Handle with care: Nurses make own sacrifices overseas

by Louise Almeida

They were four young Australian women who wanted to make a contribution to the war effort. They were expatriates, already living in Britain, but keen to use their nursing skills. Soon, they would be working for a hospital that would deal with the battered and broken bodies of men who were the casualties of the early days of the war. This picture captures them in a mischievous moment, peeking out of one of the many tents that were part of the early days of the Australian Voluntary Hospital.

Sisters Patience Anderson, of Hill End, NSW, Mary Rawson, of Kyneton, Ella Walter, of Kew, and Elizabeth Mundell, of Brisbane, were early recruits to the Australian Voluntary Hospital, an initiative established by Lady Rachel, Countess of Dudley, the wife of Australia's then governor-general. The hospital was established as an independent field hospital to care for French, Russian, Serbian and Portuguese soldiers, as well as Commonwealth soldiers. It was the United Nations of emergency healthcare.

The nurses' first posting soon after war broke out was to St Nazaire, in France. By the end of October the unit was relocated further north to Wimereux. An old hotel by the sea was converted into a four-storey hospital and dozens of bell tents housed hospital staff. The building was cheery enough – large and white with red doors, looking out on to the sea – but when the wind came, the seaspray would lash the windows.

And the wind came often. In November, 1914, a blizzard wiped out all the men's tents. The staff's health rapidly deteriorated. Many nurses became so unwell from the cold and scarcity of food that they were sent to a rest house in Hardelot, a beach holiday town nearby.

In 1916 the hospital was absorbed by the British Army and renamed Number 32 Military Hospital. When the hospital finally shut its doors in 1919, its staff had treated more than 70,000 patients.

This was often the plight of Australian nurses throughout the war. Only single and widowed women were permitted to be part of the nursing effort, but there were several married nurses who slipped through the recruitment process.

About 2140 Australian nurses served in England, France, Belgium, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and even India from 1914 to 1919. In addition to volunteering with independent organisations such as the Australian Voluntary Hospital, the nurses enlisted with the Australian Army Nursing Service and the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Service.

They worked in hospitals, casualty clearing stations, hospital ships and trains. They were burnt by Belgium's icy frost and Turkey's blistering sun. They starved on meagre rations. They were overcome by cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. They were claimed by the violence of war – 29 Australian nurses died during the war.

Hospitals were understaffed and undersupplied. The outlook was bleak and the carnage unprecedented.

Sister Aileen Lucas, stationed at a tent hospital in France in 1917, wrote: “Here we received the casualties straight from the fields, some very severely wounded and feeling the cold very greatly … Several patients were frozen to death in the ambulances coming down to us.”

Aboard Gallipoli's ships there was often only one nurse to 250 patients.

Sister Lydia King, stationed on a hospital ship moored off Gallipoli, wrote: “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.

“One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing.”

Advances in weaponry caused a new kind of injury that challenged conventional medicine.

“No words can describe the awfulness of the wounds. Bullets are nothing. It is the shrapnel that tears through the flesh and cuts off limbs,” Sister Claire Trestrail wrote.

At the Australian Voluntary Hospital, sisters Rawson, Anderson, Walter and Mundell treated soldiers for the new menace of gas, and then the debilitating gangrene and trench foot. But Australia's nurses were expected to have unwaveringly high spirits. Friendships helped sustain them. And while sisters Anderson, Rawson, Walter and Mundell all survived their war – and went their separate ways afterwards – they were colleagues once, brought together under duress, and in service.

This article first appeared in the Herald Sun on April 23, 2014.