Wartime issue 50 - feature article: Nurses under fire

“It is Fritz’s fault. He will do these dastardly tricks.”

By Elizabeth Stewart

During the First World War, eight Australian nurses were awarded the Military Medal, the highest Imperial award that was available to them. It was the nurses’ equivalent of the Victoria Cross, but little is known of these women or their extraordinary actions.

Though I shouted nobody answered me or I could hear nothing for the roar of planes and Archies [artillery]. I seemed to be the only living thing about ... I kept calling for Wilson to help me and thought he was funking, but the poor boy had been blown to bits.

So wrote Sister Alice Ross King in her diary. On 22 July 1917 she was one of four Australian army nurses caught in a bombing raid on the Western Front. Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood, Mary Jane Derrer and Ross King were all stationed at No. 2 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (2ACCS) at Trois Arbres in France when it was bombed by German aircraft late in the evening. All four women had joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) when war broke out. They had initially worked in Egypt, nursing Australian soldiers wounded during the Gallipoli campaign, before being transferred to France in 1916. Although posted to different hospitals during 1916, by mid-1917 they had all been sent to 2ACCS. The casualty clearing station had been moved close to the front line in order to cope with the expected influx of wounded from the third battle of Ypres, which was to begin on 31 August.

Casualty clearing stations were the closest hospital facilities to the front line. Wounded soldiers, after initial treatment at dressing stations, were brought to these facilities, which were located on railway lines and consisted of hastily erected canvas wards and operating theatres. Being so close to the action, and often adjacent to ammunition stores or observation posts, casualty clearing stations were extremely vulnerable to enemy attack. 2ACCS was no exception.

By late July 1917 German aircraft had begun making preliminary raids over Allied positions and it was during one of these raids that 2ACCS was attacked. The 2ACCS war diary notes that at 10.25 pm on 22 July an enemy plane flying low dropped two bombs on the clearing stations. The first fell at the rear of the pneumonia ward, made up of four small marquees set in a square. The bomb blew a massive hole in the ground and completely destroyed one of the marquees, while the other three were rendered unusable. Two patients and two orderlies were killed. The second bomb dropped outside the casualty clearing station boundary, near a cemetery, wounding several more patients and staff.

Alice Ross King had been called to attend a patient in the pneumonia ward and was following an orderly with a lamp when the first bomb hit. Despite calls to get down, Ross King kept going, and the bomb landed in front of her. She was thrown to the ground but got up and tried to continue. With all the lights out, she failed to see the bomb crater in front of her and fell headfirst into it. She wrote about the experience in her diary, “I shall never forget the awful climb on hands and feet out of that hole about five feet deep, greasy clay and blood (although I did not then know that it was blood).”

Reaching what remained of the pneumonia ward, Ross King tried to make her way inside, calling for help but hearing no one. She found one patient and tried to lift him back into bed, but discovered with horror that when she put one arm around his shoulders and lifted what she thought was his leg with her other arm, the leg (with a boot and puttee on it) stayed behind. It was the leg of the orderly, Wilson, whom she had earlier called for, which had landed on the patient’s bed. Ross King remembered little of the rest of the night, but wrote that she “apparently carried on with the job”.

Dorothy Cawood, Mary Jane Derrer and Clare Deacon did not write about their experiences on 22 July, but accounts by others who saw them say that they ran to the shattered tents to rescue patients, either carrying them to safety or giving those who could not be moved basins to put over their heads, and placing tables over their beds. They all ignored their patients’ cries to seek shelter in dug-outs. A month after the attack, the commander of 1 ANZAC Corps, General Sir William Birdwood, wrote to inform the four women that they would be awarded the Military Medal for their efforts that night. They were the first Australian nurses to be given this decoration, which had only been extended in June 1916 to include women “showing bravery and devotion under fire”. Dorothy Cawood displayed some diffidence about receiving the highest award for a woman, saying to her parents in a letter, ”Do not blame me for this. It is Fritz’s fault. He will do these dastardly tricks.”

Of the four other Australian nurses who were awarded the Military Medal, three were members of the AANS, while the fourth enlisted in a British nursing unit.

