Devotion: Stories of Australia's wartime nurses
This commemorative publication is a part of the series; a Century of Service. Australian nurses have been going to war for more than 100 years. Often serving far from home, they care for the sick and wounded. Their skills save lives.
In the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are 15 stained-glass windows. Each shows a figure dressed in military uniform, and under each figure is a word which describes a quality displayed by Australians during wartime. One window features a nurse. She represents all military nurses who have shown dedication to their patients and a commitment to caring for the sick and wounded during wartime.
This window bears the word Devotion.
Australian nurses have been going to war for more than 100 years. Often serving far from home, they care for the sick and wounded on land and sea, and in the air. Their skills save lives.
Military nurses often work in remote and dangerous places, under difficult conditions. Such service does not come without a cost. Some nurses have not returned home, losing their lives to sickness or at the hands of the enemy. For all, the memories of spending many hours with wounded or dying patients are hard to forget.
After her experiences caring for seriously ill soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850s, British nurse Florence Nightingale introduced strict new practices of cleanliness, hospital organisation, and nurse training in Britain. Her ideas spread to Australia, and nursing became a respected career, undertaken by disciplined, hard-working women. Their commitment to caring for others led many to volunteer their service in the military during wartime. Now both men and women can serve as nursing officers in the Australian Defence Force.
How have the nurses tried to brighten up the ward for their patients? Why do you think they did that?
Reading these stories, you will discover some of the qualities shared by Australian military nurses: a spirit of adventure, a desire to use their skills to make a difference, and the discipline required to work in a military team. After more than a century, service nurses remain devoted to putting their patients first, come what may.
A pioneer of the profession: Matron Nellie Gould
When Sydney nurses Nellie Gould, Penelope Frater and Julia Bligh Johnston arrived in South Africa in February 1900, they encountered a dreadful state of affairs: contaminated water, widespread disease, and inadequate supplies in makeshift, dirty hospitals. Sometimes they were not made to feel very welcome by the British nurses in the hospitals where they were stationed, and the male orderlies did not always like taking directions from women.
Ellen Julia "Nellie" Gould was born in Wales in 1860, and began her working life as a teacher in England. After moving to Australia when she was 24, she settled in Sydney and began her nursing training. She worked in a number of hospitals, and also used her teaching skills to train other nurses. In 1899, with 14 years of nursing experience behind her, Nellie was invited to be the first Lady Superintendent of the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve (NSWANSR). She personally chose 13 of its members to travel with her to South Africa during the Boer War.
The nurses had expected to care for men wounded in battle, but much of their time was taken up caring for the sick, particularly typhoid patients. The work was hard, and the days long and tiring. Many patients died. At one hospital, Nellie wrote that "thirty-one graves marked our short stay of three months".
Dressed in heavy long grey skirts, starched white collars and cuffs and distinctive red capes, the nurses were often down on hands and knees, scrubbing floors and walls to transform filthy buildings into hospitals. In her report from their time spent at Kroonstad, Nellie wrote, "Here we nursed with No. 3 British General Hospital in a large Dutch church ... at night rats scampered over us. One tin of condensed milk had to do nine of us for a month, but who cared?"
THE BOER WAR FAST FACTS
The Boer War began in South Africa in 1899 and lasted for almost three years.
Around 16,000 Australian soldiers were sent to assist the forces of the British empire.
The New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve, formed in 1899, was the first Australian military nursing organisation.
Around 60 nurses from various Australian colonies served in this war. Some were paid by the government; others were privately sponsored or paid their own way.
Sister Fanny Hines from Victoria died in South Africa. She was the first Australian military nurse to die during overseas service.
By the end of the war, the six Australian colonies had federated to become one nation, the Commonwealth of Australia.
How would you feel if you received a present from the Queen?
How might the nurses have passed the time on their six-week voyage to South Africa?
After her return to Sydney in 1902, Nellie continued to be involved in the education of nurses, and the work of the army nursing service. When war broke out in 1914, even though she was 54, Nellie enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). She served as a matron, first in Egypt, and then in France and England, and was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1916 for her service to nursing.
These first nurses faced the dangers and demands of wartime nursing, and willingly took on new roles and responsibilities. Nellie Gould's dedication and contribution to military medical service paved the way for thousands of nurses to follow in the years ahead.
Did you know ?
Like most working women of the time, military nurses had to be unmarried. They were mostly aged between 25 and 40, and were well educated, having trained for at least three years to become a qualified nurse. Because their pay was small, the nurses were often supported by their families as well.
Why do you think the nurses had to be unmarried?
The Royal Red Cross: "Faith, hope, and charity"
The Royal Red Cross was introduced by Queen Victoria on 27 April 1883, "for zeal and devotion in nursing sick and wounded sailors, soldiers, and others with the army in the field, on board ships or in hospitals". It was the first British military award intended just for women.
Men became eligible for the award in 1976, although none has received it.
More than 80 Royal Red Crosses have been awarded to Australian nurses.
Matron Gould was devoted to the job of nursing. More than 100 years ago, she described how she felt about her job:
No one who has experienced the satisfaction that arises from work of this nature ever cares to go back to the dull routine of earning her living in any other of the spheres at present open to women.
What do you think they might have been discussing?
