On the 8th of April 1915, with steam gushing from its funnel, the SS Rotorua was berthed at Wellington, its mission - to convey the newly commissioned New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) to war, its destination at the time was unknown. The nurses were lead by Matron-in-Chief Hester MacLean. MacLean had been asked to establish a military nursing service since her appointment as the Matron-in-Chief of the New Zealand Medical Corps Nursing Reserve in 1911. After months of persuasion by MacLean, who had advocated tirelessly for the nurses to be sent overseas, the New Zealand Army Nursing Service was officially established on the 11th January 1915. On the 25th January, the Army Council in London accepted the New Zealand Government's offer of fifty nurses to serve overseas.
MacLean was advised to prepare a list of the nurses to the Minister of Defence, MacLean was "Governed by regulations as to age, training and time as a registered nurse. She tried to choose nurses from all areas ... because, at the time, only this contingent would be leaving New Zealand." MacLean initially included a list of sixty nurses from which the first fifty were selected. The final list contained forty-seven names, with the remaining three of positions to be filled with nurses returning from Samoa.
One of these first commissioned nurses was Mary McBeth. At the time of undertaking this position, McBeth was an experienced nurse at Wellington Hospital. She had previously been employed at the Mental Hospital, between the years 1900 and 1907. McBeth along with other colleagues was to experience her first ever voyage across the sea to a foreign land, as she slowly walked up the gangplank to join her fellow nurses she would later survey her homeland from the railings of the SS Rotorua before sailing to London, England.
Mary McBeth was born on 6th July 1878 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The daughter of David McBeth and Elizabeth Margaret Byrnes. Her father was a carpenter from Killyclug, Ireland, who later immigrated to Hokitika, New Zealand in November of 1866. He married Elizabeth Margaret Byrnes at Canterbury, New Zealand on 28th April 1870. Mary was the fifth child of six siblings and inspired by her mother, secured a place at Wellington hospital to train as a nurse.
At the age of twenty-two Mary began her career as a nurse at the Mental Hospital in Wellington in the early 1900’s. She became officially registered nurse in 1910. Nursing to Mary was a vocation and she later transferred to the main Hospital in Wellington where she worked from 1912 until 1915. McBeth's experience made her an ideal candidate for her appointment with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service and she was selected alongside forty-nine others.
The SS Rotorua arrived safely in Plymouth on May 19, 1915, the group along with Hester MacLean then took a train to London, where MacLean met with the Matron-in-Chief of the Queen Alexandria's Imperial Military Nursing Service, Miss Ethel Hope Becher. At this meeting MacLean was informed of the plan to take the nurses to Egypt and was asked to accompany the group. The New Zealand nurses arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on June 16, 1915. It was here they met, Miss Sarah Oram, Matron-in-Charge in Egypt, the nurses were split up and posted to various hospitals around Egypt, the British were in desperate need of nurses to help treat and care for the wounded returning from Gallipoli. Mary would first be attached to the Egyptian Army Hospital in Cairo, which was offered for the use of the New Zealand forces.
While stationed at the hospital in Egypt, Mary would be Mentioned in Dispatches for her courageous work after her promotion on 1st February 1916 to Sister. McBeth would rise above the struggle the nurses from New Zealand would encounter with the military-run hospitals, as the British bureaucracy would later appreciate that the New Zealand trained nurses were actually more flexible and very competent.
Mary McBeth was then attached to the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital (1NZSH) at Amiens, France in July 1916. The hospital was set up in the buildings of the St. Famille convent, only 15 miles from the front line. The nurses in this hospital were usually run off their feet as the soldiers were sent straight from the trenches. Often both surgeons and nurses worked 36 hours straight, one major challenge for the nurses at this hospital were the infections that became prevalent due to the cold winter that had set in.
