The first nurses of WWI

On New Year’s Eve, 1914, New Zealand nursing leaders told the government that “if the sons of New Zealand were serving the Empire in the field, it was only right that her daughters, who were able and willing, should be allowed to do so to.”

At the beginning of World War One, New Zealand did not yet have an official army nursing service, though the gutsy and capable Matron-in-Chief Hester McLean had been fighting to create one for a number of years. However, nurses were still needed, and Hester McLean was allowed to send a small contingent of nurses with the troopships that left, almost immediately after war was declared, for Samoa.

The group of six were led by the aptly named Bertha Nurse, and left in mid-August 1914, meeting up with a seventh nurse en-route (she’d been on holiday in Fiji and hopped on the troopship as it sailed past.) There wasn’t time to do much in the way of organising a uniform: nurses were provided with two grey cotton frocks and a panama hat. In their supplies they had ingredients for invalid diets, a little bag each containing items like surgical dressings instruments, thermometers, canvas stretcher beds and bedding. Friends had even supplied them with deckchairs and cushions for the voyage to Samoa.

The team had been put together with only three days’ notice, and since there was no time to look far for the nurses, Hester Maclean selected those who were in Wellington at the time, with one exception:

“I telegraphed to Christchurch for Miss Thurston to select a sister and send her up by that night's ferry steamer, which was fortunately, not leaving till 11 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. She selected her theatre sister, Sister Louie McNie, who was away for her day off…” (from Nursing in New Zealand: Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences)

Louie (the middle nurse in the front row in the photo above) was aided by her nursing friends, who were proud that one of their own had been chosen to help the war effort, packing up her things for her so she had the time to say goodbye to her family before legging it to the late ferry, making it to Wellington the next morning.

Christchurch born Louie Alexa McNie received glowing praise throughout her war service, and was one of the 14 New Zealand nurses to be awarded the Royal Red Cross, and one of the 72 who were awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross. After the war, she continued nursing through the 1920s and 30s, married Doctor Henry Meredith Buchanan and passed away in Auckland in 1941, age 57.

During the war, Sister Louie McNie worked on two of New Zealand’s hospital ships, which will be featured in our next Anzac post.

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