Beginning in Egypt: Sister Nellie Morrice
Talk around the Morrice family dinner table could be quite lively. Parents David and Sarah and children Emma, Mary, Arthur, Ethel, Muriel, Frank, Nellie, Linda, John, Wilson, and David lived on "Ealing", a sheep property in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Nellie, the seventh of the 11 children, trained as a nurse in Sydney. She joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in 1910, and at the outbreak of the First World War she enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at the age of 33. Four of her brothers also joined up.
Arriving in Cairo in January 1915, Nellie was attached to No. 2 Australian General Hospital (2AGH), set up in Mena House, which had previously been a hunting lodge used by the royal family. Egypt was an exotic and interesting place, but thoughts of home and her close-knit family were never far from her mind. In one of her many letters home to 'Mumsie', she wrote: "I get a big ache to go back to Australia some times, but I'm here for a while yet."
By early April, thousands of soldiers were preparing to leave the training camps in Egypt to go into action on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. While this news caused much excitement among the troops, Nellie was worried about what the future might hold: "It made me feel sad to see them go and know that they will soon be under fire."
Her worst fears were confirmed when, in early May, her brother, Private Arthur Morrice, was admitted to 2AGH, after being seriously wounded on Gallipoli. In his diary, Arthur noted that his sister Nellie "brought me tobacco and a toothbrush. I am well looked after."
What do you think they would have done with them?
THE FIRST WORLD WAR FAST FACTS
The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was formed in July 1903 as part of the Australian Army Medical Corps. More than 2,000 of its members served overseas during the First World War.
Australian nurses also worked with other organisations, such as the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, the Red Cross, or privately funded facilities.
Nurses worked in hospitals, on hospital ships and trains, or in casualty clearing stations closer to the front line. They served in locations from Britain to India, including France and Belgium, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.
In early 1916 AANS nurses were given officer status and badges of rank, although they were only paid around half what their male equivalents received.
Many nurses were given awards, with eight receiving the Military Medal for bravery.
Twenty-five died during their service.
How do you think the soldiers and nurses were feeling as they left Australia?
Can you imagine what it would be like to be in hospital in a palace?
With the increased arrival of patients from Gallipoli, hospital facilities in Egypt were soon overcrowded, and equipment and supplies were inadequate. Nellie wrote home: "We are so tired when we get off duty that we just crawl into bed as soon as we can."
To cope with the demand, hospitals were set up on the island of Lemnos, much closer to the action on the Gallipoli peninsula. In September, Nellie volunteered to work there. Conditions on the island were harsh, and she described many of the incoming patients as "dishevelled and dirty, looking more like wild men, unshaven, and weeks of dirt and vermin on them".
At the end of 1915, Nellie returned to work in Egypt, before being posted to hospitals in Britain and France. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for "valuable services with the Armies in France and Flanders" in 1918.
After the war, Sister Morrice continued her devotion to nursing, but with quite a different focus to her wartime service. She was involved for many years in the organisation of the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association, specialising in midwifery and the care of babies and young children.
Around how many patients can you count in the former skating rink?
Did you know ?
Like the soldiers of the AIF, members of the AANS wore a "rising sun" badge on their uniforms. The nurses' badges were coloured silver, and the men's were made of brass.
Snapshots of Lemnos: Matron Grace Wilson
Queensland nurse Grace Wilson arrived on Lemnos with 3AGH in August 1915. Just days before, she had learned of the death of her brother, Graeme, shot by a Turkish sniper on Gallipoli three months earlier. As casualties began to arrive on the island, she was horrified by the lack of equipment and the conditions, with "things just too awful for words".
Convoy arrived, about 400 – no equipment whatever – just laid the men on the ground and gave them a drink. Very many badly shattered ... All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds. The heat and the flies are terrible here.
Despite their own discomfort and the huge workload, the nurses persevered and within a month were treating more than 900 patients at a time. Dysentery was a constant problem, and winter brought men suffering from frost-bite and gangrene.
Fresh water was always in short supply, so it was hard for the nurses to keep themselves and their clothes clean. Some cut off their long hair to make it easier to care for. As winter approached, the nurses'uniforms were not warm enough, and Matron Wilson insisted that the army issue them with warm tunics, pants and boots. Food for staff and patients was also scarce; sometimes it was just tinned meat and hard biscuits. In her diary Grace recorded: "We all know what it is like to be actually hungry and thirsty."
Why do you think the nurses were marched into camp?
Leading by example, Grace set about bringing order out of chaos at 3AGH. When she felt the needs of the nurses were being overlooked, she was not afraid to ask the commanding officers for better equipment or for something to be done about the terrible conditions. Sister Frances Selwyn-Smith wrote of Grace's leadership: "At times we could not have carried on without her. She was not only a capable Matron, but what is more, a woman of understanding."
After Gallipoli, Grace returned to Egypt, then went on to Abbeville in France until 1918. For her outstanding service she was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1916. Grace continued to work as a nurse on her return home after the war, and at the outbreak of the Second World War was appointed as Matron in Chief of the Army Nursing Service.
How are the patients being loaded on board?
The tent hospital on Lemnos presented new challenges for the nurses. They had to learn how to mend tears, re-hook walls, and manage guy ropes. And they were constantly at the mercy of the weather, with tents regularly blowing over.
Did you know ?
