This year on Anzac Day and every Anzac Day that follows…

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Sally Sutherland-Fraser is a perioperative nurse educator who travelled to Gallipoli last September as part of a cruise from Athens to Turkey commemorating the nurses of the 3rd AGH (depicted in the series ANZAC Girls) who cared for allied troops on the Greek island of Lemnos. Sally writes about her experience for Nurse Uncut.

Grace Wilson This week I was delighted to find this huge banner in the Sydney CBD of Matron Grace Wilson – a towering woman and nurse, whose leadership should be remembered on Anzac Day.

Sally in front of banner depicting Matron Grace Wilson holding a parasol and notebook as she ‘does a round’ at the 3AGH, Lemnos, on George Street, Sydney.

This year, Anzac Day means a great deal more to me than it has in previous years. It’s not only because now I can conjure up my own images of those beaches and forbidding topography when I lower my eyes for a minute’s silence. It’s also because last year I experienced something profound and lasting that connects me to Grace Wilson and those iconic places and events of WWI.

In August 2015, I was privileged to travel as one of 80 passengers on a small commemorative voyage to many of the iconic sites where the resourceful and resilient ANZAC nurses of the 3rd Australian General Hospital (3AGH) lived and worked in the most inhospitable conditions on the Greek island of Lemnos. One hundred years on, I walked with my fellow passengers over the stony grounds at Turk’s Head and the site of the 3AGH. Watched on by the people of Lemnos, including present-day nurses from the local hospital, 30 of us dressed in WWI replica nurses uniforms and lined up behind a lone bagpiper, to recreate the iconic photo by AW Savage of the nurses’ arrival on Lemnos with Matron Grace Wilson in August 1915.

Nurses of the 3AGH about to follow a piper into their camp... Lemnos August 1915

Nurses of the 3AGH about to follow a piper into their camp, under the leadership of Matron Grace Wilson and second in command of the hospital, Lt Colonel Dick, Lemnos August 1915 (AWM A04118).

The nurses' arrival on Lemnos 2015 One hundred years on

The nurses’ arrival on Lemnos 2015, ‘one hundred years on’.

Grace Wilson’s diary is much quoted – and for good reason. It tells it straight, without embellishment, such as this entry for 11 August, 1915:

Convoy arrived, about 400 – no equipment whatever – just laid the men on the ground and gave them a drink … they are shattered and [we] have nothing to give them – no comfort whatever. All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds”1.

Lieutenant Colonel James Dick’s description corroborates Wilson’s observations and recounts the extreme conditions the group encountered on their arrival:

“The officers and men are bivouacking amongst the rocks and stones and thistles of the camp site – there are no tents: no store-ship”2.

Medical staff of sleep outdoors on their first night on Lemnos (AWM J01366)Medical staff of 3AGH sleep outdoors on their first night on Lemnos. Their equipment did not arrive until three weeks later. (AWM J01366).

I’ve now walked this very ground, I’ve seen the rocks and felt the thistles. I wilted in the heat of that spring day last year, wearing a white veil, red ‘tippet’ and the grey woollen uniform, all stiff collar and cuffs. I felt disbelief, then despair and anger that nurses and wounded soldiers had to endure such conditions without shelter or provisions.Cooling off Mudros Harbour Lemnos 2015 the author in replica uniform (courtesy of Screentime Australia)

Cooling off Mudros Harbour, Lemnos 2015, Sally Sutherland-Fraser in WWI replica nurse’s uniform (courtesy of Screentime Australia).

 More than 57,000 sick and 37,000 wounded troops were evacuated from Gallipoli to the hospitals at Lemnos, where 130 nurses passed through the 3AGH. These women, these nurses, endured exposure under the summer sun, fought off illness and survived a wind-driven icy winter in tents that were constantly collapsing. This endurance alone would be worthy of our awe and respect – but these women, these nurses, also managed boat after boatload of casualties, often without adequate medical supplies, and fought with medical and military authorities to improve conditions for the wounded, treating more than 7,400 patients. Nurses assembled at the site of the 3AGH Lemnos 2015These women, these nurses, did all this with only 143 deaths – an extraordinary mortality rate of 2% and the lowest of all the tent hospitals on Lemnos during WWI.

This year on Anzac Day and every Anzac Day that follows, when I lower my eyes for a minute’s silence, I will think about these women – how much they achieved and how much they sacrificed. 

Acknowledgements: Parts of this post have been published in the Journal of Perioperative Nursing Australia, 2016, vol. 29 (1), p.45-49 ‘Honouring the ANZAC nurses: Report of a commemorative voyage from Athens to Istanbul’. The voyage aboard the MS Serenissima “In the wake of the WWI ANZAC nursing sisters”, was conducted by New Zealand company Wild Earth Travel and initiated by Clare Ashton, a New Zealand nurse and Honorary Associate, Researcher Nursing History Research Unit at the University of Sydney. As a result of Clare’s hard work behind the scenes, we were able to dress in replica uniforms (many of which had been used in the Screentime mini-series ANZAC Girls) to recreate the iconic picture of the 3AGH nurses’ arrival on Lemnos in 1915, led by Lt Colonel James Dick and Matron Grace Wilson.

Images: In addition to the author’s own photos, images have been sourced from the Australian War Memorial

References:

  1. Australian War Memorial. Great War nurses. [“A woman of understanding”: Matron Grace Wilson].
  2. Commonwealth of Australia (2012). [Lieutenant Colonel J A Dick, ‘3rd Australian General Hospital’, manuscript, MSS 407, Australian War Memorial 224].

Previously on Nurse Uncut: 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great connection to history Sally. Well documented & great photos. 57,000 sick, 37,000 wounded, cared for by 130 nurses! Incredible nurses, no ratios back then. It must have seemed like the end of humanity. Such a sad conflict for Australia & Turkey.

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