....from the Western Front in 1914 to the Balkans in 1915 to the High Seas 1916 to 1919
Edith Amy Trebilcock – AVH, BRC, QAIMNSR, AANS
Although born in England in 1875, Edith migrated to Australia with her family late 1880, early 1881, and this was to be the first of her many sea voyages. After receiving her early education in Ballarat, she trained as a nurse at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne for 3 years between 1899 and 1902. Her training over, she left the Alfred and went into Private Nursing, before taking up the position of Matron of the Sir Samuel Hospital in WA, followed by the Laverton Hospital, WA in October 1911.
Returning to Victoria, no doubt to visit family, Edith then embarked from Melbourne on the 9th November 1912 aboard the Wakool for England, arriving in London on the 8th January 1913. The Governor General had sent a letter to the UK Prime Minister stating that “my Prime Minister would be glad if facilities could be afforded to Nursing Sister E.A. Trebilcock, Army Nursing Service (5th MD) to obtain training at Netley or other Military Hospitals, during her visit to England, on the understanding that no expenditure to the Commonwealth will be incurred thereby.”
On her arrival in England she had been directed to present herself to the Matron-in-Chief at the War Office, however it was noted that as of October 1913 she had not done so. Edith instead appears to have been receiving private tuition in midwifery at the Paddington Workhouse Infirmary, and on the 9th of June, along with 429 other candidates, she passed the Examination of the Central Midwives Board.
Soon after sitting her exam, she boarded the Baltic for America, arriving at Ellis Island on the 5th of July. During her time in the US Edith was employed as Head Nurse of a Sanatorium in Highlands, North Carolina, before eventually returning to the UK, where she was residing in August 1914.
Within days of the declaration of war, many ‘well-healed’ ex-patriot Australians in England, banded together and made an offer to the War Office of an Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH), staffed & funded by them, to be sent to the front. Upon acceptance of their offer they advertised for staff, and Edith was one of the first 17 (mostly) Australian nurses to volunteer. With the chief organiser Lady Rachel Dudley as Superintendent, Ida Greaves from Newcastle, NSW as Matron, and Colonel Eames, a doctor also from Newcastle as the Commanding Officer, Edith sailed for France on the 28th August 1914 on board Lord Dunraven’s Hospital Yacht, Greta. She takes up the tale in the following letter:
“We left Southampton on August 28 for Havre, then the naval base, but the Germans were encroaching so much in that direction that we hurried from the hotel at which we were staying on to the Greta, the yacht Lord Dunraven had chartered for our expedition. Here we spent several uncomfortable days and nights, and were again landed in Havre, which was so crowded that a bed was an unknown quantity. And very thankful we were to get on board the Asturias, which brought us down here (St Nazaire), to what has since been the base. Lady Dudley took the best private hospital here, and opened it for officers only, and in a few days we had more patients than we could accommodate. Then we took over a large school adjoining as an annexe. Here we nurse the Tommies, accommodating ninety at a time, and here it is we have done our best work.
“In a month we handled 750 cases, and when I tell you that we are but seventeen nurses and our orderlies for the most part are untrained you can imagine something of our work. Many times we have been strained almost to the breaking point, but have managed to endure and do good work.
[Their patients were the sick & wounded soldiers from the Mons front]
“It is different from ordinary hospital work. We hear when the trains with the wounded are expected in, and we are ready to receive them. The serious cases are immediately got to bed. Then we feed them all; after which they all have to be washed and their wounds dressed. We have received as many as 170 patients in a day, so you will see our task has not been an easy one. Their wounds are often filthy and sloughing, having in many cases been undressed for two and three days. We hear that many of the hospitals have a great deal of gangrene, but so far we have had none, though we have had tetanus (lockjaw), which is even worse. We have had seven deaths from it…. It is so awful and so hopeless. Here we see in a very small way some of the horrors of war.
“Besides the hospital and annexe we have a camp, a postcard of which I will send you…One evening last week we attended a concert given by our people at the camp. It was a weird affair. A beautiful moonlight night, a waning camp fire, the inner circle composed of sisters and officers, beyond this hundreds of our British soldiers, and on the outskirts crowds of French people. Lady Dudley was sport enough to contribute to the programme, and we wound up the evening by having supper with the officers and afterwards motored home.
“Our home is in the corner of the main street, and we see all the soldiers march past – in one direction to the rest camp, after disembarking; in the other, to the front! They win one’s respect, with their cheerfulness and grit. They are always singing as they march, their favorite songs being ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘Oh, you beautiful doll.’ We see thousands and thousands of them pass. ….. Then when they return to us wounded and suffering, their cheerfulness one marvels at! Only here and there one meets with one who whines.
“We have packed up here and have to quit St Nazaire. Lady Dudley has taken the Hotel Carlton in Paris, but latest news tells us we are not going there. We certainly hope to get nearer the front, but so far know nothing. When our orders come we shall get out speedily.”
It was early in October when they first received the order to pack up and prepare to move again, and eventually they entrained for Boulogne, where they arrived at the end of the month. The new hospital was speedily set up in the Hotel du Golf in the nearby town of Wimereux, and they were soon receiving wounded from the first battle of Ypres.