Right from the Gallipoli landings on 25 April 1915, nurses cared for hundreds of casualties in the hospital and transport ships anchored off-shore. Despite the constant threat of Turkish shelling or torpedoes, the exhausted nurses cleaned, bandaged, warmed, and comforted their patients, many of whom had terrible wounds or were suffering from the effects of gangrene and disease.
Wards on the lower decks were crowded and poorly ventilated, and seasickness struck down nurses and patients alike.
Courage under fire: Sister Pearl Corkhill
On the Western Front, it could take many hours for a wounded man to get from the trench into the care of nurses at a casualty clearing station. Not surprisingly, the sight of a nurse there, in her white apron and veil, was like that of an angel to a wounded soldier.
In June 1918, Sister Pearl Corkhill of New South Wales was temporarily attached to 38th British Casualty Clearing Station (38BCCS) near Abbeville in France. Here the wounded men arrived straight from the battlefield, often cold and wet. Within a few hours hundreds could be admitted for treatment or evacuated to other facilities. The noise of exploding shells could be heard from the battlelines not far away. Casualty clearing stations were considered dangerous places to work.
One night in July, 38BCCS came under attack in an enemy air raid. Pearl was on night duty, and in charge of the hospital. One bomb wrecked the sterilising room, and other bombs fell within the camp. Despite the chaos and confusion all around her, Pearl stayed calm and continued to care for her patients. She ignored the warning to take shelter, even though there were enemy aircraft overhead. For her courage and devotion, Pearl was awarded the Military Medal.
In a letter written to her mother soon after, she expressed her surprise that she should be rewarded for doing her duty: "I can't see what I've done to deserve it." She was a little worried about the cost of a new uniform for the medal presentation: "I suppose I should not grumble. I'm still wearing the one I left Australia in and it is about worn out now."
Pearl Corkhill was one of eight Australian nurses to receive this award during the First World War.
For sick or wounded soldiers, the care and comfort the nurses provided was almost as important as their medical treatment. Nurses sometimes found themselves taking on the roles of letter-writer, cook, and even stand-in mother. It was up to the nurses to bring a much needed touch of home. Many soldiers repaid their kindness with gifts, cards, and letters.
There were more than 200,000 Australian casualties during the First World War. More than 80 per cent of these occurred on the Western Front, in France and Belgium. A system of transport and treatment was developed to get wounded soldiers the medical treatment they needed as quickly as possible:
- Stretcher-bearers collected the wounded from the battlefield, bandaged their wounds and moved them away from the front line.
- At regimental aid posts, usually located in rear trenches, doctors assessed and treated wounds or sent patients on.
- At advanced dressing stations, doctors gave anti-tetanus injections, treated patients for shock, or performed urgent operations.
- Soldiers who had suffered the effects of gas were treated at main dressing stations.
- If further treatment was required, patients would be sent on to casualty clearing stations for surgery and nursing care.
The wounded men were then transported, often by train, to a general hospital, which could care for around 1,000 patients. From there, men were evacuated to specialist hospitals in Britain, repatriated home to Australia, or returned to their units in the field.
Why is a watch an important item for a nurse?
To stay or go: Matron Kathleen Best
Wherever Australian troops are fighting, there are nurses close by. However, this means that when situations get too dangerous, and the nurses'lives are at risk, they must be prepared to evacuate at short notice. Sometimes this may even mean leaving their patients.
During the Second World War, in April 1941, as the Germans advanced down the Greek peninsula, the fighting around the nurses stationed at 2/5th AGH increased. There were constant enemy air raids, and hospital supplies and food were running out. Matron Kathleen Best of New South Wales, often affectionately known as KB, was ordered to prepare her nurses for immediate evacuation on 23 April. Because transport was limited, not everyone could leave immediately. Kathleen was asked to choose 44 women to leave first. This meant 39 would have to remain behind with her. She came up with a plan to help her decide who would go and who would stay.
I told the Sisters what was to happen, and also made it clear to them that those who volunteered would stay behind with the hospital and that they would in all possibility be captured. I asked them to write on a slip of paper their names and either "stay" or "go" and hand them to me ... Not one Sister wrote "go" on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].
With the railway line destroyed, the departing nurses piled into trucks and headed towards the harbour after dark. When they reached the Greek port of Navplion they discovered several ships on fire. Fishing boats ferried them out to a waiting ship. One nurse recalled, "We had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat and a very tight mid-length skirt."
Why do you think all the nurses wrote "stay" on their paper when they had the chance to be evacuated to safety?
The Second War Fast Facts
After the First World War, some service nurses married and left the workforce; others took over the care of family members recovering from the war. Some took up jobs away from nursing, but many continued to work in hospitals, often in senior positions.
When the Second World War broke out, the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was the only service that women could join. As the navy and air force grew, more nurses were needed. This led to the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) in 1940 and the Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS) in 1942.
More than 4,000 Australian nurses served in a variety of locations, including the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Britain, Asia, the Pacific, and Australia.
Seventy-eight nurses died, some through accident or illness, but most as a result of enemy action or while prisoners of war.
By 1945, all military nurses had been appointed as officers, although many still preferred to use their traditional titles of "sister" and "matron". They were yet to be given the same status and pay as male officers.
Despite attacks from enemy bombers, the nurses arrived on Crete and set to work immediately at a British tent hospital as wounded troops flooded in. Meanwhile, the group left behind in Greece with Matron Best struggled on despite the air raids. To make themselves easily recognisable as non-combatants, they wore their red capes and white caps. Kathleen recalled: "Even during the worst barrages there was no panic and no comments." Finally, in the early hours of 26 April, they too were safely evacuated to Crete, and then on to Egypt.
