The horror of modern war was brought home to people in Australia as reports of appalling casualties and horrendous conditions on the Western Front filled newspapers. The German assault on Verdun in 1916 cost the lives of 370,000 French and more than 330,000 German soldiers. French morale was shattered and its army on the brink of mutiny.
The Allies realised that, without more support, French resistance might crumble and the war would be lost. As Australian troops were redeployed from the Middle East to shore up British positions along the Somme, attention turned to what might be done on the home front to provide further assistance.
In May 1916 the NSW branch of the Australian Red Cross proposed sending trained nurses to France to help alleviate a critical shortage of medical staff. The French Government readily agreed and the positions were advertised in the Sydney press.
Twenty of the 90 applicants were chosen. The group was transported by the Defence Department, although it did not recognise the nurses as on official duty. The Australian Jockey Club agreed to pay the nurses wages equal to what they would have received in the military. This arrangement was for six months, but was generously extended until the end of the war and again until most of the soldiers returned in 1919.
The nurses known as “Bluebirds” wore a uniform of navy blue with a “New South Wales” light blue trim provided by retailer David Jones.
In France the Bluebirds were split up and assigned to different hospitals. They were reportedly very popular with both doctors and patients. Their popularity aided no doubt by the fact that the selection criteria included an ability to speak French. Their fluency was improved by the inclusion of a French tutor, who travelled with the group on their six-week voyage to France.
The Bluebirds received little official recognition in Australia for their outstanding and selfless work. They were not awarded medals, nor did they receive compensation for injuries and medical conditions sustained as a result of their service. As volunteers there was no payment of personal costs and no pension. When they returned they were simply expected to resume their lives as though nothing had happened.
In 1920 a grateful French Government awarded the Bluebirds the “Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française”(Medal of France’s Gratitude).
The women of the Australian Red Cross Bluebirds were (first names provided where possible): Grace Sheridan, Minnie Hough, Hilda Loxton, Alice E.Robinson, Fanny Harris, Alice McKillop, Lillian Fraser Thompson, Olive Norman, Elfreda Warner, Sutherland, Helen Wallace, Lynette Crozier, Mary Hungerford, Nellie Crommelin, Jessie Hutchinson, Alice Fullerton Gray, Annie Jamieson, Elsie Cook, Dorothy Duffy, Ida J. Moreton, Susan M Hughes and Mrs Keith Murray.
Andrew West (Ref: Australian War Memorial)