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Matron Ida Greaves – ‘a right daughter of Australia’

My latest book was launched on Friday 5 March by Ms Sharon Claydon MP, Federal Member for Newcastle. The book tells the story of Newcastle woman, Ida Mary Greaves, who graduated from Newcastle Hospital in 1904. After six years experience in hospital and private nursing in Australia Ida left to work in England. When Britain and its allies declared war on Germany in 1914, Ida immediately volunteered to join the Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH), an independent military hospital established by Rachel, Lady Dudley and funded by donations from Australians. With Ida as matron and Newcastle surgeon Lieutenant Colonel William L’Estrange Eames as commanding officer, the hospital was the first unit from any of the dominions to arrive on the Western Front. In over four-and-a-half years of service in France and Belgium, Matron Greaves was awarded the Royal Red Cross and was mentioned in dispatches three times. The book can be ordered by contacting me on – Cost: $30 plus $7 postage and packing within Australia.

Newcastle Hospital Graduate Nurses on the Western Front, 1 July 1916

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Matron-in-Chief of the BEF noted in her diary – “intensely busy all day office, not left at all in consequence of constant demands by telephone for help everywhere.” (National Archives UK WO95/3989)

On this day there were four graduate nurses of Newcastle Hospital serving on the Western Front.

Sister Blanche Cresswick ARRC. Photo: Courtesy Newcastle Museum

Sister Blanche Cresswick ARRC. Photo: Courtesy Newcastle Museum

Sister Blanche Cresswick ARRC was with No 1 Australian General Hospital (AGH) at Rouen racecourse, the location of a large number of Allied base hospitals some 100 kms from the battlefield.  On 1 July the hospital had admitted just 2 patients.  As the wounded began to arrive via ambulance trains No 1 AGH admitted 527 wounded on 2 July and 452 on 3 July.  And so the hundreds of casualties continued to pour in …


Staff Nurse Lydia Abell ARRC, serving with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), was with No 2 Ambulance Barge.  This form of evacuation was slower than rail but gentler to casualties especially those suffering head wounds.

Ambulance barge First World War. Image courtesy Imperial War Museum Q 289926

Ambulance barge First World War. Image courtesy Imperial War Museum Q 289926








Matron Ida Greaves RRC and her sister Staff Nurse Susan Greaves were both at Wimereux on the Channel coast with No 32 Stationary Hospital formerly the Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH) – that very day taken over by the British army in consequence of the gradual decline in donations that had supported the AVH thus far.  This was not a reflection on the performance of the hospital which had been in the field since late August 1914, rather a result of the proliferation of organisations such as battalion comfort funds, the Girls Patriotic Leagues, the Australian branch of the Red Cross and numerous others that were all vying for funding.

Memorial to Sister Blanche Cresswick ARRC

On this day seventy years ago – 22 April 1946 – Sister Blanche Cresswick, graduate of Newcastle Hospital, member of the Australian Army Nursing Service and recipient of the Royal Red Cross 2nd class died age 70.  This now rather unkempt memorial to her was unveiled on 9 October 1948 in the grounds of what is now Newcastle Private Hospital, in earlier times the New Lambton convalescent home.  In 1926 Sister Cresswick had been appointed the head sister of the newly-opened convalescent home, an off-shoot of Newcastle Hospital.

One hundred years ago in April 1916 Sister Cresswick and other Australian nursing and medical staff were arriving in France from Egypt.  As a nurse with No 1 Australian General Hospital she was sent to Rouen on the Seine where the city’s racecourse had been taken over as the site for Allied base hospitals.  By 29 April the unit was open to receive patients evacuated from the Western Front.  In May 1916 the hospital admitted 751 patients, a relatively small number in comparison with the figures for July when there were 4914 admissions largely  as a result of the Battle of the Somme, with 546 men admitted on 2 July alone.

In 1917 Blanche was moved to a casualty clearing station (CCS), a field hospital much closer to the conflict and well within the danger zone.  Not everyone was able to endure the stress of working in a CCS and there are recorded instances of nurses being evacuated to base on account of shell-shock –  a condition usually associated with the troops.  It was for her service at CCSs that Blanche was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

100 years ago today, 12 July …

Ida Mary Greaves, graduate of Newcastle Hospital and Matron of the Australian Voluntary Hospital in France, attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace.Pages of Anzac Memorial Book 1917 in the collection of Newcastle Public Library

Pages of Anzac Memorial Book 1917 in the collection of Newcastle Public Library. Click on image to enlarge.

She and Sydney woman Nora Fletcher who was the Matron of Red Cross hospitals in France were the first Australian women to be awarded the Royal Red Cross 1st Class during the Great War.  According to the Australian War Memorial database of honours and awards only 44 Australian women received this honour during that conflict.  A search of contemporary newspapers on Trove indicates that Matron Greaves’  fame was not confined to her home town.

In 1917 the Returned Services Association featured Ida on the frontispiece of its Anzac Memorial publication.

How many Great War nurses were mentioned in dispatches 3 times?

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.

I don’t know the answer to that question, although I hope to find out.  What I have recently discovered thanks to the help of a member of the Greaves family, is that Matron Ida Greaves RRC was mentioned in dispatches a third time.  The third MID was documented in a supplement to the London Gazette 10 July 1919, p8788.  Exactly why it was awarded I don’t know, although I suspect that it relates to her service during the evacuation of No 38 Casualty Clearing Station when the German army was advancing in March 1918.   The following is an extract from Matron Greaves’ account of this incident: Next day [23 March 1918] we had patients everywhere & a very fierce bombardment was on. We evacuated patients by ambulance steadily. Colonel Lowe came to me & said the Military Situation seemed to be very serious & said would I tell the Sisters to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice & to have their train coats etc ready & that we would not be able to take any baggage. He only had one ambulance at his disposal & the O.C. of the adjoining Camp promised to lend him another. There was a fierce bombardment & bombing all night & bombs dropping everywhere. At 5.30 a.m. Colonel Lowe gave an order that we were all to be ready to evacuate in 15 minutes time & could all take one piece of light baggage. [Courtesy Greaves family archive] Casualty Clearing Stations were located close to the front line in order to provide speedy treatment of the wounded.  Nursing and medical staff were non-combatant but were as vulnerable to artillery fire and bombing as anyone else whilst having the responsibility of caring for their patients as well as themselves.

Reconstructing a life from the archives – presentation at Newcastle Writers’ Festival 20 March 2015

Reconstructing a life from the archives

Thanks to all who attended my session on the biography of Matron Ida Greaves.  Please find attached a copy of my presentation.


One to visit if in England …

The Army Medical Services Museum at Keogh Barracks near Aldershot (south west of London) is worth a look – the displays follow the development of medical, nursing and veterinary services from medieval times to the present, with a significant section on the Great War. Interesting to note that army doctors had to fight to be taken seriously at first, just as did nurses later. Take your passport with you, you have to show ID and be signed into the barracks as a visitor!

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.