NZ'S FIRST WORLD WAR CENTENARY 2014–2019

Dentistry under fire - the New Zealand Dental Corps

By:
Rebecca Nuttall

In the early stages of the war, between a quarter to a third of recruits were rejected for service on account of dental defects. Museum and Heritage Studies student Rebecca Nuttall explores the history of the New Zealand Dental Corps in the First World War.


Soldiers brush their teeth before visiting a dental surgery in France, 1917. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-012972-G.

A trip to the dentist may be the last thing anyone wants to sign up for today, but for many soldiers of the First World War it was a necessity. In the early stages of the war, between a quarter to a third of recruits were rejected for service on account of dental defects.

The New Zealand Dental Association, seeing an opportunity to raise their profile, took up the challenge to treat these men and contribute to the war effort. They lobbied the Defence Force to create the first ever Dental Corps in November 1915, with the aim to have every soldier of the Expeditionary Force dentally fit for service. This was by no means an easy feat. Dental officers inspected the teeth of prospective soldiers in New Zealand mobilisation camps, and accompanied troops when they were mobilised overseas. 

If the Army’s policy was to send a reinforcement of approximately two thousand healthy men each month, the work of the New Zealand Dental Corps (NZDC) was not to be underestimated. Between 1915 and 1918, they performed 221,214 filling operations and 98,817 teeth extractions.

This cartoon, published in the Auckland Star on 14 November 1914, satirised the recruitment effort's high rate of rejection of men on account of their teeth. Image sourced on PapersPast.

Dental care was not restricted to the surgery room either. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas A. Hunter of the NZDC describes dental work aboard the ships with disconcerting optimism: ‘…operator and patient readily adapted themselves to the novel experience of treating and receiving treatment to the roll of the transports.’

Once overseas the NZDC faced many challenges in transporting their heavy equipment and accommodating dental services so close to the front line. As mobile dental surgeries became increasingly necessary for the continuation of the war effort, the New Zealand dentists managed to downsize their equipment to the equivalent of just one pack mule load.

A New Zealand soldier undergoing a dental extraction at the New Zealand Dental Corps hospital in Nielles, France, during the First World War. Photograph taken November 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, reference: 1/4-009512-G.

In Egypt, dental officers extracted septic roots and decayed teeth, removed salivary stones and filled large cavities. The pestering flies, sandstorms and high temperatures of the desert created difficult work conditions for both operator and patient.

Landing on the shores of Gallipoli and positioned close to the Turkish lines, the NZDC worked under deadly conditions. Official Correspondent, Captain Malcolm Ross, reported in the Dominion that ‘shells from “Startling Annie” on the north and from “Beachy Bill” on the south came flying past, and at times the shrapnel burst overhead, sending pellets through the blanket roof.’

A soldier, seated, has a set of new dentures fitted by a dentist attached to the New Zealand Dental Corps. Photograph taken in Nielles, France, November 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, reference: 1/2-012973-G.

The NZDC earned a reputation for mobility and efficiency. A dental hospital was set up only 5 kilometres from the front line on the Somme in September 1916. From ‘moral tooth brush drills’ at the camps to fillings, extractions and the treatment of the prevalent gum disease, ‘trench mouth’, the Dental Corps is thought to have saved the State around £19,000 per year.

Dentists were recognised as an integral part of the military operation and their hard work, despite the challenges faced, is an example of New Zealand’s commitment to the war.

"The Prophylactic Bench" where New Zealand soldiers brush their teeth before visiting the dental surgeries. Photograph taken November 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, reference: 1/2-012975-G.

Date added: 18 May 2015 | Last updated: 19 May 2015

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