By the end of World War I, 45 Australian and New Zealand nurses had died on overseas service, and over 200 had been decorated. These were the women who left for war looking for adventure and romance, but were soon confronted with challenges for which their civilian lives could never have prepared them. Their strength and dignity were remarkable. Using diaries and letters, Peter Rees takes us into the hospital camps and the wards and the tent surgeries on the edge of some of the most horrific battlefronts of human history. But he also allows the friendships and loves of these courageous and compassionate women to enrich their experiences, and ours. Profoundly moving, this is a story of extraordinary courage and humanity shown by a group of women whose contribution to the Anzac legend has barely been recognized in our history. Peter Rees has changed that understanding forever.
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About the Author
Peter Rees is a journalist working as federal political correspondent for the Melbourne Sun, the West Australian, and the Sunday Telegraph. He is the author of The Boy from Boree Creek, Desert Boys, Killing Juanita, which was a winner of the 2004 Ned Kelly Award for Australian crime writing, and Tim Fischer's Outback Heroes.
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The Extraordinary Story of Our World War I Nurses
By Peter Rees
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Peter Rees
All rights reserved.
THE BIG ADVENTURE
* * *
Street peddlers jabbered and gesticulated, proffering postcards, figs, Turkish delight and beads. Beggars and urchins pleaded for money. The scene at Port Said, on the Suez Canal, could not have been in starker contrast to the measured pace of life back in Australia. After six weeks at sea, the women from the Australian Army Nursing Service had arrived in Egypt, ready for the serious business of war. But for now they were sitting around a table at the Savoy Hotel. There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation despite the mayhem around them. Sister Elsie Eglinton had seen nothing like it in Adelaide. There were 'merchants of every description so thick around us that we could scarcely give our order to the waiter who kept trying to flick them away with his towel'.
A boy was pulling one of my boots on one side of my chair and another boy on the other side was tugging at my other boot and yet I had them tucked as far under my chair as I could get them. They were beautifully polished before I left the ship and did not require cleaning. I had to keep shouting at them to be off.
Another of the women was trying to ward off the attentions of a fortune teller and two annoying bootblacks on their knees who were trying to polish her shoes. Snake charmers, bead sellers and yet more bootblacks added to the pandemonium unfolding before Elsie's eyes.
Then up came a conjuror, head corks and tins and started pulling chickens out of his shirt front, then began some marvellous tricks. Then the whole crowd started begging for money. I'd as soon go hungry any day as try to enjoy a cup of tea under such circumstances.
The city was at once mesmerising and bewildering. On board the Australian hospital ship Kyarra, anchored at Port Said, Sister Elsie Cook was discomforted for different reasons from her colleagues lunching in town. Elsie was in a state of high anticipation, preparing to meet her husband, Lieutenant Syd Cook, an architect and the son of conservative politician Joseph Cook, leader of the Liberal Party. Prime Minister when the war had started in the middle of a federal election campaign, Cook Snr had announced that 'If the Old Country is at war, so are we'. Labor leader Andrew Fisher had promised Great Britain 'our last man and our last shilling' in any conflict with Germany. On 5 September 1914, Cook was defeated and Fisher became Prime Minister for the third time.
On the declaration of war, Elsie had immediately started a scrapbook. The second newspaper story she pasted inside the cover was from the Sydney Sunday Times of 9 August. Headed, 'NURSES TO VOLUNTEER', it stated:
One of the first nurses in New South Wales to volunteer from [sic] active service was Nurse Shephard [sic], of the Prince Alfred Hospital. She is just completing her term of training, and is a member of the ATNA [Australasian Trained Nurses' Association]. She is also the fiancée of Lieut. Cook, son of the Prime Minister, who has also volunteered for active service.
Elsie and Syd's marriage six weeks later was a high point on Sydney's social calendar. The honeymoon that followed was short, as Syd, a platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion, was already in camp. He sailed for Egypt at the start of November.
