Courage under fire: nurses during wartime

24 April 2020

The diary of Australian nurse Sister Kelly, serving on the Western Front during World War I, brutally encapsulates the horror that is war.    

“When I got to the delirious pneumonia patient, he was crouched on the ground at the back of the stretcher. He took no notice of me when I asked him to return to bed, so I leaned across the stretcher and put one arm around and tried to lift him in. I had my right arm under a leg, which I thought was his, but when I lifted I found to my horror that it was a loose leg with a boot and a puttee on it. It was one of the orderly’s legs which had been blown off and had landed on the patient’s bed. The next day they found the trunk about 20 yards away.”

More than 3,000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during World War I. They served in the Australian Army Nursing Service, the Royal Australian Navy, the Red Cross, and the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Twenty-five died during the war and eight received the Military Medal for bravery.

Temporary Matron Jean Miles Walker (centre front) with nursing staff of 1st Australian Stationary Hospital in Egypt.

From the first Allied landings at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, Australian nurses cared for hundreds of casualties in hospitals and on transport ships anchored offshore, often working in gruelling conditions, with limited medical supplies and a desperate lack of fresh water.

The wounded came in an endless stream, day and night. Despite the constant threat of Turkish shelling or torpedoes, the exhausted nurses cleaned, bandaged, warmed and comforted their patients, many of whom had appalling injuries or were suffering from the effects of gangrene and disease.

Working on the hospital ship Sicilia off Gallipoli, Sister Lydia King confided to her diary: I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had two wards downstairs, each over 100 patients and then I had small wards upstairs — altogether about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful.

Nurses working on Lemnos, one of the closest Greek islands to the Turkish coast, were often housed in flimsy tents in freezing conditions and gale-force winds, forced to contend with a lack of food and dysentery while trying to treat the masses of wounded.  

Many of the Gallipoli nurses never recovered from the physical and emotional stress.

When World War II broke out, nurses again volunteered, motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to “do their bit”. Eventually, some 5,000 Australian nurses served in a variety of locations, including the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Britain, Asia, the Pacific, and Australia. Seventy-eight died, some through accident or illness, but most as a result of enemy action or while prisoners of war.

Their heroism is best encapsulated by the events of April 1941 as fighting in Greece intensified. The matrons of 2/5th and 2/6th Australian General Hospital were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. Transport was limited, so not everyone could go. Matron Best of 2/5th AGH asked her nurses to write their names and either “stay” or “go” on a slip of paper. Although staying meant possible capture, “not one Sister wrote ‘go’ on the paper.”

Casualties from Gallipoli in the former skating rink in Cairo.

More than 200 Australian civilian nurses, 100 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and 43 nurses from the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC), served during the Vietnam War. A 1998 inquiry noted that female Vietnam War veterans' health was far worse than that of most Australians. As well as PTSD, depression and panic attacks, they had suffered (and were still suffering) they also had higher incidences of cancer (particularly breast cancer), heart disease, stillbirths, asthma, hearing problems and eczema.

"Nearly every nurse who served in Vietnam I spoke to is suffering from PTSD," Annabelle Brayley, author of the 2017 book Our Vietnam Nurses, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"That's the outcome both of some of the terrible situations they were in, combined with the fact they never had any debriefs or even recognition until recently.’’

The late Aileen Monck AO was part of a surgical team selected for a six-month deployment to treat civilian casualties in a hospital located in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, in 1967.
Operating under difficult wartime conditions with minimal amenities and supplies, Aileen and the team worked in cramped and challenging conditions, accommodating up to 20 patients in the space routinely allocated to four in Australia.

Aileen would later become the first Director of Nursing at the Flinders Medical Centre in 1975 and a life member of the ANMF (SA Branch).
The bravery and resilience of nurses and women generally at home and abroad during World War II helped to alter public perception of a woman’s role in society. Indeed, it was former Prime Minister John Curtin who noted in 1943: “I see no reason why a woman should be paid less than a man for the same work’’.

During World War I, despite equal rank, the Army paid female nursing officers about half what the male officers received. Nurses' wages were so low that they often received financial support from their families while they were away.

Matron Grace Wilson doing her rounds on Lemnos, 1915.

Principal matron of the 3rd Australian General Hospital, Grace Wilson, served on Lemnos Island during the Gallipoli campaign. In 1929 Grace was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the Red Cross, the highest international award a nurse can achieve.

From its inception on Lemnos in August 1915 until January 1916, the 3rd AG Hospital treated 7,400 patients, of whom only 143 died. It became abundantly clear nurses were crucial to the wartime effort.

“Their [Australian nurses during World War I] dedication to duty and unwavering compassion and care in the grimmest of times and in the harshest of environments cannot fail to inspire. Their persistent and exceptional delivery of health care is still the basic tenet of what we do today.’’ Lieutenant Paula Evans, Joint Health Command.

Lest we forget.

Wounded soldiers evacuated from Gallipoli arrive alongside the hospital ship Gascon.

Sources: Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley, ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee, Department of Defence,, Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian War Memorial.