Category Archives: History

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.

 

No ordinary set of medals …

These are the Great War medals of Matron Ida Greaves of the Australian Voluntary Hospital, Wimereux France.  Left to right, they are the Royal Red Cross 1st Class, 1914 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.  This set of medals is exceptional not only because the Royal Red Cross 1st Class was only awarded to approximately 44 Australian women during the course of the War but because this particular medal was one of the first two to be awarded to an Australian. Matron Greaves  and Matron Nora Fletcher BRCS of Sydney received their awards at Buckingham Palace on 12 July 1915.

Medals of Matron Ida Greaves, RRC.  Photo courtesy Greaves family archive.

Medals of Matron Ida Greaves, RRC. Courtesy Greaves family archive.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the award on 25 June 1915, p5, with the comment that “Nurse Greaves is a native of Newcastle and is very well known here.” What a pity that the memory of this exceptional woman seems to have faded, unlike that of the Hunter’s Victoria Cross recipients.