It wasn’t only south-west men who enlisted for Australia and the empire in the First World War. The region also has a proud history of nurses who signed up for years of hardship and heartache, such as Terang’s Lyla Stewart, PETER COLLINS reports.
Amid today’s focus on World War I battlefields and the Anzac legend is a deeper story on nurses who worked in horrendous conditions overwhelmed by casualties.
Among them was Terang’s Lyla Ferguson Stewart, who saw thousands of casualties and endured four years of the Great War horrors before returning to Australia and living to the age of 86.
She is an unsung hero whose name is on the town’s memorial obelisk among the many male veterans.
Warrnambool RSL sub-branch historian David McGinness said she was among only a handful south-west Victorian nurses who were involved in treating the waves of Gallipoli wounded.
“Nurses played a vital role in the war effort and the RSL is keen to recognise them,” he said.
“Five of them are recorded on the Warrnambool memorial.”
Lyla was mentioned in dispatches by Sir Douglas Haig and was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Her many letters portray nurses calmly working among thousands of severely wounded men, in sometimes freezing conditions in flimsy tents with gunfire and bombs constantly in the background.
Their own lives were often at risk with contagious illnesses in patients.
Even when the Armistice was declared their heavy workload continued for months later.
Lyla was the 10th of 12 children born to Scottish heritage parents John and Elizabeth Stewart, who married in Terang in 1865.
According to research collated by East Melbourne Historical Society, the family lived at Kielambete East where Elizabeth was head teacher, besides producing 12 children by the age of 41.
Lyla trained as a nurse at Warrnambool hospital, where she became sister in charge, and then worked at Hamilton hospital before applying to join the Australian Army Nursing Service in July 1915, giving her age as 26 when she was really 29.
Her younger brother Campbell enlisted as a soldier the following year.
She sailed from Melbourne with Victorian and South Australian nurses as reinforcements for the No. 2 Australian General Hospital in Egypt.
When she arrived at Cairo in October she was assigned to a hotel converted into a hospital on an island in the Nile, grossly underprepared for the Gallipoli slaughter.
A letter to her mother Lyla said there were hundreds of wounded in 45 wards with her ward having only two nurses, two orderlies and two Arabs assisted by “one or two convalescent patients”.
She described Australian soldiers as “almost cut to pieces” and “crowds of medical cases” of troops with dysentery, jaundice and typhoid.
“One feels as if one can’t do enough for these soldiers,” she wrote.
“When one thinks of what they are doing for us and how they are being cut up and shot, nothing is a trouble to you.”
In early 1916 her hospital unit was moved to the Western Front and Lyla was assigned to an infectious diseases hospital.
From there she went to Wimereux near Boulogne.
Official diaries indicate the nurses had an “exceptionally heavy” workload and were in tents during the notorious Somme winter of 1916 when water pipes froze.
Early in 1917 Lyla contracted measles and was consigned to bed for a while. As well as her illness she also had to deal with the grief of hearing her brother had been killed in France, along with other Terang district men.
“My heart is just breaking. They say people get over these things, but I never shall.
“The matron can put me in the busiest ward in the place — I won’t mind.”
A few weeks later she heard the welcome news her brother had in fact been wounded and taken prisoner. He recovered and would return to a hero’s welcome in Terang after the war.
In September 1917 the hospital was placed in “super crisis expansion” with 1710 beds instead of 1290. By March 1918 her hospital experienced an influx of troops with machine-gun wounds and by August the Allied push on the Somme triggered another flood of casualties.
Medical staff not only had to deal with bullet and shell wounds, but gas poisoning and outbreaks of influenza.
Diaries record patients were “utterly prostrated by the disease” with nurses having to wear gowns and masks to avoid catching it.
When the Armistice was declared medical staff were still grappling with influenza and the arrival of another harsh winter.
Lyla left Europe for Australia in March 1919, arriving six weeks later, and was discharged from service in July.
During the voyage home romance blossomed with English-born Australian soldier William George Thompson, who may have met her previously while hospitalised in France.
They married in Terang in June 1921 and lived in Melbourne. Lyla died at Brighton in 1972.