Edith was born and raised in Masterton, becoming widely loved for her kind and caring manner. Edith’s desire to help others led to her employment in Masterton hospital, where she soon became a crucial part of the local community, saving many lives and providing support to those in need. The outbreak of war in 1914 tore the Masteron region apart, as many of their young men, alongside Edith McLeod were shipped of to war, to fight or save lives.
Edith was sent to Egypt, and in 1915 landed in the dusty Middle Eastern theatre of war. As the fighting raged from Egypt to Turkey, Edith served a huge amount of different troops from the Egyptian Army Hospital, from New Zealanders to Brits to Arabs.
Edith was moved closer to the action in 1916 to modern Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. On her way there, aboard the SS Marquette, tragedy struck. A German U Boat torpedo struck her boat, killing 32 members of the crew. Edith was one of the lucky few who survived. Her prior experience as a nurse in Masterton was hugely valuable to the war effort, which resulted in Edith's redeployment to Europe, and to the tragic battles taking place on the western front.
Edith arrived at the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the most horrendous battles ever to occur. After surviving the horrors of the French mainland, Edith was rapidly redeployed to where New Zealand's darkest day would dawn. The muddy craters of Belgium greeted Edith in October 1917, yet this did not stop her from saving the lives of many New Zealand and Entente soldiers.
Upon the Battle's conclusion, Edith was one of the lucky few who returned home to New Zealand, where she worked in Masterton hopital for the rest of her life. Despite this, the Edith that returned, and the New Zealand she returned to, was remarkably different from 1914; the face of New Zealand had changed forever.
Edith McLeod was born and raised in Masterton before World War One. She soon became a widely loved member of the community, and many of her fellow Mastertonian's can be seen above, swimming together in the local creek.
Edith became employed in Masterton Hospital, seen above, where she worked for five years saving lives and healing those in her local community. Edith soon became one of the most well respected nurses in her area, her devotion to nursing and care for others clear to all.
The First offical NZANS nurses depart New Zealand, 1915
After the outbreak of war in 1914, local New Zealand communities were torn apart. Masterton, a town of only 5000, saw hundreds of its best men and women leave to fight a war on Britain's behalf. This left the community fearful during the war, hoping against hope that their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers would return.
Not long after the outbreak of war, New Zealand responded, sending many of its divisions, such as the NZEF, to France, and later Turkey and Belgium. Edith, wanting to help as many as she could, managed to get herself on a boat with 50 other Kiwi's and a number of Australian nurses, bound for Egypt. Edith had no idea what she was sailing toward.
As the war raged throughout Europe and the Middle East, Edith was tasked with repairing and restoring the courage of the men who had been injured fighting. She served in a number of different hospitals, from the Egyptian Army Hospital, to smaller, more less established Australian and British hospitals. Edith McLeod, a loving Masterton nurse, was thrown into the deep end, treating men with horrible wounds, both physically and mentally. She saved the lives of hundreds during her brief term in Egypt, and despite the terrible situations waiting for her each day, kept her cherry, happy manner that made her so popular in Masterton.
With the famous pyramids in the background, Edith and her fellow Sisters saved the lives of many soldiers. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign saw many transported to Egypt with horrible injuries, which Edith treated in nothing more than a tent.
The vast Egyptian Army Hospital housed huge numbers of soldiers at a time, all closely grouped together. The noise, smell and gruesome injuries would have been tremendously difficult to handle, but Edith saw the pain these men were in, and felt that she had to help.
Without antibiotics or advanced tools, Sisters in the First World War had to rely on the most basic of equipment to save lives. Tweezers pulled bullets out of skin, scalpels cut away rotting skin, and saws amputated trench feet. With the bare essentials, these Sisters saved thousands of lives.
As the German forces amassed on the Western Front in Europe, a number of Sisters and soldiers were transferred from the quieting Middle East. Edith, after her frantic year in Egypt, was soon traveling toward the currently neutral Greece. Her destination, Thessaloniki, was the second largest city in Greece, yet little did Edith or her fellow passengers know what awaited her.
