Olive King

Full name:
Olive May Kelso King


Interest in motoring, including mechanics and rally-driving
Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School
Highest rank:
Decorations/ commendations:
Silver Medal for Bravery (Serbia), Gold Medal for Zealous Service (Serbia), Royal Order of St Sava Class V (Serbia), Cross of Mercy (Serbia), King George V Silver Jubilee Medal, King George VI Coronation Medal
World War I 1914-1918
Military event:
Serbian Campaign 1914-1915
Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, Serbian Army

Olive King was born in 1885 at Croydon in Sydney. She received her secondary education at Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls. After finishing school, King travelled widely and was in England when World War I began.

King supplied her own vehicle and went to Belgium as a driver with a volunteer field ambulance service. When the organisers came under suspicion of spying and fled to England, they left King and two other drivers to be arrested. The trio was released just in time to escape the invading German army.

King then joined the Scottish Women's Hospital and went to France in the spring of 1915. After 6 months in the Girton and Newnham Unit (named for the two Cambridge University women's colleges whose alumni funded it), she was sent with her unit to Serbia.

The medical staff landed at Salonika on 3 November 1915 and moved up to Gevgelija on the Greco-Serbian border. There, they established a hospital in and around an old silk factory. The hospital was near enough to the front that another member of the unit recalled 'the guns are almost continuous during their hours of attack.'

After 6 weeks, the hospital had to be dismantled in the face of an enemy advance. King and two other female drivers made it out by train shortly before the station was bombed.

With Serbia under occupation by Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian forces, the Girton and Newnham Unit established itself in Salonika. They set up camp on the only site available that was near the sea. Unfortunately, it was in the midst of other buildings and poorly drained. The medical staff and patients were living under canvas with limited facilities. They remained in this 'temporary' location until the second half of 1917.

In 1916, King joined the Serbian army as a driver attached to a medical headquarters. Her large ambulance was for a time the only vehicle available to transport hospital stores, equipment and reinforcements to the front line and return with patients, a round trip of about 40 km over hazardous roads. A Scottish doctor wrote:

The roads are beyond belief and the driving of our girl chauffers simply miraculous in its courage and skill.

In April 1917, King was promoted to sergeant. Then in August, when a massive fire set much of Salonika ablaze, King drove for 20 hours non-stop, transporting civilians, medical personnel, patients and hospital records to safety. For this, she was awarded the Serbian silver medal for bravery. One nurse later wrote of the fire's aftermath:

all Govt. buildings have gone, the Post Office … and houses and streets and ships even

Distressed at the plight of Serbian soldiers, King appealed to her father in Australia for money to set up canteens. He formed a fundraising committee that quickly attracted donations to the value of £10,000 (about $1 million in today's currency).

King opened the first Australian-Serbian canteen in devastated Belgrade late in 1918. Seventeen more canteens followed, selling food, blankets, clothing and other necessities at cost price or below to a Serbian population in dire need of even the most basic necessities. Her endeavours to deliver aid to Serbia were beset with difficulties; a railway system in chaos, impassable roads and ruined bridges. To deter thieves, King often slept on top of the stores she was delivering. Her last canteen in Serbia closed in 1920.

For her work in Serbia, King was awarded several local decorations and returned to Belgrade in 1923 as a special guest at the King's wedding.

King went home to Sydney in 1920 where she spoke publicly of her experiences. A reporter said she was 'reluctant to enter into details'. But King did speak of Serbia's recovery at some length:

The country was desolate when I went there first, but now it is almost in the normal conditions. Belgrade nearly two years ago was a shattered wreck – it now has all the attributes of a delightfully modern city … the peasantry are going back to their pre-war occupations and the country is regaining the prosperity it lost during the period of the war. After the war Serbia suffered the “abomination of desolation.” There were villages whose population did not include one fit male … then … followed the famine and disease … I am happy indeed to say that these conditions were in a measure alleviated by the work of the Australian mission … through the generosity of the Australian people we were enabled to endow the Belgrade University … We aided the Children's Hospital and the present industries of Serbia …

After the war, King was active in the Girl Guides Association, serving in senior roles for many years. She received King George V's silver jubilee medal in 1935 and George VI's coronation medal in 1937.

During World War II, King worked as an aircraft inspector at de Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd between 1942 and 1944.

Olive King died in Melbourne in November 1958.

Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Olive May Kelso King, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 8 December 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/biographies/olive-may-kelso-king
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