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!
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.
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?
Seen 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.)
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”
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.
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 – www.rnhgna.com or call in to Local Studies at Newcastle Public Library, Laman Street, Newcastle.