Armistice Day: Untold stories of the war wounded and those who cared for them

The war nurses

Returning to civilian life was often hard, too, for the nurses and VADs, members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who assisted with domestic and nursing work. “I missed the companionship that nursing carries with it, but I had to settle down, as many duties fell to my share after my father’s death and the frailty of my mother, who became my responsibility.” VAD Gladys Luxford’s sad and stoic words echoed the experience of many women forced to exchange the adventure and high emotion of wartime service for the yoke of family expectation or the much duller routine of non-military nursing. Physical exhaustion was common – “quite a number were war-worn and not really fit for duty”.

At the end of 1919, many nurses were “still retained in the service and their posts” at military hospitals and convalescent homes. At Trentham, for example, nurse Vida MacLean, who worked at the hospital in former German protectorate Samoa during the war, had a staff of 63 New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) nurses; Bertha Nurse, the matron at Rotorua’s King George V Hospital, was managing eight. Eva Brooke, who had served first in Samoa, then on the hospital ships Maheno and Marama, and in military hospitals overseas, was matron of the Military Convalescent Hospital at Narrow Neck. In 1921, the year after she was demobilised, this remarkable woman, the only New Zealand nurse awarded the Royal Red Cross and Bar, became matron of Christchurch’s Rannerdale Home for disabled veterans.

Mabel Thurston. Image/National Collection of War Art

As had been the case with doctors, the loss of so many nurses to overseas service had caused a severe shortage of experienced senior staff in hospitals. A number who had been on leave returned to their pre-war posts, but former Christchurch Hospital “lady superintendent” Mabel Thurston was not among them. She had been granted leave of absence for the duration of the war, initially to become matron at Walton-on-Thames on little more than half her Christchurch salary, and publicly lauded for her patriotism. Her devoted work in the challenging New Zealand Expeditionary Force matron-in-chief role, which involved supervising the NZANS nurses on active duty in England, France and Egypt and organising the supply of nurses and VADs to New Zealand’s military hospitals in England, earned her both the Royal Red Cross and a CBE.

At the end of August 1918, however, the North Canterbury Hospital and Charitable Aid Board wrote to say that her long absence had “adversely affected the hospital” and forced the acting matron to turn down job offers. Thurston’s appointment was terminated.

The board was not swayed by her eloquent protests and explanations, which were backed up by letters of support from Brigadier-General George Richardson and William Parkes, among others, and by a meeting of angry locals. Thurston had to resign. She became matron at King George V Military Hospital at Rotorua in January, 1920, before assuming the same role at Hanmer, and, between 1923 and 1927, at Pukeora.

Nurses were officially included in the land settlement scheme aimed at putting returned soldiers on farms of their own, but only after a legislative change. Ellen Schaw was one of just a half-dozen or so nurses who seem to have applied. According to a newspaper report, she was “the first woman in the Wellington district, and probably in the Dominion”, to obtain land under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act. After being invalided for some months on coming home, she “got the very section she wanted”, four acres at Cloverlea near Palmerston North, in a soldiers’ land ballot. She began with “one cow, horse and trap, three chickens, three cats, one dog”. A few months later – as soon as the fowlhouse could be built – she was planning to start a “little poultry farm with more fowls, and also getting more cows. Fruit trees are also to be planted.”

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.