Australian Army Nursing Service in World War I
More than 2000 Australian women served overseas in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) during the war. These courageous and dedicated women worked in difficult and sometimes terrifying conditions. They cared for patients in military clinics and hospitals near battlefields and on ships and trains.
Australian military nurses served far from home, caring for the sick and wounded on land and sea. Their skills saved many lives.
Australian nurses also worked with other organisations during the war, such as:
- Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service
- Red Cross Society
- privately funded facilities
Before the war
Around 60 nurses from the Australian colonies served in the South African War from 1899. Some were part of the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve — the first military nursing organisation in Australia.
During the war in South Africa, Sister Fanny Hines was the first Australian military nurse to die on active service overseas.
The Australian Army formed the AANS in July 1903, as part of the Australian Army Medical Corps.
During the war
Records show that 2861 women in the AANS served overseas during World War I. Of those women, 25 died during their service. The nurses worked in many countries, including Belgium, Egypt, England, France, Greece and India:
- at Australian and Allied hospitals near the action and behind the lines in England
- in casualty clearing stations close to the front line
- on board hospital ships and trains
Nurses were essential in the complex triage created by British forces to transport and treat sick and wounded soldiers.
Australian nurses also trained to work in veterans' hospitals back home in Australia. Many returned soldiers needed health care after the war.
In late 1914, 25 AANS nurses sailed with the first convoy of the AIF in seven ships:
- HMAT Argyllshire from Sydney
- HMAT Ascanius from Adelaide and Fremantle
- HMAT Benalla from Melbourne
- HMAT Euripides from Sydney
- HMAT Geelong from Hobart
- HMAT Omrah from Brisbane
- HMAT Shropshire from Melbourne
Another four nurses selected by Dr Frederic Bird from his private hospital in Melbourne sailed on the flag ship, HMAT Orvieto.
The sea voyage formed part of the training for the ambulance, medical and nursing personnel. Some ships in the convoy had well-equipped hospitals. The nurses in charge lectured and trained ambulance staff and regimental medical detachments.
When the first convoy was ordered to remain in Egypt, many of the nurses joined Allied and Australian military hospitals near Cairo.
During the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, some nurses served in hospital ships off the coast and in primitive hospitals on Lemnos.
By 1916 in France, the AANS provided enough nurses to staff:
Nurses remained in France until the end of hostilities. They continued to care for the men in hospitals after the war, and on troopships back to Australia.
Women who served Australia
Like most working women of the time, nurses had to be unmarried. They were mostly:
- aged between 25 and 40
- qualified (at least 3 years of training)
In early 1916, the Australian Army gave officer rank to the AANS nurses along with badges of rank.
Despite the equal rank, the Army paid the nurses around half what the male officers received. Nurses' wages were so low that they often received financial support from their families while they were away.
Lieutenant Harold Williams was wounded at Peronne in September 1918. After his experience in a casualty clearing station at Daours, Harold recalled admiration for the nurses' work:
In large marquees, nurses, pale and weary beyond words, hurried about. That these women worked their long hours among such surroundings without collapsing spoke volumes for their will-power and sense of duty. The place reeked with the odours of blood, antiseptic dressings, and unwashed bodies … They saw soldiers in their most pitiful state — wounded, blood-stained, dirty, reeking of blood and filth.
Nursing on Lemnos
Colonel Thomas Fiaschi was a well-known military surgeon who had served with Australian forces since 1891. He asked the British War Office to set up a military hospital on the Greek island of Lemnos.
In response to Fiaschi's request, the No. 3 Australian General Hospital (3AGH) was formed. On 15 May 1915, the unit left Sydney on RMS Mooltan, one month after Fiaschi had requested its formation. Fiaschi was the unit's first commander.
Voyage to England, then Greece
The nursing unit was destined for England, and then Étaples in France.
