My husband, Ralph,
my favourite non-reader of books,
who had faith in his favourite non-writer of books.
The genesis of this book began for the author when she gazed at those old faded photographs of her husband’s great aunts, and so began her journey into the past, our meeting and my guidance in the footsteps of those nurses in the great sandstone buildings and the Florence Nightingale Nurses’ Home.
On reading the unpublished manuscript one cannot believe the letters are not authentic, not only has the author absorbed her characters’ personalities, but also the history of Sydney Hospital founded in this colony in 1788.
Member Sydney Hospital Graduate Nurses’ Association and Curator, Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum, Sydney Hospital
The few facts available from the archival material of the nursing sisters in this story have had to be combined with fiction from limited information; and so had to be interpreted the best way possible. The narrative endeavours to pattern real life events against the background of the Great War.
The writing is based on five years research into WWI, the Australian Army Nursing Service, the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and the years preceding the close of the nineteenth century.
The writing venture began in 2002. Very little had been written about the nurses who served in World War I. My reason for writing this book is to tell the true story of four sisters; my husband Ralph Stuart’s great aunts from Stroud, NSW, who enlisted as nursing sisters in the Great War. Archival material of their War records only revealed where the nurses served.
The Lowrey sisters had often been the topic of conversation within the family and initially aroused my interest, but nobody knew any real details about their wartime experience, as all original letters had been lost over the years. The women grew more ephemeral to me and my interest was not maintained. This changed dramatically in 2001 when my husband and I were visiting the Newcastle Museum.
I noticed a glass case that featured a nurse wearing an Australian Army Nursing Service uniform from World War I. Intrigued I read the notice card on the cabinet – ‘Matron Bessie Lowrey served in India 1916-1918 in WWI’.
I was speechless!
Bessie was real. It was a pivotal moment for me.
Then I realised the other three sisters were also real.
Whilst we were driving home I said to my husband, “Someone should write about these women.” His unexpected reply was, “You should!”
This story is not a definitive coverage of the Lowrey Sisters and their professional nursing experiences within the hospital system.
That was not the intent of the book.
My intent was to bring the subjects to life within a narrative, and hoped the story will be of interest to others, especially those from the nursing profession. The writing has been somewhat of a battle for me, researching for years, feeling alone in the sense that no one could understand unless they have been in a similar situation. But it has been a privilege to get to know Bessie, Olivia, and Hazel Violet.
I hope I have done them justice. Joyce enlisted on the day the Armistice was declared so doesn’t feature in the story.
The book is to honour these nurses whose names would
otherwise only be known on a tombstone in a small cemetery in Stroud, New South
Read a sample:
England – On the Wharf, 1918
It was the 24th of August.
At that darkest hour before dawn, no light pierced
the blackout blackness.
The ship’s departure – secret.
A military bus pulled onto the wharf and stopped. Hinges squeaked, doors opened and a slight female figure of average height emerged and blended into the darkness. She found herself standing beside the English Channel, on a wharf with no name, to board a ship with just a number and the war was just over there; she felt a strange exhilaration.
Only twelve hours earlier Wharncliffe War Hospital, Sheffield, had received orders from the War Office for the Reserve of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service to embark immediately for Foreign Service in France. The orders, for which they had all been awaiting, had come through at last. The nurses were assembled at the port of Dover to board a troopship for Boulogne and thence by train to Rouen where the No.8 British General Hospital needed relief medical and nursing staff desperately.
Olivia heard the water lapping underneath. She asked herself, was it really lapping? Wasn’t that for the seaside where innocent children played in safety?
The wind had strengthened into blustery gusts and the waves smashed against the wharf. The ship rose and fell with the swell and mooring lines creaked with the strain. Olivia peered out into the blackness of the Channel. Icy spray stung her face. She could just make out shadowy shapes of funnels silhouetted against the lowering clouds. It was the Naval escort deployed to escort them through the deadly minefields lurking below the surface of the water; their presence reinforced the idea of a perilous crossing. The sea looked oily black and forbidding. Now, more acutely aware of the sound of the water as it sucked and gurgled its way around the unseen piers in the depths below. Huge planks groaned and shuddered beneath her feet. Olivia shuddered. No lapping whatsoever. The water was hitting and smacking against the piers. How could she have been so wrong? Not a hint of innocence.
Sister Olivia Annie Lowrey was the first of her three sisters back home in Australia to enlist in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in 1915, to nurse in a war a world away. The war would be forever remembered as The Great War.
Like many other nurses enlisting at that time she had been assigned to the elite corps of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) in England.
