Australians on the Western Front: Angels from the bush

ABOVE AND BEYOND: Sister Nellie Morrice (right) outside her tent at No. 3 Australian General Hospital in Abbeville, France, in 1917. Nellie's tour of duty began in 1914 and did not end until 1919. Photo: AWM H16063

ABOVE AND BEYOND: Sister Nellie Morrice (right) outside her tent at No. 3 Australian General Hospital in Abbeville, France, in 1917. Nellie's tour of duty began in 1914 and did not end until 1919. Photo: AWM H16063

Scratch the surface of Yackandandah’s First World War Memorial and out flow the stories of nurses from the bush who went to war.

Nurses who followed male relatives to the Western Front; who grieved when family members were killed; who saved the lives of men from other countries; and who were mourned when they too died.

Among the 216 names on Yackandandah’s memorial are sisters Julia Elizabeth (Bess) and Isabel Catherine (Belle) Marum, and Ada (Dollie) Huon and Lizzie Rothery—four of about 40 nurses who volunteered from Victoria’s north-east.

While Bess and Belle served in India, Salonika and England, two of their brothers enlisted—the youngest, George, died of wounds sustained at the Battle of Messines in Belgium in June, 1917.

Another relative, Walter Marum, was awarded the Military Medal for bravery at Zonnebeke on October 4, 1917, the very same day that Dollie Huon’s brother Charles, also a Military Medal recipient, was killed in Belgium.

Lizzie Rothery died of acute appendicitis while home on leave in June, 1918, and six returned soldiers carried her coffin shoulder-high in a military funeral at Beechworth.

Similar stories are found across regional Australia. Queensland nurse Victoria Christensen, of German-born parents from Tiaro on the Mary River, enlisted in 1915 and served in auxiliary hospitals in England.

She struggled to come to terms with the death of Victor, the youngest of her three brothers who enlisted, at the Battle of Messines.

Sister Nellie Morrice was one of 11 children from a sheep farm near Berrima in NSW. Four of her brothers went to war.

Aged 33, Nellie left Australia on the hospital ship Kyarra in November, 1914, one of dozens of nurses that a Sydney newspaper called “Australian Ministering Angels For The Front.”

Like many Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) volunteers - who served in 192 locations and on 39 ships - Nellie did not return until 1919. 

AANS nurses trained in about 85 hospitals outside the capital cities. They left without the fuss of male enlistment rallies.

They had to be single women or widowed and aged from 21 to 45.

If AANS nurses married while on service, their appointments were terminated and they were returned home “if they so desired at Commonwealth expense.”

The exact number of Australians who served abroad in the AANS and other military nursing services is unclear but it certainly exceeded 3000.

Kirsty Harris in More than Bombs and Bandages said the skills of civilian nurses evolved and broadened through their experience in military hospitals and nursing in a war zone.

While their role included shopper, caterer, counsellor, protector, entertainment and morale officer, letter writer, surrogate mother and sibling, military nursing meant far more than being “an angel of mercy” to sick and dying soldiers.

Dr Harris argued that, with their knowledge of correct medical procedures, military nurses daily saved the lives of many men weakened or injured by war.

“Fever treatment was almost entirely the nurse’s province. Many patients recovering from careless or septic surgery also owed their survival to nurses.”

Though nursing “our boys” was a great motivation for enlistment, Australian nurses did not exclusively care for Australians. Far from it.

Peter Rees, in Anzac Girls, said only about 11 per cent of admissions to Australian hospitals on the Western Front were Australian Imperial Force members. The rest were Allied troops and German prisoners-of-war.

Many Australian nurses were prodigious diarists and eloquent letter writers. Launceston Hospital-trained Sister May Tilton became an author.

In The Grey Battalion, she wrote about incoming wounded from the Battle of Broodseinde arriving at No. 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) near Poperinge in Belgium on October 4, 1917.

“In the first 24 hours about 3,000 patients passed through our CCS. The work in the resuscitation ward was indescribable. The butchery of these precious lives— men of such splendid physique! To watch them dying in such numbers was ghastly.

“Their frightful condition was appalling: clothes saturated; faces caked with mud; the conscious ones smiling grimly, glad to be wounded and out of it.”

Twenty-five Australian nurses died on active service from injuries or disease such as influenza while 388 were decorated, with many winning the prestigious Royal Red Cross.

Eight were awarded the Military Medal including Parramatta-born Sister Dorothy Cawood, who embarked on the Kyarra with Nellie Morrice back in 1914.

In July 1917, Dorothy and three colleagues risked their lives to rescue patients trapped in burning buildings at an Armentières casualty station after a German air raid.

Dorothy Cawood became Matron of Berry Hospital on the NSW south coast, retiring in 1943, while Nellie Morrice was Matron of Georges Heights Military Hospital before leading the NSW Bush Nursing Association.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.