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Sister Julia Bligh Johnston: NSW Army Nursing Service - Boer War

(Adapted with permission from John Miller’s 2006 book “Sister Julia Bligh Johnston RRC – Hawkesbury Angel of Mercy” $14 inc p+p from the Author, PO Box 495, Windsor NSW 2756)

Julia was born on 2 August 1861 on Spring Hill farm near Windsor where she spent childhood learning and enjoying the practicalities of family life through flood, fire and drought on their farm. Her father, James, born during the Rum Rebellion, had been given the middle name Bligh to show support for the Governor who had been helpful in the development of the Hawkesbury Valley region. He burdened Julia with the name, as the first born in the next generation.

Julia was a bright student at both Windsor primary and Ashfield Ladies College. It is thought that she began nursing at the Hawkesbury hospital but started her two-year formal training at Launceston General Hospital when aged 25, graduating in 1888. Little is known of her career until her name appears as Senior Sister at Sydney Hospital in 1899. This is the same year that Colonel WDC Williams, Principal Medical Officer of the colony of NSW’s army, got government permission to set up the NSW Army Nursing Service Reserve with Matron Ellen (Nellie) J Gould as its Lady Superintendent (equivalent to Major). Gould must already have been familiar with Julia Bligh Johnston’s qualities as a nurse and administrator and chose her as her deputy, with the title Superintendent/Matron, (Captain). It was to be a lifelong professional association.

The training regime for the 26 already qualified nurses who were selected emphasised the military aspects, both organisational and in treating wounds and accidents in the field with minimum facilities and maximum resourcefulness. Colonel Williams had taken a company of the NSW Army Medical Service to the Sudan war (1885) and learned a great deal from his unit’s association with the British Medical Service. Patients were assessed and treated by doctors and orderlies in the front line, passed back by stretcher-bearers to field stations, by ambulances to stationary hospitals and finally by train to base hospitals in an orderly manner. Part-time training had been going for only six months when the Boer War began. Fourteen of these young women immediately volunteered. Their training intensified as the waited for the Second NSW Contingent to assemble to sail from Sydney early in the first year of the new century.

Lady Supt Nellie Gould led her immaculately turned-out nurses wearing their grey floor-length dress with chocolate facings and white collar, topped with a red cape and white cap with attached veil in the parade (behind the 108-strong company of the NSW Army Medical Corps, commanded by Lt Col RV Kelly) through the streets of Sydney on 17 January 1900 to join the troopship Moravian. The rest of the second NSW contingent to go to South Africa included A Battery of the Royal (NSW) Australian Artillery and the 1st NSW Mounted Rifles, though they sailed on different ships.

The Moravian docked at Cape Town on February 19, 1900; by coincidence the day British troops relieved the besieged town of Ladysmith. Lady Supt Gould’s orders were to divide her small group and send them in different directions a great distance apart. They would not all be working with, as they had supposed, the NSW Army Medical Corps. Instead six were dispatched a short distance south of Cape Town to the British General Hospital at Wynberg. Eight were shipped back to the east coast city of East London where four, led by Sister Bessie Pocock, were assigned to the Base Hospital there. Only Nellie Gould, her deputy Julia Bligh Johnston, their firm friend Penelope Frater and two others were to work, at least initially, with the NSW Army Medical Corps when they were posted to the Stationary Hospital at Sterkstroom about 250 km north west of East London.


Back row, left to right: Sister Annie Austin; Sister Elizabeth Ward Lister; Sister Mabel Steele; Sister Emily Hoadley; Sister Bessie Pocock; Sister Marion Martin.
Middle row: Sister Annie Matchett; Superintendent Julia Bligh Johnston; Lady Superintendent Ellen I. (Nellie) Gould;
Front row: Sister Elizabeth Nixon (awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal); Sister Penelope Frater; Sister Anna Garden; Sister Nancy Newton; Sister Therese Woodward.
Gould, Johnston, Pocock, and Frater nursed again 1914-1918 with the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service.
The New South Wales Government was the only one of the colonial governments to pay the fares and salaries of nurses for South Africa.

