The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Nurses in the Boer War

The Crimean War (1853-1856) both highlighted the need for the improved care of the wounded and sick as well as introducing Victorian England to a new heroine in Florence Nightingale. The Army however remained unconvinced of the need for nurses other than in static hospitals; they were not seen as having a place on the battlefield. Partly due to the interest of Queen Victoria who remained in close personal contact with Nightingale the British Army Nursing Service was established in 1861. The Army however saw the nurse's role as only being valid for static hospitals in Britain such as Netley. The Zulu War of 1879 saw the first overseas deployment of the Service with the Service's Netley Superintendent Mrs Deeble and six nurses deploying to South Africa which proved that such a move would work. (The Superintendent was insistent that her nurses would rough it under canvas if necessary.)

The creation of the Royal Red Cross order in 1885 did much to raise the status of women in general and Army nurses in particular, as for the first time a nurse could aspire to be in an elite group with members of the Royal Family.

The small numbers of full time military nurses was always going to be a problem in a major conflict. Several proposals were made to create a pool of reserve nurses but were met with opposition in the 1890s. Many regarded nurses as being restricted to formal hospitals well behind the fighting, as well as some viewing them (despite Florence Nightingale) as being potentially immoral influences on the men. Whilst static institutions might be established in an area of operations most nursing on operations was to be restricted to male orderlies who were seen as better able to cope with battlefield medicine. Some in the Army persevered and again the Royal Family was a key ingredient of change; in March of 1897 an Army Nursing Service Reserve was established. In peacetime it would be run by a committee chaired by Queen Victoria's formidable third daughter, Princess Helena, (better known by her married title Princess Christian) hence it would be known as Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service Reserve (PCANSR). In wartime it would be under the direction of the War Office. This gave immediate status to the nurses although many at the War Office saw limited use for them.

At the commencement of the war in South Africa the British Army had just 88 full time nurses and despite some initial hesitation on deploying nurses, PCANSR formed the basis of the employment of some 2000 nurses from all over the world during the war.

In the Australasian colonies there was a wide division of opinion as to nursing organization. Spurred on by the creation of PCANSR, the NSW commandant, Major General George French, encouraged the establishment of an NSW Army Nursing Service Reserve on the same lines in 1898. This would consist of 24 nursing sisters headed by Nellie Gould then Matron of Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital in Sydney. This group undertook annual military training and was provided with uniforms and a small annual allowance. Other states had not followed this lead before the war broke out. Initially the War Office rejected a large part of colonial offers of support including that of nurses. Its view was that the war would be of short duration, small in scale and require few resources. Technical issues such as medical support were best left to the British Army or in worst case, professionals from London who knew what they were doing. Colonial competence in these areas was regarded as suspect at best.

This attitude was taken up by some commentators in the colonies. They were particularly scathing of any plan to deploy nurses. Nurses were not really necessary, one scribe going so far to claim that as civilian nurses had little or no experience of gunshot wounds they would be particularly useless and in the way in warfare. Others wanted to imply that women wanting to assist in this way were essentially going with immoral purpose in mind.

The early defeats of the British army injected a note of reality into planner's minds. In Africa even hardened generals like Sir George White who had initially rejected offers of assistance from civilian nurses (such as the Australian, Rose Shappere) at Ladysmith became devoted to them by the end of the siege. The War Office, perhaps poked in the ribs by the palace indicated its support for a large scale deployment and recruitment of nurses to South Africa.

This opened they way for more than 60 Australian nurses to go to the Boer war, either provided by governments or by privately raised funds or at their own expense. Four states NSW Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia sent what could be described as official contingents although they were very different in organisation. All four were accepted by the British army eventually as a colonial version of PCANSR and none of the nurses in official contingents appear to have joined PCANSR as they were already deemed to have that status. The nurses operated at General Hospitals (500+ patients), Stationary Hospitals (100+ actually mobile trains), hospital trains, on hospital ships to the UK and troop transports taking convalescent soldiers home. Eventually there were 21 General Hospitals and 38 Stationary Hospitals in South Africa. Initially they experienced some resistance from the regular British Army Nursing Service and local nurses, but performed well in scattered groups or singly from Cape Town and Durban to Rhodesia and became highly regarded by their colleagues and superiors. Part of the early resistance was caused by professional suspicion and part the reaction to an influx of untrained enthusiasts who caused authorities consternation probably beyond what their numbers would indicate. Senior colonial nurses came to occupy important nursing administrative positions in the war. They nursed the wounded but found a higher proportion of cases suffered from diseases such as enteric fever (typhoid). Later in the war some Australian nurses would nurse in the difficult circumstances of the civilian concentration camps. Many nurses themselves would come to suffer Enteric fever and other diseases.