Sister Anne Donnell boarded the Mooltan in South Australia on 20 May. She recalled that their heavy uniforms were unsuitable for warm weather on the voyage:
We had another full dress parade this a.m. and sweltered in our heavy serge dresses, and wrung the perspiration out of them afterwards. Words fail me while this heat lasts — honestly we haven't ceased sweating since the third day out from Australia. A Sergeant-Major died suddenly in the small hours this morning — owing to the heat.
[Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920, pp.9-10]
The Mooltan arrived in Plymouth, England, on 27 June. In London, the nurses began to prepare for their trip to France. But on 1 July, 3AGH was ordered to proceed to the Lemnos, near Gallipoli. The nurses were told that a site had been selected for a new tent hospital. Huts would be built about 6 weeks after their arrival on the island.
Most of July was spent in planning. The Australian Red Cross and benefactors in Australia helped with equipment and donations for the hospital. Extra purchases in London included a small laundry plant. These were loaded onto the supply ship, Ascot.
On 12 July, Fiaschi and most of the men embarked from Devonport on the transport, Simla. They arrived at Mudros on 27 to 28 July, before the Ascot arrived.
The nurses embarked from London on the Themistocles and the Huntsgren, 6 days after the men. They all disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt, on 30 July to 1 August. Many nurses were distributed between the Australian military hospitals in Egypt, until their next leg of the journey.
On 2 August 1915, the nurses sailed for Lemnos on the hospital ship, Dunluce Castle.
They reached Mudros harbour on 5 August. The supply ship, Ascot, had not arrived:
The officers and men are bivouacking amongst the rocks and stones and thistles of the camp site — there are no tents: no store-ship.
[Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, '3rd Australian General Hospital', manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224]
We are fortunate that a Sydney photographer, Lance Corporal Albert Savage, enlisted in the AIF and joined 3AGH. Savage travelled with the nurses on RMS Mooltan and also joined them on Lemnos. His private photographs give us a good photo essay of life on Lemnos at that time.
See an album of photographs of the 3AGH at Lemnos, Egypt and Brighton, taken by Savage from 1915 to 1917.
Difficult conditions at Lemnos
The hospital site at Lemnos was pegged out by 7 August, along with some tents. At about 7pm the next day, the first detachment of 40 nurses landed. With great fanfare, a piper accompanied the nurses as they were marched to their new hospital.
With no accommodation on the island yet, most nurses slept on the Simla, which was anchored in the harbour. And six nurses transferred to the hospital ship, Formosa, for 10 days temporary duty.
Before breakfast on 9 August, more than 200 sick and wounded soldiers were admitted to 3AGH. Within a week, the nurses were caring for over 800 patients in appalling conditions, without any equipment or supplies:
The officers' mess and all utensils were given up today for wounded as was the orderly office marquee. Still no store ship and making do … AGH personnel still bivouacking … Sick and wounded on ground on mackintosh sheets and blankets or palliasses on floor of tents
[Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, 3rd Australian General Hospital, manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224]
The entries in 'The Register of Deaths' of 3AGH showed the different causes of death during the Gallipoli campaign. For example, the four soldiers who died on 9 August — the day the hospital opened — had received gunshot wounds.
Between 9 August and 22 August, 32 men died of wounds and one of disease. Only seven were Australian soldiers. The policy was to treat Australians in Australian hospitals, but 3AGH accepted wounded soldiers from all Allied forces.
The Ascot, carrying all the hospital's main stores, finally arrived on 20 August. By late October, when Staff Nurse Anne Donnell arrived, she wrote that the huts were being prepared, but the Australian nurses were still in tents. She recalled the miserable autumn:
The weather is terrible, bitterly cold, with a high wind and rain. We are nearly frozen, even in our balaclavas, mufflers, mittens, cardigans, raincoats and Wellingtons. It's a mercy we have ample warm clothing else we should perish. Last night five tents blew down, one ward tent and four Sister's tents.
[Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920, p.58]
Anne also lamented their diet: no fruit or vegetables, and butter and eggs only once a month.
The 3rd AGH left Lemnos for Egypt in January 1916. When the 1040 bed hospital closed in Egypt in January 1916, it had treated 7400 patients and only 143 had died. The hospital later went from Egypt to Brighton, England. Then it was moved to Abbeville, France, where it remained until 1919.
- Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, '3rd Australian General Hospital: Formation of at Sydney, NSW, April 15th 1915, voyage to England and to Lemnos 1915, establishing at Mudros West, Lemnos', manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224.
- Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1920.
- 'Register of Deaths', 3rd Australian General Hospital, Mss 408, Australian War Memorial 224.
- 3rd Australian General Hospital war diary, Unit War Diaries 1914-18 War, items 26/18/19, Australian War Memorial 4.
Letters from Gallipoli
Red letter day. Shells bursting all round, we are off Gaba Tepe
[Sister Ella Tucker, AANS, Hospital Ship Gascon, off Gallipoli, 25 April 1915, in Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.44]
The first landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 conjures up images of Australian soldiers charging bravely up the steep and barren slopes from Anzac Cove.
Another image from that day is an Australian nurse attending to hundreds of wounded men on a hospital ship.
Barges and boats ferried the wounded soldiers to the HMHS Gascon, anchored off Anzac Cove. The troops were laying on the decks and in the confined wards below deck. By the night of 25 April, 557 wounded soldiers were on board.
Sister Ella Tucker was among the nurses, doctors and orderlies who attended to the men on board:
The wounded from the landing commenced to come on board at 9 am and poured into the ship’s wards from barges and boats. The majority still had on their field dressing and a number of these were soaked through. Two orderlies cut off the patient's clothes and I started immediately with dressings. There were 76 patients in my ward and I did not finish until 2 am.
[Ella Tucker, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.30]
Ella Tucker stayed with HMHS Gascon for the next 9 months. Gascon transported over 8000 sick and wounded soldiers between Gallipoli and military hospitals at Alexandria, Imbros, Lemnos, Malta, Salonika and England. Ella's diary entry during a voyage in May 1915 reflects the stressful nature of her work:
Every night there are two or three deaths, sometimes five or six; its just awful flying from one ward into another … each night is a nightmare, the patients' faces all look so pale with the flickering ship’s lights.
[Ella Tucker, in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.44]
On the hospital ships off Gallipoli, Australian nurses came face to face with the reality of the wounded. They confronted the limitations of their nursing skills and the notion of 'the glory of war'.
Working on the hospital ship Sicilia, Sister Lydia King wrote in her diary:
I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had two wards downstairs, each over 100 patients and then I had small wards upstairs — altogether about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful. One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing.
[Lydia King, in Goodman, Our War Nurses, p.39]
Serving on a hospital ship meant that many Australian nurses came close to the fighting during the Gallipoli Campaign. Sometimes they experienced dangerous situations. On 11 August 1915, Sister Daisy Richmond was nearly killed:
We return to Imbros to discharge our light cases, once more return to be refilled … We are well under fire many bullets coming on the decks. I was speaking to one boy, moved away to another patient when a bullet hit him and lodged in his thigh. It just missed.
[Daisy Richmond, in Cheryl Mongan and Richard Reid, We have not forgotten, p.152]
On Lemnos, Matron Grace Wilson and her staff of 96 nurses experienced the inefficiency of military administration.
Grace Wilson wrote about the steady flow of new patients during the August Offensive at Gallipoli, and how inadequate equipment and insufficient supplies diminished their care:
9 August — Found 150 patients lying on the ground — no equipment whatever … had no water to drink or wash.
10 August — >Still no water … convoy arrived at night and used up all our private things, soap etc, tore up clothes [for bandages].
11 August — Convoy arrived — about 400 — no equipment whatever … Just laid the men on the ground and gave them a drink. Very many badly shattered, nearly all stretcher cases … Tents were erected over them as quickly as possible … All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds … A good many died … It is just too awful — one could never describe the scenes — could only wish all I knew to be killed outright.
[Grace Wilson, in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.46]
Life on Lemnos was a drastic change from conditions at home. Sister Louise Young wrote of the difficulties they experienced on the island:
The travelling kitchens would burn on windy days, and people got dysentery from the Greek bread … we did not even have a bath tent as water was so short, and as well the centipedes were very bad! Our hair used to be full of burrs, and in the end many girls cut their hair short. It saved a lot of trouble.
