At the Heart of War: Stories of the ANZAC Women

A national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, ANZAC day broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in every wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations, as well as the contribution and suffering of all those who have served. Observed on 25 April each year, it was originally devised to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who served in the Gallipoli Campaign, their first engagement in the First World War (1914–1918).

The first Anzac Day was conducted in 1916. The troops observed it in various ways, and in London large crowds watched 2,000 Australians and New Zealanders march to Westminster Abbey.

On 25 April 1916, May Tilton, a nurse at the first Australian General Hospital in Egypt, witnessed how her patients felt when she attended a church service with them in  the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. She wrote about the service, “Some of the men near me were sobbing. The landing of 1915 had been a much easier thing for them than this first service in commemoration of it. Most of them, broken in health, remembered only too vividly. During that short but touching address was one of life’s terrible moments when no man dared look into another man’s eyes.”

Mabel Tilton

Mabel ‘May’ Tilton enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service nearly a year before. She was 31 years old when she joined, with five years of experience at Launceston General Hospital in Tasmania and a year of private nursing in Melbourne. She enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service then served in Egypt, England, France, Belgium and South Africa. After the war, she returned to nursing in Melbourne and published her book, “The Grey Battalion”, in 1933.

Pearl Corkhill (1887 – 1985), one of three Australian nurses with some Australian and New Zealander patients in her hospital, made up small parcels of matches and cigarettes tied up with red, white, and blue ribbon on the same day in a British hospital in France. She wrote “Anzac Day 1916 from the Three Australian Sisters” on each parcel and gave one to each man. ” They were so pleased they could scarcely thank us.” she wrote.

Pearl Corkhill

Pearl was awarded the prestigious Military Medal for her bravery while tending to injured patients during a heavy air raid by German forces two years later. She was working at a casualty clearing station near the front lines in Abbeville, France, when it was attacked on 23 August 1918. When she found out she was going to be honoured for her bravery, she was more concerned with having to buy a new dress to wear when she met the King than with winning the award. In a letter to her mother she says,  “I can’t see what I’ve done to deserve it but the part I don’t like is having to face old George and Mary to get the medal. It will cost me a new mess dress, but I suppose I should not grumble at that—I’m still wearing the one I left Australia in.” After returning to Australia, she spent the rest of her career working at various public hospitals.

Elizabeth Kenny

An unaccredited bush nurse, Elizabeth Kenny (1880 – 1952) assumed the role of a qualified nurse after paying a tailor to make her a nurse’s uniform before wearing it to enlist. Despite her lack of qualifications, Elizabeth was accepted to serve in the war due to the dire need for nurses.

She was assigned to dangerous missions on “dark ships,” which ran between Australia and England with all lights turned off. She completed 16 round trips and one around the world before being promoted to the rank of Sister. During her missions, she pioneered a controversial new approach to polio treatment while caring for sick soldiers during World War I. Her ground-breaking method involved exercising muscles affected by the infectious disease rather than immobilising them. Her principles of muscle rehabilitation became the foundation of physiotherapy. When she returned to Australia, she created and sold stretchers, treated polio patients, and promoted her methods all over the world.

Grace Margaret Wilson 

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879 – 1957) was the principal matron, or chief nurse, at the 3rd Australian General Hospital on the Greek island of Lemnos between 1915 and 1919, where she treated Gallipoli campaign casualties. On her way there, she found out that one of her brothers had died at Gallipoli. She later became the temporary matron-in-chief at the Australian Imperial Force headquarters in London, and when she returned to Australia in 1920, she worked as a matron in civilian hospitals.

When World War II broke out, she rejoined the Army and became its matron-in-chief, serving in the Middle East. She returned home in 1941 due to ill health and dedicated her life to improving the standard of nursing care in Australia. She married at the age of 75 and passed away a few years later.

Katie Louisa Ardill

Katie Louisa Ardill (1886 – 1955) was one of the first female doctors to join the British Expeditionary Forces in 1915. She joined after her application to join the Australian Expeditionary Forces was denied due to her gender (the Australian government forbade women from serving in the military at the time, thus forcing them to join overseas units instead). In the First World War, she worked as a doctor, treating wounded soldiers in Britain, France, and Egypt for four years, rising to the rank of Captain. After returning home in 1919, she established a gynaecological practise in Sydney as well as a free clinic for servicemen’s wives and children.

Louise Mack

Meanwhile, an Australian journalist named Louise Mack (1870 – 1935) reported from the frontlines for London’s Daily Mail and Evening News. She later published an autobiography titled A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, as well as 16 novels and a poetry collection.

At the same time, Australian inventor Myra Farrell (1878 – 1957) invented a barricade that could repel ammunition and reduce the impact of shells, as well as a light that could be projected a long distance. Both plans, as well as her prototype light, were taken by the Australian Department of Defence.

Snapshot of Myra Juliet Farrell, nee Welsh, Australian inventor, holding her granddaughter Jennifer and wearing her favourite kimono

Marie Cameron enlisted when the war broke out and was appointed Matron of the 1st New Zealand Stationary Hospital. Soon her group travelled to Egypt. On the morning of October 23, 1915, while transporting the hospital to Salonika (Macedonia), their ship, the ‘Marquette,’ was torpedoed by a German U-Boat only a few miles from their destination. Lifeboats were lowered, and in the confusion, one lifeboat was lowered on top of another, killing four people. Matron Cameron was badly injured on the other side of the ship as her lifeboat was being lowered, her arm crushed between the ship and the lifeboat. After being thrown into the water, she was rescued from drowning by a young soldier several hours later.

Marie Cameron

On Anzac Day 1916, nurses attended ceremonies in their hometowns accompanying men who couldn’t march in cars in places like South Australia. The Town Hall in Sydney was packed with veterans for the large memorial service to commemorate the fallen and present decorations. A journalist captured a particularly moving moment in which the soldiers paid tribute to the nurses.  “Four soldiers came in, carefully carrying a lady in the uniform of the Army Nursing Service – on whose tunic was pinned that coveted medal, the Royal Red Cross. She was Matron Cameron, who was seriously injured when the troopship Marquette was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea in 1915. There was silence for a moment after the matron appeared—and then the “Diggers,” like one man, sprang up and cheered and cheered. The smile with which the stricken lady greeted the men in khaki told of that bond of mutual devotion between Australian soldiers and Australian nurses, forged in the sufferings of war.“

Men, women and children line the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day, 1916.

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