NSW already having an organised Army Nursing Service Reserve was the first to send an official group away. The original plan was to send twelve of the twenty four NSWANSR sisters under the command of Nellie Gould as Lady Superintendent. Two additional members were added prior to departure to make the total 14 after they had publically threatened to pay their own way to South Africa. The New South Wales nurses departed Sydney on the SS Moravian with the 2nd NSW contingent on 17 January 1900:

Ellen Julia (Nellie) Gould, Penelope Frater, Elizabeth Ward Lister, Nancy Newton, Mabel Steele, Julia Bligh Johnston, Anna Gardiner Garden, Marion Phillippa Martin, Elizabeth Nixon, Theresa Emily Woodward, Anne Austin, Eliza Emily Hoadley, Annie Jane Matchett, Bessie Mary Annie Pocock.

Whilst it is not clear as to the intentions it is likely that General French may have envisaged a relief going later in the war.

Arriving at Cape Town in February 1900, six went to the Base General Hospital (BGH) Wynberg, Cape Town, four to No 2 Stationary Hospital, East London, and four to the Field Hospital, Sterkstroom, serving with the NSW AMC. Following the advance from Bloemfontein they served at No 3 BGH, Kroonstad and No 2 BSH, Johannesburg. In August 1900 four were at No 17 BSH, Middelburg, No 6 BGH, Johannesburg, and then No 25 BSH, Johannesburg, from September 1901 to February 1902, then at No 31 BSH, Ermelo. Nellie Gould was placed in charge of nursing for the whole of the Orange River District.

In South Australia the government agreed to the creation of a South Australian Nursing Contingent under the supervision of Martha Bidmead however the entire organization and funding was paid for and controlled by a public committee. Nine nurses went from South Australia. Six of them, Martha Sarah Bidmead, Agnes G Cocks, Eliza Ann Watts, M A O'Shanahan, Agnes Maud Glenie and Amelia Bramleyn Stephenson were recruited and funded by the South Australian Fund for War Nurses (part of the Patriotic Fund movement), the patron of which was Lady Tennyson the wife of the governor. The army itself had nothing to do with the group which was regarded as civil and they travelled overland to embark as commercial passengers in Melbourne. They departed Adelaide 19 Feb 1900 by train for Melbourne and left Melbourne on the SS Australasian 21 Feb 1900 with the fourth detachment (third reinforcement draft - Captain Nicholson) of NSW Lancers.

The Government or at least Government House ensured that British military authorities in South Africa knew that they would be arriving and that they had official status.

It is not clear who paid their salaries if any but they were described on the British Medal roll as South Australian Nursing sisters and as Bidmead seems to have held a senior nursing administrative position in Bloemfontein it is reasonable to suppose that the War Office may have accepted responsibility. So as with Victoria and NSW they had comparatively few problems in acceptance as they were deemed to have official status.

Another South Australian B Elizabeth Milne was working in Western Australia and went as part of the official Western Australian Contingent

They served first at No2 General Hospital at Wynberg near Capetown, then were sent to No10 General Hospital at Bloemfontein. Later one was sent to each of Harrismith, Pretoria (No2 General) Cocks?, and Modder River. Sister Bidmead remained at HQ of No10 General Hospital in a senior administrative role with the remaining two nurses (E A Watts and M A O'Shanahan) at facilities supported by No10 General including No5 Stationery Bloemfontein. Sister Stephenson apparently did one tour of duty on the hospital ship SS Tagus to the UK whilst O'Shanahan may have been on the Orcana. Nursing duties included wounded Boers some of whom did not impress Sister Bidmead with their surly attitude.

They all arrived back during 1902 the last being E A Watts who did not return until late July 1902 having been retained for service by the British command

Three other South Australian nurses were involved in the war, sisters A Teesdale, A B Harris, and Samuels. It is not clear how they got to South Africa (one at least may have left from another state) but it is believed that they were there early in 1900.

