Twenty-four nurses from Bathurst and surrounding districts who served in World War I have been honoured by their home town with commemorative plaques and an art exhibition.
The plaques were organised by the Bathurst District Historical Society, with the assistance of the Department of Veteran Affairs. A ceremony to honour the nurses held on 9 March also included the opening of an exhibition about the 24 nurses, at the Bathurst District Historical Society Museum.
One of the nurses, twenty-seven-year-old Muriel Wakeford – one of only two Australian nurses at Gallipoli – was aboard the British medical ship HMHS Gascon, when troops landed at Gaba Tepe on 25 April 1915.
“In a letter home Muriel makes the comment that they were so close to the beach that the ship’s decks were sprayed with shrapnel,” says Andrew Fletcher, the Military Curator of the Bathurst District Historical Society.
In her diary entry for that day, Muriel describes the fateful landing: “We arrived two hours before dawn with the Gascon stationed a few hundred yards from the beach. No anchors were dropped. All lights were out and sound kept to an absolute minimum … In silence the troops transferred to lifeboats and small craft, which were towed or rowed towards the narrow beach off Gaba Tepe as rapidly as possible. As dawn broke, through field glasses I watched our troops arrive at the narrow, sandy beach, surrounded by fearsome high cliffs where they had to land.”
Muriel then describes the poorly organised evacuation of the wounded: “The wounded came down to the shore in an endless stream. Accommodation on the hospital ship Gascon soon gave out. [Then] there seemed to be no one in charge of directing wounded men to any one ship in particular.”
Muriel was born in Bathurst, and she trained at Sydney Hospital. She became the matron of Cooma Hospital and later at Berrima (now Bowral) District Hospital. She enlisted on 7 November 1914 in Sydney, making her one of the youngest nurses to serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in the war.
No fraternising with the officers
The Bathurst nurses served as volunteers with either the AANS or the British Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, assisting the medical staff, and providing care and comfort to the wounded soldiers and civilians of many countries.
“Muriel describes the ship’s trip to Cairo, which was pretty much three days of hell,” Andrew Fletcher says.
In her diary she writes about leaving for Lemnos with almost 600 wounded men in the wards or lying on the decks, when the ship’s carrying capacity was 300.
In researching Muriel’s history, Andrew discovered that “when she joined the Gascon, the British Matron greeted her with a reminder that the Captain did not want his officers to fraternise with colonial nurses. But Muriel ignored the warning, and she and one of the naval lieutenants on the Gascon, Raymond Gustave Sergeant, became a secret couple”.
Raymond and Muriel married on 28 June 1916. In accordance with military regulations about married women, Muriel had to resign from the AANS.
“Another one of the nurses who served was Maude Kellett, the first President of the ANF,” says Peg Hibbert, an NSWNMA councillor who attended the ceremony and laid a wreath on behalf of the Association.