Pearl Corkhill's story of First World War service

Running time
8 min 4 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

This short film is about Australian veteran Sister Pearl Corkhill, who served with the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force (AIF), during World War I.

Sister [Elizabeth] Pearl Corkhill was born in Tilba Tilba, New South Wales, in 1887. She qualified as a nurse and volunteered to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in World War I. Pearl was awarded the Military Medal for her wartime service in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). She was one of about 2,000 women who served Australia in World War I.


In the small town of Tilba Tilba on the New South Wales south coast, a child named Pearl lived a relatively peaceful rural life. Her father, a grazier and cheesemaker, was also a passionate photographer. He captured her early years, giving us a rare glimpse into the Victorian childhood of a girl who would become a sister in the Australian Army Nursing Service awarded a Military Medal for courage during the First World War.

In the photographs, we see young Pearl, often with her siblings, family, friends and governess. Her brother Norman, who also later served in the war is often alongside her. We see Pearl grow from a child posed in various locations at home and in nearby bush settings.

To a young woman and a newly graduated trained nurse. She undertook her training at Barilda Hospital in Strathfield, passing her nursing examination in December 1914. Pearl soon put her skills to use enlisting in the Australian Army Nursing Service. And embarked for overseas service in June 1915.

In Egypt, she cared for patients in the Choubra infectious diseases hospital, a civilian hospital, which had been taken over for military use in August 1915. When the Gallipoli Campaign ended, most of the Australian Imperial Force moved to the Western Front, Sister Corkhill among them.

Once in France, she spent a brief period working at the 2nd British General Hospital in Le Havre in 1916. Before moving to the first Australian General Hospital in Rouen in June, the hospital was soon inundated with casualties from the Somme offensive. This was followed by one of the most severe winters on record, tending casualties in tents, some of the nurses suffered frostbite.

Over the course of 3 years in France, the No 1 Australian General Hospital cared for some 90,000 casualties. While serving on the Western Front, the plight of the people of France and Belgium did not escaped the attention of the nurses who witnessed the impact of the war on towns and villages and their people. Sister Elizabeth Draper reflected, 'France has given millions of her best men. Nearly every woman in France is in black. Hardly your family has escaped the grim toll of war.'

Pearl Corkhill spent much of her service at the hospital in Rouen. But between June and August 1918 She moved closer to the front line attached to the 38th British Casualty Clearing Station. Casualty clearing stations were advanced surgical units, located as close to the battlefield as was safe and practicable. Casualties in the CCS were in dire need of attention and emergency surgery. There were operating theatres and surgical wards, as well as wards to treat those suffering the ill effects of chemical weapons.

One nurse described the patient suffering from the effects of gas. 'The boys came in quite blind with enormously swollen eyelids. They are quite unable to open them and their eyes discharged freely. Also, the patient is burnt over the face and body with huge blisters burned by the effects of the mustard gas. These burns are very painful and the patient is mostly of a dusty color, or maybe quite black in the face and neck. And frequently the patient is unable to speak above a whisper, the mucous membrane of the throat and digestive tract having also been burned. It is on seeing such cases as days that one feels the injustice of the war.

Caring for these patients placed a significant emotional toll on the nurses, as did working in the moribund ward.' Patients in this ward teetered on the precipice of death and had to be resuscitated before surgery could even be considered. May Tilton explained, 'the poor fellas were carried in saturated and covered in mud. They were stone cold and pulseless. Three Primus stoves providing our hot water.

By midnight, the ward was full of moaning and groaning wrecks. I was appalled at the immensity and helplessness of the task before us. At the first sign of a pulse we injected saline and worked like mad to restore life sufficiently to get the patient to the theatre.' Being so close to the front, casualty clearing stations were also at risk from enemy fire. Seven military medals for bravery were awarded to women of the Australian Army Nursing Service during the war. Sisters Alice Ross-King, Clare Deacon and Dorothy Cawood and Staff Nurse Mary Derrer were serving at the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Tois when it was bombed on the night of 22nd of July 1917.

Five bombs hit the hospital, and the canvas tents collapsed over the patient's beds. Despite the danger, the 4 nurses continued to attend to their patients and helped to evacuate them from the burning wards. Alicia Kelly was serving at the 3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station during an air raid in 1917 and remained on duty in the tents as the bombs fell, later saying she couldn't leave her patients. She covered their heads with enamel basins to give them some sense of safety and stayed with them until the bombardment ended.

Rachael Pratt was at the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Bearert on the Fourth of July 1917 when it came under attack. She was severely wounded in the air raid when shrapnel from a bomb lodged in her lung. In July the following year, while attached to the 38th British Casualty Clearing Station near Abbeville, Pearl Corkhill remained on duty during a bombing raid to tend to her patients.

The citation for her Military Medal read 'for courage and devotion on the occasion of an enemy air raid'. She continued to attend to the wounded without any regard to her own safety, though enemy aircraft were overhead. Her example was of the greatest value in her alaying the alarm of the patients.

After her time in the casualty clearing station, Pearl Corkhill left France in August 1918 and transferred to the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield, England. Harefield specialised in heavy surgical and blindness cases, and had treated over 50,000 patients during the war. Pearl remained there until she embarked for Australia in January 1919. A few days after her return to Tilba Tilba, in May 1919, Sister Corkhill was welcomed home at an event held in the local showground.

Returned soldiers formed a guard of honour as she made her way to the decorated rotunda to listen to an array of speakers who praised her contribution to the war effort. Pearl's is the story of just one of the more than 2,000 Australian women who served in the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War.

When the nurses returned home, not all returned to nursing work but Sister Corkhill did. She ran a private hospital known as Lauriston in Mosman with fellow Army nurse Flora May Ewington later served as a senior sister at the Bega district hospital. Pearl maintained her connection to her military service. She attended Anzac Day reunions with her Australian Army Nursing Service friends. She also remained a prominent member of her local community until her death in 1985 at the age of 98, and her service is still remembered and honoured in her hometown of Tilba Tilba.

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