South Australian Boer War Nurses

“Yes, war is a cruel thing indeed”

“It is wonderful how the patient never murmur.  Those who have had a leg or arm amputated, or who have even lost their sight, are quite patient.  Poor fellows, they say it is for a good cause.  Such a lot of nice men have died here.”

Mary O’Shanahan, Bloemfontein, South Africa, April 1900

In response to the war happening in South Africa in 1900, the South Australian Fund for War Nurses (part of the Patriotic Fund Movement) recruited and funded six nurses to go overseas. In total, nine South Australian nurses went to the Boer War. The army officially had nothing to do with this group as they were regarded as civilians, and the nurses embarked as commercial passengers in Melbourne. Although, Government House ensured that the British military authorities in South Africa knew that they would be arriving and that they had official status.

Prior to leaving, the Fund insured the nurses for 100 pounds each for one year ‘as it was quite possible that some of the party might be shot, and still more likely, that they might become victims to fever or other complaints”. The Fund also provided outfits for each nurse which included a blue serge gown and cloak lined with red, 3 blue linen gowns, 6 red twill aprons “for when they can’t be washed’, 6 white aprons, bonnet, shady hat and helmet. Each nurse was provided with a case of instruments ‘that rollup like a doctors’.

From 26 applicants, these six nurses were chosen to join the Australian Army Medical Corps Contingent. Left to right (standing): Martha Bidmead, Agnes Cock. (seated): Amelia Stephenson, Mary O’Shanahan, Eliza Watts, Agnes Cocks. 1900

On arrival, the South Australian nurses were attached to the 2nd General Hospital at Winburg near Cape Town and three weeks later were transferred to No 10 General Hospital at Bloemfontein, where the NSW Ambulance Corps were based. From Cape Town to Bloemfontein, the nurses endured a long uncomfortable three day train journey. On arrival they found heavy fighting around the town meaning they were quickly thrust into a rush of work from the day after they arrived with no time off duty unless to grab some sleep.

“Nobody could ever get used to the sights we saw in the hospitals in the early days of the war, when it was difficult to get supplies up the line, and when the accommodation was unavoidably primitive. We buried as many as 60 patients in one day at Bloemfontein and there were 30 deaths a day for months. Twenty, thirty and sometimes forty sick men would be placed in a room where we afterwards put only a dozen beds, and a tin of milk had to last for about a dozen men, whereas when the line was clear the same quantity would be issued to one patient.”

Agnes Cock, Adelaide, September 1902

With an outbreak of enteritic fever, some of the nurses moved to Pretoria to assist, others were posted to Heidleberg in the Transvaal and most of them at some time were on transport duty, returning the injured to England, Australia and New Zealand.

All the nurses survived and on return to South Australia, they were presented with the Devoted Service Cross. Two of the nurses, Eliza Watts and Agnes Cock, enlisted again and served during world war one.

Written by Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum