|Place made||United Kingdom: England|
First World War, 1914-1918
British War Medal 1914-20 : Nurse C Trestrail, Auxiliary Hospital Unit, Antwerp
British War Medal 1914-20. Impressed around edge with recipient's details.
Service medal awarded to Sister Evelyn Claire (known as Claire) Trestrail, born at Clare, South Australia on 10 December 1887 to Henry and Constancy Trestrail. Her mother was a trained nurse and Acting Matron of the King Edward Hospital, Perth and actively involved in the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance services. It is likely that her mother’s successful work influenced Claire, who from 1905 to 1909 trained at Wakefield St Private Hospital in Adelaide as a nursing sister, passing her final exams for the Australasian Trained Nurses Association in January 1911.
She sailed from Australia in late 1913 for England aboard the "Benella" in the company of two other nurses - Catherine Ellen Wilson and Myrtle Wilson – to improve her qualifications, joining the Scottish Women’s Hospital. While on the Benella they helped tend passengers who were injured when the "Benella" was hit by a tidal wave on 22 July.
All three ultimately joined a party of nurses destined for Belgium under the leadership of Mrs St Clair Stobart immediately after war broke out in August. It appears Trestrail was detached from the Scottish Women’s Hospital to join Stobart’s Hospital.
Mrs Stobart was already known as the organiser and commander of a similar field hospital she had set up in 1912-13 supporting the Bulgarian Army during the Balkans War, and had only just returned to England when hostilities commenced in Europe. ‘The Belgian Red Cross asked me to go with my field hospital,’ Stobart later related to the New York Times in the 25 August 1917 edition. An energetic promoter of women’s talents, and especially those of female doctors and nurses, Stobart had formed the Women’s National Service League with Lady Muir McKenzie earlier in the year in the face of strong and entrenched opposition to women having anything to do with military medicine.
Stobart’s group, numbering 12 nurses with support staff, sailed for Belgium on 22 September 1914, and landing at Antwerp, where they immediately set up a 120 bed hospital in a concert hall at Burchem, in the southern region of the city. Trestrail was one of the first Australian nurses to encounter the shocking wounds of modern warfare, evident amongst their Belgian and French patients. Writing in the ‘Australasian Nurse’s Journal’ in December 1914, Sister Trestrail recalled ‘No words can describe the awfulness of the wounds. Bullets are nothing. It is the shrapnel that tears through the flesh and cuts off limbs and makes gashes that one cannot possibly describe.’
Because of its position relative to Antwerp (to the north) and the line of the German advance (from the south), the Burchem Concert Hall was in the direct line of German artillery fire, and shells sailed over the building with frightening regularity. Overwhelmed in the field by the German advance, Belgium’s remaining military strategy became a retreat behind the ring of forts surrounding Antwerp. The first enemy shells fell around the hospital on 28 September; by 1 October the Belgian government had decided to evacuate the city two days later. British Naval Brigade reinforcements did nothing to stall the inevitable and by 5 October the Germans had broken through the outer defences. The city fell on 8 October.
Sister Trestrail and her fellow nurses endured the assault until the last day. They expected the coming artillery bombardment and cleaned out the building’s small squalid ‘evil-smelling’ cellars in anticipation of moving their patients downstairs to safety. ‘Well the bombardment began at midnight on Wednesday [8 October].’ related Stobart in the January 22 1915 edition of the Burrowa News, ‘We numbered 12 trained nurses and 10 orderlies, cooks and interpreters. All those who had gone to bed got up at once ... and carried on stretchers – aye, and on their backs – all those wounded men down the steep stairs into the little dark cellars. ...Shells were bursting all around us and yet those apparently frail little women worked on untiringly, as if they were accustomed to it.’ One hundred and thirty men were moved that night.
The nurses emerged the next morning to find Antwerp empty and burning. ‘All the shops were shut, no food, not even bread was to be got.’ The Germans were arriving. The sixteen nurses and staff managed to find motor lorries to transport most of the wounded but by late afternoon were alone with no means of escape themselves. The lucky arrival of three London buses carrying ammunition proved their salvation, but only because Mrs Stobart stepped into the middle of the burning street to stop them. The British drivers readily agreed to take them through Antwerp ‘if you’ll be as quick as lightning. ... But we must get beyond the bridge of boats before it is blown up,’ one of them told her. They crossed the bridge just in time. A Belgian Army Officer agreed to take them towards the coast ‘and we had him on the back step of our bus all the way to Oostend,’ another nurse related. ‘I shall never forget that journey. All the way, whenever we stopped, “Belge blesse!” (wounded) cleared the road for us and we got through.’ The party was evacuated by the Royal Navy and arrived at Folkestone on Sunday morning, 12 October.
The tireless group had lost over 1,000 pounds worth of drugs and equipment, but as soon as they had recovered from their escape, Trestrail and her friends prepared to return to the front. She reported in the June 1915 edition of the Australasian Nurse’s Journal: ‘There was absolutely no end to the generosity of the English public, who, having read of our escape, and need of another equipment, sent us 400 pounds by the first mail the following day. We spent our time in trying to find uniform, suit-cases, instruments etc all of which were rather scarce owing to the fact that hundreds of other nurses were looking for the same things.’ The team were operational again within a month, sailing from Southampton on 5 November for France, and setting up in the sixteenth century Chateau Touraville in Cherbourg. ‘This time we not only had hospital arrangements, but motor cars and ambulances, one of which was driven and kept in order by its owner, a sporting little Australian girl,’ Trestrail wrote.
Thereafter, Sister Trestrail worked for a number of private hospitals in the Marne district of Paris, caring for wounded French and Belgian soldiers, having spent 1915 with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) unit on contract. When hostilities ceased in November 1918, she spent three years working in England, based at Yarrow Road in London, training as a masseuse at Guys Hospital before returning to Australia in 1921.
Whilst working in Queensland she met and married Sydney Percival Swan, a returned serviceman of Albion who had served with 21 Howitzer Brigade in France, in 1922 and who managed the northern Queensland branch of Burns Philp. The family moved to Roseville, Sydney in 1936; when war erupted again in 1939, she became involved in the training of women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). She died in September 1960.
Sister Trestrail had to fight to gain the recognition necessary to be granted her 1914 Star, and her British record contains comments dated 4 May 1918 stating ‘Ineligible. Did not serve on the establishment of an authorised unit of the BEF’. This attitude, however, had changed by the following year, and her receipt for her 1914 Star and clasp is dated 6 June 1919 (see REL40943.004) and, most unusually, was issued by the Navy.
Claire was the eldest of five siblings, four of whom served during the First World War. Her younger brothers, John Henry and Amarald Glen, served in the Royal Flying Corps and 1 Machine Gun Battalion respectively, Amarald also being awarded a Military Medal for gallantry at Villaret. Sister Ella served as a nurse and married a returned amputee. Only Amy, born 1891, did not serve.