A need to help: four south-west women who answered when their country called

FEATURE: They watched their fathers, uncles and brothers march away to war, but not all women were content to wait at home and worry. JENNY McLAREN tells the stories of four who also served

MARGARET Delahenty could have been under no illusions about the horror of war when she signed on to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers of the World War I battlefields.

Both her brothers had enlisted, one of them partially blinded at Gallipoli. 

Rather than a deterrent, their experiences more than likely strengthened the young Warrnambool woman’s resolve to do her bit for king and country.

At a time when nursing was the primary role for women to contribute to the war effort, the 25-year-old schoolteacher’s daughter was among more than 3000 women who enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) during World War I, 2200 of whom served overseas — 25 of them paying the ultimate price.

For two years, Margaret nursed sick and injured soldiers in primitive conditions through the mosquito-infested summers and icy winters of Salonika in Greece, her work earning a mention in despatches in both the Australian and London Gazettes for “acts of self-sacrifice and conspicuous devotion”. 

Margaret was one of 18 Warrnambool and district women known to have enlisted in 1914-19. Their efforts, like those before them in the Boer War, and those who followed in the Second World War and more recent conflicts, typified the willingness of south-west women throughout history to serve both behind the lines and on the home front while their men answered the call to arms.

By the time Margaret enlisted in June 1917, her brother Richard, a member of the 13th Light Horse, had lost the sight in his left eye to a bomb blast at Gallipoli. Another brother, James, was serving in the 4th Light Horse.

It was sheer luck that Margaret survived the voyage to Salonika at all. The British steamer, Mooltan, on which she and four other Western District women were travelling in a contingent of 300 Australian nurses from Melbourne, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in the Mediterranean, just a week after they had disembarked at Suez en route to Greece. 

Reports in both The Standard and the Hamilton Spectator at the time assured readers that the local girls had arrived safely.

“Hospital tents blew away in the wind, they had to battle lack of fresh water, hot and humid weather and freezing winters, flies etc,” - Port Fairy researcher Maria Cameron

Her three years’ training at Hamilton Base Hospital would have been in stark contrast to what awaited Margaret and her colleagues at the tent hospitals at Salonika.

Port Fairy-based military researcher Maria Cameron says the conditions under which Margaret and her colleagues labored before the advent of antibiotics could only be described as “horrific”.

“Hospital tents blew away in the wind, they had to battle lack of fresh water, hot and humid weather and freezing winters, flies etc,” Mrs Cameron says. 

“The men they treated had not only wounds from artillery and gassing, but a range of infectious diseases such as malaria and influenza. And the least understood by the general public was shell-shock.”

Her research has revealed that the last word of many dying soldiers was “mother”.

“The feminine presence of these nurses on countless deathbeds would have been of comfort to the soldiers they nursed. Many a nurse would have held the hand of a dying soldier. What toll it later took on these women has yet to be explored,” she said.

Like many of her contemporaries, Margaret Delahenty never married. After returning to Australia, she worked as a nurse at the Ararat Hospital, in children’s welfare and Heidelberg’s Repatriation General Hospital before dying at the age of 58.

By the outbreak of World War II, changing attitudes, a labour shortage created by the departure of so many men for overseas service, and the need to feed and equip our fighting forces meant women had more options to contribute to the war effort than their predecessors.

The formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in February 1941 paved the way for the establishment of other women’s service organisations such as the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).

Warrnambool’s Margaret Morton was just 18 when, on her third attempt, she was accepted in 1945 into the WRANS, excused from her job making hats for the army and navy. Her older sisters Eileen and Pearl were already serving in the WRANS and AWAS respectively and her brother Bill was in Syria in the 4th Light Horse. 

“I wanted to join up as a nurse, but there weren’t any vacancies so I joined up as a stewardess, hoping to transfer when a vacancy came up,” Margaret recalls. For six months she worked in the WRANS kitchen serving meals at Melbourne’s navy training base HMAS Cerberus before being struck down with pneumonia and then tuberculosis that left her hospitalised for 18 months and prematurely ended her service.