Elsie and Syd had not seen each other for nearly three months, and they were both excited at the prospect of meeting. 'Up early and dressed waiting to go ashore, as I thought to meet Syd, who was at the Anzac camp outside Cairo,' Elsie wrote. A telegram arrived with the news that Syd had been denied leave to travel to Port Said. A disconsolate Elsie went ashore, her normally warm smile replaced by a frown. She later harrumphed that Port Said was 'the dirtiest, nastiest place imaginable'. The Kyarra left Port Said that evening and a day later docked at Alexandria, Egypt's main port on the Mediterranean.
Everyone was restless and eager to leave the ship, not least Elsie, who was 'fairly dying to get ashore' to see Syd. 'It is a very wearing thing to be tied up in port and not allowed ashore in a new and untrodden part, all its novelties and mysteries still untasted, more especially desirable is it when one's brand new husband is contained therein,' she wrote. When they were finally permitted to disembark, the nurses were captivated by cosmopolitan Alexandria, with its wide avenues, fine buildings, French tea rooms and bohemian culture. After the filth of Port Said, the ancient city's cleanliness and order were a relief.
Elsie travelled by train the 225 kilometres across the flat Nile delta to Cairo. With her were her colleagues from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Kath King and Ursula Carter. Ursula's brother, Lieutenant Herbert Gordon Carter, of the 1st Battalion, was based, like Syd Cook, at Mena Camp outside Cairo. The three nurses took a taxi there.
Ursula had not seen her brother since he left with the first Anzac convoy. Kath King may well have known Gordon from her life in Sydney, and they all got on famously that day, catching up with each other's news. Gordon hired donkeys and took Kath and Ursula to the Sphinx. Kath fell off her mount, much to everyone's amusement.
Upset to find that Syd was away on a route march in the desert, Elsie stood waiting at his tent. A passing colonel sensed her melancholy and sent his groom to fetch Syd back. 'Soon on the horizon came two galloping specks. I watched them thro' the glasses get nearer and nearer. Syd arrived looking very well and fit. Strange it seemed to meet him away there in a desert camp, after saying goodbye at Kensington [Sydney].' Meeting again in an Egyptian desert camp with the ancient Pyramids looming nearby was the stuff of romance for a nurse born and bred on the other side of the world.
They drove into Cairo, through strange narrow streets, and found their way to the opulent Shepheard's Hotel, the social mecca of British Army officers, where they took rooms. After dinner, they drove around Cairo, where the scent of incense gave a 'weird oriental touch and feeling'. Returning to the hotel, they listened enchanted to the orchestra in the lounge before having supper at another popular venue, Gaults. They were in love and their senses were alive to the wonders of Egypt.
Shepheard's was a vibrant centre of European life in Cairo, a city now buzzing with the rapidly expanding presence of the military. The elegant hotel had long been the place to be seen. Its great dining room overflowed during the social season with people of all nationalities and pursuits. The Australian nurses were awestruck. For clergyman's daughter Daisy Richmond, who had trained at Sydney Hospital and worked for the Bush Nursing Association near Boorowa, New South Wales, the hotel was a 'most glorious place', with its magnificent drapes and a head waiter in flowing Egyptian robes. Elsie Cook loved the Victorian-era hotel's broad stairways and wide halls, resplendent with divans, cushions and palms. 'Dark Arabs gliding noiselessly about dressed in white, red fez and sash, the whole so different and fascinating and impressive to my Australian eyes.' To Elsie, who had grown up in the leafy and wealthy Sydney suburb of Burwood and attended the local Methodist Ladies College, where she had excelled in physiology, these early days in Cairo were like living a fantasy.
Another Australian nurse, awed by the ancient history surrounding her, wrote home after visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx, 'It seemed almost incredible that we were there gazing at these wonderful works which we read of and viewed in pictures all our lives and never dreamt of seeing. I can't tell how it makes you feel, that calm, wise face, gazing out over the desert, watching the passage of the centuries as we do the days of the week. It conveys such a sense of understanding everything.'
* * *
Six weeks earlier, 160 nurses had boarded the Kyarra in Australia, excitement and trepidation running high among them and those who had come to farewell them. While a small advance party of sisters had left with the first convoy of Australian and New Zealand troopships on 1 November, Elsie's group was the first to leave on a hospital ship. The former coastal freighter — hurriedly requisitioned for war service and painted white, with a wide green band round its hull and a large red cross amidships — held two complete general hospitals, fully equipped to accommodate 1640 patients. Troops were also on board.
