End of the road

Before or after visiting Gallipoli: The scale of our war, take some time to head up to level 4 to see The Road to Recovery: Disabled Soldiers of World War I. This small-scale exhibition contains sobering content showing the long-term impact of the Great War on individuals, families and communities.

In the exhibition, eight large sepia photographs taken in 1918 show New Zealand soldiers trying to overcome illness and the loss of limbs. All of the men are participating in a job retraining programme set up by the commanding officer of the New Zealand forces in England. The identities of just two of the men are known. One, William Gemmell, lived a long and productive life after he returned to New Zealand. The other (below), Allan McMillan, died in a Dunedin convalescent home in the 1930 aged 39.

Untitled [portrait of Allan McMillan in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031469)

Untitled [portrait of Allan McMillan in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031469)

Of the 28 prints in Te Papa’s photography collection, perhaps the most visually arresting and moving are of Allan McMillan and another unidentified man (below) posing alone in rather bleak outdoor settings. In other images they are demonstrating clerical tasks and wool classing amongst groups of men. To me, these read as case studies, with the two mangled men presented to viewers as courageous and inspirational examples of individuals patiently triumphing over their disabilities.

Untitled [portrait of an unidentified WWI soldier with amputated feet posing in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031465)

Untitled [portrait of an unidentified WWI soldier with amputated feet posing in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031465)

I’ve concluded that the images were intended to be instructive – but not in the same way that clinical, before-and-after medical photographs documenting the treatment of soldiers’ facial wounds were. Te Papa’s images are examples of a pictorial genre that American historian Beth Linker describes as ‘social medicine photography’.

Untitled [Alan McMillan and three other WWI soldiers seated at typewriters at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031489)

Untitled [Alan McMillan and three other WWI soldiers seated at typewriters at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031489)

Untitled [five unidentified WWI soldiers posing in front of piles of sheep fleeces at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031486)

Untitled [five unidentified WWI soldiers posing in front of piles of sheep fleeces at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031486)

Linker argues that during World War I, such photography was used as a tool of ‘public persuasion not medical objectification’. Portraits of disabled soldiers were taken to convince the public that war-related disabilities could be mended or even made to disappear through physical and vocational rehabilitation. The subdued facial expressions of the New Zealand soldiers who posed for the camera in 1918 suggest to me that this was wishful thinking at best, and in reality quite deluded.

  • See all 28 of Te Papa’s photographs of WWI amputees
  • Reference : Beth Linker, ‘Shooting Disabled Soldiers’, Journal of the History of Medicine, volume 66, July 2011

10 Responses

  1. Kae Lewis

    http://www.thetreasury.org.nz/oliver/doidge.htm

    I thought you may be interested in the rehab of this disabled WWI soldier in NZ in our Treasury Journal (Thames)

    Reply
    • Kirstie Ross

      Thanks Kae. Could you please send through a few more details about this publication?

      Kirstie Ross
      History Curator

    • Kae Lewis

      The Treasury Journal is published by the Coromandel Heritage Trust and The Treasury: an archive that collects up historical records about Thames, Hauraki and the Coromandel Peninsula. I have been the webmaster since the beginning in 2007 http://www.thetreasury.org.nz.

      I have also been the Editor of The Treasury Journal since its inception in 2008.
      http://www.thetreasury.org.nz./JournalIndex.htm

      I collect research papers on historical aspects of the Thames/Coromandel district and have now published almost 70 research articles. It is published exclusively online since the Trust has never been able to afford to publish it in paper form (instead we have been able to build a state-of-the-art archive building at The Treasury – (see http://www.thetreasury.org.nz for details). I concentrate on articles of both genealogical and local history. For instance, the ongoing research at present includes the history of the NZ Govt State Forestry Dept in the Tairua State Forest, near Whangamata, and the result will be at least 3 or 4 articles over the course of the next year. Our authors represent those who have been researching their own family as well as local archeologists and historians. All find it an excellent way for publicizing their research and obtaining feedback from the general public to fill in gaps in knowledge, a great advantage for researchers. A general google search will often bring up an article from The Treasury Journal on the subject, and this is how our local research is promoted and enhanced. For instance the article I posted on this blog, Oliver’s Travels:
      http://www.thetreasury.org.nz./oliver/doidge.htm
      originated when the author, the grandson of Oliver, read the article about the 1918 Flu epidemic in Thames that I had written on another section of the webpage called OUR PEOPLE:
      http://www.thetreasury.org.nz./Flu.htm
      Malcolm realized his grandmother was one of our flu nurses and sent us her photograph collection (now reproduced in the article). Later he was inspired to write the article called Oliver’s Travels about his grandfather. This often happens with our authors, and the vast majority of them have gained immensely from the experience of writing up their research for The Treasury Journal.
      Thanks for your interest.
      Regards,
      Kae Lewis
      Webmaster and Editor
      The Coromandel Heritage Trust
      Thames

    • Kirstie Ross

      Dear Kae
      Thank you very much for sending this link to Oliver Doidge’s story. I have been interested in WWI servicemen like Oliver Doidge who are depicted in the water colour portraits of facial wounds held in the Gillies Archive. (I uncovered the story of Arthur Godfrey – another facially wounded soldier who was painted – and wrote about him in the Te Papa Press book ‘Holding on to Home’.) Is Oliver Doidge’s diary in a museum or library, or with his family?
      Yours sincerely
      Kirstie Ross

    • Malcolm Doidge

      Hi Kirstie, kae passed on a message about my grandfather who’s photos and watercolors were preserved as part of the gillies files. The family holds his diaries and photos postcards etc and I/we have been in the process of scanning them over several years. I have had correspondence with the curator of the Gillies files and he has sent me some new material. happy to discuss anything about Oliver’s experience of war and rehab. Malcolm

    • Kae Lewis

      Hi Kirstie

      Quote from the text of the article on Oliver Doidge:
      “Oliver wrote an extensive diary about his experiences during WWI. Photos of the pages can be seen on Facebook by signing in and then searching for Malcolm Doidge to find them.”

      Malcolm hold his grandfather’s diary. I have let him know about your query. Kae Lewis

  2. martin tonks

    Thankyou for the article and information you have provided. It is very thought provoking as I. Am sure at the time it was well meaning, but now it looks terrible and brings thoughts of what a waste war was. I feel we honour the fallen and the returned but forget to mention in particular those that were permanently scared physically. My great uncle lost a leg near the end of the war and became a founding member of the world war amputees association in Wellington helping those that were from ww1 and then with his wife helping ww2 amputees. My Aunt was awarded an MBE for her services to the war amputees and association…. So articles and information like this are always close to my heart. Thanks again for all the great research you have done.
    Martin

    Reply
    • Kirstie Ross

      Hi Martin
      Thanks for your insights and for sharing this information about your family’s commitment to the rehabilitation of amputee veterans.

      Kirstie Ross
      History Curator

  3. Kirstie ROss

    Dear Robyn
    Thank you for your comment and link to your blog. I was pleased to read it and the conversation it has generated.

    You have hit the nail on the head: while the intention behind the photos was to show men overcoming their disabilities, the reality was – and you can see it in the men’s faces – that many were far from happy being objectified in this way.

    Kirstie Ross
    Curator

    Reply
  4. Robyn

    “courageous and inspirational examples of individuals patiently triumphing over their disabilities.” Not my take on them at all, but a very common one.They look extremely unhappy, and occasionally very angry. I sgree that they are objectified as disabled people in photographs often are. They represent the uncomforatable face of war. See also http://publicaddress.net/access/the-disabled-soldier-problem/

    Reply

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