One Friday in July 1915, the parents of Victorian nurse Louisa Bicknell received the news that every parent dreads.
Their daughter was seriously ill with septic poisoning in her right arm; the next morning a cable arrived at their Abbotsford home from Heliopolis, Egypt: ‘Louie passed away.’
The tale of the first death of an Australian nurse in Egypt during the First World War is told in UNA, the journal of the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses’ Association, an organisation that would later become the ANMF (Victorian Branch).
With the State Library Victoria in the process of digitising UNA, soon nurses and midwives everywhere will have access to its reports about Australian nurses in wartime.
‘Nurse Bicknell, who never knew a day’s sickness in her life, trained at the Mooroopna Hospital, did service at the Women’s Hospital, was for a time doing duty with the Melbourne District Nursing Society and belonged to the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses’ Association,’ UNA reported.
‘For the last seven or eight years, she, in partnership with Nurse Williams, conducted a private hospital in Bairnsdale and was one of the first nurses to volunteer her services for the war.’
The same 30 July 2015 edition of UNA contains an excerpt of a letter from nurse Eileen Ferguson, who left Melbourne to volunteer at the front at the beginning of that year and was working at a hospital at Dunkirk. Her letter describes the bombing of Dunkirk – and the terrible human cost.
‘It was horrid to hear the shriek of the shells passing overhead, but we were too busy to take much notice. The wounded were arriving all the time and we could not cope with the work properly. I worked for 56 hours without a spell…I shall never forget the experiences of those days. The agonies of the poor fellows as they were lifted from the ambulances and also when their wounds were being dressed, were dreadful,’ Eileen wrote.
‘I have been here ten weeks now but not till last week did I realise what war meant.’
By the Second World War, the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses’ Association had become the Royal Victorian College of Nursing, and UNA continued to record the stories of members at war.
An editorial on 1 June 1943 laments the loss of 11 nurses, including five Victorians, who were members of the Australian Army Nursing Service aboard the Australian hospital ship Centaur. On 14 May, the Japanese military had torpedoed the ship off the Queensland coast as it was on route to Papua New Guinea.
The editorial wishes a speedy recovery for the lone nurse survivor of the ‘atrocious crime committed on 14th May’. Sister Ellen Savage, one of only 64 of the 332 people on board who survived, was recovering in hospital from fractured ribs, burns and shock.
Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her bravery and gallantry, and a newspaper cartoon strip told the story of her attending to others’ wounds on a lifeboat for 36 hours, while being injured herself. Sister Savage was interviewed about the incident for a newsreel (1).
According to an article by nursing historian Dr Madonna Grehan, the Centaur was making its second voyage to Papua New Guinea to retrieve injured soldiers and to resupply the field with ambulance officers. Its conversion to a hospital ship had been completed only seven weeks earlier. The ship had X-ray equipment and operating theatres, and could accommodate 250 patients in double-decker cots (2).
In November 1945, UNA records a letter from a Matron I. W. Brown at the 2/14 Australian General Hospital Singapore, conveying the gratitude of 24 Australian Army Nursing Service members ‘for your cable of good wishes and congratulations’ after their release from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Sumatra.
The women had arrived in Singapore ‘shockingly underweight’ and with a multitude of health conditions after years of malnutrition and hard work in the camp, Matron Brown’s letter conveyed.
‘You can imagine what a relief it was when they came in, particularly since we knew that planes were going out every day in the attempt to locate them,’ she said.
‘They arrived in their A.A.N.S. working uniforms, very faded yet not unduly worn out but they had kept them for this occasion. All were wearing badges.’
The 24 nurses were among 65 nurses aboard the Vyner Brooke, a ship that had fled the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942. The ship sank after being bombed and strafed by the Japanese military as it passed between Sumatra and Borneo.
In what became known as the Bangka Island massacre, Japanese soldiers forced 22 of the nurse survivors of the bombing to walk into the ocean and shot them. The nurses who were imprisoned, then liberated in 1945, included the much-celebrated lone survivor of the Bangka island massacre, Vivian Bullwinkel, as well as fellow Victorian Betty Jeffrey.
Together, these nurses established the Australian Nurses Memorial Centre, which continues to support the education of nurses and midwives.
After arriving in Singapore with tuberculosis, weighing only 30 kilograms, Betty Jeffrey was to spend the next two years in hospital recovering from her ordeal (3).
Her secret prisoner-of-war diary was published as White Coolies and inspired the Bruce Beresford film Paradise Road.
UNA’s editorials during the Second World War have a florid style; of the nurses’ liberation on 1 October 1945, the editor writes: ‘All women who have had the privilege to wear the uniform of a trained nurse hail with sincere rejoicings that noble band whose release from the hands of a murderous crew of inhuman wretches comes after three and a half years of imprisonment, yet who face Life with unbroken and unquenchable spirit.’
You can read online The Age’s 18 September 1945 article about the nurses’ liberation, in which a correspondent writes: ‘It was a sad, if thrilling, sight as the gallant nurses, now older than their years, were helped down from the plane which brought them back to Singapore from their prison camp.’ (4)
Victorian Annie Sage, who was Matron-in-Chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service when the nurses were liberated from the prisoner-of-war camp and later established the College of Nursing, travelled to Sumatra to assist with the nurses’ repatriation.
UNA also records some of the more jovial messages from Australian nurses during wartime, with nurses thanking their fellow Royal Victorian College of Nursing members for Christmas gifts and letters. In the 1 July 1941 edition, Sister M. Muir writes from the Australian Red Cross Hospital ship in Egypt, of spending her leave in Palestine.
‘I went to Bethlehem, Galilee, Jericho and Dead Sea, Capernaum, places one has heard of since earliest Sunday school days,’ Sister Muir writes.
‘This all makes the Bible seem so much more real and easier to understand. The people dress and look the same is in the days of Jesus.’
There were only two other Australian nurses tending the wounded soldiers on Sister Muir’s ship, she wrote, with the others being English.
‘Our lads are all very cheerful and bright, they get quite a thrill when they find one is an Australian.’