Nine Elms British Cemetery
You’re standing in Nine Elms Cemetery on the outskirts of Poperinge - or ‘Pop’ as the British called it. If you look in the direction of Ypres on your left, Poperinge is on the route from the coast, where all the logistics, supplies, artillery, ammunition, horses, and men came by road and rail. The supplies coming into the Ypres Salient were vital in supporting the forces at the front, and they would all pass through Poperinge, which was the major supply centre.
For the New Zealand Division on the frontline facing Passchendaele, it would take a stretcher party of six around four-to-six hours to carry a wounded man to St Jean, which was the Advanced Dressing Station. After that, the wounded would go either by lightrail or ambulance back to the transfer point at the canal in Ypres itself - which was known as the ‘dead end’. From Ypres, the wounded were evacuated back to the hospitals in this area where you are now.
The British had built a network of light railways around Ypres to support their supply lines and to ferry troops around. From February 1917, there was a New Zealand light railway company operating from Poperinge.
At 5.30 we are ready to leave with eight wagon-loads of men. To Bedford Junction – about three miles – we have a good run, as the road is comparatively good, but forward of there it is necessary to use caution, as the line is constantly being blown about by Fritz. We are now amongst the artillery, and the roar and concussion of the guns close to the lines is somewhat disconcerting – especially when invisible monsters suddenly let go just behind you. Fritz is shelling a low ridge about 200 yards from the line and the rip and roar of the big shell bursts add to the general din.
NZ Railways guard
It was in Poperinge that Sergeant Dave Gallaher, the captain of the original All Blacks, whose grave you’re standing at, arrived - mortally wounded. He had been hit in the face with shrapnel, in the fighting around Korek Farm during the attack on 4 October at Gravenstafel - and he would have been lucky to arrive here at all. His story is replicated all around you.
When you walk through here and look at the various New Zealand headstones, look at the dates. There are men who died here on 4, 5, 6, and 7 October, obviously badly wounded and dying in the hospital. As you following the headstones, it becomes clear that the ambulances faced even more difficulty getting here on the 12th, because by then the rains had started and the road was clogged. It was a nightmare journey back here to the hospitals.
The conditions of cold, wet, and mud were much worse on the 12th, and the carry by stretcher bearers had extended to 6,000 yards in some instances. Many infantry had to help to clear the field, as it required seven hours for six bearers to bring down a case to the Advanced Dressing Station. Arrangements were made to gather the wounded into such shelter as was available and they were supplied with blankets and fed until it was possible to remove them.
Poperinge was ringed with Allied hospitals, each with their own cemeteries.
‘The weather was vile, the wounded were brought in in a dreadful condition. Solid masses of mud, it was so hard trying to get them out of their khaki, especially when the mud had had long enough to harden.’
The hospitals themselves looked like a series of marquees, linked up by interconnecting duckboards. With the huge number of casualties coming in, the British had to operate a sophisticated medical system. Within the New Zealand Division, the director of medical services would coordinate where the dressing stations, formed by field ambulances, would be set up, where the shell-shock cases would be sent, where the walking wounded would be treated, where the surgical teams would be needed, and which forward-dressing stations would need extra stretcher bearers.
All of this was planned in anticipation of the battle, and it worked very well on 4 October. However, the system broke down with the second attack on the 9th. The additional wounded - that hadn’t been cleared - put immense strain on the medical system, and by the 12th, as casualties flooded in, it was at breaking point. Even though this was a very large medical complex, it simply couldn’t cope with the amount of stretcher cases. The mud was knee-deep, and any walking wounded, trying to make their way back, would often wind up needing a stretcher, after becoming exhausted by their efforts. The sheer quantity of stretcher cases swamped the ability of the medical services. To cope, two infantry brigades were brought in to assist as stretcher bearers.
After the New Zealand attack on the 12th, it took around three days to clear all the wounded. The unlucky severely wounded cases, lying out in the mud and the wet, were either going to die from hypothermia or - worse - gas gangrene. Gas gangrene was a deadly bacterial disease, known for its large, black sores. It was common among infantry suffering severe wounds from bullets or artillery shrapnel. In those conditions, it could set in within 24 hours - proving fatal.
If the men had compound fractures, full of mud, it was an ideal site for the bacteria to flourish, and, if the men had been several days on the way... the wound was simply a mass of putrid muscle rotting with gas gangrene. Nothing to do with gas as we knew it later in the war. It was called that because the bacillus that grows in the wound creates gas. The whole thing balloons up. You can tap it under your fingers and it sounds hollow. Even with quite a slight wound, when soil and shards of uniform are carried in by the missile, it starts up.
Doctor Geoffrey Keynes
The danger of gas gangrene would be only lessened in 1918 when a serum became available.
At these hospitals, surgeons operated around the clock. There were recovery wards, and a place for those suffering from shell shock and exhaustion. Once someone was cleared, they were moved on, by ambulance or train - to get them back to permanent hospitals closer to the coast, Boulogne, Calais, or England. Since 1914, both sides dealt with the huge and growing number of casualties, and a highly efficient system evolved. The use of antiseptics, x-rays, and methods for dealing with gas casualties, head wounds, and thigh wounds had evolved rapidly during the war.
The Thomas splint was a good example. Before its introduction, a soldier with a broken thigh would most probably die. But with the Thomas splint - a long leg-splint extending from a ring at the hip to beyond the foot - he had a much better chance of surviving. This splint also allowed traction to a fractured leg, and meant that the wounded soldier could be easily transported.
Poperinge was also where soldiers would come back for some much needed rest and recreation. Even though there were nightly bomber raids by German planes, Poperinge was a welcome change from the frontline at Ypres. The local population were only too happy to provide food, as well as cleaning and repair services for the soldiers. The locals had steady employment making concrete blocks and other necessary items for the army.
For the New Zealanders, the biggest welfare organisation was the YMCA - the Young Men’s Christian Association. YMCA tents were set up next to the hospitals and medical centres, and this was where soldiers could relax. They would read, write letters, play cards or board games, socialise, and generally try to rest and forget about the war.
‘The good old YMCA came to light as usual, and sent a free issue of cigarettes, tobacco & matches to the whole NZ Division. A few days afterwards they established a free canteen in a cellar in a village that is not only under shell fire day and night, but machine gun fire as well. Here they issue hot bovril or cocoa, biscuits, and cigarettes at any hour of the day or night, and best of all they are large minded enough to include ALL troops, not only New Zealanders.’
It was James Hay of Christchurch who became the YMCA commissioner for the New Zealand Division, and he would set up recreational tents as close as he could organising tea, coffee, and biscuits on the route up to the front.
So this area where you stand, just outside Poperinge, was part of a huge logistic chain. Supplies, ammunition, animals, and men were endlessly ferried forward along this route - all to support what seemed like a never-ending war.