Lucy’s War

FictionIssue Two

Written by:

Views: 2581

By Kate Wann


The following story is based on fact. All the quotes are directly taken from the diary of Lucy Daw 1915. Except for a minor change, I have kept her exact words and punctuation to maintain the authenticity of her work. In between her diary entries I have used fact and fiction to highlight what she went through. The dates are all fact but what Lucy felt and saw is fiction, based on as much research that I could do to make it as real as possible.


17th July 1915

‘We have been given our orders and will be working with casualties from Gallipoli, based in Lemnos. We leave England tomorrow.’

She leant over the side of the troopship and vomited into the rolling ocean. The seas had been horrific and despite her iron stomach for many things, she had succumbed to seasickness. Lucy went back to her room and looked at the pale faces of her fellow nurses. They were on the last leg of their two month ocean journey from Australia to Gallipoli via England, and these were the worst seas yet. They all knew that they would arrive at Lemnos in a few hours. What they didn’t know yet was that it would be much more of a challenge that any of them had ever faced.

The men had left Plymouth six days prior to the nurses, and the supply ship the Ascot a week before that.

In the early hours of 5th August 1915 the ship pulled in to the now calm waters surrounding Lemnos. Lucy ran on to the deck with the other nurses. They stood along the rails with their red capes flapping gently in the warm morning wind. The harbour was full of boats, huge grey war ships, submarines, and Cunard liners being used as hospitals. The women stood silently in awe of it all as this was the first glimpse of war they had seen. Lucy had a surreal moment trying to catch up with the reality of it all. It seemed so far from the family farm in the Adelaide Hills.


5th August 1915

 ‘The harbour is full of war ships of every description. I saw several submarines for the first time.’

The nurses stood on the deck anticipating some sort of greeting from the Ascot, the supply ship that was to have arrived two weeks before them. Matron called the women to the bow of the ship and explained that the supply ship had been delayed. They were trying to find some tents to use in the short term and found some boxes of bandages they had brought with them. This was all that they had, and they would have to make do.

In the glow of the rising sun, they could see the shore where the tent hospital was to be set up; it was brown dirt and white rock. They had been told that some wounded soldiers would be arriving in a matter of days. They were to treat the men with no real hospital and limited supplies. That night, the nurses slept on a ship in the harbour and the men slept on the hard ground of the island.

Two days later the hospital site had been pegged out and some marquees had been found to house the wounded. Two other hospitals were already on the island. One was English and the other, Canadian. The nurses remained on the boat, waiting for orders to come ashore. They sat on the front of the ship rolling what bandages they had, and trying to create shade as best they could. The cabins were way too hot, but out here at least there was some breeze.

It was later that day when they were finally told it was time to come ashore. Lucy carefully navigated herself on to the unsteady row boat. Long skirts and lace up boots always seemed to get in the way of remaining truly ladylike. She squinted to look up at the large grey ship she had just disembarked, feeling insignificant and uneasy in the smaller boat. They pushed away from the ship and began rowing towards Lemnos Island.

The heat was almost unbearable in the exposed boat, and the bleached stones of the shore and huge metal side of the ship were glaring under the unrelenting sun.

As they came closer to shore, the wind picked up and the sailors had to row twice as hard to keep the dinghy on course. The nurses tucked their chins down to try and keep the sun and wind out of their eyes. Lucy kept trying to peek up and get a glimpse of the island that would be her home and workplace for as long as she was needed. It struck her as a formidable place, the few trees and brown dry earth adding to the feeling of isolation.

The dinghy came to the gritty beach and the nurses were helped ashore. They stood on the sand smoothing down their dresses and wondering what on Earth they had signed up for. The Matron signaled for them to follow her and they made their way up a rocky hill. The wind whipped around them, which seemed to increase the temperature, and they breathed in the warm air.

‘Line up,’ ordered Matron. Despite the weather and the fact no hospital had arrived before them they were marched, led by a piper, to the site where the 3rd Australian General Hospital was to be set up.

