Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Hospital Detachment at Helmieh
Hospital Detachment at Helmieh
Strangers in a strange land, many of the 18 First Echelon sisters of the NZANS were meeting one another for the first time as they disembarked from different ships on 14 February. Introductions were made as they journeyed to Cairo. A cold wind was blowing, seasoned well with smells, dust, and insects. Ever-willing natives with an insatiable desire to carry anything from heavy bags to a handbag, mingled with the beggars crying for baksheesh. These, with the sordid appearance of Port Tewfik, did nothing to make the sisters' first impressions favourable. Indeed, it was somewhat in trepidation that they said farewell to their ships, for these seemed the last tangible piece of home. Still, with a ticket in hand page 27 and hearts full of hope, they boarded the diesel train to Cairo, waited, and wondered vaguely about everything.
There were Egyptians in the carriage, too, and the perfume of the Mystic East, so often read about, seemed to have a decidedly garlic odour, and all were glad of a bottle of lavender water one sister had thoughtfully provided. Those who have crossed the dreary waste of desert between Suez and Cairo can appreciate that this journey did not alter the impressions first received, but passing camel trains, seen for the first time, and the fellahin in his natural habitat, filled the journey with interest for these new arrivals.
Cairo main station, with its seething masses of humanity, would have been bewildering to a degree, but for the presence on the platform of the Principal Matron of the QAIMNS,2 and the Matron and several of the senior sisters of the 2/10 British Hospital at Helmieh, a suburb of Cairo, to which the sisters of the NZANS were to be attached.
A truck took them to the hospital, along with their luggage. This method of transport, through what appeared a modern city, was rather a surprise to these sisters who, a few short weeks previously, would have considered riding through the streets of Wellington on the back of a truck, clad in one's ‘Sunday best’, not quite done in the best circles. However, with hardly veiled amusement, they clambered in as best they could. Before long they were to become adept at such negotiation, learned to appreciate trucks as truly grand means of transport, and were to travel many hundreds of miles in them. So they arrived at the British hospital that was to be their home for the next five months.
This, a regular Army hospital, was still being run on a peacetime basis, and to these New Zealanders who had come to ‘the war’ this lovely hospital, with its rather palatial mess, was another surprise. Perhaps, too, somewhat of a disappointment to the sense of the fitness of things. They were quite pleased when the Matron said, ‘Your tents are ready’. It sounded right and proper to be living in a tent in wartime.
But what tents these were! EPIP, two sisters to a tent, an Axminster rug beside each bed. The floor, as level as a billiards table, was covered with a tightly stretched tarpaulin. There were page 28 white quilts on the beds, oil heaters, a washstand with all accessories, as well as a wardrobe, dressing table, and chest of drawers for each sister. Well-trained suffragis wakened them at 6.30 a.m. with a cup of tea, cleaned their tents, filled their hot-water bottles, turned back their beds, and tucked in their mosquito nets in the evening; cleaned their shoes, collected their laundry, and did all the things that help to make life in the Army easy. Though rather surprised at all this luxury, these New Zealanders lapped it up while it was available.
On 15 February three medical officers and 50 orderlies from 4 Field Ambulance, under Maj Tennent, were also detached for duty at 2/10 British General Hospital, to which it had been arranged that all serious cases of illness among the New Zealanders would be sent for hospital treatment. The detachment, with the sisters, was responsible for the treatment of these patients. This arrangement ensured that ambulance orderlies would receive training in actual care of the sick, hospital duties and routine, and would profit by association with members of the RAMC, experienced in hospital conditions in Egypt. Their training covered nursing, operating-theatre practice, radiology, massage, dispensing, laboratory, medical stores, administrative and general duties. Successive detachments underwent tours of duty at this hospital and the training and experience thus received later provided skilled and efficient staffs for the expanding activities of the New Zealand Medical Services.
Many invaluable lessons for the days ahead were learned by the New Zealand sisters in this hospital, and the experience was one they were to appreciate more with the passing of time. Interest was twofold: firstly, in the work of an Army hospital, secondly, in contact with tropical diseases and conditions. For the New Zealanders, all comparative strangers to Army methods and organisation as well as to tropical diseases, there seemed much to be learned, for the work and manner of working were very different from that with which they were familiar.
Unaccustomed to regimental ways and such clicking of heels, the very strict ward discipline at Helmieh was at times somewhat overpowering, and also amusing, for the sisters. War establishments provide limited means and equipment for nursing the sick soldier. The sisters were accustomed in civilian hospitals to every page 29 convenience, plenty of china, linen, and enamel ware. They found here that a patient on admission received his requisite kit, which included his ‘blues’ for convalescence, sheets, pillow-slip, towel, knife, fork, spoon, tin plate, and two bowls, for all of which he was responsible during his illness.
