NZ Divisional Laundry and Baths, 1916 – 1918

A significant function of the New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the First World War was managing the New Zealand Divisional Laundries and Baths. The Laundry and Bath functions would help maintain the New Zealand Division’s hygiene by providing the opportunity for regular bathing, the exchanging of underclothing and socks and the delousing of uniforms. Although the NZ Division s Laundry and Bath functions were interconnected with its neighbouring Divisions and supporting Corps, this article’s focus is on providing a snapshot of the NZ Divisions Laundry and Bath operations from October 1916 to June 1918.

At the onset of the First World War in part due to the lessons learnt in the South African War and the more recent Balkan Wars, the British Army had a reasonable understanding of the importance of hygiene in the field and published The Manual of Elementary Military Hygiene in 1912.[1]  However, as with any military doctrine, the practical application of the field hygiene lessons learnt would take time to become effective in the early years of the War. However, by the time the New Zealand Division arrived at the Western Front in mid-1916, the British Army had a rudimentary Laundry and Bath system at the Corps and Divisional level in which the New Zealand Division would be integrated into.

Command and Control

Initially, as the New Zealand Division took over the existing Laundry and Baths from British units, these functions were initially vested as a responsibility of the New Zealand Medical Corps, who provided officers and men to supplement he existing civilian staff.[2]  In line with British practice both the Divisional Laundry and Baths came under the control of the Division Headquarters “Q” Branch, and from 21 December 1916, the New Zealand Division, Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (DADOS) was the officer responsible for the running of the Divisional Laundry and Baths.[3]

Baths

The Bathing concept was that four Bathhouses were to be established in a Divisional area: usually one Bathhouse for each Infantry brigade and on Bathhouse for the rest of the Division.  The concept was that Soldiers would rotate through Bathhouse on a schedule to allow the entire Division to be bathed once every ten days. In the early years of the war Bathing facilities were rudimentary with Baths ranging from breweries or fabric processing plants to Beer barrels cut in half.[4]   

British soldiers washing in makeshift baths possibly near Armentieres, 1915. Copyright: © IWM.

Although initially built on an ad-hoc basis using whatever resources were available, by 1917 most Bathhouses in the New Zealand Division were built and operated on a uniform pattern: [5]

A typical Bathhouse would be operated as follows.

  • The men enter at 1, Undress and hand their Service Dress and valuables in at 2(Obtaining receipt) and dirty underclothes at 3.
  • They then have a hot shower in D
  • While the men are having their showers, the seams of their Service Dress Tunics and Trousers were ironed to kill lice, and small repairs were undertaken.
  • Upon completing the shower, the men enter F, collect a towel, clean underclothes at 4 and their Service Dress and valuables at 5. Dress and leave by 6.
  • All Towels and dirty underclothes are sent from the baths to the Divisional Laundry daily, and a supply of clean or new items received in exchange.

In June 1918 the system of delousing the soldier’s Service Dress clothing was improved using the Thresh Disinfector Delousing Chamber. As soldier passed into the Bathhouse, the soldier’s Service Dress would be turned inside out and handed over to the Thresh operators. The Garments would be hung up inside the Thresh’s airtight chamber and sealed. Coke braziers then heated the airtight chamber, and after the garments had been treated by this method for 15 minutes, they were found to be entirely free form lice and eggs.[6]

Personnel employed in the Divisional usually consisted of

  • A Non-Commissioned Officer (NZAOC).[7]
  • Locally employed civilian women for ironing and mending.

Depending on the ebb and flow of the battle and the New Zealand Division’s movement, between October 1916 and June 1918 the DADOS War Diary records that Bathhouses to support the NZ Division were established in over thirty-four different locations.[8] On most occasions, existing bathhouses were taken over from other Divisions. If there were no existing Bathhouse or the ones taken over were not suitable, NZ Engineers would be employed to construct new bathhouses.[9]

Plan for the NZ Divisional Baths as Vauchelles. Archives New Zealand

By June 1918, the New Zealand Divisional Bathhouse system was operating effectively and bathing on average between 700 – 800 troops daily, with 46411 men passing through the Divisional Bathhouses in total.[10]

New Zealand soldiers recently in the trenches outside the Divisional Baths, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013160-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23139145
Soldiers after leaving the line wait their turn for a bath. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-012817-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23097155

