Saving Passchendaele’s many wounded
When the guns finally went silent after New Zealand’s disastrous October 12, 1917 attack at Passchendaele there were scores of wounded men whose lives now depended on the heroics of stretcher bearers.
South Canterbury Museum’s exhibition Hell Let Loose looks at World War I’s Western Front and tells the stories of both Passchendaele and the medical units serving during the fighting.
The Kiwi troops had been asked to do the impossible: attack across bog-like ground against formidable German defences untouched by artillery fire. The resulting slaughter left hundreds of wounded New Zealanders lying on a cold battlefield.
It was now that brave men, like South Canterbury’s William Mills, went to work with their stretchers to remove the wounded from No Man’s Land between the opposing trenches. There were so many wounded that the job was too big for the Field Ambulance and bandsmen who usually carried out the task and infantry troops were called into assist. The mud was so deep it took six men to carry a single stretcher and could take four hours to get a man to treatment.
Some of the wounded lay on the battlefield for three days and undoubtedly some succumbed to their wounds, but that was not the fault of the bearers who worked to the point of exhaustion.
Thankfully the Germans took pity on those laboring with stretchers and refrained from firing on the men undertaking the recovery. A truce evolved on the line and the Germans also removed their wounded from the battlefield.
An advanced dressing station on the Passchendaele battlefield.