The escaping nurses took shelter in a cemetery during an air raid.
Kathleen remembered the nurses'sadness at leaving their patients so suddenly, and that "not one of the Sisters appeared to consider the personal risk that evacuation at that stage might entail".
Why are many of the nurses wearing helmets?
Why would this training be important?
Nurses in captivity: Sister Betty Jeffrey and Sister Vivian Bullwinkel
Singapore was ablaze as Japanese bombing raids continued day and night in February 1942. Australian nurses were ordered to evacuate. Amid the noise and chaos, 72 nurses embarked with hundreds of patients and civilians aboard the Empire Star and the Wah Sui. They finally made it back to Australia, after suffering heavy bombardment on the way.
Not so fortunate were the last group of 65 nurses who, with many civilian women and children, were evacuated on the small and overcrowded ship SS Vyner Brooke. Twelve lost their lives when the ship was sunk two days after leaving Singapore. Sisters Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey survived the sinking, but their journey to safety took quite different paths.
Vivian was one of 22 nurses who eventually washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island. Lacking food or shelter, they surrendered to a party of Japanese soldiers, believing they would be given protection and assistance. Instead the soldiers ordered them into the water and opened fire on them. Badly wounded, Vivian was the only one to survive. She later recalled that they "all knew what was going to happen to them, but no-one panicked: they just marched ahead with their chins up".
Did you know ?
The Geneva Convention is a set of international rules, which, many but not all, countries agree to follow during wartime. These were written to protect the rights of prisoners of war, the wounded, noncombatants, and civilians caught up in war zones. The nurses thought these rules would keep them safe, but the Japanese government did not agree to obey them.
Geneva Convention Article Nine, 1929
Left for dead, but without food or protection, Vivian surrendered again to Japanese soldiers 12 days later. In a prison camp in Palembang, Sumatra, she was reunited with other survivors from the Vyner Brooke, including Sister Betty Jeffrey. As the nurses exchanged stories of survival, Vivian learned of Betty's 16- hour ordeal, clinging to a life raft drifting in the sea. She swam to shore, and spent the night up a tree, in a mosquito-infested swamp. The next day, after continuing downstream and sharing the water with sharks, Betty was rescued and cared for by some local villagers before surrendering to Japanese soldiers.
The captured women hoped their job as nurses, symbolised by their now tattered uniforms, would protect them. It did not. For the next three and a half years, they were kept as prisoners under appalling conditions. Friends and family back home in Australia had no idea of their whereabouts.
During the early days of their captivity, the women kept busy with educational activities and musical concerts. They helped each other to keep their spirits up. However, conditions worsened with each transfer to a new camp. Food and medical supplies were hopelessly inadequate. Betty's entry in her diary for 30 April 1944 read: "We're still here – and so the years roll on. Today I was so hungry that I could hardly walk – we had literally nothing." The nurses could no longer care for wounded soldiers, so they now devoted themselves to caring for each other, and the women and children in the camp.
By the time they were set free at the end of the war, eight nurses had died in captivity.
After the war, Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey devoted themselves to honouring those killed on Banka Island, raising funds for a memorial which was unveiled there in 1993. Vivian, aged 85, and Betty, aged 92, died within three months of each other in 2000.
Why do you think the nurses had no shoes?
The sinking of the Centaur: Sister Ellen Savage
From October 1942, nurses were posted to military hospitals in New Guinea to treat hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers, many from the Kokoda and Buna campaigns against the Japanese. The tropical weather made life very stressful, and the work was constant. In some areas there was the threat of air raids. Among the wounded were many suffering from tropical illness, such as scrub typhus; these men were extremely ill and in need of constant nursing.
In May 1943 the hospital ship Centaur set out from Sydney for its second voyage to New Guinea, to drop off supplies and staff, and bring patients back to hospitals in Australia. Sister Ellen Savage was one of the 12 nurses on board, recently appointed to the ship's medical staff.
Just before dawn on 14 May, the Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland, even though it had been lit up and clearly marked with large red crosses as a hospital ship. Many of the passengers were sound asleep in their bunks. The ship sank in minutes, and 266 lives were lost. Ellen was the only nurse among the 64 survivors.
With sharks circling around them, the survivors spent more than 30 hours on makeshift rafts. Some of the people were badly burned, and they had little food or fresh water. Although seriously injured herself when sucked down with the sinking ship, Ellen did what she could to treat their injuries and keep their spirits up, encouraging them to sing hymns and pray. Help eventually came and they were rescued by the American destroyer USS Mugford.
This tragedy touched Australians deeply and caused a public outcry. Prime Minister John Curtin referred to the sinking as "an entirely inexcusable act".
"Flying Angel": Sister Beryl Chandler
Sister Beryl Chandler, a Queensland nurse, joined the RAAFNS in May 1942. She kept a diary during her years of service in which she wrote of her initial training as she adapted to taking cold showers, sleeping on a paillasse, and the camaraderie of life in the RAAF.