The earlier Australian enlistments were already working in many overseas postings in Australian and English hospitals that had been erected in Malta, Alexandria, Egypt, Macedonia and Greece as well as France. Now there was a huge demand, both in England and France for additional nursing staff to care for the returned wounded. She still hoped that she would be able to fulfil her deep desire to serve in the war ... in France, or elsewhere.
Although the British Navy had regained control over the North Seas, security was tight. No loud talking, no leaning on rails, and no lights. Olivia stood on the small portion allotted to them on the upper deck. Half hidden by a bulkhead she was standing alone by choice; preferring her own thoughts to those of nervous whispers by the other Sisters. She felt undisturbed by the churning waters around them.
Her gaze followed the destroyers ahead as they sought to find a safe corridor swept clear of mines. She kept watching the waves and the pattern of the wake from the escort. A pale grey light tinged the tips of the waves as the dawn broke through the clouds. As the light changed so did the colour of the sea, from black to charcoal grey, but the mood of the sea was unchanged – brooding and threatening. She stared ahead, mesmerised by the rise and fall of the ships in front. Slowly her thoughts wandered back to her arrival at Wharncliffe War Hospital in Sheffield in the February of 1916.
Thoroughly trained in all aspects of surgical and ward work, she was supremely confident of her professional credentials from Sydney Hospital. However she knew candidates were carefully chosen on enlistment, with much attention given to character, education and social standing as well as training and experience. However, she couldn’t help but wonder how a ‘Colonial’ would be received into the prestigious QA Corps. Her seven years at Sydney Hospital certainly qualified her for the prerequisite three years nursing in a civil hospital, and that the Florence Nightingale School of training at Sydney Hospital was well validated throughout the world. In the end she felt it was all in the lap of the gods.
Not only was her delight genuine at becoming a member of such an elite corps, she also admitted to herself that the name carried in its own right a regal and high sense of nobility – which she liked. However nursing at a hospital located in the middle of England was not what she had envisaged. Over the period of seventeen months at Wharncliffe War Hospital, overseas service seemed less and less likely. However rationalising the situation Olivia realised that her job was to be the best professional nurse she could be, no matter where she served.
She had quickly adjusted to the sight of horrific battle wounds. Shrapnel that gouged out great portions of flesh and tore off skin; mortar shells that ripped off limbs altogether or left them hanging by a thread. Mental and emotional wounds that can’t be seen; hard to cure and where at best a patient may only be able to look forward to life in a psychiatric hospital. She also realised the facts told by patients explained more about the ineptitude of Generals who had no idea of trench warfare and used men on a map as expendable numbers. Men in the trenches knew the truth about the numbers killed at the Front. Newspapers printed what they were told to print by the War Office.
Olivia knew at that moment those seventeen months at Wharncliffe War Hospital were the most rewarding in her career, and with absolute humility felt pleased not to have done the earlier Foreign Service. Not only did she acknowledge her nursing skills were now vastly superior to when she arrived, but she was a better person – compassionate on a much deeper level. Yes, I’ve had my own serving at the Front – at Wharncliffe, she thought to herself.
The deep-sea currents were still fighting against the wind, but less so. As if in one last response to the elements, the ship hit down into a steep wave and came up shuddering. Olivia was almost thrown off her feet and sharply brought back to the present. She could see the Normandy coastline ahead and she watched as the escort moved away and their ship slowly sailed into the harbour. There was a lot of activity on the deck and the order was given to prepare to disembark at the port of Boulogne.
Suddenly the reality of the war hit her and her long awaited participation in it. I’m ready, she thought with a quiet confidence. The wind had dropped but the weather was dismal and dreary. It was a tense crossing and Olivia felt relief as the ship berthed at Boulogne Sur-Mer. Shouts echoed around the wharf as lines were thrown over the bollards and the gangway rattled into place. A stream of uniforms moved en masse, surging forward. As Olivia’s foot touched the timber, for a split second it was as if she had stepped into another dimension. She felt charged with emotion entirely foreign to her nature. Its significance struck her. She was stepping out into a world at war. Momentum propelled her down the ramp. She stumbled off the plank and at last – stood on French soil at Boulogne.It was still the 24th of August, 1918 and the great armies were still fighting to end the war that was ‘to be over by Christmas’ four years ago – to end the carnage and bloodshed that had taken the youth of so many nations – to end the despair and fruitlessness of the whole political and military debacle. But the war was still going. For Olivia it was the beginning of the main event in her life.
All Prices in Australian Dollars CURRENCY CONVERTER
(c)2015 Zeus Publications All rights reserved.