The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Dame Emma Maud McCarthy

Dame EMMA MAUD McCARTHY, (1859-1949), was a Australian nursing sister and British army matron-in-chief who began her military service in the Boer War. Due to her serving in British Forces her contribution is often overlooked in Australia. McCarthy was one of the foundation members of the British Army Nursing Service. She was born on 22 September 1859 at Paddington, Sydney, eldest child of William Frederick McCarthy, solicitor, and his Sydney-born wife Emma Mary, née à Beckett, niece of Sir William and Thomas Turner à Beckett. Maud was educated at a school run by Lady Murray, wife of Sir Terence Murray, known as Springfield College, Sydney. She passed with honours, the University of Sydney's senior examination which entitled her to university entrance at Sydney. Due it seems to family issues she did not take this up. After her father's death in 1881 she helped her mother to rear her brothers and sisters.

By 1891 she was in England and on 10 October, giving her previous occupation as 'companion' and her age as 28, she entered London Hospital, Whitechapel, to begin general nursing training as a probationer. She appears to have taken four years from age at this time which makes her world war one achievements all the more remarkable. Hospital records state that 'she had an exceptionally nice disposition' and was 'most ladylike and interested in her work' though 'she found it hard to control others, or to take firm action when necessary'. She was promoted sister in January 1894.

Maud McCarthy was sister-in-charge of Sophia women's ward at the outbreak of the South African War and was one of the six sisters selected from London Hospital by Princess Alexandra to go to South Africa as her own 'military' nursing sisters. Resigning from the hospital on 25 December 1899, McCarthy served with distinction throughout 1899-1902 with the Army Nursing Service Reserve, receiving the Queen's and the King's Medal and the Royal Red Cross. Returning to England in July 1902, she was awarded a special decoration by Queen Alexandra. She then became involved in the formation of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, was promoted matron within the service in February 1903 and during the next seven years was successively matron of Aldershot, Netley and Millbank military hospitals. In 1910 she was appointed principal matron at the War Office, a position she held until the outbreak of World War I. During the summer of 1914, she was a ‘Lady-in-Waiting’ while working as Principal Matron at the War Office, she was appointed next Matron-in-Chief of QAIMNS, to take effect from the 22 September 1914, on the retirement of the then current Matron-in-Chief, Ethel Becher. This was deferred until the end of the war

On Wednesday, 12 August 1914, Surgeon-General McPherson wrote to McCarthy:

I am directed to inform you that you have been appointed Principal Matron, Lines of Communication, Expeditionary Force, and to request that you will report yourself to the Officer in Charge, No.2 General Hospital, Aldershot, not later than 4 p.m. today, Wednesday.

I am to add that you will be at the disposal of the Deputy Director of Medical Services, Lines of Communication, as above.

Matron McCarthy sailed in the first ship to leave England with members of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France on 12 August 1914. In 1915 she was installed at Abbeville as matron-in-chief of the B.E.F. in France and Flanders, taking charge of the whole area from the Channel to the Mediterranean, wherever British and allied nurses worked; she was directly responsible to General Headquarters. In August 1914, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service was just 299 members strong, its Nursing Sisters scattered across the world. In addition there were about 200 members of the QAIMNS Reserve, prepared to mobilise at 24 hours notice, 2,117 members of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, ready to leave their civilian employment and mobilise within 48 hours, and about another 600 nurses promised by civil hospitals to augment the military nursing services if needed. Other than the ‘regular’ members of QAIMNS, virtually none of these women had any experience of working in military hospitals, and apart from the few who had served during the Boer War, no previous encounters with active service conditions. By the time of the Armistice there were over 6,000 under her command. She was responsible for the nursing of hundreds of thousands of casualties in the years 1914-18. She essentially was involved in building the nursing organisation from scratch. An indefatigable leader and administrator, she visited field units, casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, hospital ships and stationary and general hospitals. The constant shortage of trained nurses, continual postings of staff, and personnel requirements of individuals were handled with tact and skill. She was the only head of a department in the B.E.F. who remained in her original post throughout the war, although she was off duty with appendicitis in March-August 1917. She was appointed G.B.E. in 1918, received a Bar to her Royal Red Cross and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Belgian Medaille de la Reine Elizabeth, and the French Légion d'honneur and Medaille des Epidémies. When she left France on 5 August 1919, representatives from the French government and the medical services saw her off. She personally wrote the Nursing Corps war diary which is considered quite a literary master piece by scholars. The meticulous records kept since her arrival in France were taken to England with her.

Describing the matron-in-chief during the war, one general said: 'She's perfectly splendid, she's wonderful … she's a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster-General, she'd work it, she'd run the whole Army, and she'd never get flustered, never make a mistake. The woman's a genius'. A contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1914 referred to her as a 'slight, delicately-organised woman' with 'an absolutely wonderful gift for concentrated work, and a power of organisation that has made her invaluable in army hospital work'. She was matron-in-chief, Territorial Army Nursing Service, from 1920 until her retirement in 1925. Dame Maud McCarthy died at her home at Chelsea, London, on 1 April 1949. A pastel portrait by Austin Spare is in the Imperial War Museum.

Select Bibliography

J. Piggott, Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Lond, 1975); Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1914; personal record of E. M. McCarthy (London Hospital, Whitechapel, London); private information. More on the resources

Author: Perditta M. McCarthy

Print Publication Details: Perditta M. McCarthy, 'McCarthy, Dame Emma Maud (1859 - 1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 218-219.
 


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