By 9 a.m. each day the ward was ready for the medical officer's round, and this was quite a ceremony. The tidiness was extreme, and even the bed-patients looked as if they were on parade. One could have heard a pin drop during that round, and even if it took two hours, the up-patients stood at attention at the foot of their beds until the medical officer and charge sister had left the ward.
But a medical officer's round was as nothing to the Matron's daily round. Our sisters had always regarded a matron's visit to a ward somewhat in the light of a friend coming to make kindly inquiries regarding her patients' wellbeing, and to offer advice or assistance in problems that daily arise in any hospital. Now the procedure of preparation was rather staggering. Boots were polished till one could almost see one's face in them, then, with brushes on top, were placed beneath the locker, a sandshoe on either side. Even the lockers looked as if they, too, were on parade. On the lower shelf the blue suit and underwear were folded in correct Army style, making two piles about four inches apart. The top shelf held the towel correctly folded with ‘three folds, not two, sister’, on top of which the toilet gear was arranged like a window display. On the top of the locker, correctly arranged, was the mess gear, polished by the patients till it shone like mirrors.
But the CO's weekly inspection left our sisters speechless at first, though in time they got used to it all and thought nothing of it. Such a flutter all the morning! Everything was turned out and scoured; then all work was suspended after 10.30 a.m. The CO arrived. With him came the Matron, the OC Medical or Surgical Division, Medical Officer in charge of the ward, the Registrar, company officer, Quartermaster, RSM, and a number of corporals (who never seemed to know quite to whom they belonged). At the ward this retinue was joined by the sister in charge of the ward, and all the other sisters who had not discreetly disappeared, and with them the senior ward orderly. Then followed a searching round the ward, peeping under curtains, into cupboards, and down drains; and if anything was not up to standard, it was the poor senior ward page 30 orderly—right at the end of the line—who took all the knocks. After such an inspection it was no wonder the sisters retired to the ‘Bunk’—pronounced Boonk—as the Duty Room was known, for a reviving cup of tea.
‘Equipment’ was another word whose meaning these New Zealand sisters learned to know—and how they hated it ever afterwards! The poor charge sister signed on the dotted line for everything, almost to the last pin. ‘Rations, and how to make them spin out’ was another lesson learnt.
In the Regular Army a soldier lived strictly on his rations—a quantity which, although adequate, seemed a meagre portion to the healthy New Zealanders. It took them a long time to get used to the odd meal hours too. Instead of a substantial evening meal at 5 p.m. such as the New Zealanders were accustomed to, in a British hospital tea is served at 4 p.m. and supper at 6.30 p.m., both small, light meals. Such meals did not satisfy the New Zealand patients when they arrived, and, unlike the subdued Tommy, our men soon let it be known that though they did enjoy their dinner—always an excellent meal—they wanted bigger and better teas. One sister tells how, seeing in the kitchen a pile of bread and butter with jam alongside, she blithely took it out to her grateful patients at 4 p.m. Returning to the kitchen with the empty tray, she found a distracted orderly wondering what had happened to the supper he had left on the table. Consternation was acute when it was found she had given out all ‘the supper’ at ‘tea time’. Over the patients' reactions at 6.30 p.m. when they found that, as far as supper was concerned, they had ‘had it’, one can only draw a veil. Red Cross supplies were an invaluable supplementary diet when rations were so limited.
At first their English colleagues were apt to shake their heads over the discipline, or rather lack of it, in these rowdy Kiwi patients who so quickly made their presence felt. However, a friendly tolerance and a mutual understanding quickly developed.
Our sisters learned to prepare food and drinks and to protect them from contamination from dust and flies—a very important procedure in Egypt. Fruit and vegetables had to be soaked in a weak solution of Potassium Permanganate for at least half an hour, and nothing was left uncovered.page 31
Diseases, on the whole, were mild but typical. Malaria, dysentery, sandfly fever, and, of course, the ‘flu’. The special points of nursing each of them were carried out in simple but practical ways, and in a short time the New Zealand sisters were able to deal with anything that came along.
PAD3 exercises and parades were the next schooling. Respirators and tin hats were worn during the alerts and alarms. Sisters looked through goggles and hoped that the all clear signal would soon go so that they could get a breath of fresh air. At night there were strict blackout restrictions—strict with a capital S in those days.
Hours of duty varied considerably from New Zealand working hours, but the sisters found there was often time for sightseeing, and every spare moment was spent in exploring Cairo and the surrounding districts.
So the days passed quickly enough, and the weeks became months, marked by high excitement when mails from home arrived. Perhaps 25 February 1940 will ever be remembered by these sisters of the First Echelon as the red-letter day when their first mail arrived.
2 Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service.
3 Passive Air Defence.