Thanks to Gary Mitchell for putting me on to Sister Eva Isabel Macdonald, whose name appears in the Newcastle Herald & Miners’ Advocate in relation to the honour roll of West Maitland Presbyterian Church.
As part of Newcastle Museum’s program to commemorate the centenary of the First World War I will be giving an illustrated talk about the war service of Matron Ida Greaves RRC.
When: 3.30pm Sunday 17 August 2014
Where: Newcastle Museum, Workshop Way, Honeysuckle NSW. Sandwiched between Civic Station and the waterfront, the Museum is difficult to miss.
How much? Free of charge
Parking: Metered parking in Wright Lane, next to the Museum. Lee Wharf Car Park on Honeysuckle Drive (near Honeysuckle Hotel) is a 2-3 minute walk, and the last time I looked was free at weekends.
Public transport: Get off the train at Civic Station. Entrance to the Museum is just outside the platform exit coming from the Sydney direction. Alternatively get off the bus at Civic Station, cross the line via overhead bridge or walk around to the level crossing in Merewether Street.
For more information on the Museum’s WW1 program Click here and scroll down to download the flyer.
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”
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.
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 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.