Rachael Pratt

Pratt enlisted as a staff nurse with the AANS in 1915. She worked on Lemnos, treating the wounded from Gallipoli, then was sent to France and was stationed at No. 1 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (1ACCS) in July 1917. On 1 July 1ACCS was attacked from the air, with a bomb landing close to where Pratt was nursing a patient. Shrapnel from the bomb burst through the tent, tearing into her back and shoulder and puncturing her lung. After the attack she worked on as best she could but eventually collapsed and was evacuated to Britain for treatment and convalescence. She was promoted to sister and awarded the Military Medal “for conspicuous gallantry displayed in the performance of her duties”. She returned to duty and nursed until the end of the war, returning home with a piece of shrapnel in her lung, which caused her to suffer from chronic bronchitis for the rest of her life. Rachael Pratt’s medal group, including her Military Medal, is held by the Memorial.

Alicia Mary Kelly

Alicia Mary Kelly, generally called Rachel, nursed hundreds of the wounded from Gallipoli in Egypt before she was transferred to France in 1916. In April 1917 she was promoted from staff nurse to sister and transferred to No. 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (3ACCS) at Brandhoek, near Ypres, in July 1917. During August 3ACCS was treating many soldiers from the front, which was only a few kilometres away. Like all casualty clearing stations, 3ACCS was very vulnerable to attack and during the week to 21 July it was shelled on five days. The final day of shelling was the worst. In the middle of the morning a shell landed on an adjacent British casualty clearing station, killing a Canadian nurse. The shelling continued, and Kelly and the other nurses were ordered into the dug-outs. Kelly refused, running to the wards and comforting patients by handing out basins for their heads. A padre found her there, and later wrote that “we had literally to drag her to a place of safety”. Kelly was concerned at having disobeyed an order, but although she knew the basins were useless for protection she felt her actions would be good for morale. She was awarded the Military Medal for her actions, and also received the Royal Red Cross in January 1918.

Eileen King

Of the eight Australian nurses, least is known about Eileen King. She had been working at the Homeopathic Hospital in Melbourne when she signed up to serve overseas. Her Military Medal was gazetted in London in January 1918, when she was working for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Her medal was most likely for an action that took place in 1917, when King was working at a British casualty clearing station. According to a newspaper report,

Eileen King was serving in a tented field hospital in France when it was struck by a stick of bombs. She had part of her left thigh broken away and received other serious wounds but broke no major blood vessel. She remained on duty and managed to get her wounded out of the burning tent. Soldiers who knew her described her as one of the bravest women they had ever met.

King survived the war, and went on to nurse in Britain during the Second World War. She was declared missing, presumed dead, in 1943 when the passenger ship she was travelling on, the MV Melbourne Star, was sunk on its way to Australia.

Pearl Corkhill

Although officially a part of the AANS, Pearl Corkhill was attached to No. 38 British Casualty Clearing Station when it was attacked at Longvillers, in the Somme, in July 1917. When the bombs landed they wrecked the sterilising room and other areas of the camp. Corkhill saw the patients’ panic, ignored the call to find shelter, and ran among the wounded soldiers, calming them and helping them back to bed. Although she knew this would not save them if they were directly hit, she felt it would give them a feeling of safety. Corkhill was awarded the Military Medal for her actions, her citation noting that “her example was of the greatest value in allaying the alarm of the patients”. In a letter to her mother, she displayed a fairly typical modesty about the award:

Today word came that I had been awarded the MM … Well the CO [Commanding Officer] sent over a bottle of champagne and they all drank my health and now the MOs are giving me a dinner in honour of the event. … I can’t see what I’ve done to deserve it, but when I said that, the only answer I got was that lots had got it for far less, but the part I don’t like is having to face old George and Mary [King George V and Queen Mary] to get the Medal.

Corkhill’s Military Medal was gazetted in August 1918, making hers the last to be awarded to an Australian woman during the war. It is displayed on the Column of Courage in the Memorial’s Anzac Hall.

Elizabeth Stewart is a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.