For countless Australian nurses, the First World War would prove to be a true test of their skills, daring and bravery. More than 2,000 women served overseas as members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) during the war, and others worked with organisations like the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Red Cross.
The Uren family
In mid-1917, South Australian nurse, Ethelda Uren, embarked aboard the RMS Mooltan bound for the Mediterranean. A German-led force had captured Serbia two years earlier and the Allies were desperately trying to prevent them from advancing any further south. Some 600,000 Allied servicemen were stationed in the Greek port of Salonika and nurses, like Ethelda, were urgently needed to treat those who were sick or wounded.
45-year-old Ethelda was highly trained in her profession. She had completed her three year minimum training at Adelaide Hospital and was working as the Acting Principal Matron for the entire South Australian state when she was posted overseas. All AANS nurses were granted the status of officers yet their pay was only equal to half what their male counterparts received.
Ethelda was appointed as Matron of the 60th General Hospital in Salonika. She was responsible for a 90-strong nursing staff and the overall care of more than 1,560 patients. Conditions in the Mediterranean were harsh. In the hot summer months, malaria was a constant problem and the disease struck down nurses and patient alike. Winter was terribly cold and the nurses wore several layers of clothing to keep warm whilst working in the canvas tent hospitals.
Fresh water was in short supply and food was often scarce as Allied supply boats came under constant attack from German submarines. Ethelda would regularly walk over five kilometres to a nearby Greek village just to buy a few eggs. But most worryingly of all were the enemy planes that flew over the hospitals. Salonika was bombed two or three times a week at first but this grew more infrequent as time passed.
Ethelda’s younger sisters, twins Catherine and Amelia, were also nurses. Known as Kate and Mill, the twins were initially posted to the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield Park in London caring for troops who had been wounded on the Western Front. Kate and Mill remained together throughout the war, later working on a hospital ship transporting patients from England to Australia.
In spite of the hardships she faced in Salonika, Ethelda devoted herself to her staff and her patients. She was later awarded the Royal Red Cross (1st Class) for her valuable service. Ethelda returned home two weeks prior to the declaration of Armistice in November 1918, and she was soon joined by Kate and Mill.
Years later, during the Second World War, their niece, Elizabeth, followed in their footsteps. Betty, as she was known, served as a Captain with the AANS, tending to the sick and wounded in the Middle East and New Guinea.