As centenary commemorations of World War I have drawn to a close, a Shoalhaven historian Robyn Florance has looked at the efforts of many of the women left behind, while the menfolk were fighting overseas.
Shoalhaven Women Heroines of WWI documents the efforts of the many thousands of South Coast women, including three Milton-Ulladulla heroines, who made a big contribution to Australia's war effort without even leaving home.
The women were expected to to keep things going at home.
A number of women enlisted and served as nurses in WWI. Nearly 3000 women, including a number from the Shoalhaven, served during the conflict.
Women back home played a major role in a number of organisations - every town and village had a Red Cross Branch or Circles as they were also known.
Women produced millions of pounds worth of in-kind support through volunteer labour and goods, sending an astonishing volume of goods overseas to servicemen and prisoners of war.
“Participating in this type of activity provided an outlet for women, many of whom had farewelled fathers, husbands, brothers to the war effort and in many cases didn't know their fates, but were denied other avenues of contributing to the war effort, available to their sisters closer to the front,” Mrs Florance said.
“It also allowed them a more personal and individual meaning, importantly providing companionship and solace they endured during the many long years of waiting.
“And the anxiety and of course the all to frequent news of the death or injury of their menfolk.”
It wasn’t like today’s virtually instantaneous communications - it could take months for letters or news from the front to arrive home.
Mrs Florance said her research had unearthed some “fascinating stories”.
“This was a chance to tell local women’s wartime experiences whether they were in active service or in some supporting role at home or abroad,” she said.
“They are stories of courage, endurance, talent, of enterprise and kindness.”
The war not only changed the lives of the men who fought but also of the women left behind.
Local women were also active in the Voluntary Aid Detachment and War Workers’ League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
They also played significant roles in patriotic efforts, undertaking fundraising and recruiting activities.
Mrs Florance has featured nurses from the Shoalhaven who went to war, the various local organisations who supported those servicing like the Red Cross Society, The War Workers’ League, Allied Babies’ Kit Society, the knitters, the patriotic fundraisers and the establishment of the South Coast Red Cross Convalescent Home in Bomaderry.
She also highlighted inspirational local nurse Sister Sarah Melanie de Mestre, Milton’s “Angel of Mercy” Sister Kitty Porter, dedicated community workers Helen Ashton OBE and Emma Bice, Nowra Red Cross champion Nea Rodway OBE, Berry’s Ida Lewers, known as The Diggers Friend, the remarkable efforts of Susannah “Gertie” Roberts, Kangaroo Valley/Barrengarry’s Annie Brooks, Bomaderry Red Cross worker Elizabeth Copeland, Nowra centenarian Barbara Grant, benefactor to the poor and needy Bella Mackenzie, staunch Temperance worker Mary Jamieson-Williams, prominent Terara Red Cross worker Sybil Mackenzie Elder, volunteer cook Janet Monaghan, talented musician Maude Oliver, volunteer helper Bertha Capel, Kangaroo Valley’s Edith Campbell, known as the Soldiers’ Friend, Kangaroo Valley Red Cross worker Harriet Lumsden, patriotic worker Fanny Caines, an Ulladulla native and later Pyree and Nowra resident, Ulladulla’s Agnes Gruer, volunteer Annie “Pearl” Coulthart and Numbaa Red Cross worker Amelia “Millie” Mackay,
The book takes us on a journey through another time where patriotism and community work where the norm.
But many of those featured in the 68 pages if Shoalhaven Women Heroines of WWI certainly went above and beyond.
In coming weeks we publish excerpts from the book including some of the profiles of the incredible women featured. The first (below) is Sarah Melanie de Mestre.
Shoalhaven Women Heroines of WWI by Robyn Florance is available at the Nowra, Berry and Kangaroo Valley museum for $10.
Sarah Melanie de Mestre – “An inspirational nurse”
Sarah Melanie de Mestre was born on February 8, 1877 in the Shoalhaven, the fifth child and elder daughter of Andre de Mestre and his wife August Ann Noyes.
Sarah was educated locally and in 1894 was employed at Miss Liggins’ College for Girls at North Sydney, as a teacher.
After five years at this position she resigned and started her nursing career at Prince Alfred Hospital (not Royal until 1903) on February 10, 1901.
She graduated on March 3, 1903 and gained her Dispensary and Midwifery Certificates in January 1906.
She left Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on November 27, 1912 to become Matron of Armidale Hospital.
At the outbreak of World War 1, an expedition called the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force (AN and MEF) was sent to the German colonies in the Pacific including Rabaul.
Accompanying the force was the Grantala, the first to be fitted out as an Australian hospital ship during World War 1.
Just days after the declaration of war on August 5, 1914, the ship Grantala was taken over by the Royal Australian Navy.
It was converted into a hospital ship within three weeks, with room for 300 patients, and renamed Hospital Ship No. VIII.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in August 1914 that friends on shore have sent gifts of books and tobacco, cards and games, and other presents and comforts for the wounded soldiers.
Keen to have the opportunity of serving overseas Sarah resigned her position as Matron at Armidale Hospital and requested to join the Grantala crew.
