Sneak peek: Veiled Lives (pp. 137-146)
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Alliances and Enemies

  • Britain 1914-15

Australian nurses who were in Britain when war was declared were the first to witness what was to come in Europe. While early recruitment of nurses and soldiers was occurring in Australia, nurses like Elizabeth McGregor, who was in Britain gaining further nursing experience, joined the first group of nurses to volunteer for work with the Lady Dudley Field Hospital. When Elizabeth McGregor was a trainee nurse at RPAH (1907-12), Lady Rachel Dudley was the wife of the Governor-General of Australia (1908-11). Rachel Gurney (1867-1920) was a strong, resourceful and intelligent woman who became Lady Rachel, Countess of Dudley, on her marriage to William Humble Ward Dudley, 2nd Earl, in 1891.

As the wife of the Governor-General and mother of seven children, she was concerned that Australians who lived in the outback were ‘… so isolated: the old people, the women expecting a baby, the mothers, the children, all need some nursing support’. She then asked the pertinent question ‘What can be done to help them?’573 From this kernel of an idea a federal scheme to provide nursing support to those who lived in outback Australia was instigated and was later replaced with a number of state-based programs. Nonetheless, Her Excellency the Countess of Dudley was Life Patroness of the first Central Council, which was a precursor to the very successful Bush Nursing Association in Australia.574

  • Elizabeth McGregor

Elizabeth McGregor lived in central western NSW and was the fourth of five daughters born to John McGregor and his wife Jane (nee Smith). Both were from Scotland and they married in Victoria before moving to Condobolin, NSW, in 1885 (see Map 1).575 John managed the Micabil and Walloroi properties for his uncle, William Campbell, while Jane, an ex-school teacher, educated her daughters at home. They were known in the district as ‘the McGregor girls’ and could often be seen by their neighbours ‘racing their horse and buggies at full gallop across the plains of their property’.576 Elizabeth, who was known as Bess within the family, taught Sunday School at the local Presbyterian Church.577 The lives of the young McGregor girls changed dramatically when John died in June 1904 and Jane died in November of the same year.578

The need for self-reliance enabled three of the sisters to pursue careers but they did not opt for teaching like their mother. Instead Kate became a masseuse while Elizabeth and her younger sister Helen (Nell) qualified as nurses at RPAH.579 Elizabeth was the first in the family to go to Sydney to commence her training and Nell joined her two years later (1909). While Elizabeth was a competent practical nurse and a sound academic student, training at this time was hazardous and she had a break in service to recover from typhoid and scarlet fever.580 In 1912 she was awarded her hospital nursing certificate and dispensing certificate and later acquired the all important, ATNA certificate.581

  • Europe 1914

When the First World War was declared, the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance Association decided to put aside their differences and work together for the duration of the war. Queen Alexandra, President of the British Red Cross, donated £500 and called for donations.582 A committee was formed and Lady Dudley, now estranged from her husband, was one of a number of aristocrats appointed.583 Elizabeth McGregor was attached to The Lady Dudley Field Hospital on 28 August 1914 making her, more than likely, one of the first Australian nurses to serve on the Western Front. Despite strong support during the initial stages of the war ‘it became increasingly difficult to staff the hospital from voluntary sources and on 1 July 1916 it was taken over by the War Office, expanded and renamed the No 32 Stationary Hospital.’584

  • Serbia

Sister McGregor’s stay in France was short-lived. When she joined the British Red Cross in October 1914 she was sent to Serbia, where she cared for the Serbian people until 3 April 1916; she was recognised ‘for nursing the wounded and sick’ and awarded the Serbian Cross of Mercy.585 During this time Elizabeth McGregor wore the Red Cross uniform and had the face of an intelligent and resourceful young woman.586 The German decision (by Erich von Falkenhayn) to overrun Serbia, thereby removing Russia’s foothold in the Balkans and simultaneously opening an overland route from Berlin to Constantinople, meant that the young nurse from Condobolin spent the war amid a European winter of retreat and desolation. 587

  • Florence Farmborough in Russia 1914-15

A British woman, Florence Farmborough, was in Moscow when war was declared. Farmborough kept ‘her diary in notebooks and on scraps of paper … but decades later, upon deciding to publish the work, she appears to have rewritten and augmented whole sections, such that it is impossible for the reader to know which parts were written contemporaneously with the events they describe, and which were later elaborations’.588 The limitations of this primary source notwithstanding, I have elected to use her experiences as a narrative. As is the case with all primary sources, it is necessary to be mindful of the bias the writer may have developed in the intervening years, but the autobiographical nature of the Farmborough diaries makes them a valuable resource from a little known front of the First World War.