Before breakfast the following day, 200 injured soldiers arrived. By the end of the week they had around 800. Lucy was shocked at their wounds and felt helpless with the limited supplies. The men were thin and filthy; one was admitted dead.

Despite her feelings, she worked as hard as she could to get the men comfortable as she triaged the injuries.

The more seriously injured had a crayoned ‘M’ with a time written on their forehead. It was a message from the nurses at the front line that they had been given morphine for their pain and what time it had been administered. Lucy had a simultaneous pang of guilt and relief that she wasn’t at the front line. She knew the nurses at the front on the hospital ships had a hard time.  In one pocket of their apron they had aspirin; in the other one morphine. They distributed these to the injured and dying men who had come straight from the trenches, as they saw fit.

‘Bring him over here boys,’ Lucy said, directing the exhausted orderlies carrying a stretcher. The man was unconscious but not bleeding badly, ‘thank goodness’ she thought. The supply ship had still not arrived and they had very little in the way of bandages left. This soldier might survive, but many before him were not so lucky.

She had only arrived in Lemnos ten days before and had been working day and night. There were still no beds, so Mackintosh sheets were put on the ground for the injured.

As she rolled up the man’s sleeve to take his pulse, she noticed a large tattoo of an attractive, dark-haired woman on his arm. Lucy found tattoos unnerving, more than she felt she should. They were such a personal glimpse into the life of the men she helped; a reminder of the people they left behind to fight the war.

She bobbed down beside him and took the soldier’s pulse. It was weak. She needed to concentrate to feel the gentle beat. And then, it stopped. She gasped as she realised that he had died. He really had not looked as bad as some of the men. She was not someone to make mistakes and found it difficult to consider that she had missed something. For a moment, she ruminated about how hard it was to look after so many men.  The heat was stifling and the epidemic of flies was the worst she had ever seen. What littler water they had was needed for the patients. As a result, she had been brushing her teeth with sea water since her arrival.

Her friend Grace walked past and saw Lucy sitting frozen, holding the dead soldier’s wrist and staring into middle distance. ‘Lucy, is everything alright?’ she asked gently. Startled out of her reflections, Lucy nodded, and stood up. ‘I need an orderly to take this chap, he didn’t make it,’ she said, matter-of-factly.


10th August 1915

A boy cried for his mother last night, don’t think they will get through the Dardanelles, everyone just cries and cries.’

The August offensive continued at Gallipoli and with it, the injured continued to pour into the 3rd Australian General Hospital. Lucy had heard that the loss of life on the battle field was horrific. She could see it on the men’s faces; they were only shadows of the raucous lads who left for battle. Being an Australian hospital, only injured Australians were meant to be admitted, but these days, no Allies were turned away.

Exhausted from the day’s efforts, Lucy still found it difficult to sleep in the makeshift tent. Sometimes it was the noise that kept her awake; sometimes it was the silence.


13th August 1915

‘I can hear guns. None last night, they must have been burying their dead. 1000’s lie wounded.’


15th August 1915

‘A Turkish prisoner turned sniper last night, killed 10 of our men. The men did not want to take him in but the officers insisted. I believe in taking no prisoners.’

Early the next morning, Lucy went down to the shore to rinse out some clothes. It was a beautiful morning, not too hot or windy yet, and the sky was a glorious pink. The red and green of the harboured ship hospital lights almost looked festive in the early morning light. The girls were exhausted but the camaraderie was strong. Grace talked about how one of the other nurses had been proposed to by one of the soldiers. After the wedding she would have to resign, as once they were married, women were not allowed to nurses. Lucy wondered where they could get married on the island, and was uplifted that such happiness could still be found in times of war.

On the 20th of August, the supply ship Ascot finally pulled into the harbour to much excitement from the nurses and orderlies. Lucy watched as the supplies were unloaded and large marquees and tents were put up. She wondered how they had saved so many lives with so little, and in such appalling conditions.

The weather was beginning to get cooler and there was more rain. It hit the parched, hard earth and tricked off into small streams. The nurse would leap like deer over the water as they moved between tents. The timing of the Ascot was perfect, before the weather turned really bad. The men now had beds and the 150 that Lucy had on night duty were being well cared for. Some nights she was able to sit at a small desk by lamplight and write in her diary while the men slept.