The ship carried six nursing sisters and one matron.
The matron was selected by the Dean of the Medical School at Sydney University, in conjunction with the Matron of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Sydney.
Sarah was appointed Matron in charge of six other nursing sisters: Rachel Clouston, Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie, Florence Elizabeth McMillan, Bertha E. Burtinshaw, Constance Neale and Stella Lillian Colless - all specially selected nurses from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
The nurses were required to purchase their own uniforms, a procedure made necessarily complex because they were given no guidance as to their likely destination or climate.
Half an hour after leaving Sydney, they were told that their first port of call would be Townsville.
The Grantala left Sydney on August 30, 1914 for Rabaul and arrived on September 13.
Within an hour of arrival, the wounded were brought aboard. They included two sailors with gunshot wounds received in the previous days’ action.
The initial number of patients being very small – between 20 and 30 and mainly suffering from gunshot wounds to the limbs, although the medical officers’ journal mentioned that 10 sailors from Australia and two from the rifle companies were admitted as in patients.
Several days later when the French cruiser Montcalm arrived at Rabaul, some of her wounded were also transferred to the Grantala.
On October 4, 1914, the Grantala along with other ships in the squadron was ordered to Suva and remained there for nine weeks, until the German Squadron was defeated near the Falkland Islands.
On arrival at Suva, Grantala admitted 13 patients from Australia with influenza, together with some other sailors with minor injuries.
Another 10 patients were admitted from accompanying merchant colliers.
In anticipation of a naval action with the likelihood of many casualties, Grantala’s crew spent the time in the harbour practising casualty drills using the ship’s lifeboats and coming alongside a warship to receive patients
The Grantala was then ordered to return to Sydney and the nursing sisters were discharged on December 22, 1914.
The nursing sisters who served on Grantala were keen for further active service. When they returned to Sydney they were told that it was most unlikely that further nurses would be sent abroad.
The nurses’ experience on Grantala hindered rather than helped their later wartime careers.
Sarah told the official medical historian of World War I “I may say that I had on return to reapply for active service and our work on this ‘Expedition’ did not count towards our seniority in the AIF”.
She subsequently served overseas with the Australian Army Nursing Services, as did four other nurses from the Grantala.
In 1920 the Naval Board recognised that although the sisters had originally enlisted as civilians their service should be recognised as a naval service and they were awarded Returned Sailors badges.
Sarah returned to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital as a relieving sister until she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) at Sydney on April 26, 1915.
She was 38 years of age.
She named her father Andre de Mestre, of Greenwell Point, as her next of kin.
She embarked from Sydney on board the transport RMS Mooltan on May 15, 1915. She joined the 3rd Australian General Hospital staff and was one of the earliest nurses on Lemnos, where the Gallipoli casualties received treatment, entitling her to wear the Anzac colours.
The officer commanding No. 3 was Colonel T.H. Fiaschi, DSO, VD, and the Matron Miss Grace M. Wilson, former Matron of the Brisbane Hospital.
The hospital was equipped with 1,040 beds, and its medical staff included some of the leading medical men in Australia.
The nursing staff included matrons of some the smaller hospitals and sisters from all the larger hospitals.
At the close of the Gallipoli offensive, she continued here self-sacrificing work at this hospital when it went to Egypt and thence to Brighton, England and for the latter two years was stationed in France.
She transferred to France, on April 15, 1917 where she was second in charge of the No. 2 Australian General Hospital at Abbeville.
While attached to the 3AGH, she had three separate tours of duty with No. 46 Casualty Clearing Station.
She was awarded the 2nd Class Royal Red Cross in recognition of her valuable services with the armies in France and Flanders on June 4, 1918; one of the highest honours awarded to military nurses.
The distinction was among the birthday honours conferred by the King in 1918 and was presented to her by His Majesty King George at Buckingham Palace.
She returned to Australia as matron on board the Transport Ormonde from England on May 24, 1919 and disembarked at Sydney on August 4, 1919.
Sister S. de Mestre, A.A.N.S., who wears the ribbon of the Royal Red Cross, in addition to the 1914-15 ribbon, and the Allies ribbon, returned with two other decorated, long-service nurses, Sister B. Glasson A.A.N.S., and Sister V.M. Hardwick, A.A.N.S., all of whom went away in 1915.
On her arrival home, she was interviewed by a reporter for the Sun newspaper.
When asked about her experience in France she said: ‘The enemy didn’t bomb the hospital, but bombs were falling all round, and occasionally it was necessary to retire to the dug-outs several times a night’.
She escaped without injury.
Her appointment with the A.A.N.S. was terminated on October 3, 1919. She returned to work at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital but after a period of illness resigned from the hospital in November 1929 to ‘start a Rest Home in Chatswood’ with Sister Readford.
Her niece Sister Margaret de Mestre, was killed on board the hospital ship HMAS Manundra when it was bombed by the Japanese in Darwin Harbour on February 19, 1942.
Sarah de Mestre did not marry. She died at Burwood on April 23, 1961 aged 84 years.