hands of the medical officers his wounds were redressed, if necessary, and such surgical treatment as was demanded by splinting, removal of small superficial foreign bodies and so forth, was given, which being done the medical officer entered a description of the injury on the buff slip and the field medical card which was returned to its envelope and remained attached to the man, but the buff slip, purely an inter-departmental chit, passed back to the record page 215office now bearing the official diagnosis and by its means the A36 was compiled. Great accuracy was required in the entries in the A. and D. books, and in the A36, as may be readily understood, as they furnished a permanent record of the man's injury and disposal. Behind the dressing rooms were two marquees marked respectively C.C.S. and C.R.S. (corps rest station), into these tents, also warmed by braziers, the men proceeded: cases requiring hospital treatment, for C.C.S.; others who might be anticipated to recover after a few days' rest, to the C.R.S. And as they accumulated, in batches of 25, they were marched to the evacuating officer. Separate roads for incoming and outgoing traffic had been delimited and later well metalled with broken bricks from the ruins of Bécordel. The average load of a char-a-banc was 25, of a motor lorry, 18, of a M.A.C. Car, 7 sitters; so the evacuating officer, after due scrutiny of the destination marked on the envelope of their field cards, disposed them and despatched them on their voyage to the rear. The sick of course passed through a separate channel on similar lines and those who were found to be clearly battle stragglers without obvious disability were marked R.T.D. for return to duty. They were well fed, and housed for the night, and in the morning handed over, after a final medical examination, to the police post, ultimately reaching the reinforcement camp from which they were despatched, re-equipped and foraged, to their respective units in the line. An ingenious device elaborated by one of our N.C.O.s provided illuminated signs which served by night to indicate the various departments to incoming traffic and groups of patients. The rate of evacuations from the C.C.P. was usually 100 per hour on busy occasions. Of conditions at the M.D.S. we will speak later on; we must now resume the narrative of our further operations.
The preparatory bombardment for the battle of the 25th began on the 24th, leading to an increasing enemy fire somewhat interfering with movement about Thistle Dump, where there was a great concentration of our guns. The new advance was to be on a large scale, covering six miles, the French Army and the Fifth Army were co-operating. On the Fourth Army front, Morval, Les Boeufs, and Gueudecourt were to be taken and the last organised enemy system, the Gird trenches, were to be wrested from the Bavarians. It was hoped that our cavalry would be able to get through near Gueudecourt, when a general advance might have been possible; the morale of the German Divisions in front was said to be badly shaken. It was known to us that the Bavarians in front had lost very heavily during the past page 216few days. The task of the New Zealand Division was to take the Sugar Factory corner in front of Flers and a portion of the Gird system, where it seemed, the battle field ended, as beyond it there were smiling fields and standing crops and leafy trees. The distance to the final objectives was about one mile, it was to be accomplished in two separate movements; the first, covering a little less than half the distance, took place on the 25th; the final forward movement on the 27th.
In preparation for the forthcoming operations, the A.D.M.S. had made certain important dispositions. In consultation with the combatant branch, new R.A.P. sites were selected: in Flers, in a deep German dugout; and in the vicinity of Bogle's Post, where a new bearer relay post was formed, approachable along the Turk trench. All these posts were made splinter proof by our engineers. Thistle Dump was also somewhat strengthened and was to be used as an advanced A.D.S. despatching wounded direet to the corps stations. Officers commanding brigades were instructed to keep the A.D.S. parties informed as to the disposition of casualties and indicate the localities in which they were likely to be found. Owing to our heavy losses in medical personnel, the A.D.M.S. made further provisions for minimising these losses. First as regards the regimental officers: they were supplied with steel breastplates—Dayfield body shields—as issued to bombers; they were instructed to exercise care in avoiding needless exposure and to direct operations—after they had moved forward with the final wave of their battalions—entirely from the positions selected as R.A.P.'s by their commanding officers, and from which they were not to move. The medical officers in charge of forward evacuations were also to be provided with body shields—all medical officers at this time wore steel helmets when beyond the A.D.S.—and that they were not to visit R.A.P.'s with bearer parties once contact had been established; but that the parties should be led by senior N.C.O.'s. These recommendations became orders and had the sanction of Divisional Headquarters. The weather had now cleared and the ground had hardened somewhat.
