Edith Blake's War
The only Australian Nurse killed in action in the First World War
Kensington, NSW: New South Books, 2021
Paperback 336pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, January 2022
This is the story of the only Australian Army nurse to have been killed in action during World War I.
Edith Blake as the eldest of three daughters and two sons of a butcher, Charles Blake, and his wife Catherine, known always as Kate. Both parents were children of English migrants who arrived in Australia in middle to later years of the nineteenth century. Mr Blake worked variously as a carrier a distributor for a major milk company, and later as proprietor of a café and refreshment room in Chippendale, a Sydney suburb. He as always able to provide a home for his wife and children, and, for his three daughters, with the certainty that they would not be destined to work in unskilled jobs.
Edith, born in 1887, opted at the age of 21, to choose to enter one of the few professions then open to young women, by being accepted as a trainee nurse at the Coast Hospital for Infectious Diseases [later Prince Henry Hospital] at Little Bay, south of Sydney.
Nursing, in this time, between 1900 and 1914, was seen as a profession – one that was suitable for physically-fit young women with a reasonable standard of education, and some sense of vocation. It had better social standing than most alternatives, such as teaching, retail shop assistant or governess, but the training was hard and the remuneration small. Edith Blake started as a trainee on £10 per year for the first three months. After this the salary rose to £20 a year, and by increments of £5 annually until graduation after the four-year course. Trainees 'lived in' – board and meals were provided, but each trainee had to provide her own uniform and text-books. The trainees, known as 'probationers', worked twelve-hour shifts, and started, as all trainee nurses did, as little more than a housemaid – scrubbing floors and cleaning equipment, undertaking some basic nursing duties such as changing dressings on wounds, and studying in her little ‘free’ time.
This gave them, after four years, recognition as a trained nurse by the Australian Trained Nurses Association. In other hospitals, it was a three-year training period, but the four-year course gave Coast Hospital nurses recognition in Britain, whereas the three-year trainees in most other Australian hospitals needed a fourth year of training to work in Britain. This difference was to be important when Nurse Blake was seconded to the British Army's Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, as were many Australian nurses who volunteered to serve during World War 1.
Ms Vane-Tempest has given her readers a detailed account of the life of a young nurse on Active Service between 1914 and 1918, It is based on Edith's diary and her 138 letters home to her parents and sister Alice [known as 'Queenie'], who carefully kept these. Fortunately, she did so, or otherwise we would not have had this moving account of the sacrifices that military nurses made, for little return and under difficult conditions, often acting under the instructions and orders of officers who had little or no medical training or experience. Often, the Army's medical orderlies, being serving soldiers, often resented taking orders from women who, although supposedly with Commissioned rank, did not wear military uniforms, and were paid far less than junior non-commissioned men. Frequently, these men were ill-disciplined, unmotivated, and poorly trained. The Volunteer Aid Detachment female nursing aids were also ill-trained and needed constant supervision. All this fell on the nurses, as the majority of Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) physicians and surgeons felt that control and supervision of these lower ranks and female volunteers was beneath their dignity and responsibility, although, as Nurse Blake points out, there were some quite exceptional Medial Officers. [It is worth noting that only three men have ever been awarded the Victoria Cross and Bar – and two were RAMC doctors in France, during World War I. Many Army Medical officers may have deserved this decoration at least once, but very few got it. The third VC and Bar were awarded to a New Zealand infantry officer in World War 2].
The diaries and letters cover all the activities that would have filled the time of a young nurse in Edith Blake's situation. Her service took her to Army Base Hospitals on Lemnos, Malta and at Salonika and Alexandria, caring for casualties from the Dardanelles Campaign, on hospital ships plying the Mediterranean Sea, and on passage between Malta and Britain, and in Base Hospitals in Britain, caring for wounded from the brutal campaigns in France. Interspersed through the diaries and letters are accounts of sight-seeing and theatre going with her friends, mostly other Coast Hospital nurses in Britain, of visits to members of her parents' families, who still lived there, of the boredom that came when waiting for movement orders and postings that were usually delayed or confusing (or both), and through it all, carefully worded accounts of her work – the routines, the difficulties, and the sadness of being unable to help ease the suffering of the many wounded she cared for, in Base and other hospitals and on hospital ships. It was a full life, doing worthwhile work to which she was deeply committed.
Edith Blake's story ends on 26th February 1918, when the Hospital Ship HMHS Glenart Castle was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-56, ten miles west of Lundy Island. Of the 182 crew, patients, and medical personnel aboard, only 29 survived. Staff Nurse Blake was not among those rescued.
For readers who have an interest in the history of the Nursing profession, or in the social history of early 20th Century Australia, this is a book that should be read. Ms Van-Tempest has given us insights to a formative period in Australian culture and has told the story of her great-aunt's unfortunately shortened life, during which she achieved so much that was good. We should honour the memory of people like Edith Blake and mourn that her life was cut short when she had so much to give to her country and its people.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.