20th August 1915

The patients are pretty good at night, so I have a bit of a rest.’

Lucy missed her family back home, especially her sister Mary in Adelaide, who had given birth to a little baby boy after she left. She wished she could cuddle him and smell the wonderful, powdery, new baby scent. She looked up at the rows and rows of mostly sleeping, injured men and felt a heavy nostalgia for the time before war broke out.

Nurse,’ called one of the men, from deep in the shadows. Lucy immediately got up and walked purposely towards him. She smiled kindly at the tanned face. ‘I am sorry, but I really can’t sleep,’ Will said. She sat on the edge of the bed and they talked. She told him about Mary and the baby, and he told her about his dairy farm in the Barossa Valley. It was now being run by his mum and her sisters as all the men had left for the war.


23rd August 1915

‘I really like him, we reminisced about home together as he lives in Adelaide too.’

Whenever she had time, she would visit Will to see how he was going. Although she felt strongly for him, she knew that nurses who married could no longer work. When Will was sent back to Gallipoli, she declined to give him her contact details. Squeezing his hand tightly, she said ‘Thank you,’ and left. However, he would not give in that easily.

More injured soldiers arrived every day, but now they were seeing many more sick men, too. Dysentery and typhoid where another enemy, for both the soldiers and nurses. 25 nurses had come down with dysentery and that meant more patients and work for Lucy and the other nurses. By the end of the August offensive, 32 soldiers had died from injuries. After August, most of the deaths that Lucy had to deal with were not from injury but disease.

As she looked after the men, they often would give her news about the war. Some would not talk about their own experiences. A few wouldn’t talk at all.


25th August 1915

‘We heard that a transport has been torpedoed. Twelve are said to be drowned. A terrible lot of boats are being sunk by submarines which are at large in the Mediterranean, far more than are ever reported.’ 


1st September 1915

‘The men haven’t eaten since Friday but they are so happy to be here they are almost cheerful.’

The warm weather and flies had turned to rain and vermin. The orderlies worked hard to keep mice out of the tents. The heavy rain caused flooding and the wind threatened to destroy the tent hospital.

Lucy lay in her bed that night listening to the wind slapping at her tent, breathing shallowly. She felt if she fully relaxed and fell asleep, the tent might fall down, trapping her. Lucy was resentful that the nurse’s huts still had not been put up despite the supplies that had arrived. The other hospitals on the island had huts for nurse’s quarters, yet the Australians still remained in tents.

The next morning, she got dressed quickly as the sides of the tent were rolling, like waves. It was very difficult to get clothes dried in this weather and she felt the still-damp collar and cuffs of her uniform as she pulled it over her head. She silently hoped the tent wouldn’t blow away until she had put her dress on.


16th September 1915

The patients had a river of water running through their tents, heavy rain. Orderlies up all night, tents blowing down. This is the biggest mistake possible spending money erecting hospital here, they can never be a success. No operations are to be done unless absolutely imperative.’


1st October 1915

‘I have never seen the sisters so upset. We all had to move. The night nurses came on to day and the nurses in the Typhoid Marquees had to get together in the bell tents. So that meant we who are not in Ty wards had to move into the Marquees! 8 in each instead of our little tents. That meant Grace and I were again separated.’

The rough, alien terrain of Lemnos was now familiar. She knew most of the ships in the harbour that came and went. The dramatic ups and downs of war nursing began to feel like normal life for Lucy, not that she ever would get entirely comfortable. She felt that as a nurse, her skills had improved. As a woman, she found that she was braver and more capable then she ever imagined.


5th October 1915

‘It is a perfect day. Grace and I are sitting outside the marquee, had afternoon tea, and asked Matron to join us. We all agree we are glad to be one of the first women to land at Lemnos, even though we had hardships.’


12th October 1915

‘Got a move today, to the other ward, but this time in charge. Colonel Cudmore asked for me so Matron sent me. I am jolly glad, am quite sure I shall like having a ward of my own.’

