During this year, the year of the Nurse and the Midwife and on this day, Remembrance Day, it is important to reflect on the role nurses have had during conflict and war. Remembrance Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Nurses have served throughout our country’s history in all major conflicts, including World War One. It was during this time that 25 nurses died while providing care to the sick and injured. Nurses have always been ready to provide service as demonstrated by some 3000 volunteers for World War One and by the War’s end nurses had proven themselves to be essential for military service. It is vital that we continue to remember and reflect on these extraordinary nurses and their roles during the war as it provides us with insight into the conditions and sacrifices each and every one made.
One of the many decorated nurses to serve is Dame Maud McCarthy GBE RRC and Bar FNM, who served as the Matron-in-Chief, France and Flanders, in the British Army, although she was born and raised in Sydney. In her duties during 1914 – 1919, McCarthy was in charge of 8000 Nurses from all British Empire Countries as well as the United States. McCarthy was described by a General Officer as “perfectly splendid, she’s wonderful… she’s a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster General, she’d work it, she’d run the whole Army and she never gets flustered, never makes a mistake. The woman is a genius” (McCarthy 1986).
Australian Nurses have always been referred to as compassionate, caring, selfless and going beyond the call of duty. These attributes resulted in 388 nurses receiving formal decorations and seven nurses being awarded the Military Medal, which was awarded for ‘acts of gallantry and devotion of duty under fire’ and was the highest Imperial Award available to nurses (Department of Veteran Affairs .d.). Such bravery was epitomised by the actions of Sister Alice Ross King who was serving on the Western Front at the No 2 Australia Clearing Station. Sister Ross King was called to see a patient in the pneumonia ward and while transiting with an Orderly a German aircraft began dropping bombs on the clearing station. Despite calls to get down, Sister Ross King continued to care for her patient when a bomb landed in front of her and she was thrown to the ground. With no light , she continued to try and get to her patient but failed to see the bomb crater in front of her and fell headfirst into it. When in the five-foot-deep crater, which was covered in blood and greasy clay, she climbed free to find all that remained of the pneumonia ward — a soldier on the floor. Whilst lifting the soldier back onto the bed, she discovered the leg remained on the floor and quickly realised it belonged to the orderly she was with when transiting (Stewart n.d.).
These stories are not uncommon among the Australian Nurses of World War One as the stories of Sister Rachel Platt, Sister Alicia May Kelly and Sister Eileen King (to name a few) are all quite similar in their exceptional displays of devotion to duty and their patients with complete selflessness.
After the war ended, women often weren’t recognised for their efforts in the same way returned soldiers were. I believe that this is changing, as stories like those mentioned above bring to light the vital role that our nurses had in delivering health care in such arduous conditions. This Remembrance Day, reflect on all of the nurses that paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation.
Department of Veteran Affiars, n.d. Candour: Stories In The Words Of Those Who Served 1914-18. Viewed 5 November 2020, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/media/file/candour-stories-words-those-who-served-1914-18
McCarthy, P 1986, ‘McCarthy, Dame Emma Maud (1859–1949)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 5 November 2020, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccarthy-dame-emma-maud-7306
Stewart, E, n.d. Wartime Issue 50 – Feature Article: Nurses Under Fire | The Australian War Memorial. Viewed 5 November 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/50/stewart_nurse