Here’s a thought – Matron Ida Greaves RRC, graduate of Newcastle Hospital NSW, joined her unit (the Australian Voluntary Hospital) in London on 19 August 1914 and was demobilised 26 March 1919 (service record in National Archives of the UK). Whilst it makes not a jot of difference to the value of her or anyone else’s military service, it is an intriguing thought. Any advance on 4 years 7 months and 7 days in uniform?
Seen through the eyes of nurses and medics, the war was far from over when the Armistice came into effect. The fighting might have stopped, but efforts to care for the wounded, sick and dying continued with an added poignancy.
Newcastle Hospital graduate Sister Amy Mathews was serving on the Western Front on 11 November 1918. Read about her experiences in her own words - “I was in the Resuscitation Ward, and it was extremely sad.”
Sister Anne Donnell, a nurse from Adelaide, was working in a convalescent hospital near London at the time. In her diary she noted, “November 11 Monday – The Armistice is signed – The guns went off at midday – There’s a certain amount of quiet excitement with most of us – some are overjoyed – I wish I could feel happy – but I’m terribly depressed – am thinking of Ross & Stewart – & how things have changed.” (Diary of Anne Donnell, MLMSS 1022/Box 2 Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.)
Sister Elsie Tranter from Melbourne was nursing an 18-year-old boy – “One very young, fair-haired boy … was practically dying when we went on duty in the morning. When the noise started at 11 a.m. he wanted to know the meaning of it - he thought it was the commencement of another barrage. When we told him that the war was over he seemed unable to realise it. During that last few hours remaining to him, he called out frequently asking, ‘Is the war really over? ‘ Won’t I have to go back?’ He seem so happy each time we reassured him. This poor little lad finished his battle to survive towards evening. … We did not feel able to enter fully into the meaning and joy of the Armistice. The dead are still dead and will not return.” (Quoted in Susanna de Vries, Australian Heroines of World War One, Pirgos Press 2013.)
It was a long journey, and took Matron Ida Greaves RRC, a graduate of Newcastle Hospital, via the battlefields of northern France and the Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH). This is the story of the day on which she was presented with the Royal Red Cross by George V, in her own words and related documents made available by her descendants:
“There was quite a big crowd outside the Palace Gates which gave us a reception … it was just 11a.m. and we were soon allowed through the gates, through the Archway, across the Quadrangle and then pulled up under the Portico, when several attendants in scarlet uniform opened the car door and bowed us on to a gorgeous rose coloured carpet … At the door leading into the room where the King was, the Lord Chamberlain stood and took your card commanding you to be there and you were once again checked on the roll. At the other side of the door stood a Lord in Waiting who intimated when to advance towards the King when your name was read out. The King stood in the middle of the room next to a table, dressed in Khaki. When our turn arrived he came and stood in front of the table and we advanced to him and curtsied, then he slipped the decoration on to a clip which had previously been attached to our dress in the corridor, shook hands and said he was very pleased to give it to us and smiled so nicely. We curtsied again and backed out of the door into the corridor again which fortunately was not far. It was an awful moment, all I saw was the King and many blurred figures standing about. …
To-night the Colonel and I are invited to dine with General Sawyer something to do with the decorations I understand. Tomorrow night the Sisters are giving me a dinner here, quite a big affair and a small play afterwards written by one of the Sisters. That ought to be great fun but the dinner I am not looking forward to am deadly afraid they will expect me to make a speech.”
See also “No ordinary set of medals”
I’ve recently been privileged to be given access to photos and documents related to the service of Matron Ida Greaves RRC. In every photo, it seems, she is seen with such a friendly, unforced smile. Yet she was responsible for managing the nursing care of hundreds of men, many with horrendous injuries… and dealing with some challenging working conditions. What was the secret – determination to stay positive for the sake of the patients and staff, teamwork, a sense of humour … ?? Here are some of the photos:
In July 1915 the Hospital Ship Gascon was in port at Valetta, Malta, disembarking sick and wounded from Gallipoli – military hospitals at Lemnos and in Egypt were now full so casualties had to be taken further afield. In her diary for 19 July Sister Hilda Samsing noted with annoyance that three nurses had gone ashore early in the morning and failed to return to the ship until after the scheduled departure time. One of these was Singleton woman Sophie Durham. Sister Samsing complained that the women had drunk wine, forgotten the time and had “played up consistently on this trip”.
There is another side to the story - the diary of one of the three recalcitrant nurses noted that “we sisters rise early, and explore Malta, get back to the ship at 9.30 and find the Captain fuming, waiting to sail, orders had arrived during our absence to sail at 9am instead of 10am as previously arranged.”