Elsie boarded the Kyarra at Woolloomooloo in Sydney, after it arrived from Brisbane. It was a sultry day, and 'terrific claps of thunder echoed through the ship', the Australasian Nurses' Journal reported on 15 December.
We all thought of the more deafening thunder of the guns which roar unceasingly along the battle front, and we remembered that, notwithstanding the bright and festive air which surrounded us, we were bidding farewell not to an ordinary ship, carrying an ordinary body of Australians on pleasure bent, but a band of earnest trained men and women, who in a few weeks' time would be at work in circumstances of hardship, and even perhaps of danger, and surrounded by pain and suffering indescribable.
Kath King noted prosaically in her diary: 'The last of Sydney for a while. I had a crowd of friends see me off. Had a very rough night, three sailors were nearly washed overboard and were injured, one seriously, our first patients.' The Kyarra sailed to Melbourne, where the remainder of the contingent boarded, among them Alice Ross King. The Melbourne surgeon she worked for had wanted to enlist but told Alice he would only go if she joined too. Alice agreed. The surgeon failed the medical checks. Alice, who passed, went anyway.
As the ship pulled away from the dock amid singing of Auld Lang Syne, streamers of red, white, rose, green and mauve were unfurled, joining passengers with the big crowd on shore. The sinuous ribbons strained and snapped, leaving family and friends waving and shouting as the ship steamed out into Port Phillip Bay. From the deck, Elsie Cook watched her father, Michael Sheppard, grow smaller. 'Last sight of Father was to see him waving his handkerchief on his umbrella.'
For Elsie Eglinton, the streamers 'made me feel very sad as I saw them all snapping as our ship got further and further from land'. She and several others had travelled to Melbourne by train to join the Kyarra. Their first farewell had been in Adelaide, where nursing colleagues organised 'a beautiful tea-party and gave each a small gold swashtika [sic] for a mascot of Good Luck'. Such charms were deeply appreciated and kept close. 'Father came in to say "Goodbye" this morning,' Elsie wrote of the group's departure from Adelaide, 'but I hurried him off as I was afraid of breaking down and going away red-eyed. We are all ever so happy, Maggie Hay is my chum, we seem to pair off you know.' Best mates would acquire special importance for the nurses during the years ahead.
As their train travelled through the countryside, Elsie and her colleagues were treated like heroines. 'We are having a glorious time so far,' she wrote. 'Our carriages were simply piled with sweets, flowers [and] flags. At one station women and children came on to the platform with hot tea, cakes and flowers. Oh! They did give us a good send off.' Her friend Sister Olive Haynes noted that the carriage was full of gifts. They had supplied themselves with tea but forgot the milk. Drinking black tea from a vacuum flask would soon be the smallest of their inconveniences. Sister Ethel Peters (known as Pete) was upset because she didn't kiss Olive's brother, Dal, and 'she mightn't get another chance'.
On board the Kyarra, Olive and Pete were Elsie's cabin mates. 'We get along nicely together we take it in turns to get dressed as there is only room for one at a time,' Elsie wrote. She wondered what the principal matron, Jane Bell, would make of the various state uniforms. 'The girls say that she is most particular. I'm wondering what she will think of the hobble skirts which a few of the NSW and Tasmanians are wearing, anyway they are not the thing for Active Service for they could never run if occasion occurred.' Hobble-skirted uniforms that narrowed at the ankles would be one of the first items to go.
Though well educated, these nurses came from fairly narrow backgrounds. Many had become nurses against their parents' wishes. At the time, nurses had not long emerged from their 19th-century image of drunken promiscuity. The revolution in nursing that Florence Nightingale began during the Crimean War had been taken to Australia by Nightingale's disciple Lucy Osburn in 1868. The young women on the Kyarra were all beneficiaries of the new system of nurse training, as were their New Zealand counterparts, who would soon follow.
But their position in society was still confined. Many had never travelled. Kath King, from Orange in New South Wales, displayed the same parochialism as the South Australians, caustically observing after her visit to the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda, 'Melbourne folk think a lot of St Kilda but it really is not any better than Botany Bay.' But for girls with a sense of adventure, the war was a chance to visit places that they had only read about. As with the men, going to the war seemed the chance of a lifetime.
