Rachael Pratt: Stories of Service

Running time
7 min 5 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Department of Veterans' Affairs 2022

Rachael Pratt enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1915, during World War I. She was 41 years of age. She worked to help the sick and wounded, often in very difficult conditions. In 1917, she was injured by flying shrapnel during a bombing raid on the casualty clearing station where she worked. She was awarded the Military Medal for 'bravery under fire'. She is one of only eight Australian nurses who earned this award during World War I. Rachael Pratt's story of service is one of dedication, diligence and bravery.

Student inquiry activities

  1. Rachael Pratt enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in May 1915. What do you think motivated her to join?
  2. During World War I, nurses often treated soldiers who were suffering from horrific injuries and serious diseases. What were conditions like in the hospitals? How would that have affected the way nurses cared for their patients? Research how developments in medical technology have improved conditions for doctors and nurses in the Australian Defence Force today.
  3. Explain the meaning of triage. What are the origins of this word? Why do hospitals still use triage?
  4. Rachael had surgery to remove shrapnel lodged in her right shoulder and lung. Despite the surgery, the shrapnel stayed in her body. She continued nursing and, after the war, she set up a rest home for returning service men in Melbourne. What do her actions tell you about her character?
  5. Rachael was one of 8 nurses who received the Military Medal in World War I. The others were Alice Ross King, Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood, Mary Jane Derrer, Alicia Mary Kelly, Eileen King and Pearl Corkhill. Read the article 'Nurses under fire'. Imagine you are one of these nurses. Write a letter home to your family that describes your experience and why you were awarded the Military Medal.


[Music plays]

Opening credits: The title ‘Stories of Service: First World War’ appears, then a pale telegram envelope. A collage of images shows a young soldier, a nurse, the Australian Coat of Arms, service medals, a young pilot in uniform and the cover of an Australian recruitment pamphlet for the Great War. A thumbtack pins an ANZAC Christmas card onto an envelope. A worn silver identity tag is visible.

The presenter Ray Martin is crouching in front of glass panels next to a plaque that says 'Australian Service Nurses National Memorial'. A caption reads 'Ray Martin AM'.

'Rachael Pratt was born in country Victoria. She was the ninth child in a sheep farmer's family. She went on to become a nurse at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne, specialising in women and children. But in 1915, she went to World War I as an army nurse, taking care of badly wounded men and dying men. She was 41 at the time. What inspired her to do such a thing?'

A man’s right hand sketches a nurse in uniform using a lead pencil. He adds details with lead pencil and watercolours. These include a red cape and brown hair. Rachael Pratt’s face slowly becomes clearer.

A photo labelled 'Rachael Pratt' in white cursive text.

An old photo of 2 adults and 5 children in front of a stone school building. An old photo shows Rachael, smiling, wearing a nurse’s uniform with cap and veil. An old photo shows a large 2 storey hospital building with people queueing outside to enter. Another shows 5 soldiers standing next to a group of 15 nurses in front of a hospital building.

'Rachael Pratt was born in Mumbannar in Victoria in 1874. She attended the local state school, then worked on the family farm. When she was 34, Rachael decided to become a nurse. In 1912, she started work at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne, until she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in May 1915.'

A mannequin wears an army nurse’s uniform with a white collar, silver rising sun badge and red cape. An old red cross flag is shown. An old photo shows uniformed troops walking in thigh-deep water, guiding a longboat to shore. The boat holds sailors and soldiers and a distant ocean liner is visible.

Dr Meleah Hampton is shown speaking. A caption reads 'Dr Meleah Hampton Historian, Australian War Memorial'.

'Rachael Pratt enlists in the Australian Army Nursing Service within a week, probably, of the news of Gallipoli coming out. The casualty lists have reached the newspapers. Her response to that is to go and enlist for service straight away.'

Two old photos show groups of nurses in uniform; Rachael is standing in the centre of the second row in the second photo. An old photo shows a line of nurses standing on grass by the sea, near a man playing the bagpipes. Two old photos show patients resting in chairs and camp beds outside and inside tents and buildings. A nurse is tending them, and some have visitors. An old photo shows 2 nurses walking past a row of military tents.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Rachael was initially posted to the Third Australian General Hospital in Britain. Then she moved to the Greek island of Lemnos. Lemnos is just across the water from Gallipoli in Turkey and this is where many of the wounded soldiers were brought.'

Dr Meleah Hampton is shown speaking. An old photo shows a man with a heavily bandaged head laying against pillows and smoking a cigarette holder.

'It is shocking to people when the casualties start coming back. Not just the sheer volume of them, but the kinds of wounds they have. The violence is in front of you in a shattered body. And then there's another one, and another one, and another one. And all they can do is keep up.'

An actress in a nurse’s uniform sits at a desk and writes in a notebook using a fountain pen. A wet cloth is squeezed and wrung out over an old metal wash basin of water.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Rachael described this scene in her diary.'

A female narrator speaks: 'Things were in rather a state of chaos when the wounded began to arrive. Their dressings, which had been applied on the hospital ships, were saturated and covered in flies. Dysentery was a scourge on the island. Many of the wounded fell prey to the disease. The cold weather brought frostbitten patients. It was pitiable to see gangrened feet.'

Old film footage shows 3 soldiers helping an injured mate while others look on. An old photo shows a young man smiling while being carried on a stretcher beside another patient in a robe and 2 nurses. Old film footage shows troops riding horses through a desert and past old Ottoman fortifications with turrets.

Ray Martin speaks: 'From Gallipoli, Rachael was transferred to Egypt to look after men wounded in the Sinai and in Palestine. It was pretty safe there.'