A visitor to the hospital made the following interesting observation:
“What the Australians lacked they made or invented. An operating theatre was, of course, needed. The most suitable room having been decided on, it was a question of workmen to transform it. There were none. The men were busy lifting and carrying, so three sisters rolled up their sleeves and ‘turned to’ themselves. They scraped every inch of paper off the walls at a rate which would have caused a paper hanger to faint. Then the tallest sister of the three mounted on an improvised scaffold and manipulated the whitewash brush.”
During the first week of the makeshift theatre’s existence, 79 serious operations were performed. The staff laboured on with very little rest, not only treating the thousands of wounded that passed through their midst, but also building up a highly efficient and well-equipped hospital as they went.
Perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, they had to contend with bitterly cold winds, and as winter arrived, gales & even blizzards; one such sudden gale managed to take out a window in one of the hospital wards. Luckily for Edith and the other nurses, they were accommodated in a nearby building, and the Medical Officers eventually took over the Golf Clubhouse, but the majority of the male personnel had to contend with life under canvas, which a blizzard in mid-November soon made ‘short work of’.
As the fighting continued around Ypres, they were continually on alert, ready to pack up and move again at a moment’s notice. However, as it turned out, the AVH remained in Wimereux until July 1916 when it was taken over by the War Office and renamed the 32nd Stationery Hospital. Edith though, had moved on long before this, having returned to the UK in December 1914.
Responding to the urgent appeal from the Serbian Red Cross for assistance in the Balkan States, Edith had volunteered her services despite the difficulties & danger she knew lay ahead. Disease was raging in the battle areas, and the hospital arrangements and equipment were hopelessly inadequate. Together with 2 British doctors and 3 other nurses, Edith was to help establish a British Red Cross hospital in Montenegro. The party reached Salonika on 3rd March 1915 & the following is an account of some of their trek through the Balkan Mountains:
“In Nish on the following day [the 4th] the party was met by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had provided carriages to convey them to clean, comfortable apartments – a thoughtful provision, as they found the town indescribably filthy, with an absolute lack of all sanitary arrangements. Typhus fever was raging there, and the party met the R.A.M.C. Sanitary Commission, consisting of 25 doctors, all striving earnestly to relieve the terrible sufferings of the people. In Scopje the visitors were met by Lady Paget, who was there to welcome the members of her own party of nurses, a typhus hospital having been established a couple of days previously. A special car was provided by M. Petchar, one of the Serbian Ministers, who accompanied the party for several days, and was solicitous for their comfort throughout. M. Petcher is a graduate of the Vienna University, and a splendid linguist, speaking seven languages fluently.
The up-hill journey was begun in earnest in Kruchivats, where they found the railway station full of soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, on their way to Nish. The country was beautiful, with many fertile valleys, but the work of ploughing was being performed by women and boys. The Serbian is a soldier before everything, and at the first call all who were capable of bearing arms flocked to the colours. There were many pathetic scenes by the wayside – ruined villages and cottages, with clusters of graves – rude tombstones and crosses decorated with torn flags – evidences of the great struggles which had taken place between the contending forces. In Ugitze the little party was met by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Montenegro, and the chief of the Serbian army in that part of the country. At midday the visitors were entertained at an excellent lunch, a very good orchestra playing several English selections, which sounded strange in such surroundings. In the evening they dined at the officers’ mess – the first occasion on which women had been admitted. The dinner was served splendidly, and some of the toasts proposed were very complimentary to the British nation. It was touching to see the love and devotion which they entertained towards Britain – a country practically unknown to Serbians until recently. They are a fine people, their soldiers – both officers and men – being brave, intelligent, and of splendid physique. Miss Trebilcock says that she will never forget the kindness and consideration with which they were received everywhere – they were waited upon hand and foot.
After the party left Ugitze the road ascended rapidly. Rain and driving sleet were succeeded by snowstorms, great pine trees bent under their icy burdens, and the effect was grandly desolate. The country through which they were traveling is termed the Switzerland of Serbia, and the panoramas of majestic mountain scenery could hardly be surpassed in any part of the world. Messengers were sent ahead to ensure that meals and accommodation should be in readiness, and nothing could exceed the thoughtfulness of those in charge of the party. The scenery continued indescribably grand and beautiful, and in places where the snow had melted primroses and other flowers were beginning to peep out. The town of Vadesta, originally an Austrian possession, was found to be in the possession of the Serbs, and the nurses were taken to the military barracks, where the officers gave up their quarters to provide them with accommodation. There were no female attendants, but soldiers, big kindly fellows, were told off to render any assistance desired. It was a novel experience to have a jugful of water poured on the hands while washing, and to have a towel handed over by a giant in uniform, with sword at side. The situation was embarrassing at times, the nurses having to push their soldier servants out of the room in order to obtain a little time for themselves. The officers entertained the party splendidly, and after dinner a number of complimentary speeches were made on both sides. The officers sang, by request, the National Anthem of Serbia, and in return they were given “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other songs of the trenches.
