Author Archives: Great War Nurses from Newcastle & the Hunter Region

About Great War Nurses from Newcastle & the Hunter Region

Author of 'Sisters of the Valley - First World War Nurses from Newcastle and the Hunter Region', Royal Newcastle Hospital Graduate Nurses' Association, The Junction, 2011;

Thoughts on Anzac Day 2014

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.

Was Australia’s longest serving recruit of the Great War in fact a woman?

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?

Matron Ida Greaves and an officer.  Note the ribbon of the Royal Red Cross on the left side of the cape.  This photo was taken at No 7 Casualty Clearing Station, Ligny St Flochel, France on 21 August 1918 when Ida had been in uniform for 4 years.  Photo courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Matron Ida Greaves and an officer. Note the ribbon of the Royal Red Cross on the left side of the cape. This photo was taken at No 7 Casualty Clearing Station, Ligny St Flochel, France on 21 August 1918 when Ida had been in uniform for 4 years. Photo courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

The first Armistice Day – “the dead are still dead and will not return”.

SePoppy1en 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 seemed 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.)

“All I saw was the King and many blurred figures standing about”- from Newcastle Hospital to Buckingham Palace

It was Royal Red Crossa 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. …

Invitation to attend presentation of the Royal Red Cross at Buckingham Palace.  Reproduced courtesy Greaves family.

Invitation to attend presentation of the Royal Red Cross at Buckingham Palace. Reproduced courtesy Greaves family. Click on image to enlarge.

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”

Menu for dinner in honour of Matron Greaves' award of the Royal Red Cross.   Reproduced courtesy  Greaves family.

Dinner in honour of Matron Greaves’ award of the Royal Red Cross – the illustration at the top of the menu depicts the Royal Red Cross between the Australian and British flags. As a compliment to Ida one of the desserts has been named “Gelee Newcastle”. Reproduced courtesy Greaves family. Click on image to enlarge.

Matron Ida Greaves and an officer.  Note the ribbon of the Royal Red Cross on the left side of the cape.  This photo was taken after 1 July 1916 when the AVH had been absorbed into the Royal Army Medical Corps, as Ida is wearing the uniform of the British nursing service.  Photo courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Matron Ida Greaves and an officer. The ribbon of the Royal Red Cross can just be seen on the left side of the cape – this would have been worn for “every day” with the cross itself reserved for ceremonial occasions. This photo was taken in 1918, after the AVH had been absorbed into the Royal Army Medical Corps – Ida is wearing the uniform of the British nursing service, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. Photo courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

A matron’s smile – Ida Greaves of the Australian Voluntary Hospital

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:

Field days practice, St Nazaire, France 1914.  Matron Greaves is on the left.   Image courtesy Greaves family archive.

Field days practice, St Nazaire, France 1914. Matron Greaves is on the left.
Image courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

Matron Greaves at Australian Voluntary Hospital Camp, c1914-1915. Image courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Matron Greaves at Australian Voluntary Hospital Camp, c1914-1915.
Image courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

Australian Voluntary Hospital, Matron Greaves is standing at right. Image courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Australian Voluntary Hospital c1914-1915, Matron Greaves standing at right.
Image courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

Patients at Australian Voluntary Hospital, c1914-1915. Image courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Patients at Australian Voluntary Hospital, c1914-1915.
Image courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

Tents after storm, Australian Voluntary Hospital, c1914-1915. Image courtesy Greaves family archive.  Click on image to enlarge.

Tents after storm, Australian Voluntary Hospital, c1914-1915.
Image courtesy Greaves family archive. Click on image to enlarge.

A sightseeing expedition holds up the ship …

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!

Sources:

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

More about the Royal Red Cross

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.

More Newcastle Hospital graduates added to the site

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.

 

More about the medals of Matron Ida Greaves RRC

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 three times, irrespective of how many mentions, only one oak leaf emblem was to be worn.  The first mention, which preceded 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.