Over 80 per cent of Australian First World War battle casualties occurred on the Western Front. In order to deal with the thousands of wounded men, a system of battlefield evacuation and treatment was developed. It could take many hours for a wounded man to get from the trench into the care of nurses at a casualty clearing station. Not surprisingly, the sight of a nurse there, in her white apron and veil, was like that of an angel.
Seven AANS nurses, Sisters Dorothy Cawood, Clara Deacon, Mary Jane Derrer, Alice Ross-King, Alicia Kelly, Rachael Pratt, and Pearl Corkhill, were awarded the Military Medal, “for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire” while working in casualty clearing stations in France. This was the highest bravery award available to them. But despite enjoying honorary officer status, the nurses were still considered “other ranks” when it came to awards.
During one bombing raid in August 1917, Sister Kelly shielded her patients’ heads with enamel wash basins and bedpans. A chaplain found her in a hospital tent, holding a wounded man’s hand as the bombs fell. “I couldn’t leave my patients,” she said simply.
Most of the wounded were eventually passed through to a casualty clearing station, usually sited some kilometres from the front. Here they received treatment from surgeons, and encountered nurses for the first time. From the casualty clearing station the wounded were transported, often by train, to a general hospital, which could care for around 1,000 patients. Men were then evacuated to specialist hospitals in Britain, repatriated home to Australia, or returned to their units in the field.
Images and words courtesy of the Australian War Memorial