If I ever were to recommend a movie, it would be Anzac Girls. It’s a six-part, 2014 series that tells the story of five women serving in the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War.
This movie also reminded me of the dignity and honor of my profession and how proud I am to be a nurse.
The women featured in Anzac Girls faced and overcame constant, life-or-death challenges under harrowing, wartime circumstances. On top of that, they endured the maddening gender biases of their day. The movie is based on The Other ANZACs: Nurses at War 1914-1918, a history written byPeter Rees and based on Australian and Kiwi nurses’ letters, photographs and diaries.
Their stories are similar to what I discovered about Evelyn Conyers (1870 – 1944), another Australian nurse who served as matron-in-chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service, primarily stationed in Egypt. In 1916, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross and later a Bar “…in recognition of her valuable nursing service.” In 1919, King George V appointed Conyers a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and, in 1921, she was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal with diploma.
When I became curious about other Australian recipients of the Florence Nightingale Medal, I learned about Olive Dorothy Paschke (1905 – 1942). She joined the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1940 during World War II at age 35. She was posted to Malaya and, in 1942, was sent to Singapore, where Paschke supervised 63 nurses in forward positions. For this, she was recognized with the Royal Red Cross award.
When Singapore became too dangerous, Paschke and the other nurses were ordered evacuated to Australia. On February 14, 1942, Paschke was heading home aboard the SS Vyner Brooke — along with hundreds of women and children, other nurses and wounded servicemen — when her ship was bombed and sunk in the Bangka Strait, east of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean.
Paschke’s life raft never reached land and all its passengers were considered lost at sea, presumed drowned. Twenty-two of Paschke’s colleagues, Australian nurses who reached Bangka Island following the bombing, were executed by Japanese soldiers. Paschke was posthumously awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the International Red Cross Committee in 1951.
Reading about these nurses and the Florence Nightingale Medal took me back to the beginning of my career. I remember my pinning ceremony, when my classmates and I recited the Nightingale Pledge at a candlelight service. I remember feeling very proud.
Becoming a nurse was a big deal, as is completion of any degree. But so much of nursing history is focused on patient care and integrity. Army nurses from days gone by — nurses now largely forgotten and often unrecognized — embody the Pledge I took, to “…zealously seek to nurse those who are ill wherever they may be and whenever they are in need.”
It’s good to see their stories.