Katie Pickles’ speech from the launch of With Them Through Hell


With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War  – launch held on 15 November at Scorpio Books, Christchurch. Speech given by Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow, University of Canterbury.

It is my great honour to speak at the launch of this centenary volume on the New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War.

In particular, this volume is to highlight, as Anna puts it, the doctors in the trenches and dug-outs, the men ‘staggering through the deep mud carrying stretchers’, both groups often under fire, and the nurses ‘in crowded tent hospitals full of severely hurt and dying men, with stinking wounds and shattered limbs’, the dentists, masseuses (now called physiotherapists), chaplains, chiropodists, vets and dispensers.

Where possible in their words, this is the story of the men and women of New Zealand’s medical services. They found themselves occupied preserving life by fixing up the living so that they might return to face death – a paradox that Anna grapples with throughout the volume.

Fenwick’s Gallipoli diary comes to mind where he points out that the Medical Corp’s achievements ‘scotched any notion that stretcher bearing or medical orderly work was less brave or risky than on-line fighting.’ And Ormond Burton’s account as an orderly recalls that ‘The orderlies slaved for 12 hour stretches. None of the wounded had been washed; many were still in their blood-covered uniforms; some had bandages applied two or three days before and sepsis was setting in’.

Anna is, of course, an author of many history books, including nurses, Irish migrants, disasters and Canterbury history. It is her deep knowledge of New Zealand history that makes her a highly sought out copy-editor – because her eye for detail will find those inadvertent errors. She possesses wisdom that can only come from years of in-depth research and reading.

Anna has to have oversight of the entire First World War to accomplish what she does in this volume. The First World War Centenary History Programme was indeed fortunate to enlist her services. 

Anna is also a keen reader and reviewer of fiction, and in Anna-fashion she weaves the literary throughout these pages. Indeed, most overt, Siegfried Sassoon’s words are drawn upon for the title With Them Through Hell.  Accompanying Sassoon, Anna draws upon her accumulated vast and dear knowledge of literary medical chroniclers. She is also able to deftly ‘cross reference’ her knowledge. For example, she knows that Douglas Stark was fictionalised by Robin Hyde. And John A. Lee’s recollections and fiction pop up throughout the volume. Anna has had to master a medical understanding too . . .

The volume draws the reader in, taking you on an irresistible, yet appropriately difficult, journey – full of horror – but also hope, and it is done in a perfectly measured way. Anna walks a tightrope in getting this right and succeeds with considerable skill. The chapters have catchy titles. The book is beautifully produced. Pictures appear throughout and are well integrated with the text. The captions are thoughtful and effective.

And of course, Anna writes beautifully. For example, ‘Horses and humans did not always cohabit happily at sea’. And cabins could be ‘thick with concentrated essence of horse, superheated’.

The book is replete profound insights such as ‘Words such as heroism and sacrifice are used too frequently and too easily, especially about the First World War. There was no glory here.’ And, especially prescient, Anna writes that ‘The Armistice on 11 November 1918 did not rule a neat line between conflict and peace.’ She notes that 9000 New Zealanders died in the Influenza Epidemic – more than half the number who died in the war. And then of the post-war era notes the lingering effects of TB and VD and more generally states that ‘early death was not uncommon’, revealing that a mixed bag of post-war fates – mainly quite harrowing, awaited.

Insights in brief to lure you in to read this book:

The horses and vets are not forgotten. Anna writes that ‘In one case, though, the water was “absolutely black, so bad that in fact the veterinary officer would not allow it to be given to the horses”’. Treatment of the enemy termed ‘Healing the Hun’ is included, and conflicted feelings are revealed. 

The medical humour of subjects is captured. For example, on being given a remedy for dysentery of milk, flour and arrowroot, medical officer William McAra commented that he would turn into an omelette if shaken.

There is plenty on New Zealand’s general hospitals, hospital ships, boarding, artificial limbs and insights about Kiwi characteristics, and Kiwi medical innovations, including Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill.

The sheer scale of the medical services’ treatment record is revealed. From May 1916 to 1919 there were 70,000 New Zealand admissions to New Zealand and imperial hospitals in Britain. 

There is plenty on dental horrors. Three dentists died of disease at Gallipoli.

Sombrely, Anna ends the dentist chapter and vet chapter talking about a suicide by one each of these men – this combines to emphasise that they shared the difficulties faced by those across the armed services.

And of course, women and war are central in the volume, receiving a special chapter. 

Anna has taken on a far reaching, multi-faceted, complex and contradictory component of the war that really gets to the literal heart of warfare and that is an essential part of the history of the First World War. Anna quotes medical historian Leo van Bergen’s statement that ‘war is about everything, but above all it is about killing and being killed’. She adds that it is also ‘about being wounded, often horribly, or repeatedly, and about debilitating illness, disfigurement and psychological trauma’. On the flip side, it was ‘about courage’, and continuing in ‘appalling, perilous conditions and for inhumanly long hours, to save lives – and it is about compassion’.  

If compassion has a colour, then it is the colour of the ink that Anna writes with. I am sure that all of those who were a part of New Zealand’s medical services, and more widely, those who served and suffered death or injury with them during the war, and the many civilians affected in the aftermath, and their families, will feel honoured and well-remembered through Anna’s compassionate, measured, absolutely thorough and accurate work.

The volume’s red and black colours exude blood and darkness, but also appropriately combine to make the colour of a Red Cross flag, as well as evoking symbolic poppies, and being red and black honour Canterbury’s contribution during this Cup and Show Week.

The New Zealand medical services were indeed absolutely ‘with them through hell’. Thanks to Anna, their story has been magnificently recovered and will not be forgotten.