‘Limbie’ is a word you don’t hear today. It seems a bit blunt to us now but, during and after World War I, it was an acceptable, informal term used to describe a limbless soldier – an ex-serviceman who lost a limb in the conflict. (Over 1000 New Zealand soldiers had to have limbs amputated because of war wounds.)
Te Papa has in its collection 28 very large photographic prints of limbies participating in the vocational training scheme that was set up at Oatlands Park, in Surrey, England. Oatlands Park was attached to the army’s No 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames.
Eight of these prints are now on display at Te Papa in an exhibition called Road to Recovery: Disabled soldiers of World War I. My research leads me to strongly believe that all 28 photographs were originally displayed in an exhibition held in London in May 1918 that was dedicated to the rehabilitation of disabled soldiers. The identity of the photographer, like the men in the images except one, remains a mystery.
That one man is Allan McMillan, who appears in four of the photos, and also on the Road to Recovery banner (above). In three of these images, Allan is demonstrating secretarial and clerical tasks – even though he had no left arm and lacked the fingers on his right hand. He is the man on the extreme left in the photo below.
Working in an office work would have been a change for Allan who had been a miner for the Dunedin City Corporation when he enlisted in the army in January 1915. But, after being wounded on the Somme, in September 1916, and losing his limbs, it would have been impossible for Allan to pick up his pre-war job.
Fitted with artificial limbs, Allan arrived back in Dunedin in 1919 and was discharged in June that year. Little is known of Allan’s life, working or otherwise, between that date and June 1930, when he died from respiratory illnesses aged 39.
This blog is part of a month-long series of blogs commenting on the start of World War I in August 1914. If you are related to Allan, or recognise any other ‘limbies’ in the photographs, Te Papa would appreciate hearing from you.
Read Alan McMillan’s digitised military personnel file at Archives New Zealand
Learn more about soldiers on the road to recovery is in the Te Papa Press book Holding on to Home: New Zealand Objects and Stories of the First World War by Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross