This weeks represents an important landmark in World War I commemorations, with Saturday 25th April marking 100 years to the Gallipoli landings and what the Turks call Çanakkale Savaşı (the Battle of Çanakkale). During the nine month campaign more than 120,000 soldiers died and there were estimated to be more nearly 400,000 casualties, and so I thought it might be poignant to reflect briefly on the small but significant role that physiotherapists played in the care of wounded soldiers, particularly those Australians and New Zealanders who have a very special Anzac Day service to attend this year.
As news of the slaughter at Gallipoli reached the colonial government in New Zealand, it was decided to commission two ships from the Union Steam Ship Company and turn them into floating hospitals. The Maheno and the larger Marama were refitted from public donations of £66,000, and the money allowed the Maheno to be equipped with eight wards, two operating theatres, an anaesthetising area, an X-ray room, a laboratory, a laundry and drying-room, steam disinfector, dispensary, telephone exchange, and two electric lifts each of which took two stretchers at a time. The medical staff on board included a matron and thirteen nursing sisters, five medical officers, a detachment of sixty-one orderlies of the New Zealand Medical Corps, chaplains. and a small number of un-named masseuses.
An account from the 1923 book The War Effort of New Zealand illustrates the conditions that the medical staff of the Maheno had to work in;
The Maheno arrived [at Gallipoli] on…the 26th April…to find a cruiser and a destroyer in action near by; and a few bullets fell on the deck of the Maheno which served to indicate that she was now actually in the war zone.
The sight of the ship was an encouragement to our New Zealand soldiers who had wrested from the Turk a precarious footing on the hill sides opposite. During the next afternoon, the battle of Hill 60 was fought, and in the evening the wounded began to arrive at the ship. The severely wounded were sent to the wards at once, and the lightly injured were fed and surgically dressed on deck and sent in lighters to Mudros. The two operating theatres were in constant use from the evening of the 27th to the morning of the 29th.
The Maheno left on the 28th with 445 patients for Mudros, where they were discharged into a hospital carrier,—formerly the German ship Derfflinger—and the ship’s crew assisted in the arduous work. The wounds were severe, and deaths occurred during the short voyage. The ship was cleaned and refurnished—a heavy task—and she left Mudros for Anzac on the 30th, and there embarked 422 cases on 2nd September, including a large number of cases of dysentery; and all the patients were transferred to the Nile at Mudros. The Maheno departed again on September 7th for Anzac, where about 1,000 patients were attended to including 400 embarked on the ship. The others had wounds dressed and received medical treatment aboard, and returned again to the beach. Several of the personnel of the ship contracted dysentery, and all were more or less exhausted (Elliot, 1923, pp. 127-30).
Little is known about the physiotherapy offered on board, but we do know that one of New Zealand’s first registered practitioners was almost certainly one of the masseuses. Edith Thompson completed her training in 1914. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war meant that the legislation necessary to register Edith and the other graduates of the Otago School of Massage did not come until 1921, by which time she had completed her active service. Her certificate of service shows that she served as a masseuse for 306 days overseas and 1 year and 239 days in New Zealand for which she was awarded the British War Medal.
During their war service, the Maheno and Marama transported 47,000 soldiers from the front to carrier ships or safe ports, including service during the Battle of the Somme. Conditions were often brutally unpleasant on board, food was scarce and there was no rest from work or the threat of dysentery.
Space to undertake any therapy must have been at a premium and it is likely that the few masseuses on board functioned as additional nursing hands during much of the voyage. Injured servicemen received much more suitable help when they disembarked and were transferred to military hospitals around mainland Europe or back home in New Zealand, where the first formal rehabilitation services began to be developed to return servicemen to active duty or functional lives back at home.
This weekend will be a poignant reminder of the suffering experienced by others, the harsh conditions they faced and their bravery in the face of appalling conditions.
Elliot, J.S. (1923). The war effort of New Zealand. Auckland, Whitcombe and Toombs (available to view online here).