Margaret, 87, is one of an estimated 120 women who were born or enlisted in Warrnambool and just one of five surviving members of the Warrnambool and District Ex-Services Women’s Club. From an inaugural membership of about 450 in 1996, dwindling numbers forced the club to fold in 2010.

“We all enjoyed it and there were always so many stories to tell. It’s really sad to see them (members) slipping away,” says Margaret, who hopes to be joined by the remaining members at this week’s Anzac Day service.

Among those in their thoughts will be Naringal nurse Mona Wilton, who had the misfortune of being the district’s only woman to die on active service during World War II. 

“I wanted to join up as a nurse, but there weren’t any vacancies so I joined up as a stewardess, hoping to transfer when a vacancy came up.” - Margaret Morton

Mona, who was born at Willaura and enlisted in the AANS in 1939 at the age of 25, was among 12 Australian nurses lost at sea off Bangka Island after the fall of Singapore on February 12, 1942. The ship on which they were being evacuated, the Vyner Brooke, was bombed by the Japanese. Twenty-one of her colleagues who survived the bombing were later gunned down in the sea in the infamous Bangka Island massacre.

Mona’s nephew, Allansford’s Richard Wilton, said it was nearly two years before a letter from his aunt’s friend in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp advised the family of her death. It was another six months before they received official confirmation from the defence force.

On the home front, manpower shortages opened up increasing employment opportunities for south-west women in existing or new areas of war service work. Recruited by the government’s manpower authority, women made up a large proportion of the 180-strong workforce of a dehydration plant opened on Warrnambool’s Pertobe Road in August 1944. 

Operated by the Kraft Walker Cheese Company, the plant, now the Army Reserve headquarters, used locally grown vegetables, primarily potatoes, carrots and cabbage, as a source of tinned food for Australian troops overseas. 

More jobs opened up for women at the town’s woollen mill, which supplied blankets and khaki overcoating for the defence department, and at the flourishing Fletcher Jones clothing factory. A glove factory opened at Terang and flax mills at Terang, Penshurst and Colac also provided jobs for women.

For those too young to enlist, the Australian Women’s Land Army presented an alternative for many women who provided labour on farms to fill the shortfall left by serving men.

For many women, contributing to war service organisations like the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund were obvious ways of helping the war effort. Knitting socks, scarves, mittens and balaclavas for the troops became regular past-times. 

Some women manned air observation posts and coast watches on the lookout for enemy aircraft, or became air raid wardens ensuring night-time blackouts were observed.

Warrnambool’s Helen Raw, whose four brothers were serving in the army and airforce, was just 10 when war broke out, but vividly recalls taking part in weekly air raid drills with her mother, Hebe Hammond, who was a warden.

“I would lie in a gutter pretending to have a broken leg and people would run out with a stretcher and take me back into the hall by the church and then put my leg in a splint,” Mrs Raw recalls. 

“We felt we were contributing our bit to the war effort. They were anxious times because my mother had two brothers killed in World War 1, my father one (brother killed).” 

The integration of women into the defence forces and their deployment around the world since the 1990s has given south-west women like Jodie Kennedy greater opportunities for military careers.

“I would lie in a gutter pretending to have a broken leg and people would run out with a stretcher and take me back into the hall by the church and then put my leg in a splint,” - Warrnambool's Helen Raw recalls weekly air raid drills

Attracted by the chance of adventure, Jodie enlisted in the army as an 18-year-old. By 21 she was part of the first wave of Australians deployed to East Timor in 1999 as part of the INTERFET multi-national peacekeeping taskforce. During her six-month posting in Dili, Jodie worked under Major General Peter Cosgrove as a signalman in the communications centre supporting the infantry. Now a police officer, Jodie looks back on her time in East Timor as the highlight of her six years in the army.

“When we first got there it was total chaos, but over time we could see it becoming much more structured,” she recalls. 

“I very much enjoyed my time there. It was very rewarding.”

(World War 1 material source: Maria Cameron)

jmclaren@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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