The point of this post? People who put themselves in harm’s way to care for the casualties of war are undoubtedly doing it for the most unselfish of motives. But they were ordinary people and they didn’t always get on with each other or give each other the benefit of the doubt. “Office politics” were as alive in the hospitals of the Great War as they are in any workplace today. So let’s not idealise the nurses and doctors who staffed them. That said, it’s worth reading Susanna De Vriess’s latest book Australian Heroines of World War One, where I found this story. In it she describes the horrendous working conditions that Sophie Durham, Hilda Samsing and their fellow nurses endured on the Gascon for months in 1915.
Sophie Durham, by the way, went on to be mentioned in despatches in 1917 for her service on the Western Front. After the war she became a founding committee member of the Nurses’ sub-branch of the NSW Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League and later the Patroness of the Sisters’ sub-branch of the RSL. In 1941 she was awarded the MBE for services to social welfare. A woman for the citizens of Singleton to be proud of!
Susanna De Vriess, Australian Heroines of World War One, Pirgos Press, Chapel Hill Brisbane, 2013
Diary of Sister E J Tucker in AWM41/1053 Nurses Narratives
Australian War Memorial Honours & Awards database
Sydney Morning Herald 1 January 1941 & 1 July 1954
Does Matron Ida Greaves RRC share the distinction of being the first Australian woman to be awarded the Royal Red Cross in the Great War with a Nora Kathleen Fletcher who received her award from King George V on the same day in 1915 as Ida? Nora Fletcher was being honoured for her service as Principal Matron of the British Red Cross in France. She is not named in the Australian War Memorial’s database of honours and awards, but I have discovered records and artefacts relating to Matron Fletcher in the State Library of NSW. According to a catalogue entry she was born in Woollahra, NSW, in 1880. However, there is no record of her birth in the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages online and a search of family notices in Trove from 1879-1881 also proved fruitless.
Whatever the case, it does not diminish the achievement of either woman! They were in the first group of nurses from throughout the then British Empire to receive the honour during the Great War.
Nurses on ambulance trains rode the high roads of war and saw the devastation at first hand. Read about it in “With Staff Nurse Susan Greaves on No 22 Ambulance Train”, a new page in “Stories”.
The usual methods of identifying nurses from a specific area – eg place of birth, address on the Embarkation Roll, address of next-of-kin, name on school honour roll etc – only go so far. In More than Bombs and Bandages, Australian Army nurses at work in World War I (Big Sky Publishing, Newport 2011) Kirsty Harris has included a very useful appendix of training hospitals of AANS nursing members (pp.239-259). Kirsty’s research has allowed me to identify more women who graduated from Newcastle and Maitland hospitals. I am gradually adding these names as I research their service records. Today’s additions are Staff Nurse Aimée Michie known to her patients as Sister Mick and Sister Jessie Elizabeth Slack – Jessie Slack’s service record indicates that she was mentioned in despatches although as yet I have not discovered the particular action that led to this.
Friend and fellow researcher Ed Tonks has pointed out to me just how special these medals are (see previous post for a photo) – the 1914 Star is very rare, with only approximately 123 awarded to Australians including a small number from Matron Ida Greaves’ unit, the Australian Voluntary Hospital. Not to be confused with the 1914-15 Star which is much more common.
The oak leaf on Matron Greaves’ Victory Medal ribbon denotes Mention In Despatches. Ed tells me that although Ida Greaves was mentioned twice, irrespective of how many mentions, only one oak leaf emblem was to be worn. The first mention, which led to the award of the Royal Red Cross was as follows:
Despatch of J.D.P. French, Field Marshall, Commanding-in –Chief the British Army in the field, dated 5 April 1915 for gallant and distinguished service in the field.
These are the Great War medals of Matron Ida Greaves of the Australian Voluntary Hospital, Wimereux France. Left to right, they are the Royal Red Cross 1st Class, 1914 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. This set of medals is exceptional not only because the Royal Red Cross 1st Class was only awarded to 43 Australian women during the course of the War but because this particular one was the first to be awarded to an Australian. Matron Greaves received the award for outstanding service as matron of one of the first field hospitals (Australian Voluntary Hospital) to arrive in France at the outbreak of war.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the award on 25 June 1915, p5, with the comment that “Nurse Greaves is a native of Newcastle and is very well known here.” What a pity that the memory of this exceptional woman seems to have faded, unlike that of the Hunter’s Victoria Cross recipients.