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Angels of mercy and brave bearers
‘Their devotion is magnificent’
‘the constant boom, boom, boom … I would go mad if they didn’t stop… I … prayed to be delivered from hell.’
‘… After ten days of torture, we set sail with our mangled heap of humanity.’
More than 3,000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during the First World War. The women worked in hospitals, on hospital ships and trains, or in casualty clearing stations closer to the front line. They served in locations from Britain to India, taking in France and Belgium, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Many of them were decorated, with eight receiving the Military Medal for bravery. Twenty-five died during their service.
Agnes Beryl Corfield, a young nurse from Maryborough, writing from a ship off Gaba Tepe (Anzac Cove). ‘Sometimes for 24 hours the constant boom boom would never stop – I used to feel that I would go mad if they didn’t stop – What our boys have gone through on the peninsula God only knows. If I were a soldier, I would pray day and night to be killed right out, but to see men come into your ward with legs off, arms off, mouth and tongue or lower jaw blown off, I would wonder what it is all for and with whom the great reckoning will be …
After ten days of torture, we set sail with our mangled heap of humanity’. She had worked 15 hours a day for 11 days in the hold of the ship.
While returning to Malta with 80 seriously wounded in her ward, there were eight deaths in her ward, her medical officer had come down with positive typhoid, the night orderly died at 5 pm with dysentery and she herself was suffering from trauma, exhaustion, and seasickness. ) ‘I went to bed at 11 pm that night and prayed to be delivered from hell.’
Sister Ella Tucker: The wounded from the landing commenced to come on board at 9 am and poured into the ship’s wards from barges and boats. The majority still had on their field dressing and a number of these were soaked through. Two orderlies cut off the patient’s clothes and I started immediately with dressings. There were 76 patients in my ward and I did not finish until 2 am.
… the wounded think the old ship is heaven after the peninsula. There are 557 patients on board and only 7 nurses. (In a later letter): Every night there are two or three deaths, sometimes five or six; it’s just awful flying from one ward into another … each night is a nightmare, the patients’ faces all look so pale with the flickering ship’s lights.
Captain C. Corser, reported in the Chronicle while home on leave as hardly finding words sufficient to praise the self-sacrificing service of the nurses, by whose untiring efforts many a wounded soldier was pulled through. ‘Angels of mercy, the soldiers regarded them, and one can wonder at the reverence they received. Their devotion is magnificent.’ The materials sent over by the Red Cross Societies were freely distributed amongst the soldiers, who were thankful for the acts of kindness shown to them by the Australian people. ‘The ambulance men are a noble band of workers and during the fighting at Gallipoli exhibited remarkable bravery under fire. Many of them fell from the bullets of Turkish soldiers while engaged on their errands of mercy. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
Col. H. Lee: Of all the men for whom I and in fact, everyone, has the most admiration none surpassed the brave ambulance bearers. In the face of awful dangers, they perform deeds of heroism that are truly wonderful and many have gone under after doing acts of kindness, displaying marvellous courage and bravery that will never be recorded. Every man has the greatest respect and admiration for these great heroes. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
During the assault on Chunuk Bair in August, those incapable of struggling down through the dense scrub called out to the stretcher-bearers who, working night and day to the point of collapse, had to make hard decisions about which man to take first. The carry down to the embarkation point on the beach was long and steep; some bearers were shot on the way.
The tragedy of the battle for Chunuk Bair was visible in the valleys and on the slopes of the ridges. The dead lay everywhere and, as had happened on April 25, the sheer number of wounded temporarily overwhelmed the medical services responsible for their treatment and evacuation. The hospital ships took the wounded to military hospitals on the nearby Greek islands of Imbros and Lemnos, or Alexandria, Malta, or England.
On Lemnos, Matron Grace Wilson and her staff of AANS nurses at the 3rd Australian General Hospital (AGH) tended the Australian and British Empire wounded. ‘11 August — Convoy arrived — about 400 — no equipment whatever … Just laid the men on the ground and gave them a drink. Very many badly shattered, nearly all stretcher cases … Tents were erected over them as quickly as possible … All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds … A good many died … It is just too awful – one could never describe the scenes – could only wish all I knew to be killed outright.’
Dvr Percy Campbell (in hospital in Egypt): I had a pretty rough time with enteric fever and now I have about a dozen boils on my neck and back. It would have been a bit rough if I had pegged out with it. I would much sooner be shot or blown up by a shell by the Turks any day, than peg out with fever. I expect to be out in a week or two. Judging by the number of young men coming over here lately, I think Australia will be destitute of marriageable men. Three trainloads of wounded and sick arrived here yesterday. The trains come right alongside the hospital walls and I could see them plainly through my window. Poor devils, some of them are hard hit and battered about all shapes, arms and legs off and scars everywhere; but you want to see them for yourselves to realise what war really is. I wish they would give me a trip home. I would like to be back in Maryborough for a day or two just for a spell-like, and then back to the front again. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
More than 3000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during the First World War. More than 2000 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) also served in the war.