The excitement was palpable in the sea of new faces at dinner that first night after leaving Melbourne. The officers and sisters dined together, the sisters wearing grey frocks, white muslin caps and scarlet capes that contrasted with the officers' navy and scarlet uniforms. But next morning seasickness brought an end to their delight. When Elsie Eglinton awoke she 'heard groans all round our cabin ... The others were all ill. So down I got and produced my flask of brandy and started to give each one a dose, but I don't remember finishing for my legs seemed to give way under me and I had to lie on the floor as the ladder to the top berth was impossible for a time.' No one got up that day.
Elsie Cook fared just as badly. 'Very fed up with sea life and silently vow never to put foot on a boat again and never to go forth to a war again,' she wrote. But a few days later she was able to breakfast in the saloon, where the troops were rehearsing for an afternoon concert. 'Efforts sounding rather more energetic and persevering than musical, but very entertaining,' she observed. For vibrant young women in the first innocent days of the war, life on a troopship could be fun.
Soon the nurses were getting their sea legs and coming to terms with the overcrowding and poor food, and preparing for a shipboard Christmas. When the Kyarra left Fremantle on 13 December, Elsie Cook 'stayed on deck and sadly watched the very last bit of Australia vanish into the night, wondering how long, and what lay before me, before I should see Australian shores again'.
Amid deck games and dances, French classes and boat drills, spirits were high. At the fancy-dress ball on New Year's Eve, Daisy Richmond dressed as a grandmother and thought the festivities 'really splendid considering the material we had to hand'. Elsie Cook went as a mermaid, wrapped in shimmering green-grey silk. 'Wore my hair loose with a wreath of seaweed [and] pineapple leaves from the dinner table on my head,' she noted. The party ended at midnight with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
And so ended 1914. What an eventful year! My engagement, marriage, finishing my training and old life at Prince Alfred Hospital, the outbreak of the Great War, my joining the Army Nursing Service and leaving home and Australia for the first time! Very eventful. As we stood and watched the old year die and vanish, I regretted to part with it, and hated to see it go. New Year's Day dawned as we stood and watched the old year out and New Year in on the deck of the Kyarra. A gloriously moonlit morning. Calm and beautiful, everyone bright and happy and so begins 1915. It seems a good omen.
* * *
In Bernay, France, New Zealand Sister Ella Cooke was having a very different New Year. On the Western Front, soldiers were shivering in frozen trenches, many stricken with trench foot. In the past few weeks Ella had seen enough to know that the war that was stirring Britons and their allies to patriotic fervour held horrors that not even a Christmas card from King George V to every soldier, sailor and nurse could hide.
Fate had dealt Ella a strange hand. Six months earlier, at the age of twenty-nine, she and her twin sister had left Auckland for Canada and the United States en route to England. But then Britain declared war on Germany. Ella had grown up among people who called England 'Home', and once there she offered her services as a nurse. Not needed, she crossed the Channel in November to serve as a volunteer with the French Flag Nursing Corps. She was paid no salary, merely a sufficient allowance for board and lodging.
Excerpted from Anzacs Girls by Peter Rees. Copyright © 2008 Peter Rees. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
1 The big adventure,
2 Relative relations,
3 Different rules,
4 The prelude,
7 Not much comfort to a mother,
8 Heartily sick of it,
9 The Kiwis arrive,
10 None of the old smallness in it,
11 Broken bodies,
12 Tears in the dark,
13 The shabby sisters,
14 Alone in the Aegean,
15 'We thought they would let us die!',
16 No time for mock modesty,
16 No time for mock modesty,
17 The price of sacrifice,
THE WESTERN FRONT,
18 The first Anzac service,
19 Waiting for Harry,
20 Harry's letter,
21 Grasping for hope,
22 The chill of war,
23 No place to hide,
24 Bombs and basins,
27 Gifts for France,
29 It's something big, Sister,
30 The struggle ends,
31 The fifth New Year,
32 The aftermath,
Australian World War I nurses honour roll,
New Zealand World War I nurses honour roll,