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In 1918, the New Zealand army commissioned photographs of servicemen who had lost limbs during the war. The photographs were taken at Oatlands Park in Surrey, England which had been converted into a hospital for limbless soldiers. Men waited there for their stumps to heal, and artificial limbs to be fitted.
To ensure that these men did not become burdens on government when they returned home, a job training scheme was set up at Oatlands Park. The unknown photographer who recorded the scheme constructed scenes in which even the most physically handicapped were seen to be competent and employable, and successfully overcoming their war wounds. But the soldiers’ forlorn expressions suggest something less positive than this.
Dunedin miner Allan McMillan survived Gallipoli only to lose an arm and four fingers when he was wounded on the Western Front in September 1916. The wintry scene hints at the bleak future ‘limbies’ like McMillan faced unless they took advantage of the job retraining offered at Oatlands Park.
Portrait of Allan McMillan in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031469)
WWI soldier Allan McMillan sitting at a desk at Oatlands Park. Minus his left arm and four fingers on his right one, McMillan was highly unlikely to return to mining back in New Zealand. Mastering new work skills without these limbs must have initially seemed just as impossible.
Portrait of a WWI soldier, Allan McMillan, with an amputated arm sitting at a desk at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031468)
If McMillan wore a specially padded leather glove, he could hold a pencil and write with his right hand. At Oatlands Park, he learned to take shorthand dictation, eventually reaching advanced levels.
Portrait of a WWI soldier, Allan McMillan, with an amputated arm writing at a desk at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031467)
McMillan (left) learned other skills at Oatlands Park. Here, he demonstrates typing using just his right thumb. The names of the three other ‘limbies’ with him in the classroom are unknown.
Allan McMillan and three other WWI soldiers seated at typewriters at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England,1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031489)
A soldier demonstrates bookkeeping. The only clues to his identity are military badges on his uniform: his shoulder badge, which reads ‘NZR’ (New Zealand Rifles), and his 4th (Otago Rifles) Regiment collar badge.
Portrait of an unidentified WWI soldier, right arm amputated, seated at a desk at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031472)
An office job was a sensible choice for amputees, especially those with disabilities that stopped them going back to physically demanding outdoor work such as farming.
Here is another full-length portrait of an amputee posing in the grounds of Oatlands Park. It raises the question of what would become of soldiers like him once they returned to New Zealand. In this man’s case, we may never know.
Unidentified WWI soldier with amputated feet posing in the grounds of Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031465)
The unidentified double amputee from the previous slide appears again in this photograph. This group of men is learning to class wool.
Five unidentified WWI soldiers posing in front of piles of sheep fleeces at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031486)
Wool classing was the third most popular skill taught at Oatlands Park, after clerical and commercial subjects, and engineering. Thirty-five men trained in wool classing during April 1918, including the unidentified double amputee seated in the front row (his stumps are visible under the table). This photograph shows a large number of the men posing with the results of their training.
William Gemmell and nineteen other WWI soldiers posed around a display of graded wool samples at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031484
These nine men, including the unidentified soldier with both feet amputated (front right), are sorting fleece. You have to look closely to see which of their limbs are missing. To date, the only person we have identified in this group is a man called William Gemmell (back left).
William Gemmell and eight other WWI soldiers sitting around sheep fleece at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918. Maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031485)