Alt banner image

Forgotten heroes of the Australian Voluntary Hospital

This is a sneak peek into edition 26 of Traces!

By John Ramsland

At the outbreak of war in 1914, there were many young Australian doctors and nurses in the United Kingdom receiving specialised training in a variety of hospitals. More than 100 of these medical professionals volunteered with the Australian Voluntary Hospital in France.

At the start of my research into the Australian Voluntary Hospital, I found this extraordinary appeal by Rachel Dudley in Australian newspapers after the outbreak of World War I: ‘I appeal to the people of Australia to give financial support for this Australian voluntary Field Hospital which will be entirely worked by Australian born doctors and nurses. I am shortly taking this hospital to the front in person.’

There are more than two mysteries to solve here: What was ‘this Australian Voluntary Field Hospital’, and who was Rachel Dudley?

The one good thing that came out of World War I was the catalyst for urgent forms of modern medicine. One epicentre was a curious and forgotten institution – the Australian Voluntary Hospital, established in 1914 in a village near the French town of Boulogne‑sur-Mer. It continued there for the duration of the war in 1918, treating about 74,000 casualties. Some sadly died, but many survived into the postwar period due to the innovative methods and excellent treatment provided under the leadership of several Novocastrians: Major General Dr William L’Estrange Eames, Matron Ida Greaves, Sister Lydia Abell and Dr Robert Dick.

I focused my research on these four people and two others: Rachel Dudley (nee Gurney), the founder of the Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH); and Captain Herschel Harris, X-ray specialist. There were many others who worked there in the war, and by exploring the biographies of each individual, one can progressively discover the achievements of the AVH during and after World War I.

The AVH’s origins take us back to its roots in Australia in the middle of the 1900s. It was the brainchild of the wife of the Australian Governor General William Humble Ward, second Earl of Dudley. Rachel Dudley was intrepid, intelligent and sophisticated, as well as an intense person with outstanding leadership qualities and high values. Someone described her unfairly: ‘as beautiful as a marble statue … a carved lily’. This description did not do her justice.

To read the rest of the story, check out the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Portrait of Lady Rachel Dudley presented to the Bush Nursing Association, 1911.

Join our mailing list