Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan Introduction
Someone must care for the casualties of conflict, and that was our mission: to care for whoever needed us, in spite of the circumstances.
Captain Gary Steer
Australian nurses have been going to war for over 100 years. Never far from the front line, but often far from home, they care for the sick and wounded on land and sea, and in the air. Their expertise saves lives, but often they do not see the results of their care when patients are moved on quickly.
The foundations of modern nursing were laid during the Crimean War, when British nurse Florence Nightingale introduced strict practices governing sanitation, training, and hospital organisation. Nightingale’s ideas spread to Australia, and nursing became an admirable vocation, undertaken by disciplined, hard-working women of good character. Since then, improved technology has revolutionised nursing practice.
Military nurses have often worked in remote and dangerous places, under difficult conditions. But such service does not come without a cost. Some nurses never return home, losing their lives to disease or at the hands of the enemy. For all, the memories of long hours with wounded or dying patients are hard to forget.
Today, both men and women serve as Australian military nurses; all are officers in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). They share a spirit of adventure, a desire to make a difference, and the discipline required to work in a military team. But, most of all, they remain committed to putting their patients first, come what may.
Zulu War nurse: Sister Mary Jane Armfield
She was most attentive and indefatigable in her exertions.
Surgeon Major Lamb
Mary Jane Briscoe grew up in Australia, and worked as a governess before marrying Alfred Armfield, a journalist turned gold prospector, in 1870. Three years later they sailed for England.
In July 1879 Armfield was one of seven nurses selected at short notice by the Duke of Sutherland’s Stafford House South African Aid Committee to “promote the convalescence of the sick and wounded in South Africa” during the Zulu War. With limited supplies and equipment, the women treated hundreds of sick and wounded men.
Armfield received the Royal Red Cross in 1884 for “the special devotion and competency displayed in nursing duties with Her Majesty’s troops”. She bequeathed it to the Australian War Memorial in memory of her childhood in Australia.
Faith, hope, and charity
The Royal Red Cross was introduced by Queen Victoria on 27 April 1883, “for zeal and devotion in nursing sick and wounded sailors, soldiers, and others with the army in the field, on board ships or in hospitals … or for someone who has performed some exceptional act of bravery or devotion to the post of duty”. It was the first British military award intended solely for women and could be conferred on any member of the nursing service, irrespective of rank. Men became eligible for the award in 1976, although none has received it.