When Farmborough was 21 (1908) she obtained gainful employment as a governess, teaching English to the daughters of a doctor; the family treated her as one of their own and she was still in Moscow in August 1914.589 When war was declared she and the doctor’s two daughters joined the staff of the Lazaret Hospital as VADs attached to the Princess Golitsin Hospital for wounded soldiers. However, on learning that only a ‘Red Cross Sister’ could go to the frontline she took on the training; a difficult option in a foreign language. Farmborough had to learn the theoretical language in great detail and attend Red Cross lectures every evening for three hours; she learnt entire chapters in parrot-fashion. Once she completed six months’ hospital work as a VAD she was examined for a diploma from the Red Cross Society.

A Protestant, she believed God wanted her to nurse wounded soldiers. She was welcomed by the Russian Orthodox Church at a church service for VADs. Farmborough was a surgical nurse in the 10th Otryad of the All-Russian Zemski (Provincial) Soyuz; once uniforms and clothes were purchased, she was despatched by rail to care for Russian soldiers and refugees. 590

  • The Serbian retreat

On the other side of the battle-line, Elizabeth McGregor nursed civilians and soldiers alike during the bloodshed and chaos of the Serbian retreat. Her sparse record of service with the British Red Cross basically consists of two entries: Serbian relief from October 1914 until April 1916, followed by service in Corfu from May 1916 until June 1917 (see Map 3).591 The history books tell a story of great misery of which both women, McGregor and Farmborough, had an exceptional view. Nominally, McGregor was still part of the nursing staff attached to the Lady Dudley Australian Voluntary Hospital but her nursing expertise was tested when she was sent to Serbia once the enemy ‘crossed the Danube between 7 and 9 October [1914]’.592

The situation worsened when ‘on the 9th Belgrade fell to the Austrians once more’ while the Germans and Bulgarians enveloped the Serbs, forcing them ‘to retreat either south towards Greece or South-West to Albania as the railway line to Salonika had also been cut.’593 Wherever the Serb Army went, so too did the civilian population. Children, the aged, the infirm and women nursing babies all fled an aggressive army in freezing conditions with the support of the Red Cross personnel. A retreat across the mountains to the Albanian coast was considered the best option. Eventually 140,000 Serbian soldiers were transported on allied vessels to Corfu and finally to Salonica – the army’s original strength had been 420,000 men (see Map 3). As is often the case during war, the number of civilian casualties is not known – their misery and death on the periphery of the historic battles.594

  • Germany 1914-15

The Prussian Prime Minister, Bismarck, envisaged the benefits of a united Germany in 1868 when he claimed ‘the weak were made to be devoured by the strong’.595 Prussia was the strongest of the German states but when France declared war (15 July 1870) Napoleon III was convinced of the invincibility of his army. Significantly, both Germany and France had ‘acceded to the 1864 Geneva Convention’; agreed to comply with its articles and ‘both had formed their own Red Cross national societies’.596 It was during this war that the term ‘ambulance’ was used to describe any source of support for the wounded – be it a single cart or a major stationary hospital.597 The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) saw the southern independent German states join Prussia to defeat France. In particular, the French keenly felt the loss of the provinces of Lorraine and Alsace and consequently fortified their exposed German border. However, the Germans had an alternative plan in the event that they had a need to invade France at a later date – the Schlieffen Plan. German troops would simply move through neutral Belgium to Paris (see Map 2).598

At 6am on 4 August 1914, Herr von Below-Saleske, German Minister in Brussels, advised the Belgian Government that, to protect its own security, the German Army would enter Belgium.599 Belgium did not call upon France or Britain for assistance at this point. There was a chance that the threat of invasion may have been a tactical ruse by the Germans to cause France to redeploy troops away from the Franco-German border. Furthermore, the French Army may have been open to international criticism if it entered Belgium first.600 That evening, Kaiser Wilhelm II admitted to members of the Reichstag that ‘Our invasion of Belgium is contrary to international law but the wrong – and I speak openly – that we are committing we will make good as soon as our military goal has been reached’.601

The Germans entered the fortified town of Liège on 5 August and within two weeks they entered Brussels; the Belgian Army made a strategic retreat to Antwerp.602 The Schlieffen Plan failed, as the German troops did not envelop Paris from the left flank. On 25 August the German General Helmuth Moltke re-deployed four divisions to the Russian front because he believed a decisive victory over France had already been achieved – it had not.603 A stalemate was reached by the end of 1914.604 Trench lines were established; four years elapsed and a great deal of blood was spilled before the French and Belgian countryside was anything other than the ‘Western Front’.605

Meanwhile, the music student from Adelaide, Ethel Cooper, was prevented from leaving Germany because she was suspected of keeping a diary and writing letters home to Australia – she did both, but evidence of neither was uncovered during the war.606 The longer she stayed in Germany the more dangerous it was to let her leave – she remained in Germany for the entire war.

  • The Ottoman Empire

Florence Farmborough continued to care for the Russian troops and do what she could to alleviate the suffering of the dispossessed civilians. The Russians enjoyed early success and as a consequence the Ottomans did not. On entering the war with Germany their men were involved in two disastrous campaigns: an attack on Suez – 16,000 men went into battle and when the casualty list reached 1,000 the contingent returned – and an attack on Russia via the Black Sea which saw 90,000 men incur 75,000 casualties (see Map 3).607 Nonetheless, by April 1915 the Russians were in retreat when the Germans launched a massive offensive, the impact of which reverberated all the way to Australia.

