TWO BRAVE WWI NURSES FROM TASMANIA

 GOODBYE HOBART TOWN

On October 20 1914,  the 12th Battalion AIF embarked  from Hobart on the troopship Geelong.  They were accompanied by two Australian army  nurses;  Sister Alice  Gordon King ( left in  the picture below)  and Sister Janet Ella  Radcliff (right).

sistersKingRatcliff

Alice was twenty eight years old; a pretty brunette with grey eyes. She was above average height, but very slim, weighing only eight stone.  Janet was 31,  and an inch or two shorter than her friend.

On board ship they assisted  the Regimental Medical Officer, Captain Victor Ratten. There was plenty to do;  vaccinating the men against diseases such as cholera and typhoid, relieving the misery of seasickness, and helping to  train medical orderlies. At Albany in Western Australia the Geelong joined a convoy carrying  30,000 Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt, and ultimately to the battlefields of Gallipoli and France. The fleet left on November 1st; All Saints Day. Considering the selfless sacrifice of so many, that date is very poignant.

When  the conv0y  arrived in Alexandria  the  12th battalion was transported to Mena, in the shadow of the great pyramids.

Australians in camp at Mena. The Pyramids

There was little time for sightseeing, especially for nurses.   On their trips to Cairo obtaining  equipment for the new field hospital,  Sisters King and Radcliff  also made  time to  procure  much needed mosquito nets  for the men of the 12th, who were  housed in tents.  Unfortunately,  training in hot weather followed by cold nights led to early casualties.  The   hospital  at Mena  soon  filled with  pneumonia cases.

Eventually, orders came for the Anzacs to sail for the Dardanelles.  The Tasmanian nurses left Egypt  soon afterwards. They first served aboard the hospital  ship  Sicilia, moored off Anzac Cove to receive the wounded in the horror filled  hours and days following the landing.   From the Sicilia they moved to the   Grantully Castle,  and over the next few months  they spent long hours  tending  men being moved to hospital on Malta, or  repatriated back to Egypt

Subsequently they were transferred to France, for service at No. 2 Stationary Hospital at Abbeville.  In August 1917,  Alice was posted to  a casualty clearing station in Belgium.   She became Temporary Head Sister, treating casualties   arriving  in waves from the fierce  battles near Passchendaele

A WARTIME ROMANCE

AliceKing

While on leave in London just before Christmas 1917, Alice married  Lt. Col. Charles Elliott.  Elliott had sailed aboard the Geelong as  a Captain,  but after the death of senior officers at Gallipoli  he had   become Commanding Officer of the  battalion. It was understandable that the couple wanted to marry.  Charles would soon be returning to France and his chances of survival were not high. Sadly, army regulations meant that Sister King   was forced to resign from the A.A.N.S. immediately. What a tragic waste of  experience and devotion to duty. To her credit she continued to help wherever and in whatever role she could; at Harefield  Auxiliary Hospital  (where many  wounded Australians  were treated)  and at Army Headquarters in London.   Despite this,  on April 5 the following year she signed a form forfeiting her right to a free passage home to Australia.  Lt.  Col. Elliott  was shot in the arm and chest during the fighting in France, but  thankfully he survived.  He  was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. He was also one of 19 Australians (and the only Tasmanian) to receive the French Légion d’honneur.

COURAGE UNDER FIRE

Sister Janet Radcliff  was mentioned in dispatches in September 1916, for her  hospital work  under   dangerous conditions  at Abbeville.  She  finally returned to Tasmania  in March 1919,  discharged  due to ill-health after serving throughout the war.   When it was offered,  she applied retrospectively   for an £8 Warm Clothing Allowance.  The payment  was to  cover garments  she had purchased during her time  in France . On November 22 1921, after numerous letters back and forth, she received the following  response from the Army District Finance Office in Hobart;

With reference to your application for the Warm Clothing Allowance, I have to advise you that I am in receipt of advice from our central office, to the effect that as you were not in France during the winter of 1916-1917 your claim has been disallowed.’

