International Opportunities: Australian Women and Red Cross Work Overseas
This framework also helps explain the motivations and rationale for the experiences of Australian women who answered the call to actively participate in war work outside of Australia. They could do this within the imagined community of the Red Cross Movement and soon were on active service, whether in a paid or voluntary position.
Some sought overseas work in a medical capacity. The Australian authorities deemed women ineligible for any medical work in the Australian Army Medical Corps, and rejected applications from qualified female doctors. It is hard to explain this blanket refusal to accept experienced women medical practitioners other than to suggest that the inherent sexism and paternalism of both the military and medical profession in Australia was virulent during the First World War. Fully qualified female doctors such as Mary De Garis from Melbourne were summarily turned away. “I would gladly take war work if offered to me but so far my efforts have met no success,” she lamented.20 De Garis later found employment as a surgeon with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia. Only professionally trained nurses were considered through an application as a member of the AANS. All attempts to increase roles for women in other medical areas such as radiotherapy and anaesthetics were strongly resisted.21 Not to be thwarted, Australian women wanting to perform medical work overseas used their initiative, skills and expertise in creative and sometimes unorthodox ways in order to actively contribute to the war effort. Australian women with a variety of qualifications including doctors, nurses and those with Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) training, found ways around official intransigence and these highly motivated, educated— some to university level—and largely middle-class women worked in both paid and unpaid positions in all theatres of the war—from Salonika and Egypt to England and the Western Front.
Some were already in Europe at the outbreak of war and sought work where possible. Trained nurse Ethel Gillingham, for example, from Colac in western Victoria, was in England at the outbreak of war and joined the BRCS. She soon found herself with a Red Cross unit in Vrnjatchka Banja, Serbia. When the town fell to Austrian troops in November 1915, she became a prisoner of war (POW) along with forty other nursing staff and doctors. After lengthy negotiations, the group was eventually freed.22 Others travelled independently from Australia, where they were welcomed by the British military and other allies’ organisations. They served in a range of units across the war front, from Lady Rachel Dudley’s Australian Voluntary Hospitals and Elsie Inglis’ Scottish Women’s Hospitals to the various national Red Cross Societies such as the Croix de Rouge (French Red Cross) and, of course, the British Red Cross. During the war, the physical national borders were porous even for women, and in some instances Australian women moved between different organisations. Victorian nurse Ruby Ingram served with the British Red Cross in England and France from 1916, as well as the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris, and eventually became Assistant Matron at Ampton Red Cross Hospital, Sussex. She was awarded the Associate of the Royal Red Cross and returned home in 1919, where she established a private hospital in Mansfield Victoria, now Mansfield District Hospital.23
Others used the international connections of the Australian Red Cross through the Red Cross movement to travel overseas. For example, in 1916 the Australian Red Cross sent a group of qualified Australian nurses as “Gifts for France.” Funded by the Australian Jockey Club and organised by the New South Wales Division, these experienced nurses—known as ‘The Bluebirds’ due to their specially designed uniform—were seconded to the Croix de Rouge?4 In 1916, the Australian Red Cross also despatched a group of thirty VADs who were employed by the British Red Cross in hospitals across Britain. “We are getting wonderful experience here, and doing practically an ordinary nurse’s work,” wrote one VA enthusiastically in a letter later published in the NSW Red Cross Record?5
Women also looked for non-medical work. Two of the most well-known Australian Red Cross female volunteers who worked overseas during the war were Vera Deakin and Elizabeth Chomley. While the Gallipoli campaign was well underway, twenty-four-year-old Vera Deakin, youngest daughter of former Australian prime minister, Alfred Deakin, arrived in Egypt. Despite the protestation of her parents, yet encouraged by family friend, former tennis champion and Australian Red Cross Commissioner, Norman Brookes, Deakin travelled with her friend, Winifred Johnson, and both young women—who had training as VADs and “some small office experience”—secured war work with the newly established Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau.26 Using a network of searchers in the field and state-based bureaux in Australia, the Red Cross supplied information on sick, wounded or missing soldiers for relatives in Australia, supplementing the very basic information provided by the military. On the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula and the transfer of Australian Imperial Force divisions to France in 1916, the Australian Red Cross relocated its staffto London. As its Secretary, Vera Deakin continued her work for a further two and a half years, assisted by a team of volunteers and small number of paid staff. The work was relentless, as the rising casualties from the Western Front dramatically increased the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau’s remit (Fig. 6.1).