During the Second World War, air evacuation became a quick and effective way to transport seriously wounded troops from the front line in New Guinea and the surrounding islands, where the terrain was too rugged for land travel and the coastline was controlled by enemy ships. In early 1944, Beryl was one of 15 nurses recruited from the RAAFNS to the newly formed No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (1 MAETU). The nurses'rigorous preparation included training in in-flight medicine and care, emergency jungle and ocean survival procedures, and weapons handling: "On inter-island flights I was never without my pistol. Come what may I could look after myself."
Known as "The Flying Angels", flight teams made up of a sister and an orderly flew in and out of combat zones, taking in supplies and bringing patients back to base hospitals in Australia. In 1945, 2 MAETU was formed with ten new nurses.
This work brought these women ever closer to the front line and introduced a new series of challenges. Apart from their regular nursing duties, Beryl and her colleagues had to contend with airsickness, altitudes of up to 18,000 feet, and anoxia. "Sometimes the destination we set out for was never reached. The elements [weather] might force one down anywhere ... sometimes an engine developed a malfunction."
Why do you think the nurses had no shoes?
Beryl recorded her many adventures with 1 MAETU, including caring for one badly wounded patient who chewed through the electric wiring of the plane while in flight, and nights stranded with her crew in thick jungle. She nursed soldiers suffering burns, gunshot wounds, and terrible shock.
At the end of her memoirs, Beryl summed up her wartime service: "We who have had the privilege of serving with the RAAF feel a great deal of pride."
Find the entry in her flying log book which simply reads RESCUE OF NURSES. On what day did this happen?
Did you know ?
While serving in areas close to the front line in New Guinea, RAAFNS nurses were instructed to dye their white ward dresses with strong tea. It was feared that white uniforms made them too visible from the air and they could become enemy targets.
Nurse in Japan, Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam: Colonel Nell Espie
Nell Espie was still in school at Hobart High when the Second World War began. Inspired by the nurses who left hospitals to join up, she began her nursing training as soon as she left school in the hope that she too could join the army one day. Her opportunity came in 1951 when, in response to an advertisement calling for nurses to be part of BCOF, Nell signed up for five years. After some training in military hospitals in Australia, she was on her way to the British Commonwealth General Hospital in Kure, Japan. As well as caring for sick Australian troops, the nurses also looked after soldiers'wives and children who had accompanied them on overseas service.
From 1952, Nell was one of around thirty of the RAANC nurses based in Japan who also served in South Korea. They were sent in small groups for a few months at a time and worked in harsh conditions at the British Commonwealth Zone Medical Unit in Seoul, set up in an old school building. Nell recalled that "there was no running water, and no sheets for the patients'beds". The nurses had to be accompanied by soldiers whenever they left the hospital compound, but Nell remembered feeling safe "as long as I could see a digger's hat".
Almost every night North Korean aircraft came on bombing raids over South Korea. The nurses were prepared for evacuation at any time, and were issued with shirts and trousers to pull on over their pyjamas if the siren sounded during the night. Nell remembered: "One night there was no light of course and I stepped straight into my slacks, but got them on back to front."
Nurses provided emergency treatment for wounded soldiers prior to evacuation by RAAF medical crews to Japan, or on to Australia. Severe burns cases were frequent in the winter, caused by exploding makeshift heaters that the men had built in the freezing trenches.
From Korea, Nell returned to BCOF in Japan, and then on to British military hospitals in Malaya for two years starting from 1958. Ten years later she was sent to the 1st Australian Field Hospital (1AFH) in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, as the matron. As in earlier wars, Nell and the nurses had to quickly get used to working in a new environment with limited preparation.
After the Second World War Fast Facts
For 30 years after the Second World War, Australian troops fought in campaigns against the spread of communism in Korea, Malaya, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Most women's services were reduced or disbanded after the Second World War, but AANS nurses continued to serve overseas. From 1946 to 1956, some 140 were posted to Japan to care for Australian servicemen and their families as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) and later with British Commonwealth Forces Korea.
The AANS was granted the title "Royal" in 1948, and three years later became an army corps with the new title "Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps" (RAANC).
A peacetime RAAFNS was reinstated in 1948 and its members were largely involved in aero-medical evacuations.
The development of new medical technology saved many more lives. In Vietnam, "dust-off" helicopters lifted the wounded from the battlefield, often getting the men to hospital within an hour.
Between 1967 and 1971, 150 military and 200 volunteer civilian nurses served in South Vietnam. Their tour of duty ranged from three to thirteen months, but most stayed about a year.
In the 1970s, the first male nursing officers entered the services, and female and male nursing officers of the same rank were finally given equal pay. Women could now also continue to serve after they married or had children.
In Vietnam, nurses were usually rostered to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, but when the need arose they just kept working. An outbreak of malaria in 1968 doubled the number of patients in the hospital, but there was no increase in staff. Sometimes the operating theatre would work around the clock for days at a time. Helicopters brought patients in quickly from the field. This allowed wounds to be treated before they worsened, helping more soldiers to survive than in earlier wars, but the nurses often had to deal with more and more patients.
Nell's initial five-year enlistment stretched into almost 30 years. She retired from the Army as Matron in Chief of the RAANC. After her return from Vietnam in 1969, and having seen service in three conflicts, Colonel Espie summed up her contribution to military nursing: "I joined the Army to nurse sick and wounded soldiers. I can think of no better way to serve my country."
Did you know?
