Spectrum was a long-running weekly radio documentary series which captured the essence of New Zealand from 1972 to 2016. Alwyn Owen and Jack Perkins produced the series for many years, creating a valuable library of New Zealand oral history.
This episode features Alwyn Owen interviewing a New Zealand nurse, Isobel McGuire, who served in the Spanish Civil War.
McGuire came from a background which believed in social justice and personally felt that the non-interventionist stance of the New Zealand government and the International Red Cross was wrong.
As the Spanish Civil War escalated, she applied to the New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee to join the proposed medical unit which included doctors, a field hospital and ambulances. This was too expensive and just three nurses were sent to assist the Republican cause, Sister Rene Mary Shadbolt, Nurse Millicent Sharples and McGuire (known as Isobel Dodds prior to her marriage.)
While the attitude of her family was supportive, the Government were suspicious of the political affiliations of the nurses and looked for ways to stop the nurses travelling to Spain. McGuire relates that after they departed New Zealand in May of 1937, she received a radio telephone call from Peter Fraser during which he urged her to contact the New Zealand High Commission in Britain and if they got into trouble in Spain to seek out the nearest British Consul.
The nurses reached Spain in early July 1937 and transited through France to Barcelona arriving during an air raid. In Barcelona they were billeted in a “Mother House” which was used by the Spanish Medical Aid organisation to accommodate British nurses. While staying there they heard that the city had just witnessed rioting and violent clashes between anarchist and communist factions. The nurses then travelled to Valencia where the Republican government was established.
McGuire found that the Spanish people in rural areas led a very hard and impoverished life and that the countryside was very barren and unproductive.
McGuire and the other nurses started working at a front base hospital at Huete, near Madrid, which was located in an enormous monastery. The hospital was perhaps 40 miles from the front and received wounded people who had only received field dressings. She found the conditions in the hospital to be rather primitive with inadequate hygiene, limited medical supplies and no modern sterilization equipment. Maguire relates that the level of treatment depended on the nature of the injuries. The nurses were initially treating members of the International Brigades who had been wounded before they arrived. Later they had to treat casualties from the Battle of Brunete who needed major surgery.
Later in the war, when Franco’s Nationalists made a push for the Mediterranean, the nurses were treating soldiers who came straight from the front line and in very large numbers. As the front line came closer, the hospital became crowded with the wounded and the nurses and doctors found they could do little in terms of treatment apart from amputation.
The nurses were evacuated from the hospital in Huete at night when the advancing Nationalist forces put them in danger. They then spent three days and nights aboard a train travelling to Barcelona, witnessing columns of refugees and the general retreat of the Republicans during the journey.
McGuire recounts that acting as a nurse meant playing God when deciding who could and couldn’t be treated. Even when exhausted she still found time for pity and overcame her fear to try and save every patient.
Shadbolt and McGuire were evacuated from central Spain and then assigned to a hospital in the Pyrenees where they worked for six weeks. They were proud of their level of personal hygiene and always de-loused themselves, but in the province of Catalonia they found that lice were pervasive in the transit camps and were glad that they had received vaccination against typhoid.
McGuire recalls that a Czechoslovakian doctor adopted the unconventional medical treatment of using a maggot to clean wounds due to a lack of supplies.
In November the International Brigades were withdrawn and the nurses returned to Britain. McGuire remembers that she was most unhappy at leaving behind people who had fought bravely for their beliefs, knowing that many people were going to be killed, persecuted of imprisoned. Fascism has been growing in Europe, and at the time McGuire thought that if the Spaniards had made a stand it could have been halted.