When we think of the Great War often what comes to mind are battle scenes – machine guns, trenches and tanks. But in every war there is another battlefield where men and women of the army medical services fight to save the bodies and minds of those who have been wounded, and to ease the passing of those they cannot save.
During the Gallipoli campaign Australian and NZ nurses served in hospitals in Egypt, Malta and Lemnos. A small number worked on hospital ships evacuating casualties from Anzac Cove and Cape Helles. In the first days of the campaign the evacuation of the wounded was chaotic. Stretcher bearers on shore and doctors and nurses on hospital ships were overwhelmed by the volume of casualties. Sister Wakeford, a nurse from Wollongong, described the scene on that first Anzac Day as follows:
“the wounded seemed to come down to the shore in an endless stream … there seemed to be no one in charge directing wounded men to any one ship … Soldiers, stores and wounded men struggled to find vacant space. … By 3pm we had 500 wounded men on our wards, 100 men more than had been allowed for, all desperately thirsty and longing for water. … We continued to take on more wounded until the foredeck was filled with rows of them. … everyone on the ship worked like fury …no one had expected so many casualties or that some would be so horrific. We prayed the morphine would not run out.” (De Vries, Susanna, Australian Heroines of World War One, Pirgos Press, Brisbane, 2012, pp74-75)
At least eighty women from the Hunter region served as military nurses between 1914 and 1919. The experiences of Sister Kathleen Byrne from Swansea, a graduate of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Sydney, were typical of other Australian nurses who served in the Great War. Sister Byrne served in hospitals in London and France. Though far from the conflict, at No 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in London staff and patients were vulnerable to air raids. Just as distressing, though, was the work at this hospital. It specialised in the treatment of amputees. Nurses here assisted at operations and cared for their patients through the rehabilitation process. Nurses at this and other hospitals were deeply affected by the experience of caring for men who had been so horribly damaged.
In 1917 Sister Byrne was posted to a Base Hospital in France, on the Channel coast. The staff of this hospital had to contend with the weather and the makeshift accommodation – tents that blew over or caught fire in the Atlantic gales; water pipes that froze in winter then burst when the Spring arrived. This added to the difficulties of nursing the wounded. In October 1917 the hospital accepted casualties from the disastrous 3rd Battle of Ypres. The Commanding officer reported that the average number of admissions during the month exceeded 160 patients per day. For several days the inflow of casualties was so great that the hospital capacity was increased from 1200 beds to 1700 beds at short notice. Imagine that pressure placed on a civilian hospital today.
In the final months of the war Sister Byrne was posted to an Australian Casualty Clearing Station. Casualty Clearing Stations were located close to the front line and were a bit like an Accident and Emergency Unit. They were dangerous places as they were sometimes accidentally hit by stray bombs. At these units the slightly wounded were patched up and returned to the field. More serious cases were stabilized before they could be evacuated to base hospitals. Inevitably, there were those that didn’t make it. Perhaps one of the hardest tasks that nurses performed was writing to the relatives of these men.
Altogether nearly 4000 Australian and NZ women served in military hospitals during the Great War. Thirty-six Australian nurses died on active service; one was lost at sea when a Hospital Ship was torpedoed, the others died from illnesses contracted during their work, such as malaria and influenza. Seventeen New Zealand nurses too lost their lives, including ten who were lost at sea when the Troopship “Marquette” was sunk by a submarine attack. Although their numbers are small compared with casualties amongst soldiers, let us not forget these women who also made the supreme sacrifice.