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A Cup of Tea :: Author Christine Bramble on World War I nurses

IHM: Your book includes a detailed index of these nurses, covering some details of their early life and their nursing career, which forms a useful resource for any descendants of these women researching their family history. Have you been in touch with any such descendants?
Christine: Yes, after the book was published I was contacted by descendants who were able to provide details and photos to fill out the stories of individuals. As a result I decided to set up a website.

This led to more information and photos and one particularly exciting find – the descendants of Matron Ida Greaves RRC have very kindly given me access to an archive of photographs and documents about Ida and her sister Susie, both of whom were trained at Newcastle Hospital and became military nurses.

Matron Greaves is nationally important as she was one of the first Australian women to be in the field and lasted the duration of the War – 19 August 1914 to 26 March 1919. She and Matron Nora Fletcher from Sydney were the first Australian nurses to be awarded the Royal Red Cross during the War, in July 1915. So she has a rare set of medals that includes not only the British War Medal and the Victory Medal but also the Royal Red Cross 1st Class and the 1914 Star.

Letter to Matron Ida Greaves inviting her to an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Courtesy Greaves Family Archive.
Letter to Matron Ida Greaves inviting her to an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Courtesy Greaves Family Archive.

Matron Greaves has not been given due acknowledgement either in her own town or in Australia. I aim to change that – I am currently writing her biography.

IHM: Was there any information you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks?
Christine: Being given access to the archive of Matron Ida Greaves certainly stopped me in my tracks! I received a phone call from her great nephew who was travelling north by train from Sydney – he asked me to be waiting on Broadmeadow Station at 1.50pm on 27 August last year, alongside Countrylink carriage B – he would be on the train and would hop out and give me some photos and documents that had been stored in his niece’s garage. We briefly shook hands as a briefcase was handed over and he was back on the train.

What I discovered inside the briefcase were three albums consisting of over 300 photos and documents. The family has since lent me several more albums and I cannot thank the great nephew and great great niece enough! I feel very privileged to have been entrusted with this material.

IHM: Which resources did you find most helpful in the course of your research?
Christine: In compiling a list of names of women from the Hunter who were nurses in the First World War there were two resources that supplied the bulk of the names – the AIF Embarkation Rolls give the address of the individual as well as the address of the next-of-kin; and about 60 per cent of the women were named on a school or district honour roll. Anyone conducting a regional study would do well to start with these, then have a look at any material on local hospitals.

Once you have the names, you then look for their service records, which can be downloaded from the National Archives of Australia website. You can also download service records of women who joined the British service (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve) but the National Archives of the UK will charge you a fee. Beyond that, the National Library’s online tool Trove is a wonderful resource! The published works of Ruth Rae, Kirsty Harris, Peter Rees and others were invaluable in providing the national perspective.

IHM: What resources did you come across when researching your books that may not have been widely used by others?
Christine: Most of the recent studies on First World War nurses have referred to the Australasian Nurses’ Journal to some degree, but I found it particularly useful for following the stories of individuals and perhaps this publication has not been ‘mined’ as well as it might have been.

I found letters from quite a number of the Hunter Valley women in the journal as well as articles describing the experience of working in military hospitals. It is an important resource because nurses were writing for an audience that would have had some understanding of what they were on about when they wrote about the challenges – they were not writing reassuring and perhaps sanitised letters to relatives.

I have been visiting the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW from time to time and working my way through each issue from the war years. I am now onto the 1920s to see what the journals can tell me about what individuals did after the war.

IHM: Which story affected you the most in the course of your research?
Christine: Sister Louisa Stobo from Maitland was a senior nurse, the Matron of Crown Street Women’s Hospital Sydney, who left for Egypt in one of the first contingents of nurses in 1914. She was at a hospital there when her brother Robert Scobie was wounded and evacuated from Gallipoli. She saw him recover from his wounds only to return to Gallipoli to be killed at the Battle of Lone Pine. Yet Louisa stoically continued her nursing work.

Another story that I found very sad was from the diary of Kathleen Doyle from Singleton. She was on night duty nursing casualties from Gallipoli.

She notes in her diary that one of her patients, who was delirious “called me Ruby all night long. It is really heartbreaking to see and hear all the awful sights.” He died the following night and Kathleen had the task of writing to his mother.

IHM: Which story amused you the most in the course of your research?
Christine: There is a story in the service record of Staff Nurse Leila Godfrey that is amusing more from what is left to the imagination than what is actually recorded. In her statement about the incident, Leila says that “At Christmas dinner [1918] while off duty I was burnt on the face, slightly, by blazing spirit which fell from the plum pudding.” Were the celebrations getting a bit out of hand on account of relief that the war was over? Usually one’s face is above the level of a plate of plum pudding, so how did this happen..?

IHM: If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?
Christine: The diary of Sister Kathleen Doyle, mentioned above, includes numerous references to a love interest she met on Lemnos where there were Allied hospitals treating casualties from Gallipoli. He is only referred to as “C.S.” I have actually gone through the AIF Nominal Roll and made a list of all the officers with those initials (157 names!) then looked at their service records to see if they were in the right place at the right time. To no avail! Perhaps C.S. was “other ranks” (supposed to be off-limits for serving nurses) or he was British or Canadian. I expect I’ll never know…

I would also love to know the whereabouts of the World War One honour roll for Newcastle Hospital, if indeed there ever was one.

IHM: What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?
Christine: Good readers make good writers – read lots of history books and biographies for pleasure, but only the ones that keep you turning the pages. Hopefully it will rub off!

Christine Bramble is a former history teacher and museum educator, now freelance researcher and writer.  She is the co-author of Broadmeadow to Villers-Bretonneux – people of the Hunter and the Great War and is currently working on a biography of Matron Ida Greaves RRC.

For more information about Christine’s research on World War I nurses, click here.

To read more about those who served in World War I, pick up the latest issue of Inside History today.

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