The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Sister Rose Shappere

Rose Shappere was born in Ballarat in 1859 or 1860, the daughter of Solomon Shappere, a watchmaker and his wife Catherine Asher. In the late 1860s the family moved to Timaru in New Zealand where Rose grew up. Strong contacts had been kept up in Melbourne and part of the family became resident there. Throughout her life Rose was committed publically to the Jewish faith and said so openly in press interviews.

On growing up Rose first became a teacher in Timaru before deciding that she wanted a nursing career. This appears to have occurred at about the same time as the family moved back to Melbourne about 1890. Much against family wishes she began nursing training in Melbourne, first at the Homeopathic Hospital then later at the Prince Alfred Hospital. Her training was complete by 1893 and she worked with medical practitioners as a private nurse initially. She then spent twelve months working at Perth and Kalgoorlie hospitals and by early 1899 she was working at Adelaide hospital. As the situation in South Africa became increasingly more serious most people accepted that trouble was on the way. It is unlikely that Rose understood the implications of the outbreak of war but she believed that her nursing skills would be necessary whatever happened in the Transvaal. She arrived in Johannesburg via Durban sometime between June and August 1899 and began work at Johannesburg hospital. She seems to have believed that medical staff would be neutrals in time of war. When the war broke out she joined a Boer Field ambulance operating from Standerton. She discovered that the Boer Ambulance was not neutral and stated that she was instructed that the ambulance was only to treat Boer wounded. Now understanding what the war would mean she resigned from the Ambulance although Commandant Eloff (Kruger's grandson) offered her a large sum to stay on. After tidying up nursing administration in Standerton she headed for Delagoa Bay in Portuguese Mozambique. She eventually reached Natal by sea and travelled by train to Ladysmith as the siege was beginning. She records that the train she was travelling in was shelled by the Boers but no one was injured.

At Ladysmith British authorities initially appeared disinterested in the service of nurses maintaining that the siege would be short lived and as civilians they would not be able to cope with the requirements of the army. Nursing positions would be filled much better by semi trained male orderlies. There was no place for women in the combat area. Eventually the nurses were accepted and the town hall became a makeshift hospital. As the siege grew in seriousness the hospital was moved to a neutral area under tented accommodation at Intombi about five miles from Ladysmith to remove it from direct shelling.

It was not much better and she recalled this time later, "Then it was that our troubles began. The most harrowing experiences I have ever undergone were in connection with this siege. They talk of the sieges of Kimberley and Mafeking, but they were nothing at all compared to Ladysmith. We saw our men dying around us, and could do nothing for them. Because the conditions under which we had to work were so terrible. The tents were badly pitched, they were blown away by the wind, and the pelting rain came through, drenching the patients as they lay in their beds. We nurses had to go from tent to tent under the enemy's fire, because there were so few orderlies to attend to the men. And to make matters worse the food was bad, and there was nothing like sufficient comforts for the sick and wounded. No one will ever know all that we suffered during that terrible time. We thought that we should never come out alive and in moments of despair-some of us almost hoped that the Boers would come and take us prisoners, for then we should have been better cared for."

The siege lasted for 118 days and rations became very short. Rose later recalled; "Our daily ration for the last fortnight or three weeks (of the siege) consisted of one sixth ounce of tea, 30 gm sugar, 1 kg of bread made from mealies (not really edible) or 1 kg bully beef. Sometimes in place of tea we got awful coffee and at 7 pm a cup of horseflesh soup and it was generally bad. In Ladysmith they had it made into sausages but by the time we got it, it was high. Breakfast 7.30 black tea and bread. Dinner 1 pm meat and a little rice, 4 pm black tea and at 7 pm soup. Imagine working in wards like a Trojan on that diet often until 10 pm at night."

Whilst at Ladysmith she met up with her brother, Corporal Harry Shappere, a British regular of 'A' Battery Royal Field Artillery, neither had known of each others presence in Ladysmith. Harry would be invalided to England with enteric after the siege ended. (When he retired from the British Army he seems to have resided at Bondi, NSW for the rest of his life.)

Following the lifting of the siege she was in such a poor condition that she was sent to the coast to recuperate on the Princess Christian Hospital train. Later she would work in a variety of hospitals including Capetown (5 General Hospital), Woodstock, Winberg, Elandsfontein (16 General Hospital), Bloemfontein (8 General Hospital) and Johannesburg. Medal rolls at the beginning of 1901 note her as a locally enrolled nurse and eligible for the QSA with the clasps Orange Free State and Cape Colony. She herself at the end of the war believed that she was entitled to four QSA clasps probably meaning those already mentioned plus Defence of Ladysmith and Transvaal. But it was not to be as the medal rolls had been ruled out and the notation added of the directive that deprived nurses generally of clasps. The War Office did not consider that women were real soldiers and nurses only ever received the QSA without operation clasps. The medal rolls at this point list her as a locally enrolled nurse. After recovering she was assigned as nursing superintendent on the 'Tagus', a hospital ship conveying invalids to England. She returned to South Africa on the 'Carisbrook Castle'. In all she made three such trips, the others being on the 'Assaye' and 'Avoca'. At some point in this activity she was appointed to the Princess Christian Army Nursing Service Reserve moving from the status of a locally enrolled nurse. It is not clear that records ever caught up with this move. She returned briefly to Melbourne in January 1901 but returned to South Africa with the 5th Victorian Contingent (5VMR) on board the 'Orient' departing 15 February 1901.

She was an inveterate autograph hunter and boasted those of Lord Roberts, generals Knox, Cleary, Brocklehurst, Baden-Powell and Sir George Grey amongst others.

She again returned to Melbourne for a visit in January 1902 on board the 'Ophir' and again returned to the war.

She was most likely eligible on her service not only for the Queen's South African medal but also for the Kings South African Medal although it is not clear that this was awarded. Newspapers at the time (SMH 19/6/1902) claimed that she had been gazetted as being awarded the Royal Red Cross (RRC) on the recommendation of Sir George Grey and had been mentioned in despatches by General Sir Redvers Buller, however there is no evidence for this and it does not appear in the RRC records but perhaps a lesser decoration was awarded. She returned to Melbourne yet again in June of 1902 on board the 'Warrigal'.

After the war she went back to civilian nursing first back in Johannesburg. Nursing continued in two London hospitals 1904-05 including the Western General Dispensary and it was reported in the press that she had been appointed matron of the Queen Victorian Memorial Hospital in Nice. She does not seem to have remained long there if she took up the position as she appears to have been back in Melbourne sometime in 1907 as matron of the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Heidelburg, Victoria.

In 1908 she married Edmund Julius Elkan (also spelt Elman or Elkin in some documents) when her address was Albert Park, Melbourne. She does not seem to have continued nursing after her marriage. She died in South Yarra in 1943 at the age of 84.

David Deasey 2011


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