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