This temporary hospital was closest to a front line in the Eastern Cape, only a short train ride from Colenso, site of one of the major battles lost by the British troops in “Black Week”, 4 – 15 December 1899, just two months earlier. In just a week British troops had not only lost at Colenso, but had also been defeated at Stormberg and Magersfontein and their garrisons in the three inland towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith were under siege. General Gatacre’s troops were in the area but many of his soldiers were in the hospital as a result of wounds, accidents and illnesses associated with drinking contaminated water. In her report Lady Supt Nellie Gould noted

“they were mostly Irish troops and bonny lovable personalities they were too. Here we met our first Australian soldier who passed on. He was only with us five days and during that time we noticed some roses brought by a kindly clergyman from Queenstown… Under his pillow we found a little prayer book which later, I had the pleasure of returning to the donor, his particular friend at home. Thirty-one graves mark our short stay of three months…”

The British commenced their advance in the northern part of the Orange Free State, near the provincial border with the Transvaal. Julia Bligh Johnston’s group began the long train journey passing north passing through Bloemfontein, itself still recovering from the devastation during Black Week where still there were still many wounded and ill soldiers and the stench of death. They were bound for their posting at Kroonstad. From Nellie Gould’s report:

“Here we nursed in connection with No. 3 British General Hospital (BGH) in a large Dutch Church, and we were quartered in an old corn store where at night rats scampered over us. We boarded with a family who were none too loyal but they did their best for our creature comforts. One tin of condensed milk had to do nine of us for one month, but who cared?”

The Chief Medical Officer at Kroonstad BGH wanted two NSW nurses to stay to look after a small exclusive hospital for British officers. Four of the original nine had already been posted to No. 17 Stationary Hospital at Middelburg in the Transvaal, and Gould wanted the remaining five, including Julia Bligh Johnston, to stay together. They were posted as a group to No. 6 BGH at Johannesburg. Despite having nursed troops from many British and colonial regiments as well as those Boers who had been captured for the last six months, their reception was frosty. Nellie Gould reported:

“On handing in my papers to the Principal Medical Officer he groaned, ‘My God, Australian Sisters, what shall we do?’ On my asking the reasons, he said, they did require help but he understood we could not work with the Royal Army Medical (RAMC) Sisters. Upon my assuring him that we not only could but would with pleasure, he sent for the Superintendent, Sister Oram, who was to my mind then, exceptional, and she has never come off that pedestal.”

Working conditions in the rows of tent wards were tough. The five NSW nurses shared duties with 30 RAMC nurses looking after 1,200 beds, which meant 14 hour shifts for 18 months until they were posted further north to the eastern Transvaal, to a desolate place called Ermelo, to No. 35 Stationary Hospital, as the war ground into its third year. Lady Supt Gould’s report again:

“[Ermelo] a bare hillside at the end of sixty miles of blockhouses. We were nursing the sick from 2,000 troops about there. Mostly typhoid and yellow jaundice. Here we saw the start of seven columns [of British troops] which took part in the last drive of the war and here we saw the Boers come in to surrender arms. No bitterness on either side.” The Peace Treaty was to be signed at Vereeniging, about 200 miles west of Ermelo, on 31 May 1902. Julia Bligh Johnston and the other 13 NSW nurses had been in South Africa for nearly the entire two and a half years of the war. This was ironic, since most of the Australian soldiers served only one-year terms, although many re-enlisted to serve longer. But even then the nurses were not repatriated because there was so much work to do looking after the Boer people who had been interned as well as the wounded and sick of both sides who were too ill to be immediately returned to wherever ‘home’ was.

It was not until the end of July 1902 that their war was over and all 14 boarded the troopship Montrose, to at last sail through Sydney Heads on 2 August.

When WW1 broke out in 1914, Julia Bligh Johnston – then aged 53 – together with Nellie Gould, Penelope Frater and Bessie Pocock, volunteered again and all had distinguished nursing careers overseas for the whole of WW1.

For her work in the Boer War Julia was awarded the Queen Victoria South Africa medal and the King Edward VII South Africa medal.

By the end of WW1 she had earned the Royal Red Cross medal, the ANZAC Star 1914-15, George V Great War medal 1914-19, the Victory medal and a Palm Leaf (signifying that her deeds had been Mentioned in Dispatches).

Sister Julia Bligh Johnston died on 23 June 1940 aged 78. She was cremated at the Northern Suburbs crematorium and her ashes placed in the AIF Memorial Wall at Woronora in Sydney’s southern suburbs.

Source: John Miller. 2006. Sister Julia Bligh Johnston RRC … and her Australian Army Nursing Sisters – A Hawkesbury Angel of Mercy. For more complete and detailed information about Julia in WW1 and after, copies are available from the author, PO Box 495, Windsor, NSW 2756, $14 incl p+p.
Photograph from "NSW Contingents to the Boer War" - 1900, NSW Lancers Memorial Museum collection

Keith Smith - March 2010

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