The nurses'quarters at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vietnam were nicknamed "Fort Petticoat". They were long wooden buildings with metal roofs, cement floors, and louvre windows. To keep cool, each nurse was given a small electric fan for her room. Outside there was thick sand everywhere, which often blew in and settled on the beds. The buildings were surrounded by a wall of sandbags to absorb the impact of an artillery or bombing attack.
How are the "jungle greens", (in the photographs above and below) worn on night duty more practical than the traditional grey dress, stockings and white starched veil?
Why do you think this activity was important to the nurses?
Aero-medical evacuation nurse: Squadron Leader Patricia Furbank
Unlike the army nurses, air force nurses were not posted to Vietnam itself, but to the RAAF base at Butterworth in Malaysia. Section Officer Pat Furbank was one of 106 nursing officers who served on aero-medical evacuations (AME) between Vietnam, Malaysia, and Australia during the Vietnam War. Because of these flights, many wounded soldiers were able to get the expert medical care they needed to survive.
Pat Furbank grew up in Lithgow, New South Wales, and completed her nursing training at the local hospital in 1963. She had always been interested in flying, so in 1968 joined the RAAFNS and began training to become part of an AME team in Vietnam.
Pat carried out 84 AME trips in one year, evacuating the wounded from Vung Tau to Butterworth, where they were assessed and treated before the long flight home to Australia. Not many flights carried doctors, so the nurses and orderlies carried the full responsibility for the care of patients.
In 1970 Pat was attached for two months to the US Air Force Aero Medical Evacuation Squadron, based at the Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Compared with Butterworth, this was a massive base, almost like a small city, with more than 30,000 workers. Day and night, there were many aircraft coming and going. Pat's American workmates were fascinated by the Aussies'accents, often stopping the nurses to listen to them speak.
In this unit Pat gained valuable nursing experience working on much bigger aircraft. On an American Hercules, stretchers could be hooked onto the walls of the plane, as many as five high, allowing up to 74 patients to be carried per flight, along with two flight nurses and up to three medical orderlies. In an emergency, crews could fly at short notice, or when they were already overtired and rostered to go off duty. The flights, which sometimes passed over battlefields, were not always smooth. Pat recalled how "in-flight nursing had its own particular dangers and stresses ... sometimes medevac aircraft took constant pounding and landings at times were bone jarring."
After her service in Vietnam, Pat held a variety of positions in RAAF hospitals in Australia and was promoted to the rank of squadron leader in 1976. For her devotion to nursing, she was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross in 1980.
Why was this training important?
Why have the orderlies taken off their shirts?
Caring for children: Commander Terrence Slader
On Boxing Day in 2004, while many Australian families were enjoying the holiday together, a series of tsunamis were sweeping along the coasts of several countries not far away. A huge undersea earthquake had caused waves as high as 30 metres. The Indonesian province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, was closest to the earthquake's epicentre, and large areas of the capital, Banda Aceh, and its surrounding districts, were destroyed. Within days, Australian military units in Operation Sumatra Assist arrived to provide aid and medical care to the thousands of wounded and homeless people.
Paediatric specialist nurse Terry Slader of Queensland has been nursing for more than 35 years. He grew up with stories of a grandfather who served on Gallipoli during the First World War, and of uncles who survived bombing raids over Germany and the fighting in New Guinea during the Second World War. Terry was keen to use his nursing skills in the military, and has been a reserve in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) since 1988.
With only a few days of preparation, Terry left Australia in early January 2005, with many other doctors and nurses. Unsure how long they would be away, they travelled aboard HMAS Kanimbla and were bound for the Anzac Field Hospital, which was at first housed in tents in Aceh.
Conditions were very difficult. There was mud and debris everywhere, fresh water was limited, and it was very hot, with regular heavy downpours of rain. Like many of the nurses who had served in years gone by, Terry and the team had to "make do" the best they could with the resources available: "You have to be prepared for anything, and be as fit and healthy as possible before you go." Terry recalled a typical working day:
I spent most of my time in Aceh, only occasionally returning to my ship for a hot meal, shower and change of clothing before going back in. The days were very long, 18–20 hours, and I regularly slept on the floor beside my patients, especially when there were a lot of after-shocks and I thought the roof may collapse on them. Most of our young patients were orphaned by the tsunami and many were very sick.
Despite the challenges, Terry was glad to be there, working as part of a team. There was great cooperation between the people from many countries who came to help. Now, as he thinks back to the time he spent in Banda Aceh, Terry remains hopeful that the children he nursed will continue to grow up strong and healthy.
Recent Conflicts, Peacekeeping, and Humanitarian Operations Fast Facts
Both men and women can now be nurses in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). They serve in the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army, and the Royal Australian Air Force, but often work together on tri-service missions.
Nurses complete their training at university and must have at least two years of nursing experience before joining the ADF as officers.
They provide care for service men and women who are sick or wounded in war, and for the local Recent conflicts , peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations Fast facts people in countries affected by war or natural disasters.
About half of the current serving nurses are reserves, who work in Australian hospitals until they are needed on a military operation overseas.
Technology has improved, and destinations have changed, but providing care and comfort to their patients, despite unfamiliar and often difficult surroundings, is still the top priority for Australia's military nurses.
Emergency nurse: Captain Roneel Chandra
After he left high school, Roneel Chandra of New South Wales went to university to study nursing. As a little boy, he had often accompanied his mum to work in a nursing home. He would help her feed and care for the elderly patients, so nursing seemed like an obvious career choice for him. However, his love of adventure motivated him to join the Australian Army a few years later; he served first as an infantry soldier, and then as a nursing officer in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC).