Fig. 6.1 Workers of the Australian Red Cross Society’s Enquiry Bureau for Wounded, Missing and POW, London, 1919. Vera Deakin is at the extreme right of the photograph. (Courtesy of ARC.)
By 1916, in a reflection of the shifting dynamic of the increasingly intransigent trench warfare in France and Belgium, and a realisation that the special needs of the Australian POWs were not being met, a Prisoner of War Department was established in London with Miss (Mary) Elizabeth Chomley as Honorary Secretary. Melbourne-born Miss Chomley, as she was always known, travelled to London to participate in war work and undertook volunteer hospital positions until her appointment with the POW Department. Miss Chomley and her department became a lifeline for the POWs and a link to a world outside captivity. Following confirmation of the location of an Australian POW in Germany or Turkey, a parcel was despatched to him with essential items such as clothing and toiletries. From then on and as regularly as possible, parcels containing foodstuffs were sent.27 Mary Murdoch, who worked with Miss Chomley, explained that the Red Cross POW Department established a fund where imprisoned men could allot monies from their military pay “to purchase extra luxuries.” Money sent by their friends and families was also placed in this fund and “any little fancy required by the prisoners—such as a special brand of tobacco or favourite book” was bought and forwarded to the POW by the Red Cross.28
Mary Murdoch and her older sister Margaret (always known as Peggy) had travelled to London in 1916. Born and raised in the northern suburbs of Sydney, the young women followed their father overseas to volunteer for Red Cross work. He was the successful Scottish-born Sydney department store owner, James A. Murdoch, who served as an Australian Red Cross Commissioner from late 1915. Determined to do his bit for the war effort, he called a meeting of his senior staff and announced:
I leave you my business entirely in your hands. I want to hear nothing about it from you until the war is over, but if you don’t keep the flag of my business flying I will sack every one of you when I come back, that is, if I do come back.29
Initially, Murdoch went to Egypt as a Red Cross searcher, but his organisational talents and leadership qualities saw his appointment as Australia’s third Red Cross Commissioner, after barrister Adrian Knox and Norman Brookes. With Knox returning to Australia due to illness in early 1916 (he had contracted dysentery on a visit to Mudros and Gallipoli) and Brookes later recalled due to being “hard to do with” and “lacking in tact,” Murdoch soon found himself in charge of all Australian Red Cross activities in England and France, a position he held until the end of the war.30
In her early twenties, Peggy Murdoch trained as a Red Cross VAD at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, Sydney before travelling to London to undertake volunteer war work. Initially, she worked at the 1st British London General Hospital at Brixton, where she was responsible for distributing comforts to Australian patients. She had around “600 Aussies” at any one time at the hospital.31 Later, she was transferred by Australian Red Cross as its official representative for the 3rd Australian General Hospital (AGH), near Abbeville on the Western Front. Peggy arrived mid-July 1917, six weeks after the full Australian nursing contingent of ninety- one sisters joined the hospital under Principal Matron Grace Wilson. As it was a new hospital site, Peggy had to begin from scratch. A “standard type” Red Cross timber hut in numerous pieces was sent across the channel from Britain and constructed with the assistance of army personnel. She furnished the hut with makeshift shelving made out of empty boxes. The Red Cross Commissioner, Major Anthony (Tony) Hordern, had left a small stock of supplies and she was soon ordering more stores from Boulogne, where the main Australian Red Cross stores for the Western Front were located. “I was very soon up to my neck in it,”
Peggy recalled. During the big 1917 battles at Ypres and Passchendaele, “often 12,000 men passed through in a week... and when there was a big rush I had to enlist the aid of the sisters to help me,” she added.32 Peggy was joined at 3rd AGH by another young Australian, Miss Nancy Birdwood, daughter of the British general who commanded the Australian troops at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, Sir William Birdwood. Nancy did ward work as a Red Cross VAD.