In May 1917, the Hospital was transferred to Hazebrouck, in Belgium as part of the preparation for the Second Battle of Messines. Hazebrouck served as a special hospital where many head cases were admitted, teams of doctors and nurses worked around the clock, working day and night to treat the wounded. During her time with the 1NZSH, McBeth a theatre nurse, was seconded to be part of a surgical teams being sent to various British Casualty Clearing Stations, in Belgium. The clearing stations were particularly dangerous as they were often closer to the front line. McBeth was first sent to the 17CCS. However she was only there for a few days before she was sent to 41CCS. The 41CCS was all under canvas, with the exception of the theatre which could accommodate four teams at the same time. Patients were evacuated as soon as they were stable, with only the critical remaining until they could be evacuated, McBeth remained here along with another nurse Margaret Davies for four months, before returning to 1NZSH.
One of the most devastating moments of the time in the Western Front was the use of mustard gas. The gas produced blindness, swollen eyes, lips and lungs, and the fatality rate was due to the terrible pneumonia that exhibited as a secondary infection. Sister Elsie Grey wrote of the gas;
"This new gas contains mustard oil and affects the eyes (it is not yet known if it blinds for life) and then affects the pulmonary tract."
Soldiers who were presented to the surgeons were men who were badly deformed due to facial injuries. McBeth gained an amazing amount of skill and ability to nurse soldiers with these facial injuries. In August 1918, she was attached to the Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, England. Here, McBeth served alongside Major Henry Percy Pickerill.
Henry Percy Pickerill was the first director of the new dental school established at the University of Otago, in 1907. In 1916 Pickerill took leave from the University to serve with the New Zealand Dental Corps, he was seconded to the New Zealand Medical Corps, and helped to establish a unit for the treatment of facial and jaw injuries at No. 2 New Zealand General Hospital, Walton-On Thames. In 1918, the unit was transferred the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup. While at Sidcup both Mary McBeth and Pickerill served alongside New Zealand pioneering plastic surgeon, Harold Delf Gillies. Pickerill, became well known for his work in the field of facial reconstruction and plastic surgery, and his remarkable results led to a facial and jaw unit being established at Dunedin Hospital, 1919.
Mary McBeth returned to New Zealand on RMS Tainui, in early 1919. She had been awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross (ARRC), for her exceptional devotion and competence in performing her nursing duties during her service on the Western Front.
After the war, McBeth continued to work with Colonel Henry Percy Pickerill, as a Charge Sister at the Jaw and Facial injuries unit established at Dunedin Hospital. She had been specially trained for this work by Pickerill and assisted with theatre work in connection with the jaw cases. In November 1919, she contracted TB and was sent to Otaki Sanitorium for her recovery, at the time Otaki Sanitorium was a female only hospital. In 1922, she became a registered midwife, she worked at St. Helen's Hospital in Wellington, retiring from nursing in 1929.
Mary McBeth later went to live in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia where she lived until her death on the 10th of April 1968.
You can find all of the first fifty nurses below.
|Young||Carrie||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/50||
|Bird||Louisa Maria||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/15||
|Curties||Emily||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/23, 22/14||
|Harris||Emma Jane||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/31||
|Nixon||Elizabeth||Army||World War I, 1914-1918, Territorial Military Service||22/6||
|Searell||Alice Clara||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/42||
|Siddells||Florence Emma||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/43||
|Smailes||Elizabeth||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/44||
|Pengelly||Edna||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/7, 22/32||
|Wilson||Fanny||Army||World War I, 1914-1918||22/2, 3/77||
Bowerbank. (1932) New Zealand Hospitals in Egypt. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited: Auckland. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Effo-t1-body-d6-d2.html
MacLean, H. (1932) Nursing in New Zealand: Nursing in New Zealand History: History and Reminiscences. Tolan Printing Company. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MacNurs.html
McNabb, S. (2015). 100 Years New Zealand Military Nursing. Sherayl McNabb.
'New Zealand Army Nursing Service in the First World War', https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/first-world-war-nurses (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Jun-2018.
Help us improve Online Cenotaph
If you have information or a story about a relative or friend head to their Online Cenotaph profile to tell us more.
ADD YOUR CONTRIBUTION
Cite this article
Mary McBeth. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 16 April 2020. Updated: 20 May 2020.