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World War I (1914-1918): New Zealand Nurses

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Over 500 New Zealand nurses, about a quarter of the nursing workforce of the period, served overseas during the First World War. Most enlisted with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, but around 100 served in other units.

They worked long hours in harsh circumstances trying to mitigate the physical and emotional damage caused by warfare on an industrial scale. Some lost their lives and many came home with their own health impaired by the working conditions of the war.

Photo: Four nursing sisters look out of the windows of the New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France


1914 – Nurses for War?

On 3 August Hester Maclean Matron-in-Chief (MiC) wrote to the Adjutant-General and suggested that as it was likely troops would be sent to Europe she thought it likely nurses would be sent too and she suggested enrolling nurses with the understanding they accept the regulations once they are approved. She was told no nurses would be sent.

1914 - War Declared

With the declaration of war on 4 August, MacLean again wrote to The Director of Medical Services offering the services of nurses and again she was told no nurses will be sent with Expeditionary Forces (EF).

1914 – Nurses Requested for War Service

A request was made on 7 August for six nurses to proceed overseas with the EF. There was very little time to select and prepare for the nurses departure. However, the six nurses requested left NZ on 15 August for an unknown destination which, turned out to be Samoa. The NZANS had yet to be established. Therefore, these nurses were attached to the NZMC as NZANSR and were issued with service numbers which were later replaced with NZANS numbers.

Despite six nurses leaving NZ seven arrived in Samoa. The seventh nurse was Ida Willis who was stranded on holiday in Fiji and picked up during the ships stopover for fuel. The group consisted of Bertha Nurse, Sister in Charge; Evelyn Brooke, Wellington, Second in Charge; Vida Maclean, Wanganui; Louie McNie, Christchurch; Fanny Wilson, Wellington; Louise Brandon, Wellington and Ida Willis. All these nurses were decorated for their services During WW1.

1914 – Regulations

Colonel Chaytor wrote to MacLean on 24 August informing her that Regulations could not be made until the Defence Act was amended. This continued to be a stumbling block! However he suggested Maclean ‘enrol nurses who were willing to assist in a time of need’ adding that regulations could be made after the Act was amended.

1914 – Nurses Volunteered

By October over 400 Nurses had volunteered for service but their services could not be accepted as the Defence Act had not been amended.

1914 – Deputation to Minister of Defence (MOD)

By now it was clear that authorities had, in their wisdom decided no nurses would be required for overseas service. The nurses were not going to leave it at that and on 31 December a group met with the Hon. James Allen MOD. This group comprised of Dr Marshall MacDonald, President of the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Trained Nurses Association, a Miss Holford; Miss Maclean, MiC, and three nurses who had served in the Boer War, Miss Monson, Mrs Dora MacGregor (nee Harris) & Miss Williamson RRC. Each nurse had their say and it appears as a result of this meeting, this was the turning point as immediately after Mr Allen cabled the War Office and offered the services of 50 nurses. He also sent a cable to the Prime Minister of Australia and asked him that if reinforcements were sent to the front that he considers the inclusion of some New Zealand Nurses.

By this time many nurses had left New Zealand and had offered their services to other countries such as Australia (AANS), England (QAIMNS); the British Red, the French Red Cross and other private organisations.

1915 - Cabinet Approves Proposed NZANS

On 11 January Cabinet approved the formation of the NZANS after a proposal was submitted by Mr Allen, the Minister of Defence, recommending that authority be given to provisionally enrol 60 nurses and that the Defence Act be amended to make provision for the Nursing Service. The proposal was approved and signed ‘Passed in Cabinet 11.1.15 ‘.

1915 - Cable from England

On 25 January a cable was received from the British Government accepting an offer of the services of NZ nurses. The offer was made by the NZ Minister of Defence in December 1914. The cable also requested a guarantee as to the training and efficiency of 11 NZ nurses domiciled in England and who were offering their services. As a part of making this request the British Government recognised that State Registration of nurses in New Zealand was a definite advantage, as it allowed ready access to nurse’s qualifications through a single authority. Unfortunately, of the 11 nurses that a guarantee of their training and efficiency was being sought, only a few could be guaranteed as the majority were not recorded as being State Registered nurses.

1915 - Uniforms for Nurses

In a Minute headed ‘Nurses to the Front’ dated 15 February and signed by the MOD, Cabinet approved expenditure on uniforms up to £10.

1915 - Cable from Australia

On 25 March a cable arrived from the Australian Government accepting a NZ Government offer made in December 1914 for NZ nurses to serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). In accepting the offer, the Australian Government requested that 12 nurses (two Sisters and 10 Nurses) be selected. Twelve nurses were subsequently selected and sailed from Wellington for Australia on 1 April. This group of NZ nurses arrived in Egypt as members of the AANS before the first members of the NZANS arrived.

1915 - NZANS Nurses Sail from New Zealand

Finally on 6 April 110 Nurses were officially enlisted in the NZANS and the first 50 sailed from NZ on 8 April aboard the Steamer Rotorua arriving in England on 19 May. The journey for the NZANS had begun in earnest.

1915 - Officer Status

From the beginning it had been agreed nurses were to be classed with officers and were to rank directly below Medical Officers.

There were many instances of disbelief within the military that nurses were to be treated as officers in every respect. One instance that occurred on a Transport Ships was so bad that the Matron threatened to leave the ship in Australia. The matter of nurses being accorded officer status did not get resolved until WW2!

23 Oct 1915 - NZANS Nurses Lost

At about 9.15am on 23 October 10 nurses of the NZANS and 22 men of the NZMC were lost when the Transport Ship Marquette was torpedoed by a German Submarine in the Aegean Sea. They were part of No 1 Stationary Hospital being sent to Salonika to assist with the casualties coming from the Balkans.

20 October 1917 - Nurse killed in action

Elise Margaret Kemp a New Zealand-born nurse serving in the Territorial Forces Nursing Service (TFNS) was killed when she was treating casualties at a clearing station in Flanders when it was bombed by a German aircraft. Kemp, three orderlies and three patients were killed. She was the only New Zealand nurse killed in action during World War I.

1917 - Marriage

Upon formation of the NZANS no rules were included in the Regulations regarding marital status of nurses joining or during their service. However, in 1917 this changed and a draft General Order was published in the Kai Tiaki headed,

NZ Army Nursing Service – Marriage On Active Service

The order stated: Must not marry without permission - Sisters who are married may, at any time be retired from the NZEF.

This issue was finally resolved in the 1926 Regulations where it was made clear that to join the NZANS a nurse must be single or a widow without children!

1918 - End of WW1

At the end of WW1, nurses who were no longer required went back to their civilian jobs and those who were needed remained on strength until early 1922.

1922 - NZ Military Hospitals Closed – Nurses to Reserve List

The NZ military hospitals closed and retired nurses were placed on either the Active List, Reserve List or Retired List depending upon their circumstances.

Source: New Zealand Military Nursing History