Sneak peek: Chapter 11, Scarlet Poppies (pp. 207-213)
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Chapter 11: The Transition to Peace

The news of peace was met with a mixed response from Australian soldiers, nurses and civilians. The men of the Australian Mounted Division were in Amman and a lighhorseman simply recorded … a message came through at 9 oclock this morning saying that on account of an Armistice being concluded with Turkey, hostilities will cease at 12 midday today. The news caused no excitement.785 It is difficult to imagine how soldiers like Fred Tomlins would be expected to feel – a man who was a farmer had become part of Australian history by being associated with a defining episode, Anzac. He was part of one of the most revered troops, the 1 ALH Regiment, which cleared the Sinai Peninsula and the Jordan Valley.786 He was a farmer who had spent four years away from his family while he developed expertise as an intelligence officer but he would now have to adjust to the new post-war world as well as to his altered understanding of the capacity for mankind to do evil.

The impact of the armistice upon the Australian nurses who served overseas during the First World War varied depending upon where they were stationed. Those who were in France provide some insight into what armistice meant at the Western Front. Sister Mabel Matthews (AANS) had extensive experience on the western front and was working in a CCS in France. She recounts the period just after the armistice was signed when … many cases were still coming in, and a great many deaths occurred, although the war was now over. I was in the Resuscitation Ward, and it was extremely sad. Some patients responded wonderfully to the treatment, which consisted of Blood transfusions, subcutaneous salines, and warmth. Some however did not respond, whatever the treatment.787 It was apparent that the cessation of hostilities did not mean the cessation of death.788

Any optimism for a lull in the escalating global death rate was shattered between May 1918 and May 1919 when the influenza pandemic struck, which reputedly killed 13 million people world-wide.789 When we compare the morbidity and mortality statistics of the First World War, which were estimated to be 27.5 million casualties and eight million deaths, the magnitude of the influenza pandemic can be placed into context.790 Some suggest 30 million people died worldwide.791 Soldiers and nurses from Australia had been exposed to diseases to which they had not developed any immunity. The virus was known as the Spanish flu because one member of the Spanish Royal family had been an early sufferer.792 Many people were suffering from general debility due to the cumulative effect of wartime stress and poor nutrition which, in turn, increased their susceptibility to the viral infection.793 However, it is important to remember that Maud Kellett makes reference to the death of two soldiers, en route to Egypt with the first contingent in 1914, from pneumonic influenza indicating prevalence prior to the war.794 Nevertheless, the post-war influenza pandemic caused more death than the First World War because the entire world population was susceptible.

Apart from isolation nursing, nursing care of patients suffering from influenza included regular sponges and the application of poultices. A poultice, also known as a cataplasm, was applied directly to the skin in a bid to reduce inflammation and relieve congestion in an underlying organ or tissue.795 The poultice was made by placing … a hot, moist mass between two layers of muslin or similar material which may have been made up of ingredients such as … flaxseed, mustard, bread, hops, digitalis, soap and various volatile oils.796 It is not known what type of poultices were used during the First World War but the nurses used masks that had menthyl and eucalyptus applied to them in a bid to minimise the malodour of the poultice.797 Poultices have not been used by nurses for more than 30 years as there is a serious risk of burning the patient.

It was indeed reasonable for soldiers who had been in the war from the start to be given the first chance to go home.798 The men who had been the first to sail to war in 1914 were delayed a number of times on their return journey and soldiers from WA were forced to disembark in Adelaide and undergo quarantine.799 These precautions were necessary, as the influenza pandemic was an ominous and unexpected consequence of war that caused further chaos amongst the world population.

Some originals returning to Australia lost their mates on the voyage home and felt that it … was hard luck to die on the way home after four years of constant service.800 Hard luck indeed.

One group of 45 Australian nurses and soldiers had embarked on the troopship Wyreema bound for Salonica just prior to the end of the war. When the armistice was declared in November 1918 the Wyreema was recalled to Australia. During the return journey a previously captured German ship, the Boonah, radioed the OC that Australian servicemen were dying from the Spanish flu.801 On landing at Fremantle the Matron of the Wyreema called for 20 AANS nurses to volunteer for duty at the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station, located on the outskirts of the town. Despite being aware of the risks, 26 of the 45 nurses volunteered so the nurses … drew lots for places.802 The nurses had witnessed the deaths of many soldiers and even their own colleagues from the effects of Spanish flu.

