The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was formed in 1903 by amalgamating the nursing services of the colonial-era militaries. It was initially set up as a Reserve to provide a pool of trained nurses. It operated in peacetime as an auxiliary unit, with little consideration of how well it integrated with the remainder of the A.I.F. Lacking funds and proper planning, it failed to attract sufficient nurses, despite the pleas of leading doctors to expand the Service.

When war broke out in 1914 there was an immediate response to the call for trained nurses to enlist in the AANS. More volunteers applied than there were available positions. Over the period of the war, 2,286 women joined the A.I.F. for overseas service. Hundreds more applied but were directed to home service in Australian hospitals.  

Some unsuccessful applicants travelled to England at their own expense to volunteer in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service and work in English hospitals. Others joined privately funded groups, such as the NSW “Bluebirds” which provided nurses to French hospitals.

The AANS had several requirements. Applicants had to be between the ages of 25-40. They needed to be educated, preferably fluent in French, and most importantly, they had to be unmarried.

In 1916 the Nursing Service became part of the Army Medical Corps, which included doctors, ambulance men and orderlies. Nurses were commissioned as officers in the AIF, although their pay was about half that of their male counterparts. Nurses also received a subsidy towards the cost of their uniforms, which they had to provide themselves. Most survived with money received from their families back in Australia.

Historically, the Nursing Service and its members have not received the recognition their members deserve. While the names of soldiers, sailors and airmen are memorialised on honour rolls throughout the country, there are very few names of nurses, although undoubtedly many more than this served in the war.

The Concord War Memorial, for example, is described as a “Pavilion of Honor for the Nurses, Soldiers and Sailors of the district” who served their country in the Great War. Only two nurses are listed at the end of a list of several hundred soldiers. The same may be said of the Drummoyne War Register which also commemorates only two nurses in an even longer list of men.

There may be various reasons for this disparity. But a key one for historians, as much as for family genealogists, is that the records for nurses in the armed forces are fragmented and often lack the detail associated with soldiers’ service records.

Sister Lilian Kathleen Robertson’s name does not appear on the Drummoyne War Register, despite her association with the district. Born in New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in September 1890, she was the youngest of ten children. Her father, Rev. Hugh Angus Robertson, was a missionary on the island of Erromango. The family moved to Sydney in the same year as she was born, when Rev. Robertson was appointed Presbyterian chaplain at Parramatta Gaol.

Lilian trained at Royal North Shore Hospital, completing her in training in 1914. She applied to enlist in the AANS in May 1917 and embarked for the Middle East on RMS “Mooltan” in June of that year. Her attestation states her address as “Melrose”, Wright Road, Drummoyne. She was appointed as Staff Nurse at No. 14 Australian General Hospital in Egypt before her promotion to Sister by the end of the war. She returned to Australia in January 1920.

On her return, Lillian Robertson worked as a nurse in a government-run Baby Health Centre. She married Harry Johnson of Chatswood in 1936 and moved from 29 Drummoyne Avenue, Drummoyne to Crows Nest, where she lived until her passing in January 1972.

Sister Winifred Mary Beryl Law was born in Balmain West (Rozelle) in September 1885. Her father, James Law, a draper, was listed as her next of kin. Winifred Law trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital between 1908 and 1912. She was one of the first to enlist in July 1915 and was sent to Egypt as part of the No.1 Australian General Hospital Reinforcements.

In her application she stated that she had been Matron of Merriwa Cottage Hospital and Acting Matron of Scone Hospital. Joining the Service with the rank of Staff Nurse, she was quickly promoted to Sister and recommended for a Mention in Dispatches award.

Winifred Law returned to Australia in August 1919. She lived for many years in Marlborough Street, Drummoyne, later marrying George Rae Cooper of Drummoyne. Her name appears on the Drummoyne Register of War Service. She died in May 1976.

The photograph shows New South Wales Nurses who are about to sail to take up duties at No. 2 Australian General Hospital, England. The AANS also served in India, Egypt, France, Belgium and Greece.

There are other names of nurses associated with Canada Bay but, for the most part, they have received little public recognition and they seem destined to remain just names beyond their immediate family.

-Andrew West

NOTE: The Canada Bay Heritage Museum is currently compiling biographies of all servicemen and women from World War I associated with the district. We welcome any information you may have in regard to these men and women. Please help us to ensure they are not forgotten.

* An epithet bestowed on the AANS by the wounded soldiers evacuated to Salonika from Gallipoli


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