Nurse and Midwives Remembrance Ceremony Welcome Address

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Welcome address given by Mr Matt Anderson PSM, Director, Australian War Memorial

Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal.

Yanggu ngalawiri, dhunimanyin Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari.

Nginggada Dindi dhawura Ngunnawalbun yindjumaralidjinyin.

Today we meet on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

We are here today to pause, reflect and give thanks for those who put service before self - the remarkable Australian nurses and midwives who have served Australia in both peace and war.

We are reminded of your proud and unfailing history.

We remember Australia’s first military nursing organisation; the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve.

In January 1900, 14 members sailed to South Africa under the direction of Lady Superintendent Nellie Gould.  They joined 46 other nurses working in small groups in British hospitals throughout South Africa.

On 7 August 1900, Nursing Sister Frances Emma Hines was the first Australian Nursing casualty.  Sister Hines died alone, having contracted pneumonia through her devotion to duty, caring for as many as 26 patients at a time.

During the First World War, wherever the ANZACs fought, our nurses were never far away. They served on the ships off ANZAC Cove and, of course, on Lemnos and in Alexandria.

Throughout the First World War the Doctors, nurses and orderlies were under frequent artillery fire and, like the soldiers in the trenches, were exposed to the terrible living conditions, stress and disease.

More than 2100 Australian nurses served overseas (an additional 400 remained in the Military Hospitals in Australia) and 25 died. For their bravery and dedication to the sick and wounded 388 nurses were decorated. Seven Military Medals were awarded to Australian nurses for ‘acts of gallantry under fire’.

The nurses, partly because of their uniforms, but also due to their desire, rightly, to be recognised as a legitimate part of the AIF, referred to themselves as ‘the Grey Battalion’.

But to the troops, they were known simply and appropriately as the frontline angels.

One of the frontline angels was Sister Nellie Morrice. Born in 1881 near Berrima, New South Wales, Nellie trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney and qualified as a staff nurse and then midwife. 

She joined the Australian Army Nursing Service in May 1910 and was appointed as a staff nurse in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914. 

Sister Morrice served in Egypt and Lemnos tending to wounded from Gallipoli, and eventually in England and France. 

In 1918, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd class) ‘for valuable services with the Armies in France and Flanders’

Sister Morrice discharged in 1919 and returned to Australia. 

In 1924 she was appointed secretary to the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association which focussed on midwifery and the care of infants.

In 1926 she attended a bush nursing conference and spoke of the “Sylvia” ambulance stretcher she had seen used on the battlefields in France.  Several Country Women’s Association branches donated units and cars to tow them, hoping to improve both the patient experience and mortality rates. 

Morrice was appointed Order of the British Empire, Member (Civil) in 1934.  By 1938 she was visiting 60 nurses and had a publicity officer, inspector and organiser on her staff. Sister Morrice retired in 1948 after a career spanning 38 years and two world wars.

During the Second World War Australian nurses served in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres of war where once again they worked extremely long hours and in appalling conditions, and were exposed to the same risks of death and disease as the combat forces.

In the Pacific, they faced the added threat of an enemy that did not respect the protection they were owed as non-combatants. We feel keenly and to this day the injustice for those women who gave their own lives when putting the duty to care for others ahead of themselves.

Quite literally service before self.  

Seventy-one nurses were killed during the Second World War, 41 of them in Malaya and Singapore. I’ll leave Kylie to speak to those.

Eleven nurses were among the 286 people who lost their lives when the hospital ship Centaur was torpedoed.

The Centaur has been immortalised in our Hall of Memory mosaic – it is the only identifiable action or loss recorded in the more than 6 million pieces of Italian glass tesserae.

With the exception of the Centaur, the service of our nurses and midwives sits quietly in the background of the larger battlefield stories.  This is why today is so important. 

We are honoured, as ever, to have Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d) serve on our Council and to be here today. Sharon served as a Nursing Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force for 16 years, discharging in 2015.  Outwardly, Sharon’s experience may have looked different to her predecessors, with their iconic scarlet capes and starched veils.  You need only look at her camouflaged scrubs  - Coops! - in our Afghanistan gallery.

But I have been honoured to come to know her, and to appreciate that her experiences in uniform were no less life changing for her, and lifesaving for those blessed to receive her care.  

During her 2014 ANZAC Day address, I stood with my family half way down ANZAC Parade in the pre-dawn hours as she told us she had ‘watched from the dirt ramparts of the base at Tarin Kot whilst brave men and women left the warm glow of its lights to slip silently into the cold clutches of the night beyond, and put themselves in harm’s way to protect us’.

She spoke of the noise of battle in the distance; that she had taken the radio call and annotated the nine liner; then eagerly awaited the sound of rotor blades that would deliver the war to her.

‘I have worn their blood’, she said.

So many of you have worn their blood.

For that we are grateful.

Beyond words.

It is why we pause today.

We have just marked the second anniversary of the COVID pandemic. Once again, we have leaned on the skills and commitment of our nurses to bring our communities through a once in a generation event.  When the media dies down, when the focus moves elsewhere, we know you have stayed and continued to care for those in need.

You always have and you always will.

From the mud floor hospitals of the Boer war, the shock and chaos of treating shrapnel wounds in the Great War, the tsunami swept beaches of Banda Ache, the dust of Uruzgan, and now a global pandemic; we see more than ever the changing face of service required by nurses and midwives. 

But what does not change - and has not changed - is your determination to provide the best possible care to every patient
and the debt of gratitude you are owed from a grateful nation.

I thank you for continuing to put service before self and I welcome you all here today.

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