A hospital set up near an English village in the summer of 1916 was the site of great medical innovation and also a source of comfort for injured New Zealand soldiers far from home.
The No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital
The No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital opened at Brockenhurst in June 1916, after moving from Abasseyeh in Egypt.
By 1919, 21,000 patients had been treated at the hospital. There are 93 New Zealanders buried in the St Nicholas' Church graveyard nearby.
A century on, the significance of the hospital is evident from the large number of New Zealanders who visit the Parish Church of St Nicholas’ and the Commonwealth War Graves in the churchyard. The friendship that continues between New Zealand and Brockenhurst is testament to the bonds formed at the hospital during the First World War.
A botanical dressing
During the war, local children collected sphagnum moss to be applied to the wounds of soldiers.
The children would wade out into the bog, grasp and pull up the upper layers of the moss by the handful, wring them out, put them in sacks, and cart them to a suitable place to be spread out to dry and have the rubbish picked out.
Dressings made of this sphagnum moss had antiseptic qualities, inhibiting the growth of bacteria, and was able to absorb about 20 times its own weight in water. The moss held the absorbed liquid far better than cotton and lasted longer as an effective dressing for large battlefield wounds.
The First World War was a cutting edge time for medicine and there were great leaps forward in technology and treatment.
New Zealand led the way in recognising the need for organising a proper system of dental care. Our volunteers were often rejected on account of their bad teeth. After 1915, the New Zealand Dental Association worked with the military to provide dental care to soldiers in camp. This led to the establishment of the Dental Corps.
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 that gave hundreds, if not thousands, of mutilated men a future.
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 saved more lives; and hygiene and operating procedures improved greatly.
From 1917 onwards, blood banks were created in the lead up to battles, and successful blood transfusions were completed.
There were also soldiers with no visible scars - they suffered from 'shell-shock'. Right across the spectrum, a greater number of men were surviving their injuries. This had a knock-on effect it as it became the New Zealand Government's responsibility to provide rehabilitation centres and sanatoriums. This work continued on into the 1920s and 1930s.
Nurses at war
In addition to the doctors and surgeons, there were several hundred New Zealand nurses working at Brockenhurst.
Initially New Zealand was not going to send any nurses overseas, but 500 were deployed as the war continued. During Gallipoli, two passenger ships - the Maheno and the Marama - were converted into hospital vessels. They were staffed with New Zealand nurses who were given officer status and were to rank directly below Medical Officers. This caused some disbelief within traditional military circles, who struggled to believe that nurses were to be treated as officers.
Many women volunteered as VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and assisted in the hospitals. New Zealand nurses also served with the New Zealand stationary hospital in France at Wisques and they regularly came under attack from German night bombing. They experienced directly all the kinds of horrific injuries and conditions that the soldiers were suffering from.
There were also New Zealand nurses and doctors who travelled independently to Europe. Many worked with French and Belgian volunteer organisations.
- Pickerill and Gillies Great War Story, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 20-Apr-2015
- Church, C. (2002). New Zealand Graves at Brockenhurst. Clare Elizabeth Church: Lymington, United Kingdom
Cite this article
Brockenhurst: The No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 June 2016. Updated: 2 July 2020.