During the six months he spent in Afghanistan in 2008, Roneel was regularly called on to assist with aero-medical evacuations using helicopters. He described it as "flying around over the desert picking up casualties, doing my job". One night, a trip out into the field to pick up some wounded soldiers did not go according to plan.
Coming in to land in the dark, and with poor visibility owing to the dust, the US Black Hawk pilot misjudged the landing zone, and the helicopter tipped over. Roneel and the two American medics with him were thrown around in the back of the helicopter. Despite their own injuries, Roneel remembered that "our priority was to look for casualties, and we made sure that the two waiting soldiers were OK and stabilised ... Their families put a lot of trust in you, they rely on you to do the best job you can."
Because the helicopter was so badly damaged, all the men had to wait overnight in the desert. Roneel gave the wounded soldiers whatever treatment he could, and made sure they were comfortable. They were all picked up by a new helicopter the next morning and airlifted safely back to the Australian base at Tarin Kowt.
Can you see at least three ways the army nurse's uniform has changed since the First World War?
What dangers do the pilot and the Australians on board face?
Even though Roneel was not badly injured in the accident, he still spent some time in hospital under observation. Sometimes even nurses need nursing, and he gained a better appreciation of the care provided by the Australian medical team.
Like many Australian service nurses before him, Roneel is motivated by a keen sense of loyalty to his mates, but also by his devotion to saving the life of anyone who needs treatment, including enemy soldiers and local people. "We're there for the soldiers, to make sure they get first-class treatment and come home safely to their loved ones. But as a nurse you don't discriminate; they're all casualties of war."
What might the trauma shears be used for?
Why do you think he has his mouth and nose covered?
Why do you think the Australian peacekeepers' uniforms were bright yellow?
Did you know ?
Since 1990, Australian service nurses have worked on military and humanitarian operations across the world: for example, in Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Bougainville, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, and Afghanistan.
How has the role of nurses changed since the Boer War?
As a specialist theatre nurse, most of her time was spent with surgical cases, often children: "It was so gratifying to assist with procedures like repairing cleft palates; giving people back their smiles."
|AANS||Australian Army Nursing Service|
|ADF||Australian Defence Force|
|AGH||Australian General Hospital|
|AWM||Australian War Memorial|
|allies||countries that work together towards a common goal|
|amphibious||able to be used on land or water, or the landing of a military force by sea|
|anoxia||a loss of oxygen, often at high altitude, which can lead to confusion or unconsciousness|
|avenge||to punish or pay back|
|barrage||a thick burst of gun fire used as a barrier to protect advancing soldiers|
|bayonet||a stabbing weapon designed to fit on the end of a rifle|
|BCOF||British Commonwealth Occupation Force|
|Black Hawk||a four-bladed, twin-engine transport helicopter first manufactured in America|
|black market||an unofficial or illegal source of products or services|
|Boer||the Afrikaans word for farmer, representing descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa during the 1600s and 1700s|
|brassard||a band worn around the upper arm over the uniform sleeve, to display badges|
|casualty||a sick or wounded person|
|casualty clearing station||a medical facility close to the front line|
|chatelaine||a small pouch worn on the belt to carry tools or equipment|
|civilian||a person who is not a member of the military|
|cobber||a friend or mate|
|Communism||a system of government where one political party controls a society operating under the theory that all property is part of the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs|
|condensed milk||long-lasting, thick, sweet milk often kept in tins|
|convoy||an organised group of vehicles travelling together for protection|
|coolie||an Asian person forced to do hard physical work by a supervisor|
|corps||a large group of military personnel with a specific job|
|Dardanelles||a narrow body of water in Turkey, beside the Gallipoli peninsula; the battles fought on the peninsula also came to be known as the Dardanelles campaign|
|destroyer||a medium-sized, fast warship which provides protection for larger ships in a naval fleet|
|digger||a slang term for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, which came into use during the First World War|
|Douglas C47||an aircraft used to transport troops and supplies first used during the Second World War|
|'dust-off'||the emergency evacuation of casualties from a combat zone. (DUSTOFF was originally the radio call sign for US Army air evacuation units.)|
|dysentery||a disease of the intestines that causes severe cramps and diarrhoea|
|empire||a group of countries ruled over by a king or queen (e.g., the British empire)|
|epicentre||the point on the earth's surface directly above an earthquake or underground explosion|
|Federation of Australia||the process by which, on 1 January 1901, the six separate British colonies in Australia formed one nation and became states of the Commonwealth of Australia|
|felucca||traditional wooden sailboat used on the River Nile in Egypt|
|front line||the line of battle and scene of actual fighting (see also Western Front)|
|frost-bite||serious damage caused to parts of the body when skin freezes|
|Gallipoli||a peninsula located in Turkey; Australian soldiers landed there on 25 April 1915 as part of a British and French invasion|
|gangrene||a condition which occurs when the blood supply to a limb is severely reduced and the cells die|
|George Medal||a military medal awarded to civilians and members of the military for acts of bravery in a non-war setting|
|guy ropes||tightened ropes used to hold up a tent, extending from the tent to a peg in the ground|