On return the nurses sent by the South Australian Fund for War Nurses were all presented with the Devoted Service Cross. This was described as being in gold and being in the form of a Laurel Wreath overlayed by the crossed flags of the Union Jack and South Australia the whole suspended by two chains from a plain bar with the inscription '1901 Africa' 1902. On the reverse of the decoration was the inscription:

Presented to Nursing Sister XXXX
On behalf of the subscribers to the
South Australia Fund for War Nurses

Victoria, whilst not having a nursing reserve, essentially created one as its nursing group headed by Marianne Rawson, as superintendent was fully recognised by Victoria Barracks Melbourne and backed by the Commandant, General Downes, although their passages were paid for by public subscription. The group of ten nurses from Victoria went on the Euryalus with the 3rd Victorian Bushmen contingent on 10 March 1900:

Marianne Rawson, Frances Emma (Fanny) Hines, Ethel Mary Bernhard Smith, Annie Eliza Helen Thomson, Diana Tiddy, Ellen Walter, Dorothy F Smith, Eleanor Augusta Victoria Langlands, Isabel Ivey, Julia B Anderson.

The Argus newspaper noted before their departure that they would be paid by the War Office at the rate of £40 a year from the time they entered service in South Africa.

The ten nurses who accompanied the 3rd Victorian Contingent to South Africa went with the Euryalus to Beira in Portugese East Africa (Mozambique) where they took the first available train to Rhodesia. They were to be distributed among the newly formed hospitals in Rhodesia and with the prevalence of enteritis, dysentery, malaria, blackwater fever, measles, pneumonia and influenza, there was a great deal of work for them to do. By July 1900 the nurses were distributed at four centres: Marianne Rawson, Ellen Walter and Julia Anderson were in the military hospital at Hillside camp, Bulawayo; Diana Tiddy and Annie Thomson were in the Civic Hospital in Bulawayo. Dorothy and Bernhard Smith, Eleanor Langlands and Isabel Ivey were at Umtali and Frances Hines was at Enkeldoorn. It was expected that all would eventually be serving at Bulawayo, but this was not to be the case. Frances Hines came to Bulwayo where in August 1900 she contracted enteritis and died - the only casualty among the Victorian nurses, though all of them were ill at some stage. There were hospitals at Marandellas, Gwelo, Umtali, Fort Victoria, Fort Tuli and Bulawayo, and it was not uncommon for them to travel to these centres and assist the medical staff.

Sister Marianne Rawson was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her untiring energy in organising the nurses. She was ably assisted in administrative work by Sister Isabel Ivey who was mentioned-in-despatches. Both these hard-working women also performed their normal nursing responsibilities.

William Dobbin, in later writing to Lady Janet Clarke in her role as President of the Women's Hospital Committee in Victoria, had this to say about the brave women who volunteered as nurses:

"You have no doubt heard of all the misfortunes, disease, and discomfort encountered by the troops unfortunate enough to be sent to Beira, Marandellas, Bulawayo, etc. The nursing sisters were the only sisters who ventured into these districts, and they have indeed done more than their share of work. At times one, sometimes two, would be trekked off on a week's coaching journey to some fever-bed where the troops were falling ill, with possibly no accommodation but a deserted public house, and I have seen two sisters on their knees scrubbing and cleaning such a place to receive the patients, and in the middle of their work 10 or 12 sick and dying men dumped down from an ox wagon - no orderlies detailed, no native servants. The nurses would be obliged to take off some of their own clothing to make pillows for the sick men, and then go outside to cook food under a raging sun. They were never with us after Beira, but some of our troops and men from other contingents write and speak in most grateful terms of their ever-willing services.

I fear that they are all homesick, weary, and worn out, but General Carrington will not hear of any of them coming through to Pretoria or Johannesburg, where they would have the advantage of large and well-arranged institutes, and the usual leave or holidays. Of course, you have heard of the death of Sister Hines, who simply gave her life to the work of saving others. I have spoken to Lord Kitchener regarding these nurses, and as I am now in the office of the C.S.O., I am in hopes I can keep their claims before the authorities for removal to a more congenial and healthy district. They will have a sympathetic friend in Colonel [J.A.K.] Mackay, who has been appointed staff officer for Australians and New Zealanders. He came out in command of the last contingent from New South Wales [NSWIB], and is now in office here...He is quite in accord with me that the nurses deserve all reasonable consideration. Not only the Victorian Bushmen, but all the troops via Beira, feel they owe you, and all those who so generously assisted in equipping this body, a debt of gratitude, and are anxious you should be made aware of the magnificent work done by those selected." [The Argus, 19/3/1901] They were words well said and certainly deserved.

They accompanied the Bushmen contingent to Rhodesia and served at Salisbury, Fort Charter, Bulawayo, Hillside, Mafeting, Springfontein and Tuli. Nurse Hines died at Memorial Hospital, Bulawayo on 7 August 1900, the only Australian nurse to die in this war.