Old film footage shows 2 soldiers loading and firing an artillery field gun, then a road near a battleground with many wounded soldiers, some bandaged, being assessed and helped by stretcher-bearers and medics. More footage shows patients on stretchers being lifted from ambulances by soldiers and a nurse in a hospital ward room of patients in beds. Old photos show a long room with camp beds lining both walls, many with patients tended by nurses in uniform.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Then in April 1917, she moved across to France, to a town only a few kilometres from the Western Front, and close to the enemy. Australians were fighting some of the biggest battles of the war there and ambulances were working overtime bringing in the wounded for urgent treatment. (Music plays in the background) This time, she was attached to what was called the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station.'

A caption reads 'ANZAC Girls Courtesy Screentime Australia'. A video shows an actress dressed as a nurse emerging from a tent and removing an apron.

Dr Meleah Hampton is shown speaking. An old photo shows a room crowded with bandaged patients, nurses and medics. Old film footage shows troops loading a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance before the truck drives away, showing a red cross symbol on each side.

'It's not a hospital, it is a clearing station, so we are getting men out as quickly as we can, triaging men to work out, ‘We can get rid of those ones, they can go back for treatment. These guys need stabilising. We will care for them here. Get them as far away from the battlefield to better medical treatment as soon as possible.’

A video shows an actress dressed in a nurse’s uniform sits at a desk in what looks like a tent. She uses a fountain pen to write on loose paper. Old film footage of a nurse speaking to a patient in a bed, then a group of nurses sitting together on a tea break. More footage from 'ANZAC Girls' video shows actresses dressed as nurses looking to the sky with concern, then a nurse pouring liquid from a brown bottle onto bandages and applying them to wounds.

A nurse is shown squeezing a wet cloth over an old metal wash basin of water.

Ray Martin speaks: 'In a letter to a Victorian newspaper, Rachael wrote...'

A woman’s voice speaks: 'I have charge of a dressing ward and small theatre. We do over 200 dressings daily. The sisters are working dreadfully hard, as I have worked in the past.'

Ray Martin speaks: 'In July 1917, there was a big raid by German aeroplanes, and many bombs were dropped on the clearing station for wounded soldiers.'

Ray Martin speaks: 'There was a lot of damage and many people wounded, including medical staff and patients.'

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'She obviously is one of the staff members who is up all through the night, organising people, treating people, doing what she can, and then she herself becomes a casualty 2 nights later.'

In further footage from 'ANZAC Girls', an actress dressed as a nurse appears wounded and in pain after a large explosion. A colleague tries to support her, but she insists on continuing to work. A stained glass window in the Hall of Memory shows a nurse with the Red Cross. A panel of text describes Rachael’s actions and why she was awarded the Military Medal. Her medals are also displayed. General Sir William Birdwood is shown speaking to another man. The words from the letter to Rachael from the General appear on the screen in cursive script.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Rachael was struck by flying shrapnel when another bomb exploded near the tent where she was working.'

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'She has a massive wound that perforates her lung, very badly wounds her shoulder.'

Ray Martin speaks: 'Despite her wound, Rachael kept nursing patients until finally, she collapsed. Her bravery is almost beyond belief. The next day, Rachael was promoted to the rank of Sister and awarded a Military Medal by the Commander of the British and Empire Army, Sir Douglas Haig. In those days, Australia was part of the British Empire.'

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'General Sir William Birdwood wrote, "I write to tell you how really pleased I am to see that you have been awarded the Military Medal in recognition of your courageous behaviour and devotion to duty during the bombing of your hospital. I well know the value of the fine example on such occasions and have learnt of the presence of mind which you displayed. I congratulate you most heartily on the honour which you have so fully deserved. I do hope you are well again now, as I know one of the bombs wounded you."'

Old photos show nurses walking towards a hospital building, a nurse in a hospital ward with patients, and nurses with soldiers in various stages of recovery on a verandah. Old film footage shows Rachael and other nurses awarded their medals by King George V. Old photos show nurses sewing as a group; soldiers who have recovered but remain permanently incapacitated.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Rachael was the first Australian nurse wounded in the course of her duties, the first awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in the field, and the first of only eight nurses awarded that medal during the whole of the First World War.'

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'It takes her about three months to recover. And by that time, they've awarded her the Military Medal and they've arranged her investiture by King George V at Buckingham Palace.'

Ray Martin speaks: 'Rachael recovered enough to return to duty at army nursing centres in England until the end of the war.'

Dr Meleah Hampton is shown speaking.

'Rachael Pratt wrote home about her wound, and I think this sums her up, because she's not at all worried about what's happened to her. (Music plays.) She writes, "As you know, I was wounded through the right shoulder and lung, and the piece of shrapnel has not been removed, for an operation for that purpose was unsuccessful. It's not causing me any inconvenience and it's better to leave well enough alone."'

An old photo shows a young soldier reunited with his family. In a cemetery, the focus is on the Pratt family plot. A painting of a busy casualty clearing station. A written description of shell shock sits next to a table holding old medical supplies. Some of the stained glass windows in the Hall of Memory appear briefly.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Back in Melbourne after the war, Rachael started a rest home in East Malvern for returning servicemen. During this time, she became very ill herself and she died in 1954 from chronic bronchitis due to the remaining shrapnel in her lung. In her last years, Rachael also experienced mental illness, which was possibly caused by her First World War experiences. In those days, the condition was called shell shock. Today, it's known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.'

Ray Martin is shown speaking.

'So there you have it. Rachael Pratt was a remarkable Australian. She was a highly qualified nurse, specialising in women and children's health. Then she switched and became an Army nurse, taking care of badly wounded men. Remember, apart from her medical skills, she was awarded a Military Medal for Bravery on the Western Front. A Military Medal for Bravery. Very few women were given that honour. I told you, she was remarkable.'

An old photo of Rachael Pratt in her nurse uniform. Then the white logo for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is shown on a black background.

[Music plays]

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