From there onward the mountainous journey became more difficult. In the absence of an engine recourse was had to an open truck pushed by soldiers, and in another place the journey was made on horseback. At the Montenegrin frontier they were met by an escort of officers, to whose protection they were assigned. Lunch was prepared by an Austrian woman, who had been captured by the Montenegrins, but was being treated kindly. The scenery was still very beautiful, but the accommodation was primitive, and there was nothing in the way of sanitation. A two-roomed shanty would be entered sometimes. One room would be devoted to an entire family, the other being occupied by horses, cows, and sheep. Later the journey was continued on sleighs, which had been sent out to meet them. A comfortable, clean house had been set apart for them, and they were accorded a great reception as they passed through the streets. It was at this stage that M. Petchar, who had acted as guide, philosopher, friend, and interpreter throughout the eventful journey, bade the party adieu, having to take up his duties again at the Serbian seat of government. In order to secure the prompt transmission of her letter, Miss Trebilcock brought her story to a conclusion, promising to supplement it with a further communication at the first opportunity.” [Unfortunately no further correspondence could be found]
On reaching their destination, Edith was in charge of the Infectious Hospital at Plevlie (Pljevlja) until the 6th of July 1915. Typhus continued to spread after Austrian troops drove thousands of refugees over the frontier from Bosnia & Herzegovina in the April, and Austrian Aviators wantonly bombed undefended towns, while plans for invasion continued to build. Luckily for Edith, she moved on before these plans came to fruition.
Returning to England, she applied to join Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) on the 16th of August, but her time with this Unit was to be short. Having joined for duty at the Military Hospital in Ripon on the 21st of September; a month later she was tendering her resignation. When asked for a reason Edith stated: “I resign because with my experience and ability I feel myself worthy of a better position than that of ‘staff nurse’ which I now occupy.”
Obviously finding it difficult to further her career in England, Edith eventually made the decision to return to Australia, and on the 24th of March 1916 she boarded the Osterley for home.
This wasn’t to be the end of her war nursing however, as in December that same year she enlisted for overseas service with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). Allocated to the No. 1 Sea Transport Section (STS) she embarked on the Orontes on the 23rd of that month, albeit as a Staff Nurse!
The Sea Transport Sections, of which there were 10, saw service on the transport ships, catering to the medical needs of the reinforcements going abroad, and the invalids returning home. They were established in 1916 as a partial replacement to the random selection of medical staff for each voyage. The idea was to allow the STS staff to meld together and build on their ship-board experiences to create an efficient team, which would remain together through many voyages. The teams generally consisted of a medical officer, 7 nurses, a dispenser, a masseur, 3 NCOs and 16 other ranks to work as orderlies.
Work on the transport ships was of course extremely hazardous, as unlike the hospital ships which flew the red-cross, they were legitimate prey to the enemy. With nerves often on edge, carrying out their nursing duties was made even more difficult by a continually rolling ship, which at times escalated in stormy seas. The cramped, stuffy conditions below decks were worse at night, when lights were masked in brown paper funnels and much of the work had to be done by touch alone. It was one of the services avoided by many, not only because of these difficulties, but also because of the sheer monotony of the voyage. Edith however, seemed well suited to the roll, and over the course of the following 2 years, together with her team, saw duty on the transports Themistocles, Suevic and Marathon. Whilst in England between each trip, as Edith awaited the return journey, she was granted furlo, and then attached temporarily for duty to either the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital (AAH) in Southall or the 1st AAH at Harefield. Her last trip home on the Marathon began only days before the armistice, depositing her back in WA on Christmas Eve, her appointment then being terminated in early February of 1919.
Yet again Edith signed on for more. Her reappointment with the AANS was for Special Service for the one voyage only, and this time she was given the rank of Sister. Together with AANS Staff Nurse Catherine MacLean & Miss Gilmore of the NZ Nursing Service, she embarked in Sydney on the SS Kursk on the 29th of May 1919. The Kursk was carrying German Prisoners of War who had been interned in Australia and were now being repatriated. Following their arrival in London on the 23rd July, Edith’s appointment with the AANS was again terminated – it had been whispered that she would be taking up new duties in England ‘which may eventually bring her into a new sphere of nursing.’
What these new duties were, or whether Edith entered a new sphere of nursing, is unknown, but what is known is she didn’t remain in England indefinitely. The following year she travelled to Canada, and eventually crossed again to America, where in California on the 18th February 1921 she was accepted for US citizenship.
Endnotes: Edith was born 17/1/1875 Luton, Bedfordshire, England (though she usually gave her DOB as 1878) – the daughter of John TREBILCOCK & Charlotte CROXFORD. Her father, a grazier, died in 1909 and her mother died in July 1914 while Edith was overseas. Her brother, Harold b.12/8/1878, who served in both the Boer War & WW1 – lost a leg & RTA in 1918 as a 2nd Lieut with the 3rd Tunnelling Coy, AIF. He died at the Heidelberg Military Hospital 21/6/1949.
Heather ‘Frev’ Ford (2012)