MORE than 3000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered during WWI. 2000 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service served overseas. During the Gallipoli campaign nurses worked on hospital ships offshore and at the tent hospital on Lemnos. Nursing was not a safe job. 25 nurses lost their lives during the war. Eight nurses were awarded the Military Medal.
WHEN Patricia Blundell arrived at Duntroon as the Royal Military College’s nurse in October 1914 the place was in turmoil.
War had been declared on August 4 and the 35 members of the first year class were graduated ahead of time the next week.
Within days of her arrival the cadets from the second year were also graduated early. The last left from Queanbeyan on November 2.
Miss Blundell, a 34-year-old spinster from a good family in Melbourne, could not have foreseen she would be treating some of the young officers she had just met during the Gallipoli campaign the following year.
“Pattie Blundell turned to nursing in her late 20s and trained at the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne,” Melbourne historian Janet Scarfe said.
“Pattie, who never used her first name of Madeline, completed the hospital’s requirements in 1912 and those of the Victorian Trained Nurses Association in February 1914.”
Duntroon in some respects offered the ideal job for a mature woman of good breeding, with the requisite skill set and a desire to make her own way. The pay was 100 pounds a year and included food and free quarters.
Miss Blundell did not stay in Canberra long. Her only brother, Martin, signed up in January 1915 and sailed for Egypt, and from there on to Gallipoli, on May 28.
“Pattie resigned in April 1915 to enlist in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She left Melbourne on the SS Mooltan 10 days ahead of her brother. Her unit comprised medical officers and nurses being sent as reinforcements for the 3rd Australian General Field Hospital.”
The 3rd set up a tent hospital at Mudros on Lemnos, 100 kilometres south-west of the Dardanelles. It, and similar facilities maintained by British and Canadian forces, were the closest large scale medical facilities to the front line.
They were far from perfect with constant complaints of shortages, administrative incompetence, understaffing, poor food and even a lack of water to wash patients’ wounds.
Anzac chief medical officer Surgeon General Neville Howse VC later wrote that “under no conceivable conditions [should an Australian government] trust to the medical arrangements that may be made by the Imperial Authorities for the care of the Australian sick and wounded”.
While Miss Blundell, and her peers, stoically did their best with what was to hand, her brother, Martin, had arrived.
Peter Fielding, a founding member of Military History and Heritage Victoria Inc, said Private Blundell had been 24 and working in Rockhampton when he signed up.
“Martin was taken on strength with B Squadron of the 4th Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli on October 24, 1915,” he said.
“On December 11, 1915, the regiment was evacuated [to Lemnos] and this is where the siblings’ service intersects.”
In one letter Private Blundell wrote: “This place assumes all the delights of arcadia to us with plenty to eat and drink, oranges in abundance [and] chocolate and coffee to drink.
“[I] got my clothes washed for the first time in six weeks. Pattie is thinner but in good nick.”
Their hopes of Christmas together were dashed when, on December 23, Private Blundell’s unit was withdrawn to Egypt.
The 3rd Australian General Field Hospital followed in the New Year, redeploying to Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo.
The two had another short reunion before Martin left for France, landing at Marseilles on March 27, 1916.
By September 1917, he was a lance corporal. Martin’s luck finally ran out on April 18, 1918; seven months before the Armistice.
“His casualty reports stated: ‘Killed in action near the summit of Mont Kemmel whilst acting as liaison between regiment and the French’,” Mr Fielding said. “The dugout was completely demolished by shell fire. His body was never recovered.”
Miss Blundell, meanwhile, had been serving in England and France. She contracted bronchitis and by early 1918 was very sick.
In April she was fit enough to work in the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield, a specialist treatment centre with a consulting radiologist, physiotherapy services and even reconstructive surgery of a primitive type.
“Patricia was nursing there when Martin was killed,” Ms Scarfe said. “Presumably they had seen each other in March when Martin enjoyed two weeks’ leave in England.”
By July 1918 the former Duntroon nurse had had enough. Physically and mentally exhausted, she set sail for Australia aboard HMAT Barunga, originally a German steamer called Sumatra, which was torpedoed on July 15 in the Bay of Biscay.
All aboard, including Miss Blundell and her nurses, were rescued by the destroyer escort.
“The Wanganui press in New Zealand quoted an officer on board as saying ‘the four nurses were just lovely, their only concern was the welfare of the sick’,” Ms Scarfe said. “The report went on to say ‘Matron Blundell set a splendid example’.”
Miss Blundell re-embarked on HMAT Boonah, reaching Australia in September 1918.
“A medical examination in November 1918 showed her to be ‘very tired out’ and she was discharged in March 1919,” Ms Scarfe said.
Left comfortably off thanks to a 4000 pound inheritance from her mother, Ms Blundell spent the rest of her life in Victoria, occasionally travelling overseas.
She died on November 27, 1968, just over 50 years after she had lost her brother on the battlefields of France.