Western Australia also sent an official contingent, like South Australia it was organised by a patriotic committee in Perth chaired by Lady Forrest the wife of the Premier, fares were funded by donations and fund raising activities such as concerts. Any nursing contribution would have been a drain on a scarce resource in Western Australia. Eleven nurses were selected with Mary Ann Nicolay appointed matron for the trip. Nurses had to swear personal loyalty to the matron an indication of the unofficial nature of the enterprise. They also had no connection with the army embarking on the SS Salamis at Albany on 21st March 1900, (joining some New Zealand nurses and several independents from Queensland) under commercial terms rather than under military auspices at Fremantle. However either someone had blundered or little consideration was given to how they would get to South Africa as they were sent steerage class with as many as eight per room nor were they able to dine in saloon class as they had been promised. The muddle grew worse in South Africa as no one in Western Australia had thought to tell either the army or British authorities that they were coming or provide letters of introduction. They were dumped on the wharf at Capetown and left to fend for themselves. Fortunately the captain of a liner birthed nearby gave them cabins for the first night then they had to find and pay for their own hotel accommodation. It took about ten days before they were taken on strength by the British army as civilian employed nurses. Some months would elapse before British administration would catch up with them and reclassify them as members of a colonial nursing service in the same manner as other nursing contingents. Some sources have indicated that they were disbanded and absorbed into PCANSR but there is no evidence for this, the reality being that once identified as a colonial nursing service reserve they had that status. They were employed in the Natal area at Mooi River, Howick, Estcourt and Volksrust and Mary Ann Nicolay ended as senior administrator in the Natal area.

Emily Mann, an unsuccessful candidate for the official contingent may also have made her way to the front.

Missing from the photo is B E Brooks No1 GH, Wynberg, 4SH & GH Ladysmith 8GH Bloemfontein and 15 GH Howick (Sometimes it would appear called Isabella although it seems to be the same person)

Queensland right from the start was having nothing to do with nurses. Two nurses, Sisters Armstrong and Plover wrote or cabled the Queensland premier Robert Philp in late 1899 offering their services. These ladies at this time had been working in Western Australia but as that state appeared disinterested in sending a contingent at that time and they wanted to go with Queensland anyway, they pressed their offer. Nurse Armstrong and Nurse Plover were highly trained nurses from Dr Harre's Typhoid Unit at the Brisbane General Hospital when they approached Premier Philp and offered their medical skills to the conflict in South Africa. Instead of providing Government fares for the two nurses, Premier Philp refused their offer saying they would not be needed. Fortunately Nurse Armstrong and Nurse Plover knew better than Premier Robert Philp. They raised funds from friends and relatives and were selected as part of the official Western Australian contingent in March 1900. Their skills and knowledge were in constant demand. Dr Harre who had trained them was a world renowned medical expert on the treatment of typhoid. His book was reviewed in the Queenslander. It is a pity that an opportunity was lost to send a specialised typhoid unit to South Africa.

Later the Queensland premier would write letters of introduction for those Queensland nurses who were prepared to pay their own way to South Africa.

According to an article by Dr Conan Doyle (Sir Arthur) written for the British Medical Journal after he had served in the Hospitals at Bloemfontein, the typhoid epidemic that took so many lives during the first half of 1900, could have been reduced had the British authorities inoculated all the men sent to this conflict. Also according to articles and reports by Burdett-Coutts, a British MP and journalist, it appears that Governments and military authorities did not value the lives of the Soldiers of the Queen.

Tasmania also made no official effort to send a nursing contingent to the front although in at least the case of Robertson, Mansfield and White letters of introduction were provided by both the Premier and the State Governor which paved their way in South Africa.

Many nurses as they were not selected for the official contingents or came from states like Tasmania or Queensland who had no official nursing contingents paid their own way to South Africa. Others whose circumstances dictated that they could not enlist in Australia as they were overseas either enlisted in England or where they were or else paid their own way to South Africa and enlisted there. Often they were classed as locally enrolled although many eventually joined Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service (Reserve) or PCANSR. Below is a list of known nurses but there will be others who have not yet been identified. The list shows their known status and a little of their service (where known) but the material is not exhaustive.