Janet died the following year, aged 39.  An obituary published in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail (December 14, 1922) paid tribute to her extensive war service, noting that it had been the cause of her premature death:

‘Miss Janet Radcliffe [sic] did long and strenuous work, leaving Tasmania in the first months of the great struggle, and did not return until it was over. She so overtaxed her strength that she returned quite broken in health. All hoped for a continuance of her busy, useful life, but it was not to be. Sister Janet Radcliffe is one more of the gallant war-workers whose life has been given for the cause.’

A treasured item passed down through  Janet’s family  is a brass dish, fashioned from a bomb shell by one of the diggers she had cared for. Its simple inscription reads;

To Miss Radcliff from your friend 25/12/18

Despite  her husband’s  serious war wounds,  Alice  enjoyed a happy  post-war life with Charles   In the years ahead they raised a son, and were both  very active in  an association formed to remember the 12th Battalion.  It was known as, THE OLD ORIGINALS.   After Janet Radcliff died in  1922, Alice contributed to a memorial  honouring  her  friend.  In 1967  she  successfully applied to be awarded the Anzac Commemorative  Medal. In a letter to Base Records in Victoria she  outlined  her  wartime service at Gallipoli;

 

Alice Elliott's Letter re the Gallipoli Medal

Alice Elliott’s letter re the Anzac  commemorative  Medal

RIP  Sisters Alice Elliott (nee King)  Janet Radcliff, and all World War I nurses.

UPDATE – A comment from a reader has prompted me to add that 2,286  Australian  army nurses served overseas in WWI, with another 423 serving within  Australia. 25 died. Many were decorated for their bravery, and 11  were awarded the Military Cross.

For a story featuring the flowers associated with  WWI please click here.

POSTCRIPT – IT WOULD BE LOVELY IF PEOPLE COULD SHARE THE LINK TO THIS ARTICLE.

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15 Comments
  1. Thank you for sharing. I’ve read so many inspiring stories in the past few months about womens’ role during WWI, especially in nursing. Have also re-read Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. A big tome, I’m sure it didn’t take me so long to read the first time around

    • Pauline

      I must read Testament of Youth again myself, Marcia. x

      • Funnily enough, the first time I read it was on my first visit to stay with my brother in Australia. I was there for a month and having run out of my own reading material, browsed his bookshelves for something, and Vera Brittain was what I found.

  2. I loved the story contrasting the paths through life the two young women took. I was saddened to hear of Miss Radcliffe’s illness linked with her service abroad. She must be one of the very few from Australia who gave all to care for others. You are especially fortunate to have a written document to go with a record of her meritorious work.
    I enjoyed your written account of it and the authentic photographs.
    Heather Whipp

    • Pauline

      Thanks Heather, my interest was initially sparked because my great-uncle Arthur Singleton was a young soldier on the Geelong. He was evacuated from Gallipoli, and while in hospital on Malta he received word that his mother had died. He was repatriated to Egypt before going on to fight in France. I would love to think that one of the nurses from the Geelong may have met up with him at some stage, and been able to offer some words of comfort. Oh, I meant to add that 25 Australian nurses were killed, and many more were injured.

  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. There is far too little written about the women who served in WW1. I am currently working on a teaching resource for a TMAG exhibition and hope to include a link to this article in the resource.

    • Pauline

      Hi David, thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Would love to be a small part of your teaching resource!

  4. I am part of the Friends of the Brighton Cemetery [Brighton Cemetorians], Ella is buried at the Brighton Cemetery and we are planning to include her in this years [2015] Remembrance Day Walk at the Cemetery and would love to know more about her.

    • Pauline

      Hi Lois

      Sorry for my delay in replying. There is quite a lot about Ella in TROVE, the National Library’s archive of digitised newspapers…especially regarding her memorial You may have to search under Sister Janet Radcliffe. Also, search under Sister Alice King…or Elliott.

  5. I have recently read a book called “In Those Lines – The Diary of Sister Elsie Tranter” 1916-1919 and really enjoyed it. Elsie met her husband Gordon while serving overseas (mainly in France) and when they returned they settled in his home town of Launceston, Tasmania.

    • Pauline

      Oh, that sounds interesting Josie, will have to investigate.

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