[Louise Young in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.8]
When the bitter winds of winter blew, the exposed position of 3AGH added to the discomfort. On 21 October, four nurses' tents and one ward tent blew down.
Louise Young remembered the weeks around Christmas 1915 when the winds seemed to howl continually across Lemnos:
Hardly a night or day did not pass that a tent did not collapse altogether … I don't think I shall ever get over my dread of wind again, night after night, every bit of canvas creaking, shaking, straining and your mind always wondering which would collapse next.
[Louise Young in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p.48]
When Christmas came, the nurses did their best to make the atmosphere in the drab hospital tents as festive as possible for everyone.
Sister Evelyn Davies wrote about her first Christmas away from home on Lemnos:
Christmas time on the island was happy. The boys hung up their socks, and I had to sneak round at 3 am and fill them with toys and sweets. Two men saw me and said Father Christmas had a white cap and gown on. There was great excitement in the morning.
[Evelyn Davies, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.48]
Despite the rough conditions, Sister Nellie Pike was grateful for the opportunity:
We were all glad to be taking part in the great adventure. They were grim and tragic, but somehow inspiring days.
[Nellie Pike, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.42]
Memories of Lemnos
Private Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion kept a diary while he served at Gallipoli and through the rest of the war. Some of the diary might have been written in retrospect. Barwick was at Gallipoli from the landing of 25 April to the evacuation of his unit on the nights of 16 to 17 December 1915. Sections of his diary deal with his time on the island of Lemnos.
The New Zealand Band gave several fine concerts at which the nurses on Lemnos Island attended. What a relief and pleasure it was to see the girls of our land after six months of roughing it at Anzac. They made the place look quite bright with their pretty uniforms. They were bricks to stick at Mudros like they did for I can tell you they had some rough times there. They even had to live on bully beef and biscuits at times and time after time their tents would be blown down in a raging rain storm and they would turn to help and put them up again in the pouring rain. Their first thought was for the sick and wounded men and they looked after them splendidly. One cannot praise our nurses too highly. They were bonzer girls.
On the 21st [September] the 1st Division gave a concert. All the items were rendered by members who came with the first contingent. It was a great success, there were thousands there and the Dean of Sydney presided (Dr Talbot). There were a lot of naval men present. Just before the concert opened about 20 nurses came in and didn't they get a reception. It must have been several minutes before the uproar died down. At this concert the Maoris gave their war cry. They took a lot of coaxing to get them on the platform but once there they were right. Their war cry is a most unearthly row and no wonder it frightened the Turks the first time they heard it on 'Sari Bair' during the great battle there [6-10 August 1915]. The concert ended up by singing 'Boys of the 1st Brigade' and thus a most enjoyable evening ended.
[Barwick diary, c.12 September 1915 to 9 May 1916, pp.190-191]
Later, Barwick wrote about leaving Lemnos:
As we were marching down to the pier a lot of nurses came out and presented us with a fine Australian flag and we still have it (25/4/16). There were a few Canadian hospitals on Lemnos and great was the rivalry between the girls from the 'Sunny South' and the 'Cold North'. It was funny to hear the Canadian nurses talking 'real Yankee twang'. They wore stars on their uniform according to their rank like officers.
[Barwick diary, c.12 September 1915 to 9 May 1916, pp.198-199]
Sister Anne Donnell was one of the nurses at 3AGH who watched the departure of the 1st Brigade:
October 26th 
This morning we heard the band playing. It was the 1st Brigade on its way back to Anzac after a rest. They came along the main street of our Hospital. We Sisters gather up all the cigarettes and chocolates and tins of food we can and throw them to the smiling faces as they march by. They are brave and apparently cheerful, though we all know how in their inner heart they dislike going back to all they remember there. It makes us feel terribly sad.
[Anne Donnell, Letters of an Australian Army Sister, Sydney, 1921, p.60]