More than 3,000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during World War I. Twenty-five died during their service and eight received the Military Medal for bravery. However, theirs is a story rarely told.
From the first Allied landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, Australian nurses cared for hundreds of casualties in hospital and on transport ships anchored offshore. Working in often gruelling conditions, with limited medical supplies and a desperate lack of fresh water, they tended to a seemingly endless stream of wounded and sick soldiers for the duration of the campaign.
Reflecting on her work in 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 with more than 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.
The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was formed in 1903 as part of the Australian Army Medical Corps. During World War I, 2,000 of its members served overseas alongside Australian nurses from other organisations, such as Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the newly formed Red Cross.
Many AANS nurses served as part of the 3rd Australian General Hospital, which was set up on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea in response to a request from the British War Office. The hospital treated large numbers of wounded soldiers from all Allied armies. The conditions on Lemnos were far from idyllic.
The weather on the island was terrible—it was bitterly cold, with strong winds and rain. The nurses’ diets contained no fruit or vegetables, and they received butter and eggs only once a month.
There were a number of reasons a nurse may have volunteered for service in World War I: the chance to travel; the chance to be involved in the war; the opportunity to be closer to a serving loved one or help troops in need; or the allure of independence. Whatever the reason, by the time the war came to an end, it had become clear that nurses were essential to military medical service.
From its inception on Lemnos in August 1915 until January 1916, the 3rd Australian General Hospital treated 7,400 patients, of whom only 143 died.
‘Their [Australian nurses during World War I] dedication to duty and unwavering compassion and care in the grimmest of times and in the harshest of environments cannot fail to inspire. Their persistent and exceptional delivery of health care is still the basic tenet of what we do today.’
‘The absolute selflessness that saw them volunteer for service and the dedication to duty for the duration of the war is a testament to the strength and character of those amazing women. It is these women who formed the basis of my “vision” of nursing in that light.’
‘The Australian Army Nursing Service has a long history of supporting ADF operations. Although nursing has changed over the past 100 years, the legacy of the nurses who served in World War I continues.’
‘They paved the way for nurses, and women in general, to be considered equal to men and professionals in their own right. The core duties of military nurses have not changed, and I do not think that my reason for becoming a nurse—to care for the sick and wounded—would have been any different to those who signed up to go to Lemnos, Egypt or board a hospital ship.’