Rhoda Gwyer (N), PCANSR; Janet Toshack (N) Civilian Nurse Camp Irene (Boer Concentration camp) near Pretoria then Burgher Hospital Johannesburg ; Miriam Pickburn (N) Civilian Nurse Camp Irene (Boer concentration camp) near Pretoria then Burgher Hospital Johannesburg; G Fletcher (N), PCANSR Known to have travelled with patients on SS Aurania as well as service in South Africa; E M McCarthy (N), PCANSR; Agnes McCready (N), Locally employed nurse was at Fort Napier Hospital Pietermaritzburg, also No 7 General Pretoria and later the convent hospital Estcourt (was also a correspondent for some Australian newspapers). McLay (N) (Middleburg), Dillon (N), E Hutchinson (N).

A R Chutt (V), PCANSR; Dora Burgess (V), PCANSR, General Maritzburg, No 7 General Pretoria No 12 Stationary Ladysmith, No 14 Stationary Maritzburg, No 21 Stationary Machadodorp and at Middleburg; Janey M Lempriere (V), Locally Employed nurse No 19 General Pretoria; R L Shappere (V),Locally enrolled then PCANSR, Sailed from South Australia prior to war for the Transvaal. She was in Ladysmith and at Johannesburg as well as Standerton with the Boers. Mrs Betty Kennedy (V) Estcourt.

A M Chatfield (Q), shown in some sources as a New Zealander. No 17 Stationary Hospital, Middleburg; R Annie Hinton (Q). Locally Employed Nurse in Natal 17 Dec 1899 No 24 Field Hospital Lydenburg; Beatrice Huston (Q) (also shown as Houston or Heuston in some sources), served at BFH, Rondebosch, Green Point, near Cape Town, where she nursed Boer prisoners; No 11 BFH, Kimberley, and at Somerset. Nellie Dean Redstone (Q) note claimed as a Queenslander by fellow nurses in the Boer War but was born in Gisborne New Zealand and is listed as a New Zealander.

Adelaide Teesdale (SA), PCANSR, No 1 General Wynberg departed to South Africa from the UK on the Moor. Margaret Coombe Birt (SA) No1 General Wynberg and Boer POW Camp St Helena.

Laura Evelyn Dawson (T), PCANSR Hospital Transport SS Nubia, No 14 Stationary Hospital and general hospital Pietermaritzburg, No 1 General Wynberg, No19 Stationary Harrisburg, and at Naauwpoort.; M A Grace (T), PCANSR; L Mansfield (T), Locally employed nurse, 15 Gen Hosp, Howich, 12 Stationary Hospital Ladysmith and General Hospital Ladysmith; Elizabeth Orr, (T) PCANSR including No 13 Stationary Pinetown Bridge; Lucy Hannah Maxwell O'Ryan (T), PCANSR 2, 6 General Hospitals, 19 General Hospital Pretoria, 15 General Hospital Howich and 13 Stationary Hospital Pinetown Bridge; M A (or MA) Robertson (T), PCANSR No5 General Hospital, Wynberg, Hospitals in Kimberley area; Mabel Gertrude Ashton Warner (T), PCANSR then British Army Nursing Service from 1900, served General Hospital Pretoria and at Kimberley; K O White (T). Civilian Nurse General Hospital Ladysmith

The following are believed to be Australians but it is not clear as to which State they originated from: Caroline Elinor Elizabeth Marsh, PCANSR Gertrude Roberts PCANSR No7 General Pretoria and No 14 Stationary Maritzburg; Sue Saunders (married name Airey). Maud Mavins PCANSR No19 General, Pretoria, A Wallace, Louise Feillon PRIOR locally employed nurse GH Maritzburg and No12 SH Ladysmith.

Following the war some British nurses migrated to Australia with their families. Examples being Mrs Francis Gallwey (Grace Marguerite Phillips, ANS) and Emily Annie Still Webster, PCANSR, No 14 General Hospital, Newcastle, South Africa (born Forbes NSW but brought up in Scotland and returned to Australia in her 80s).

Three Australian nurses were awarded the Royal Red Cross - Sisters Bidmead (SA), Nixon (NSW) and Rawson (Vic.) as well as Emma Maud McCarthy in British service; three were mentioned in Dispatches - Sisters Ivey (Vic.), Pocock (NSW) and Shappere (Vic.) and a fourth G Roberts in British service; and six received the Devoted Service Cross (SA) - Sisters Bidmead, Glenie, Cocks, O'Shanahan, Watts and Stephenson (SA).


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Text By Max Chamberlain, a member of the Anglo-Boer War Study Group of Australia, Margaret Klaassen, Robin Droogleever and David Deasey Images courtesy the NSW Lancers Memorial Museum and Robin Droogleever

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RUSI of NSW Boer War Battlefields