National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Lieutenant Colonel Lizzie ‘Ida’ Grace Willis

Lieutenant Colonel Lizzie ‘Ida’ Grace Willis

by Adam Moriarty, Assistant Curator Heraldry

Ida Willis grew up in Johnsonville in Wellington in the last decades of the 19th century. Although this was long ago, her early years might be recognisable to any one of us today. All that would change however, in August 1914.

Nursing Sister Willis was taking an island holiday in Fiji when WWI broke out. Ida surely felt a ‘call to arms’ as she immediately offered her services and was picked up by the advance party of NZEF on route to Samoa – the location of New Zealand’s first military operation in the Great War. From this day her life changed dramatically and she was thrown right into the front line of action. She must have been a very brave and selfless woman, for she knew not what terror she would face in the years to come. Ida was one of the first nurses to sign up to the war effort and the next four years she would transition from woman to war hero. The medals she was granted tell us something of her remarkable story.

She served alongside six other nurses in Samoa for 10 months where she took over from the German nurses after occupation. In 1915 she joined the NZ Army Nursing Service (NZANS) and with 69 other nurses left for Egypt on the ‘Maheno’. She worked in Cairo on a ward that could accommodate only 250 patients but had to make room for 650. There she also cared for many patients from Gallipoli who suffered from dysentery and malnutrition.

In June 1916 she transferred to England before swiftly being moved to No. 1 NZ Stationary Hospital at Amiens in France. Here, she was only 15 miles from the front line and would regularly have to work in a surgical team for 36 hours straight. She endured the horrors of the front line for almost a year. During this time she also went to Bruary-en-Artois during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. One of the days, 1000 patients were admitted on stretchers all at the same time.

In 1917 she was once again moved, this time to Hazebrouk during the raids. It was so dangerous here that a tin hat became part of the nurses’ uniform. When the town was shelled Ida and 1000 patients were evacuated 12 miles away. They suffered a bitterly cold winter that year and many got trench foot.

Ida Willis had joined up after a few years of nursing and in a short space of time endured all the unimaginable horrors of modern warfare. She no doubt saved the lives of countless soldiers and helped return them to their loved ones. She had risen to meet all the challenges set before her and overcame the terrors she must have faced on a personal level. These trials however did not stop her service to the cause. After the Great War, she remained a member of the NZANS Reserves and during WWII was appointed Matron in Chief and directed the overall nursing proceedings of the Mar. She was later awarded her OBE (on display in our Medal Repository) in recognition of her remarkable story and personal contribution to nursing and the military.