Medical Operations 25th, 26th and 27th September, 1916.
The 1st New Zealand Brigade, the attackers, had completed the relief of the 3rd N.Z.R.B. by 6 a.m. on the 25th; zero hour was fixed for 12,30 p.m. By noon the ambulance bearers were in touch with all R.A.P.'s, a certain number detailed to act as runners for the R.M.O.'s. The new bearer relay post had been reinforced by parties from Thistle Dump. At 2, a heavy bombardment by our guns announced the opening of the attack and page 217some 40 minutes later the 1st Brigade had attained its objectives. The cavalry pushed out beyond Gueudecourt and in the afternoon the New Zealand Division received a warning order that it hold itself in readiness to advance. By 5 p.m. nearly all wounded were in, several Germans amongst them. At no time were the attackers subjected to a great volume of fire, our losses were not considerable. 1st Canterbury who had the right of the attack at Sugar Factory corner were attended by their trusty R.M.O., Captain Johns, whose account of the battle is worth reading, he says:—"After a few days' rest we went up to the same village [Flers], and took over the same show. At first we got to the wrong end of the village and struck a hot lot of shrapnel, but eventually got to our right place without losing anybody. But there was not much sleep that night as the wounded were coming in pretty freely." [Lieut.-Col. Murray reports clearing 50 stretcher cases that night, 24/25.] "The battalion had an attack the next day. Wounded and prisoners began to flow in after midday; we had the show full of wounded when crash, came a shell through the roof—killed one man, gave my corporal a bang on the back which shot him out through the door, hit me on the elbow, and filled the place with dust. Two German wounded got up and fled, the third, a German Colonel, was pinned down by a beam and died just as we got him out." This officer was the Colonel commanding the 13th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, his Battalion Headquarters had been at Sugar Factory Corner. Bearers were instructed to keep in close touch with the front line in view of a possible counter attack; but the night passed quietly enough. The day's operations had been successful everywhere; Morval and Les Boeufs were taken, the Fourth Army and the French had advanced at all points along the six mile front. The day of the 26th passed without any change in our position, but the guns were busy all day; the wounded came in freely. The bearers now worked in greater safety owing to the fact that they could use Turk trench, so well dug by our Pioneers, which provided 2,700 yards of excellent communication operable as far as Bogle's Post Our losses for the two days amounted only to 44 killed, 235 wounded. On other parts of the front there were marked successes: Combles was at last pinched out by the French; on our left the fortress of Thiepval and the Hohenzollern redoubt fell, giving us clear possession of the whole of the Thiepval-Morval ridge. The enemy was denied all advantages of high ground and in front of us was a country of wheat and barley fields and pleasant villages as yet untouched by shell fire. But page 218there still remained the formidable Gird system to be crossed. The attack was planned for the following day, the 27th, the artillery preparation had been going since the 25th, now under direct observation.
The morning of the 27th was quiet, the weather fine, all the movements of the enemy were fully in view; at 7.30 a.m., two Bavarian ambulance waggons could be seen approaching the ruined Abbey at Eaucourt, they remained a while to pick up wounded from the dressing station there, and retired unmolested on a good road towards the village of Le Barque, whose inquisitive church steeple peered at our lines behind its fringe of trees just a mile and a half from the factory corner. On our side the country was so torn and shattered that we could find no road for the conveyance of wounded nearer than two and three-quarter miles from our front line. The attack of the 1st Brigade was launched at 2.15 p.m. and was accompanied by an intense barrage. The 1st "Wellington Battalion on the right penetrated the Gird system with ease and soon found touch with the 55th Division on our right. 1st Canterbury followed on the left; the 1st Auckland Battalion ran into M.G. fire and eventually reached Canterbury's left, but 1st Otago had a difficult task: along the left flank of their advance lay the strongly held "Goose Alley" its junction with the Gird System, 1200 yards ahead, was their objective. Three companies advanced in the open, one company bombing its way up Goose Alley; in the three companies, in the open, there were very heavy casualties from M.G. fire or shrapnel; the bombing company was held up near the junction and was obliged to put a stop in; the situation for a time "remained obscure." A tank was detailed to assist, and portion of the Rifle Brigade was put under Brigadier General Earle Johnson, C.B., to complete his closure of the left flank.