A small bird flitting about in her ward made her jump. It came out from under her desk and scooted past so fast that for a moment, she thought it was a mouse. She watched it peck at the ground just outside the canvas door. Suddenly she felt very homesick. It looked similar to a kind of bird back home that was called a Willie Wagtail. They were everywhere at the farm. She felt a lump catch in her throat and wished for some letters from home.


24th November 1915

‘The German submarines are doing a lot of damage, torpedoing our supply ships, have got a few transports, but they mostly manage to get into this harbour. They are most active between here and Alexandria a big mail went down in one boat this week, a number of parcels and 900 registered letters.’

The nurses were devastated by the loss of the mail. The usual chatter between them was more sober. However, they managed to keep upbeat when around the sick and injured men. Lucy was surprised when Will came to visit her and felt her face flush. This time he did not ask for her contact details but left with a knowing look on his face.


25th November 1915

‘I am glad that Will visited me today from the rest camp. He has been at Anzac for 3 months, he looks a bit thin.’

Grace and Lucy were now working together again and between them they managed to keep the men’s spirits up. Grace had a wonderful singing voice and Lucy, a quick wit. The men joked that they should start a stage show when they got back home. They finally got a hut to share, and contentment came with the strong sense of belonging. Lucy felt that the two of them had arrived as single entities but were now connected to the war and the men who fought in it.

At the end of their shift, the women walked back to their hut in the twilight. In the distance they could see orderlies carrying a stretcher with a stark white sheet covering the body beneath. They took the body up a small hill; on the other side was the mass grave for all the unfortunate ones.


14th December 1915

‘The war has got me down today, all this loss of life and nothing obtained.’

The nurses were told to begin to evacuate the hospital as the final offensive was to soon take place at Gallipoli. It felt surreal to Lucy, knowing that on the other side of the world her family was getting ready for Christmas, as she prepared for more injured.


16th December 1915

‘We are sending patients to the convalescent camp each day, evacuating our hospital, getting ready for any wounded who have the good fortune to get off the Peninsular from the final fight. Each day we hear rumours of who is to fight the rear guard. It might be very terrible at the last, they have it all arranged, mined to blow the works up as they come down, then barbed wire entanglements then machine guns every 12 yards. So Mr Turk will not gain ground very quickly.

Thousands of troops are being got off every night. Heavy bombarding was heard all last night.’


17th December 1915

‘Volunteers were called to remain amongst the stretcher bearers. They were told by their Colonels that they would probably be killed if not taken prisoner for sure, so the ones that stay are brave men. The Navy goes out each night and returns in the morning, we are expecting the final blow up on Monday all stores, guns, munitions have to be blown up before the last of them get off. The boys are all very sad about it. They say, it’s our home.’

Lucy understood how the soldiers felt, that even a muddy, lice-infested trench can feel like home. Just as her a makeshift hospital in the middle of a war could begin to feel like her home. But with the men leaving Gallipoli, the 3rd Australian General Hospital would also soon be leaving Lemnos.


18th December 1915

‘Heard today the Destroyer HMS Pincher has been blown to atoms, it always anchored where we could see it quite plainly form our lines. But we have watched for over a week and seen no sign of her. Mr Palmer used to come and see me each time she came in, I don’t know if any were saved, but I think not.’


19th December 1915

‘Tonight is the final at Gallipoli, every man who remains has to be got off so stores and trenches are to be blown up. The ones who remain to do that then have to run and swim to the destroyer, which has volunteered to get within 100 yards of the shore.’

Lemnos was harsh, and so different to that of Lucy’s Adelaide home, but she had come to like it and had never felt more useful. She was tired and had times of complete exhaustion, but knew more than ever, nursing was what she wanted to do. She walked down to the harbour and looked at the boats that had been such a shock when she had first seen them. Now, they were just part of the scenery. She mused on how amazing it was that, given time, one can get used to almost anything.

There was something about necessity and the human spirit that allowed the most inhospitable places to become familiar and sacred.  The nurses remained in Lemnos until late January, when they moved to Egypt. Lucy’s war was far from over.


Image by woodrow walden.