Of the 20 nurses who were chosen, eight contracted the disease and recovered and an additional four contracted the disease and died. Those who died were Rosa O’Kane, Ada Thompson, Hilda Williams and Doris Ridgway. Staff Nurse Susie Cone survived the disease and the large pencil handwriting in her diary reveals her impression of her time at Woodman’s Point. On arrival she did not find the quarantine station very welcoming. She recorded … We left the old Wyreema at 4pm on Tuesday and are all feeling very lonely. Sat on the jetty here at Woodman’s point while the people at the station finished a row they were having. Arrived up here hungry and tired. Unpacked and had a look around. Brady and I went down onto the jetty and gazed longingly out at the old boat wishing to heaven we were back there.803

While the provision of adequate staff, drugs, dressing or even food and water had never been a feature of overseas service for the the First World War nurses, they may have expected that being in Australia meant an improvement in contingencies. This was not the case as Staff Nurse Cone recorded she … Got up and then started to get things ready for the boys coming off the Boonah. Wilkinson, Hamilton, Bradshaw and I were in W3, a hut holding 8 beds and 10 tents. No conveniences of any kind. About 10 am the boys began to come up from the jetty. Our tents and hut were soon full. Poor lads were in a terrible plight. Filth and dirt all over them terribly sick, we had no drugs, no clean shirts or pyjamas to put on them. All we could do is to wash them and get them as comfortable as possible. Three died the first day.804

The following day she found the condition of the patients worsening and … Boys all very ill. Very little to feed them on. Drugs scarce. This place is Hell.805 Sadly, the next day she recorded that 10 of the boys from the Boonah had died up to date, but soon nurses started to feel the effects of sickness, poor nutrition and the extreme heat that only an Australian summer can provide. By mid-December eight nurses were down with the ‘flu’ and Rosa O’Kane was the first to die. Susie Cone had known Rosa O’Kane during the voyage. While en route for overseas duty the nurses on the Wyreema put on a play to entertain the troops. Apparently Rosa could act because she played … the part of Bluebeard splendidly.806

Rosa O’Kane was the only daughter of Jeanie and John O’Kane from Charters Towers, Queensland. After training as a nurse she enlisted in the AANS, 1 MD (Queensland).807 Rosa had two brothers, Frank and John, who were instrumental in ensuring that although she died a long way from home, she would not be forgotten. The people of Charters Towers raised the funds to place a memorial marking the place where Rosa was buried following her death on 21st December 1919 – she was 30 years old.808 Her nursing colleagues mourned her passing and recorded … Poor old O’Kane died early this morning, one can hardly realise that she is gone, everyone very depressed about it. We gave her a military funeral to-day at 4pm It’s sad to see we old Wyreemians have decreased. Only nine of us on duty now.809

One of the amazing features of the Australian nurses throughout four years of war was their ability to celebrate Christmas. Whether they found themselves in the heat of Egypt or enduring freezing conditions at a CCS near the Somme, Australian nurses knew how to ensure the soldiers had … a little bit of home … at Christmas time. For reasons beyond their control the nurses at Woodman’s Point were not able to transform Christmas 1918 into a celebration. Susie Cone recorded on Christmas Eve 1918 that things were …  anyhow today. A letter from the Perth military sisters here appeared in the daily paper and caused quiet a stir. Meetings etc being held about it. We are forbidden to talk to the officers and men except while on duty and all Xmas festivities have been knocked on the head. Xmas eve and the unhappiness I have ever spent. We got letters from the east I got one from Billy at Adelaide also. News that we have to move from our present quarters down to tents about half a mile down a dusty track. How we are going to walk that distance every day goodness only knows or cares. Four new sisters from Adelaide came tonight one of them is Jacksons sister.810 One of the four reinforcements from Adelaide was Doris Ridgway.811 The other three nurses were likely to have been Nurse Vowles, Nicholls and Cherry.812

Things did not improve Christmas Day and despite being given a day off Staff Nurse Cone and her colleagues … Spent it moving to our new camping ground. What a day, hot and dusty as possible to be. Xmas dinner was a scream. Our tent was the only one fixed up. So when the others came off duty and found their beds strewn all over the paddock and their luggage and bedding God only knows where, they all went up to the main building to attack that little beast …. He, as is typical of him, did nothing for us so we all went back again. The convalescent boys offering to put up our beds and cart luggage etc for the girls it was midnight before things were finally fixed up. Did not sleep much tents don’t agree with me.813

The impact of Rosa O’Kane’s death was keenly felt by the nurses. Susie Cone makes reference to the sadness felt by Rosa’s colleagues and the subsequent reduction in morale at the quarantine station. This may account for the decision by those in authority not to allow the nurses to attend the funeral of the next nurse who died, Ada Thompson.814 Between 31st December 1918 and the first week of January 1919 the diary entries, in full, bear a remarkable testament to the conditions endured by the nurses of the AANS after the peace. During this period Ada Thompson, Hilda Willliams and Doris Ridgway became ill, died and were buried.