|Hercules||a large aircraft first used in the 1950s to transport troops and cargo|
|Hiroshima||a Japanese city destroyed by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States Air Force in August 1945|
|HMAT||His (Her) Majesty's Australian Transport (ship)|
|hymn||a religious song|
|infantry||the land-based section of an army that fights on foot|
|Latin||an ancient Italian language|
|louvre||a window with strips of glass that can be moved to adjust air flow|
|malaria||a mosquito-borne infectious disease which causes high temperatures and severe headaches|
|mascot||a person, animal, or object which represents a group, or is thought to bring good luck|
|matron||a senior nurse in a hospital responsible for staff, patient care, and the smooth running of hospital wards|
|memoir||a personal record of events, like a diary|
|midwifery||medical care given to women during pregnancy and child birth|
|Military Medal||a British medal introduced during the First World War, awarded for bravery and devotion to duty under fire to military personnel who were not officers|
|non-combatant||someone involved in the military but not with a fighting role|
|officer||a member of the military who has authority to take command over others|
|orderly||a medical assistant in a hospital|
|paediatric||the area of medicine that deals with the care of babies, children, and teenagers|
|paillasse||a thin mattress filled with straw or saw dust|
|petticoat||an underskirt worn by women|
|PR||Private Record, held as part of the Memorial's collection|
|propaganda||the communication of a message to an audience to promote a particular point of view|
|RAAFNS||Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service|
|RAANC||Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps|
|RANNS||Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service|
|rank||levels of authority achieved by members of the military (e.g., lieutenant, major, admiral)|
|Red Cross||an international humanitarian organisation, founded in 1863, which provides relief to victims of war or natural disasters|
|REL||shortened form of "relic", denoting an object from the Memorial's collection|
|repatriate||to bring back home|
|reserves||part-time members of the military|
|respirator||equipment worn on the face to assist with breathing|
|Sahhar [Sakkara]||a large burial ground in Egypt featuring many pyramids|
|sanitation||the hygienic disposal of waste water and sewage to limit the spread of disease|
|scrub typhus||a bacterial disease carried by mites found in areas of thick vegetation|
|Sister||the traditional title for a female nurse|
|sjambok||a thick leather whip made in South Africa|
|sniper||a highly skilled gunman|
|souvenir||a memento or keepsake|
|staff nurse||a junior military nurse during the First World War|
|sterilising||a process which kills bacteria and germs, originally using boiling water|
|tetanus||a disease which affects the muscles, caused when a wound gets infected|
|trauma shears||strong scissors with blunt ends, used in an emergency to cut quickly through clothing|
|tunic||a long-sleeved uniform jacket buttoned down the front|
|typhoid||a disease caught by drinking water contaminated by human waste|
|USNS||United States Naval Ship|
|vermin||animals that are pests and which often carry disease|
|war loan||money lent to the government by citizens of a country to help the war effort|
|Western Front||the main area of operations for allied forces during the First World War; it ran from the English Channel in Belgium to Belfort on the Swiss border, a distance of some 750 kilometres|
Someone must care for the casualties of conflict, and that was our mission: to care for whoever needed us, in spite of the circumstances.
Captain Gary Steer RAAN C, Iraq War 2003
- Barbara Angell, A woman's war: the exceptional life of Wilma Oram Young AM, New Holland Publishers, 2003
- Pam Barlow (ed.), The longest mile: a nurse in the Vietnam War 1968–69, self-published, 2006
- Jan Bassett, Guns and brooches: Australian Army nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, Oxford University Press, 1992
- Narelle Biederman, Tears on my pillow: Australian nurses in Vietnam, Random House Australia, 2004
- Elizabeth Burchill, Australian nurses since Nightingale 1860–1990, Spectrum Publications, 1992
- Pat Darling, Portrait of a nurse: prisoner of war of the Japanese 1942–1945, Don Wall, 2001
- Department of Veterans'Affairs, Australians on the Western Front, Commonwealth of Australia, 2006
- Department of Veterans'Affairs, Australian Women in War, Commonwealth of Australia, 2008
- Kirsty Harris, More than bombs and bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War 1, Big Sky Publishing, 2011
- Betty Jeffrey, White coolies, Angus and Robertson, 1954
- Norman G. Manners, Bullwinkel: the true story of Vivian Bullwinkel, a young Army nursing sister, who was the sole survivor of a World War Two massacre by the Japanese, Hesperian Press, 1999
- Catherine McCullagh (ed.), Willingly into the fray: one hundred years of Australian Army nursing, Big Sky Publishing, 2010
- Melanie Oppenheimer, Australian women and war, Department of Veterans'Affairs, 2008
- Peter Rees, The other Anzacs: nurses at war, 1914–18, Allen and Unwin, 2008
- Richard Reid, Just wanted to be there: Australian service nurses, 1899–1999, Department of Veterans' Affairs, 1999
- Australian dictionary of biography online adb.anu.edu.au/
- Australian War Memorial collection data www.awm.gov.au/search/collections/
- Australian War Memorial education www.awm.gov.au/education/resources/nurses/
- Australian War Memorial encyclopedia www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/
- Australian War Memorial exhibition www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/nurses/
- Department of Veterans'Affairs www.dva.gov.au/commems_oawg/commemorations/education/
- National Archives of Australia www.naa.gov.au/
Permission is given by the Commonwealth for this publication to be copied royalty free within Australia solely for educational purposes. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced for commercial purposes.