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First MTG director writes vivid and powerful eyewitness account of World War I: 'A beast of burden'


Most people with a sense of Hawke’s Bay history know of Leo Bestall, who was the first Director of MTG Hawke’s Bay Tai Ahuriri. He helped raise money to build the museum, and he rose to become national president of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand. In 1949 he received an MBE for his work. However, few know Leo as a younger man who predates MTG.

In December 1915, with the First World War bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front, Leo left his architectural apprenticeship and enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He joined the Medical Corps - “I am a stretcher bearer, a beast of burden” he wrote. He was aged barely twenty, Army Service Number 3/2088, and he served 3 years and 4½ months.

Leo was on duty during the Battle of the Somme in September/October 1916. The photo shows him with his squad of four stretcher-bearers. They did 34 carries in 19 days – long journeys of stretcher-bearing through terrible bombardments and mud. In October 1917 he was gassed at Passchendaele (mustard gas), then spent three months recovering. By March/April 1918 he was back in the thick of it, tending the torrent of wounded at an Advanced Dressing Station in a French village called Mailly-Maillet, facing the German Spring Offensive.

There is a photograph of that Advanced Dressing Station taken by the NZ official war photographer Henry Armitage Sanders. It’s an interesting photo and in 2018 I decided to research it. A simple internet search revealed there was a copy in the MTG archives, alongside a diary by one Leo Bestall. That was the first I had heard of Leo.

From London, I emailed Napier asking what this man Leo had written in his diary. The Archivist at MTG sent me some cellphone photographs of a letter Leo had written home to his parents describing his work. Here’s some of what he wrote:

The cases come in within an hour or so of being hit … They come in just with the first rough dressing on, inches thick with mud and dripping with rain and we give them dry blankets, hot water bottles, cocoa and cake, cut off their puttees and boots and put on thick bed sox. Redress wounds that are still bleeding and then send them on in cars to the Main Dressing Station.

Sometimes it's pretty rotten though, especially in the cases of abdominal wounds. A case just went through just now. A poor beggar very white and repeating over and over again under his breath "O my God help me, please God do something for me" etc, etc. They moan for water so much too and you daren't give it them. A large percentage of abdominal cases don't recover.

Leo’s writing is very vivid, a powerful first-hand eyewitness account. I found his narrative very helpful for my historical research into WW1 stretcher-bearing and medical evacuation.

When I returned to Aotearoa New Zealand, I came to Napier to check Leo out. What I found were three ring binders of hand-written material, hundreds of pages – diary pages, hand-written letters, photos and postcards, plus bits and pieces from WW1 - a leave pass, a telegram home, a German bank note, etc. The diary was chronological but copied onto fresh sheets of paper. The letters home were the originals, on fragile 100+ year old paper, kept by Leo’s parents. Occasionally the censor’s crossing-out was present and sometimes Leo had restored the obliterated wording. Most letters were dated and numbered. (The quoted letter from Mailly-Maillet is No.103, from the third ring binder.) Leo also took many photos, mostly before he crossed into France. However, there were even a few from the front line, where cameras were strictly forbidden.

When I saw the extent of Leo’s WW1 writing, there was a decision to make. I estimated that to transcribe and to write up all his material would take about five years. Did I have 5 years of my life to devote to this project? I already lead a busy life, work fulltime, and besides I live in Auckland. But it seemed to me that the wealth and quality of Leo’s experience was worth it. It should be in the public domain. And I knew I would learn a great deal from doing it – about the New Zealanders in WW1, about Leo, and about myself. So, I accepted the challenge. That was 2019.

Four years on, I am now very familiar with the energetic, intelligent and observant, intensely social and likable young man Leo Bestall. Covid lockdown proved a bonus, with long evenings to work on transcription - it helped keep me sane. Recently I was at MTG archives again - Leo’s material in the third ring binder is loose (not ‘ring-bound’) and pages had clearly become mingled together. That affects the fundamental integrity of the source material, the order in which the pages should be read, and thus the transcription. An interesting puzzle, but we’ve sorted it, with special thanks to the Archivist’s support and expertise. It was a deeply satisfying day, and I think Leo Bestall would have been pleased. He clearly wanted to have his story told, and it won’t be long now before we have this ‘taonga’ uploaded and available online.

Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 28 July 2023 and written by Dr Graham Howie.

 Dr Graham Howie is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Paramedicine Dept, School of Clinical Sciences, Auckland University of Technology. He researches paramedic emergency care, both current and historical - with a particular interest in the First World War. In October he will travel to Europe to walk the villages and battlefields that Leo Bestall described.

Image: Stretcher-bearer Squad, after the Somme Battle, October 1916. Leo Bestall is sitting front left, his arms clasping his knees. Sitting to the right is his close friend ‘Mac’ McCarthy (3/2063), also from Napier. Standing upper left is EdwardSkivington (23/281), who was to die of wounds in May 1917. Standing upper right is Wally Carruthers (3/85), leader of the squad, who was awarded a MM for ‘setting a fine example of courage and coolness under fire’ at the Somme.Collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 19242. Public Domain.


31 July 2023

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