Peggy soon discovered that although 3rd AGH was an “Aussy” hospital, it was not necessarily for “Aussy” patients. In the chaos of battle, injured soldiers were sent from the casualty clearing stations to the nearest available hospital with capacity, the nationality of the casualty the least concern for the medical corps. This made Peggy’s job much more difficult as she felt she was duty-bound to visit and supply Red Cross comforts to all Australian soldiers in the vicinity. Often these soldiers were sent to the South African and No. 2 Stationary British Hospitals adjacent to 3rd AGH. Soon Peggy was visiting these hospitals too, distributing a range of comforts to all Australian patients. “It was rather awkward then” she continued, “because what is given out to the patients directly, at all events, by the ARCS, is so much greater apparently than by any others [national societies] that they [the patients] all wanted to be ‘Aussies.’”33
Her work was not without danger, particularly in the early months of 1918 when the Western Front was the scene of frantic battles amidst a final push by the Germans. In late March 1918, all hospitals in the Abbeville area reduced nursing staff to the minimum with most relocated to the safety of Boulogne. By 4 April, only twenty-six trained nurses and the two Red Cross workers, Peggy Murdoch and Nancy Birdwood, remained. “Bombs were always flying thick and fast,” Peggy later recounted.34
Peggy Murdoch gave an interview on 25 April 1919 in Abbeville as she concluded her work at the 3rd AGH. The hospital ceased taking in new patients the previous week and was preparing to close with nursing staff set to return to Britain. The interview not only reveals the details of her day- to-day work as a Red Cross volunteer but also hints at the independence and attitudes of both herself as a young Australian woman at war as well as the Australian patients under her care. The object of her work, as far as Peggy was concerned, “was to make the Digger as comfortable as possible, and make him feel as if Australia is doing what is possible for him.” Generally, Peggy had worked six days a week, from nine in the morning through to eleven at night. Sundays were reserved for doing the accounts, fixing up stores and ordering new supplies. As the numbers of patients coming in from the casualty clearing stations consistently varied, she found it “rather a difficult job to get the orders just right.” The things the men wanted most were “cigarettes and tobacco, and if possible Australian tobacco and cigarettes.”35 The Australian Red Cross issue was Capstan cigarettes and Havelock and Lucy Hinton tobacco. Peggy officially distributed five cigarettes per day and two ounces of tobacco per week, but she confessed they always got more. Mixed boiled sweets were the next favourite item; then toothpaste, shaving soap and toothbrushes; writing paper and envelopes; and socks were always in great demand. Dorothy Hospital Bags (linen bags with a draw string where the men put all their belongings on being admitted to hospital) were also very useful and provided to each Australian patient (Fig. 6.2).36
Peggy also distributed reading materials to the patients on her rounds. Australian magazines were particularly popular as “a man wants a short story when he is in bed; he can’t get through a book even if well enough,” she suggested. Gramophones and records were also supplied and she also “ran a little cinema instrument [projector] in the wards” for the patients’ entertainment. A variety of Red Cross goods were allocated to the nursing sisters for use in the wards. Peggy handed out foodstuffs such as rabbit, fruit, soups, and cornflour; and large quantities of old linen (used as handkerchiefs, poultices, and rags). A vast majority of these goods had been despatched from Australia, funded or created by the thousands of Red Cross women on the other side of the world. Peggy said the men loved to go out for walks “along the beautiful roads through the fields right at our door” and along the Somme River and through the woods with the nursing staff, a practice strictly forbidden in the British hospital next door. It seems as if the “Aussies,” as she referred to them, much preferred to come to an Australian AGH and bitterly resented it when they were sent elsewhere. “The ‘Aussies’ hated going to British hospitals,” Peggy recalled, “they don’t like the very strict routine and prefer the more personal and unrestricted methods of Australian hospitals, and most of all wished to be with their own folk.”37
In March 1918, Peggy Murdoch was commended for her “conscientious devotion to duty as a Red Cross worker,” that she “has day after day been unceasing in her efforts to make the stay of the patients in Hospital as cheerful as possible. ” She was later recommended for mention in despatches for her “conspicuous devotion to duty.”38 Clearly, Murdoch’s work and that of the Red Cross was valued not only by her patients but by her superiors at the 3rd AGH.
Fig. 6.2 Peggy Murdoch and the Quartermaster standing outside the Australian Red Cross Store at the 3rd Australian General Hospital, Abbeville, France. (AWM H13604.)