Nurses and midwives wreath laying ceremony - welcome address

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Wing Commander Sharon Brown (Ret'd)

Nurses and midwives wreath laying ceremony, Australian War Memorial 2017. See all official photographs.

We gather here today, as we do each year, to commemorate the service of Australian nurses and midwives. With the International Day of the Midwife recently passed, and International Nurses Day approaching on 12 May, the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, nurses around the world will proudly celebrate their profession. But here at the Australian War Memorial, 12 May marks another significant anniversary related to the service of nurses, but one which is not widely known. I would like to share that story with you, and I hope that you may come to understand that the service of nurses is commemorated here every day.

On 12 May 1917, a young soldier from Victoria suffered a devastating battlefield injury at Bullecourt, in France. He was a passionate and talented artist, but his right shoulder was so severely shattered by a blast injury that the surgeon had little choice but to amputate his arm. He was just 23 years old.

His surgery was conducted in a canvas tent in the British 22nd General Hospital in Camiers, France. He convalesced in the British Horton War Hospital in Epsom; the No. 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Southall; on board the transport ship HMAT Anchises; and finally in No. 11 Australian General Hospital in Melbourne.

For eight months he travelled from the battlefield to home, through no less than five different medical facilities. One hundred years ago, as an injured Australian soldier, he endured a journey that is beyond our imagination today. Yet an aspect of his care has not changed with the passage of time: for that devastating period of his young life, he was in the constant care of devoted service nurses.

His name was Bombardier Mervyn Napier Waller.

Within the heart of the Australian War Memorial lie the remains of another veteran of the First World War, but one whose name we will never know - the Unknown Australian Soldier.

He is surrounded by fifteen magnificent stained glass windows, each of which depicts a figure in the uniform and equipment of the First World War, and personifies one of the distinctive qualities of Australians in that war. A cathedral-like light is created through a subtle colour palette of blues and greys in all the images but one – the central window. Rising above the foot of the tomb is the image of a woman in a scarlet cape, standing beneath a universal symbol of charity, the Red Cross, and above a single word: Devotion.

She is a nurse. One of the most prominent images in the Australian War Memorial is that of a nurse. A gracious guardian, she looks inward to the Hall of Memory and all whom it honours, and for whom she has cared.

An enlightened witness of war, she looks outward, along Anzac Parade to Parliament House, past the names of more than 102,000 men and women who have given their lives in the service of Australia – reminding us all of the cost of service.

There are many artistic interpretations as to why a nurse stands in pride of place in that central window. But for me, she stands there for a simple, yet deeply personal reason. The artist commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to design those magnificent stained glass windows was a veteran of Bullecourt, a young returned serviceman, deemed totally and permanently incapacitated by the amputation of his right arm.         

An artist by the name of Mervyn Napier Waller who, for the most devastating period of his young life, was in the constant care of service nurses.

My fellow nurses and midwives, welcome to the Australian War Memorial, where you hold, and always will hold, pride of place.

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