Laundry

On most occasions, the Division would be relieving an existing Division in the area and would take over the existing Divisional Laundry as a going concern. However, there were occasions when a Laundry would have to be established from the ground up, such as when the Division Laundry and Baths at Pont de Nieppe were destroyed by enemy shell fire in April 1917.[11]

The Divisional Laundry would receive dirty garments from the Baths, (underclothes, socks, and towels) where they would be disinfected, washed, and mended and placed into a reissue pool.[12] 

Usually, the Divisional Laundry would place indents on the supply chain for new items to replace items beyond repair, however, in January 1918 authority was granted for the Divisional Baths to hold a pool of new clothing to me maintained consisting of: [13]

  • 5000 shirts
  • 13100 vests woollen
  • 12450 Drawers Woollen
  • 12700 Towels
  • 19000 pairs of socks

By 1918 the average output from the New Zealand Divisional Laundry was 35,000 – 40,000 garments per week.

Personnel employed in the Divisional Laundry usually consisted of.

  • 1 Officer (NZAOC)
  • 20 Other Ranks.[14]
  • 142 Civilians
    • 1 Forewoman @ 60 Centines per hour
    • 1 Assistant @ 50 Centines per hour
    • 50 Seamstresses @ 40 Centines per hour
    •  70 Laundresses @ 40 Centines per hour
    • 10 Helpers @ 30 Centines per hour
    • 10 Drying Room Hands @ 40 Centines per hour
French women employed in an Army laundry, hanging out soldiers’ shirts to dry at Poperinghe, 30 September 1917. Copyright: © IWM.

Between October 1916 and June 1918, as the NZ Division moved, the NZ Divisional Laundry would also be relocated and established in new locations, some of the known sites were

  • October 1916 Located at Estaires.
  • Pont de Nieppe, Laundry destroyed by enemy shellfire, 12 April 1917
  • 18 to 25 April 1917 Established at Steenwerck, Handed over to the 8th Division.
  • Before and during the German 1918 Spring Offensive, the Divisional Laundry would be located at.
    • Renninghelst
    • Outtersteene      
    • Westoutre
    • Abbeville  

Socks

Socks were an unlikely enabler; in the extreme conditions found in the mud-filled trenches clean, dry socks were often the difference between life and death. When feet are constantly wet, as they often were in the trenches, they begin to rot. Gangrene sets in, and often the only remedy is amputation. In the First World War, 75,000 British troops would die due to complications caused by trench foot.[15]

Acutely aware of the need for clean socks, the New Zealand Division maintained a system where socks were exchanged daily. To facilitate the daily exchange, a dry sock store was run in conjunction with the Bathhouses. Here dry socks were drawn daily by units in the line in exchange for dirty socks. The dirty sock would then be backloaded to the Divisional Laundry and exchanged for clean socks.

Once received by the Divisional Laundry, the dirty socks would if damaged, be mended, washed and once dried treated with camphor (as prevention against trench foot) before been placed into the exchange pool.

By May 1918 the disruption caused by the 1918 German Kaiserschlacht offensive had affected the supply routes with the railway service from the Laundry at Abbeville becoming irregular, and it was taking 6-7 days for trucks to travel the short distance to replenish Bathhouses with clean underclothing and socks. However, given the hygiene and morale benefits that clean socks brought, the need to maintain the sock exchange system to the forward troops was a priority. Therefore, close to the front, under the supervision of the NZAOC, a small sock washing depot was established with Sixteen men from the Divisional Employment Company in May 1918. Socks were sorted with torn or holey socks returned to the Laundry for mending, with the remainder of the socks washed by hand. In fine weather, the drying was done outside, if it was wet, the socks were hung on wires from the ceiling of a room and dried employing coke braziers. The men did excellent work, and output was 4 to 5 thousand pairs daily and kept up an adequate supply.[16]   

Soldiers washing socks during World War I, Bus-les-artois, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013179-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23052031
New Zealand soldiers washing socks in wooden tubs near the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters at Bus-les-artois, 7 May 1918. Photograph taken by Henry Armitage Sanders Nº H-563 Photo source – Alexander Turnbull collection at the National Library of New Zealand. (Colorized by Marina Amaral from Brazil) https://www.facebook.com/marinamaralarts/?fref=nf See less

Gumboots

As the western front settled down into the routine of trench warfare in the winter of 1915, the time spent in the saturated trenches by British troops was limited to thirty-six hours during which the wearing of gumboots became widespread in the water-soaked areas.[17]  The use of gumboots helped minimise the effects of mud and water on exposed feet, thus limiting Trench foot occurrences. Based on the early success of gumboots, contracts were placed with the North British Rubber Company (now Hunter Boot Ltd) to manufacture over 1,185,000 pairs of Gumboots for the British army during WW1.[18]

Boots were classed as Trench Stores and usually only issued to a Division when it was on the line. The NZ Division was typically provided with around 6000 pairs, pooled, and issued from a Gumboot Store. The Gumboot store was designed with drying racks and heaters to allow the wet gumboots to be dried and prepared for reissue.

