St Nicholas Church
You’re standing at St Nicholas Church in the area of what was a large hospital complex taken over by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1916. This is Brockenhurst, and this was where New Zealand doctors and nurses worked to treat New Zealand wounded.
To support the many thousands of New Zealand soldiers arriving in England, a huge chain of training camps and medical facilities were established. Inevitably New Zealand soldiers spent time in more than one of these camps, either for training, medical attention, or awaiting repatriation back to New Zealand. Sling Camp near Salisbury was famous for being the first place most New Zealand reinforcements arrived at for refresher training before being sent to the Western Front.
Sling Camp was soon overflowing and so Brocton was established to train the Rifle Brigade. Other camps were set up for specialist training with the machine gunners at Grantham, the artillery at Ewshot, the engineers and Māori pioneers at Boscombe. In addition convalescent soldiers were first sent to Hornchurch and once fit were sent to Codford to harden them up before being sent back to the front. Brockenhurst was one of two New Zealand hospitals where soldiers found themselves after being evacuated from the Western Front.
There was already a New Zealand Hospital established at Walton-on-Thames, but with the move of the New Zealand Division to France and the escalation of the war in general, it became obvious that more hospitals were needed. Brockenhurst became one of three major general hospitals established in the United Kingdom to support the flow of New Zealand patients.
We are very busy here and have been for sometime now. This last engagement (Messines) seems to have been a ghastly affair as far as our men are concerned. One scarcely dare allow themselves to think of the many sad homes it will have made. The men are simply splendid. One never hears them growl.
Torquay and Brighton were also established as convalescent homes to take soldiers who would never be fit for combat again, and who were awaiting repatriation back to New Zealand. The English channel was constantly busy with ships ferrying troops back and forth between the hospitals and camps in the United Kingdom, and the bases in France and Belgium.
“[We] arrived at Southampton about 4.00a.m. next morning after a beautifully smooth trip. We boarded another train and arrived at this place after a short run of about half an hour. This is purely a N.Z. Hospital and is practically in the country. There is accommodation for 500 patients. The buildings are temporary affairs but well equipped.”
Wounded New Zealanders evacuated from France and Belgium who arrived in Dover would be sent to Walton, while those evacuated to Portsmouth or Southampton were sent to Brockenhurst.
New Zealand was very advanced in its approach to dental treatment - the field ambulances were the first to have dentists as part of the establishment. Each New Zealand Hospital had its own dental unit which could treat both minor to serious cases. It was a vast improvement to those first days on Gallipoli, where if you broke your dental plate, you had to be evacuated to Egypt.
New Zealand doctors were also at the forefront of plastic surgery, with Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill leading the way in facial reconstruction. Pickerill was famous for his pioneering work in jaw reconstruction, and Gillies - was widely considered to be the father of plastic surgery. Both men made significant advances in medicine and thereby gave hundreds, if not thousands, of mutilated men a future. There were also several hundred New Zealand nurses working here at Brockenhurst, and around the United Kingdom and in France and Belgium.
The injuries caused by bullet, shrapnel and shell tested the skills of the medical staff. The damage caused by a high velocity bullet was horrendous. The enormous gapping exit wound was out of all proportion to the small incision on entry. Vital organs were destroyed and bones shattered. Artillery caused the greatest number of casualties, men would have their limbs blown off by high explosive rounds with thousands losing arms and legs.
Men would arrive, peppered with shrapnel and it the surgeons task to remove it all.
“Terrible, terrible wounds. The bullets aren’t so bad but the shrapnel from exploding shells is ghastly. It cuts great gashes, ripping muscles and bones to shreds. 39 men have died on board [the hospital ship] so far and every one suffered great pain and discomfort.”
Charlotte (Lottie) Le Gallais
Often men had to live with these fragments for the rest of their lives, sometimes they would gradually work their way out over the years, the body's way of slowly rejecting foreign elements.
There were plenty of gas injuries as well, with victims blinded, sometimes permanently, by the gases used - mainly Mustard or ‘Yperite gas’ and Chlorine. Many of the survivors would feel these effects for the rest of their lives, and Mustard gas in particular had a nasty, lingering effect. Some victims had to sleep sitting up, because if they lay down the damage caused to their lungs meant that they would drown in their own phelgm.
Every conceivable type of injury, many of which people would never have survived before this war, were now being succesfully treated. Despite the scale, and the types of wounds, it was a creative era for medicine, with great leaps forward. The Thomas splint was created for thigh injuries. The loss of blood from thigh wounds normally killed most men, but the use of the Thomas splint meant that they had a much higher chance of survival and could be transported much more easily. Treatment of gas gangrene and tetanus with serum was saving more lives, and the advancement of hygiene, and operating procedures had all improved greatly.
The present-day methods of treating wounds have simplified things so much that patients are not living in constant apprehension of being daily tortured by having their dressings done.
From 1917 onwards, blood banks were created in the lead up to battles, and successful blood transfusions were completed. There were also those with no visible scars who suffered from ‘Shell-Shock’ as it was known. Right across the spectrum, a greater number of men were surviving their injuries, this had a knock-on effect it became the New Zealand governments’ responsibility in terms of rehabilitation centres, and sanitoriums and this work continued on into the 1920s and 1930s.
From 1 May 1916 until the last boatload sailed for home, there were 70,000 admissions of New Zealanders into hospitals in the United Kingdom. Walton-on-Thames admitted 25,000 and Brockenhurst over 20,000. You can imagine these injured men, being treated here in these grounds, and the nurses, doctors and medical staff, working hard to save their lives. Those who didn’t make it, are buried nearby in the 93 graves, at the cemetery in St Nicholas Church.