At 2.30 p.m. the bearers reached the Otago R.A.P. which Captain Prior had established in a cutting in the North road running from Flers to the Abbey at Eaucourt; by 4.30 walking wounded were coming through the Plat Iron, a few reaching Green Dump by the Flers road, but by 5.30 p.m. there was a heavy enemy barrage covering the Goose Alley. Captain Johns gives us some account of what happened that night:—"The next day [the 27th] the Battalion Headquarters moved up, I shifted out of the village of Flers further along a road to a dressing station, to be nearer my battalion as there was another attack on the same afternoon. We had no sooner got to it than the shells began to whistle about us and machine guns pumped in bullets on page 219our left; the corporal got up the bank to see what was happening and got a bullet through his chest. I thought he was a goner at first but be pulled round and now is doing well. He got a Military Medal for work on the Peninsula and was also mentioned in despatches. He was a good chap and it was hard to lose him. However, we carried on with the water duty corporal and the batman, and had a great night of it. The Wellington Doctor put his lights out and went to bed, the Otago Doctor [Prior] was out looking for his wounded contrary to orders and as we were the final R.A.P. on the road from the scrap we had to take everybody who came our way. Thanks to the regimental stretcher bearers and later on other bearers, the lines were kept wonderfully free of wounded."
At 2 a.m. on the 28th the medical situation was clearer, extra bearers were sent up to the neighbourhood of Goose Alley. During the night 109 stretcher cases and 198 sitting and walking cases passed through the Flat Iron A.D.S.; the wounds were chiefly caused by M.G. fire and shrapnel, and there was a very large proportion of compound thigh and compound leg fractures. The regimental stretcher bearers of the Otago Battalion were nearly all killed or wounded and many wounded were still lying out at 7 a.m. on the 28th, so that 6 squads of ambulance bearers had to be sent to Captain Prior to assist his few remaining regimental stretcher bearers. Further, a disaster had befallen the 4th Battalion of the N.Z.R.B.: their tank did not materialise, they were caught by shrapnel at their assembly point; their losses were considerable. Divisional Headquarters decided to cancel the further attack. Our losses were now known to be heavy: by 11 a.m. 119 stretcher cases and 227 walking had passed through the A.D.S. and at 9 p.m. all available bearers were out: 200 blankets were carried up to the R.A.P.'s. Through the ensuing night many cases were brought in with severe compound fractures of the lower limbs who had been lying out in shell holes since the afternoon of the 27th, ungetatable and, in some instances, the wounds were now very foul. The carry had increased to three miles of hand carriage from Factory Corner. It was now very difficult to get rations and water up in limbers along the Longueval-Flers road, furthermore the road was frequently barraged and could be of no use for horsed ambulances. Our total casualties reported for the 27th and 28th were:— 55 killed, 52 missing, 259 wounded, total 366.
The morning of the 29th was misty. By 7 a.m. the relief of the 1st Brigade was complete; nearly all the wounded were in, page 220few were now coming through the dressing stations. Fresh runners from the field ambulances were sent up to the R.A.P.'s and by the afternoon the battle field was wholly clear. The added casualties reported on this day, the 29th, brought our total losses up to 76 killed, 56 missing, 487 wounded, total 519, which was less than originally anticipated.
At Green Dump a strange fatality befell; there was a fair amount of shell fire there in the afternoon while the O.C. No. 3 Field Ambulance, a genial host, was preparing a recherche dinner for some of the battalion commanders of the 1st Brigade newly come in. An ill-fated 5.9, unbidden guest, fell upon his kitchen burying both the assistant cook and the dinner; the cook was a total loss, but the dinner, a joint of roast beef, was at length unearthed in the shell hole by some enterprising fossikers; but everybody preferred bully beef au naturel. The dinner otherwise was a great success. The same day 2 N.Z.M.C. men were injured by exploding Mill's grenades which they had inadvertently kicked. Half buried in the mud that held the rusted pin in place a stumbling foot frequently set free the spring and was shattered by the explosion. Green Dump was studded with these jettisoned grenades,