Plan for Drying Apparatus for Rubber Boots. Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diaries, 1914-1919 – Australian Corps Baths and Laundries, 2 – June 1916 – April 1918.” Australian War Memorial Archives Collection No AWM4 18/1/1 PART 2 (1918)

This article provides a small snapshot of how the Laundry and Bath functions contributed to maintaining the New Zealand Division’s hygiene by providing the opportunity for regular bathing, the exchanging of underclothing and socks and the delousing of uniforms. Although the playing a small but significant role in maintaining the combat effectiveness of the New Zealand Division, the efforts of the NZ Division DADOS Staff, the men of the Divisional Employment Companies and the locally employed civilian staff in maintaining the Laundry and Bath operations are worthy of further study to expand the historiography of New Zealand’s First World War combat enablers.

Notes


[1] Martin C. M. Bricknell and Colonel David A. Ross, “Fit to Fight – from Military Hygiene to Wellbeing in the British Army,” Military Medical Research 7, no. 1 (2020).

[2] Major J.S Bolton, A History of the Royal New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps (Trentham: RNZAOC, 1992), 71-72.

[3] “2nd Australia & New Zealand Army Corps [2anzac], Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Ados) – War Diary, 1 December – 31 December 1916,” Archives New Zealand Item No  R23487340  (1916).

[4] Janet Macdonald, Supplying the British Army in the First World War, vol. , (Pen and Sword military, 2019), , 143.

[5] “An Account of the Working of the Baths Established in the Divisional Areas in France,” Archives New Zealand Item No R24428508  (1918).

[6] “Headquarters New Zealand and Australian Division – New Zealand Division – Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Dados) – War Diary, 1 June – 30 June 1918,” Archives New Zealand Item No R23487667  (1918).

[7] From May 1917 drawn from No 1 NZ (Divisional) Employment Company.

[8] Based on the DADOS War Diaries Bathhouses were established at, Neuve-Eglise, Selles, Balinghem,Merck-Saint-Liévin, Watou Area, Vlamertinge, Poperinghe, Canal Bank, Bayenghem, Potijze, Hondichen, Staple, Halifax Camp, Caistre, Béthencourt, Louvencourt, Pas, Nauchelles, Pont de Nieppe, Blendecques, Café Belge

Bissezeele Cross Roads, Potijze, Ottawa, Hooge Baths Ypres, Estaires, Vauchelles

[9] Peter D. F. Cooke, Won by the Spade: How the Royal New Zealand Engineers Built a Nation (Exisle Publishing Ltd, 2019), Bibliographies, Non-fiction, 199.

[10] “Headquarters New Zealand and Australian Division – New Zealand Division – Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Dados) – War Diary, 1 June – 30 June 1918”

[11] “Headquarters New Zealand and Australian Division – New Zealand Division – Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Dados) – War Diary, 1 April – 30 April 1917,” Archives New Zealand Item No R23487653  (1917).

[12] “An Account of the Working of the Baths Established in the Divisional Areas in France.”

[13] “Headquarters New Zealand and Australian Division – New Zealand Division – Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Dados) – War Diary, 1 January – 31 January 1918,” Archives New Zealand Item No R23487662  (1918).

[14] From May 1917 drawn from No 1 NZ (Divisional) Employment Company.

[15] Allison Korleski, “Next up in Fiber Nation: The Hand-Knit Socks That Marched to War,” Interweave, https://www.interweave.com/fiber-nation/episode-9-world-war-socks/.

[16] “Headquarters New Zealand and Australian Division – New Zealand Division – Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Dados) – War Diary, 1 June – 30 June 1918.”

[17] Susan Cohen, Medical Services in the First World War (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

[18] James Smith, “History of Wellington Boots: From Battlefields to Potato Fields,” Heddels, https://www.heddels.com/2019/02/history-wellington-boots-battlefields-potato-fields/.

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