Honouring the Australian and New Zealand Nurses of World War 1
Nearly 60 nurses from Australia and New Zealand, as well as family members of WWI nurses who had served and died in the Aegean theatre of war, recently participated in a historical tour that honoured the work of these brave women.
The voyage aboard MS Serenissima, a small ship, was the only possible way to visit some of the most important sites where the nurses worked and tragically lost their lives.
The ship was able to hove to at the site of the wreck of the torpedoed troop ship the SS Marquette where ten nurses from the New Zealand Army Nursing Service were lost. With the New Zealand flag flying overhead, the ship gave three blasts of the whistle as a farewell to the Marquette and those brave nurses. The granddaughter of one of the nurses who survived this horrific event, threw a large wreath of red carnations into the sea. This was followed by the Army Nurses on board reading their prayer and verses of ‘Now is the Hour’. It was a very peaceful and moving ceremony. This was the first time these nurses have been remembered at the site of the wreck of the SS Marquette and it was a very significant moment for all on board the ship.
The granddaughter of one of the nurses who survived this horrific event, threw a large wreath of red carnations into the sea.
Today, an important tribute to these nurses can be found in the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel in front of Christchurch Hospital in New Zealand. This memorial survived the recent earthquakes but requires repairs before it can be reopened.
As the trip continued to unfold the enormity of the WW1 nurses contribution to the life of the sick and wounded became yet more obvious. It is one thing to read in a book what the nurses did at this time but to actually experience the harshness of the environment in which they worked first hand – in the oppressive heat, with barely any resources – was altogether another experience.
What became evident from this trip was the sheer extent of the nurses’ personal sacrifice and their huge humanitarian contribution at the time. Put simply – these women saved lives in every way possible.
They held the hands of dying young men, some as young as 17, who had legs blown off or their abdomen torn apart. They comforted the shell-shocked who were shaking and lost within themselves, overwhelmed by the enormity of their experience. They guided and soothed the blinded and frightened. They applied dressings in the dust. They ran operating theatres in tents and they cooled men and quenched their thirst in the punishing midday heat.
The resourcefulness of these women simply beggared belief. They offered physical and spiritual comfort at a time of unbelievable suffering.
On the Isle of Lemnos, where tented hospitals were erected, the conditions were appalling. The ground there is full of spiky thistles and rocks and otherwise appears barren. The summer heat is relentless. Tents were the only protection from the sun and inside the tents conditions could be likened to a sauna. Here nurses worked and tended to the sick and dying. Weakened, they too succumbed to vile conditions such as lice infestation and dysentery.
Most of the nurses came from backgrounds that would never have contemplated such carnage. Katrina Redditch’s book ‘Lemnos in 1915: A nursing odyssey to Gallipoli’ lists the nurses who served on Lemnos whose average age was just 32 years.
This was a time when there were no antibiotics. Food was scarce and water was in very short supply. The sea was often littered with debris from damaged ships that included dead horses and mules.
Despite all this hardship many lives were saved and this was largely due to the work of the nurses.
The historical voyage organised by Clare Ashton, an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Nursing, has been hugely successful by any measure. Many in Greece and Turkey are largely unaware of the contribution of the ANZAC nurses in the Aegean and this trip galvanised interest in their place in the history of the period. Our contingent was warmly welcomed by the Officials of Thessaloniki, the Northern Aegean, Lemnos and Portiano, the towns nearest to the sites of the Australian Hospitals on the shores of Mudros harbour.
The reenactment of the nurses, in First World War uniform landing in Lemnos was stunning. Many of the local press were there taking photographs and the islanders came to witness the event. Local Red Cross nurses dressed in their uniforms marched with the Australian and New Zealand nurses.
It has ensured the nurses of this time will not be forgotten.
Lest we forget.
Cynthea Wellings, Ausmed Education
With thanks to Andrew Batchelor for the cover image of nurses on the bus heading to Lemnos, 2015.
With thanks to Anne O’Leary for all other photographs, 2015.