Voices from the Past

Nurse Ellen Bennett Brown 22/52

22/52 Nurse Ellen Bennett Brown, New Zealand Army Nursing Service Corps & Australian Army Nursing Service

I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavour to aid the physician, in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care

(Florence Nightingale Pledge 1893)

Ellen Brown, born in Ashburton on 14 February 1880, trained as a nurse at Dunedin Hospital, gaining registration in 1911 (No. 1085) and progressing to Matron.

At the outbreak of World War One, New Zealand and Australia committed their support to the war and both countries soon realised that medical services would be needed. On 25 March 1915, a cable was received from the Australian Government asking for twelve nurses and for them to be ready to sail on 31 March 1915. This request was based on an earlier offer of nursing personnel from the New Zealand Government (December 1914).

Ellen (she was sometimes known as Helen due to an Australian nurse named Ellen Bennett-Brown) was one of the ‘Chosen Twelve’ New Zealand nurses who decided to join the Australian nurses travelling to Egypt to provide care for the Anzac boys who were heading to Gallipoli. In fact, the stories of those Australian and New Zealand nurses can be seen in the excellent series Anzac Girls (recently on Prime).

It is interesting to note that these nurses were attested to the New Zealand Army Nursing Service Corps (NZANSC) and on arrival in Australia attested again to serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) therefore these nurses were attested to two countries at the same time.

Ellen was 35 and single when she enlisted on 28 March 1915. She left Wellington on 1 April 1915 aboard the Ulimaroa bound for Sydney and after getting measured up for her new uniform, soon found herself heading to Egypt with the AANS on 13 April aboard the Kyarra. Not knowing what to expect, many of the nurses even took deck-chairs to enjoy the Mediterranean sun.

Once there, Ellen served briefly with the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital (1 AAH) at Luna Park, Cairo, and the No. 2 Australian General Hospital (2 AGH). The staff had been established at Mena House (Cairo) when a few months later, casualties from Gallipoli made it necessary to establish a second hospital at Ghezirah Palace; the two hospitals had a total of 1500 beds.

As well as dealing with battle casualties, Ellen and the other nurses had to nurse typhoid and venereal disease cases, as well as psychological injuries. The work was hard and the sight of broken men pushed all medical staff to breaking point. At times, getting away to see the tourist sites including the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Cairo Zoo and Botanical Gardens, was much needed. Also taking ‘high tea’ in one of the hotels was also a treat, especially for those from small-town New Zealand.

For the nurses that served on the island of Lemnos (No. 3 Australian General Hospital) they must have thought that the nurses at No. 1 and No. 2 hospitals had it easy in Cairo. As well as often being the subject of scorn by the male hierarchy, they had to contend with tented living conditions (and stretcher beds), poor food, no fresh water, regular dysentery, flies during the hottest summer and hypothermia during the coldest winter, low supplies including no bandages (the nurses had to tear their petticoats) and during the August battles, a constant supply of casualties.

Yet wherever the Anzac nurses served during the Gallipoli Campaign, they all felt the loss of their closest friends when on 23 October 1915, the troop transport ship Marquette, was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-35 and quickly sunk. Of the 741 people crowded on board, 167 were lost, including 10 members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, 19 male Medical Corps staff (part of the New Zealand No. 1 Stationary Hospital) and three New Zealand soldiers.

he sinking caused great public outrage in New Zealand as the medical personnel could have travelled in a hospital-marked ship that was empty, which had left port at the same time as the cramped Marquette. The death of the nurses was felt particularly badly in the South Island, where the majority of them had lived or nursed. Several are commemorated there. The most elaborate tribute is the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel in front of Christchurch Women’s Hospital, which survived the earthquakes of 2010–11.

For Sister Ellen Brown, she had to put aside the loss of her close friends and carry on her work which at the end of the Gallipoli campaign did not mean a return home. Now assigned to the No. 1 Australian General Hospital (1 AGH), Ellen left Egypt with 116 other staff, bound for Marseilles, France. They disembarked on 6 April 1916 and after a few days’ rest (many were bored after the journey and were keen to nurse), they entrained to northern France and proceeded to Rouen where the unit took up the site on the racecourse vacated by No.12 Stationary Hospital (as their permanent base was not yet built). They were attached to the No. 11 British Hospital, where the ‘stiff upper-lipped’ nurses of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) often looked down on the colonial nurses of Australia and New Zealand.

The permanent No.1 AGH opened on 20 April 1916 and five days later, the nurses held an emotional Anzac Day ceremony on the 25th.

Three months later, Ellen and her fellow nurses were in the thick of it as the first British casualties arrived from the Somme. This flow of wounded did not cease and inevitably as some men died, the nurses then took it upon themselves to write to the family of those soldiers who had not made it. It was heart-breaking but the women felt it was the least they could do.

Ellen also served at the No. 6 Stationary Hospital and the No. 25 General Hospital (both in France) and mainly nursed Australian, British and Canadian soldiers although she did come in contact with men from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Ellen was promoted to Sister on 8 September 1917 and received a Mention in Despatches in the same year.

Towards the end of the war, Ellen also served in England and for her tireless work, was awarded the Associate of the Royal Red Cross (ARRC) 2nd Class in 1919.

Ellen returned to Australia on 12 February 1921 aboard the Bahia Castillo as Matron-in-Charge. Ellen was discharged from service on 17 April 1921 and returned to New Zealand to take up a position at the Queen Mary Hospital in Hamner, looking after returned convalescing soldiers. Ellen remained there (on the NZ Army books) until 1922 when military hospitals were officially closed. She then transferred back to the Public Health Department but continued with the Territorial Force (with the rank of Matron) until 1934.

In her personal life, there was a ‘happy ending’ for Ellen. Probably considered somewhat of a spinster before the war (at age 35), once she returned home and began work at the Queen Mary Hospital, she met and fell in love with Donald Alexander Manson, the Head Shepherd at Craigeburn Sheep Station (North Canterbury), marrying him in 1924. Although willing, Donald Manson had not fought in the war (was on the First Reserves List) due to his ‘case’ being argued that “he had been twelve years on Craigieburn station. His station at Hanmer was high country, and it was essential to have a strong man with a knowledge of the country” to stay in New Zealand to aid the food production during the war.

They were married for 39 years until Ellen passed away on 27 December 1963, aged 83. She is buried in the Waimairi Cemetery, Christchurch.

Donald would die ten years later on 4 June 1973.