Category Archives: Anzac

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.)

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!


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

Purchasing copies of “Sisters of the Valley”

Visitors to this website have enquired regarding buying a copy of “Sisters of the Valley – First World War Nurses from Newcastle and the Hunter region”.  You can download an order form from the website of the Royal Newcastle Hospital Graduate Nurses’ Association – or call in to Local Studies at Newcastle Public Library, Laman Street, Newcastle.

ANZAC Day in London

I happened to be in London last week and was able to attend the ANZAC Day commemoration – this consisted of a wreath laying at the Cenotaph in Whitehall and a service in Westminster Abbey. In the vastness of the Abbey, the Last Post was even more haunting than usual.  The Turkish consul read the words of Kemal Ataturk – “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” – these words always reduce me to tears – why do human beings have to wade through rivers of blood before arriving at a realization of our shared humanity?