The SS Marquette, pictured above, was hit by a torpedo outside of Thessaloniki in 1915. Edith was standing under five meters away from the impact zone, where 32 members of the crew were killed. Edith, blown off her feet in the blast, did all she could to save the crew members who had been hit, yet as the boat began to sink all she could do was watch from the lifeboat as her friends, Kiwi Sisters and Soldiers, drowned.
Edith, after under a week of recovery, was redeployed, her lucky escape earning her a place on the Western Front. Never one to complain, Edith did as she was asked, realising that her skill as a nurse could save the lives of many soldiers, as long as she could save her own.
Hospitals at The Somme
The Battle of the Somme saw the death of close to 150,000 Entente soldiers, the wounds inflicted on many too gruesome to recount. German machine guns mowed down thousands of soldiers who were instructed to walk into no mans land, whilst other methods of attack included poisonous gas and mine explosions.
Into hospitals such as the one above, cold and wet, Edith and her fellow Sisters were provided men in excruciating pain. Some had ingested chlorine gas, which burned their lungs inside out, whilst others had numerous machine gun wounds on a single limb. In a constant, desperate struggle, Edith amputated limbs, pulled out bullets, splinted limbs, and saved lives. Without her contribution, the Somme would be remembered as even deadlier than it turned out to be.
The equipment available at the major battles of WW1, for Nurses and soldiers, was often terrible. Sisters such as Edith were provided with tools like those above, then expected to operate on men with trench foot in icy, muddy tents. Every single life saved was done so in these conditions at these battles, and is a true testament to the courage and skill of Sisters such as Edith.
Having no antibiotics, often the only course of action to take was cutting away flesh or limbs before a life was lost. Edith and her fellow Sisters were forced to inject many soldiers with mercury, a highly toxic element, in order to remove disease, a tactic which was only successful when used by the most skillful nurses. With only a few of these resources on hand, and hundreds of desperate soldiers, Edith was pushed to her limit during the Battle of the Somme.
As the different conflicts that took place at Passchendaele increased in size and scale, the Nurses waiting behind the trenches were provided with men in worse and worse conditions. From the mud that covered everything, to the driving rain, to the rats running free, disease and illness ravaged the soldiers. New Zealand's darkest day dawned on the 12th of October, with close to 4000 Kiwi's falling in the following six days. This terrible number would be far greater without Edith McLeod and her fellow sisters, removing bullets from those still breathing and cleaning the wounds of those injured.
Without the support of these brave women, the death toll at Passchendaele would be far, far greater than it was.
Edith, after surviving the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, returned to New Zealand in 1918 at the war's conclusion. Yet on the boat she returned on, close to half of those who departed were absent, lying in the Belgian mud or a lonely French stream.
The impact this had on New Zealand, and especially its smaller towns, was seismic. Families were ripped apart, and many communities, such as Masterton, were left a shadow of what they were in 1914. It is painful to consider, but over a third of those young children standing on the Peace float in the left picture would be without a father or grandfather.
Edith McLeod went back to Masterton hospital, serving the rest of her life in its familiar halls, trying not to recall the terror of Passchendaele and the Somme. Her love of helping others stayed within her throughout her entire life, and her service to New Zealand in its time of need should forever be remembered with great respect and admiration.
You are Edith McLeod. Seeing the men go off to war, your kind and caring nature urges you to help these brave soldiers with the wounds they will sustain on the battlefield. One obstacle stands in your way.
Your parents will never agree to you enrolling to be a nurse, putting your life on the line for others. The impact that you would have on the Masterton community if you stayed would be massive, and we cannot afford to lose such a superb Nurse to war.
Can you convince your loving parents that you need to be in Belgium? That you could save hundreds of lives on the battlefields in Europe and the Middle East? Or do you think that Masterton has a greater need during the war? Let us know, and write to us with your story.
Write a letter home from Edith McLeod at Passchendaele.
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