The first AIF was detained in Egypt, instead of travelling to England, and the Ottomans and Australians met at Ari Burnu. Australian soldiers developed a respect for their Ottoman enemy during the battle for Gallipoli and the subsequent Desert Campaign.608 They became aware that the Ottomans were fighting to protect their land, their culture, and their religious rights–social values to which the Australians could relate. White Australian history was practically a clean page compared to the history of the Ottoman Empire. There is no doubt that history had a bearing on how the war evolved in the Middle East during the 1914-18 conflict.

The Ottoman Empire began around 1300AD, when Osman established a small principality in Anatolia, which is present day Turkey. 609 It expanded as other ethnic groups came under its umbrella; it reached the peak of its power in the 17th century and the Turkish component (mainly from Anatolia) became a minority. Other ethnic groups included Kurds, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Hungarians, Macedonians and Armenians. Many non-Muslims served the Sultan and these were known as ‘devshirme’ (meaning converted or recruited) and they became an influential political force within the Empire.610

The importance of the Dardanelle straits to the Islamic world was well established in 1914. By 1352 the Ottomans had crossed Europe via the straits of Gallipoli and began to annex the Balkans. İstanbul became the Ottoman capital after Constantinople was renamed in 1453, and over the next two centuries the Ottomans extended the influence of Islam from Vienna to Iran and from the Crimea to Yemen – virtually surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (see Map 3). The straits were well fortified; two castles were built on either side and used as a defence to good effect.

However, once the Empire stopped expanding, taxation levels increased, which in turn caused discontent and economic decline. Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution gave England, France and Germany more prosperity and therefore more influence. Napoleon Bonaparte summed up the situation when he considered the dilemma: ‘The major question is who shall have İstanbul, not whether the Ottomans survive’.611 In 1908 the answer came with Enver and the Young Turks.612 Following the French Revolution (1789) progressive ideas infiltrated diverse ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire. There were a number of small uprisings which resulted in the emergence of small states. This put the Empire at risk – France took Algeria and Tunisia; Britain occupied Egypt; Italy seized Tripoli.

The Young Turks emerged as a political force who wanted to unite the diverse ethnic groups into an Empire of Turks. Enver, a distinguished battalion commander, led the Young Turks in the 1908 Revolution and secured İstanbul. By 1909 the Sultan was a titular figurehead and a constitutional parliament was in place. The Young Turks were exceedingly popular with some groups. During the 1912-13 Balkan Wars the Ottoman armies offered six weeks of resistance against Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian forces.613 In 1913 a coup d’état saw Enver and the Young Turks depose the Sultan (he was kept under house arrest until he died in 1918) and displace the parliament. The terms ‘Turk’ and ‘Turkey’ were adopted as nationalistic symbols by the Young Turks and became official in 1923 with the formation of the Republic of Turkey. Therefore Australians fought the Ottomans at Gallipoli, although the geographic area is part of present-day Turkey.614

Enver assumed the title Paşa (which translates as General) and ruthlessly oppressed opposing minority groups including the Armenians. Germany had an interest in the oil reserves of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and cultivated a diplomatic relationship with Enver Paşa to secure access to the oil, but there was an element of mistrust toward Germany. 615 When the Triple Entente and Central Powers were lining up against each other, the Ottomans approached Britain because they wanted to join the alliance of the Central Powers. They approached Britain three times and were rejected three times so, in May 1914, they went to Russia for a pact but were also rejected.

Despite no formal alliances with Britain or Germany, the Ottomans continued to do business with both countries. For example, in December 1913 German General Otto Liman von Sanders arrived in İstanbul to reorganise the Ottoman Army and the Ottomans commissioned the British to build two new warships, funded by public donations.616 Britain misjudged the mood of the Ottomans when on the eve of war it requisitioned the ships for its own navy – in effect leaving the Ottomans unaligned and with limited defences.

On 2 August 1914, Enver Paşa entered a secret alliance with Germany but Mustafa Kemal, an influential Young Turk, opposed the alliance. He correctly reasoned that if the Entente lost the war, the Ottoman Empire would cease to exist and if it were victorious the Empire would merely be a satellite for Germany. However, the alliance was assured when on 9 August Enver Paşa allowed two German warships (Breslau and Goeben), stranded in the Mediterranean, to escape through the Dardanelles. When they reached İstanbul the Germans sold them to the Ottomans; a German admiral was Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman Navy.617 This decision had long-term consequences in the Mediterranean: in 1917 an Australian nurse, Gladys Walter, was invalided home via Egypt but the four-day journey from Salonica took 14 days because the Goeben and Breslau were a continuing threat. When she finally arrived in Alexandria she saw the wrecks of the allied ships ‘Osmanieh and the Aragon and the bodies of some of the victims floating about’.618