Remarkable WWI nurse honoured

A Sydney nurse who served in Egypt and on hospital ships during WWI, earning a Red Cross medal for her bravery, has finally been honoured with a memorial at her formerly unmarked grave.

Alice Cashin WW1 nurse, who served with the British Red Cross and subsequently with the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve
Alice Cashin WW1 nurse, who served with the British Red Cross and subsequently with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve

In 1917, Sydney-trained nurse Alice Cashin was the matron on the hospital ship the Gloucester Castle when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat as it crossed the English channel. Cashin ensured all of the 399 injured soldiers and 33 nurses on board were safely on lifeboats before leaving the sinking ship herself.

For her bravery she received a bar to the Royal Red Cross medal she had already been awarded. She was the first Australian to receive this honour during WWI.

When NSWNMA official Lynne Ridge read a story in The Sydney Morning Herald last year about Cashin and her unmarked grave at Woronora Memorial Park, she was inspired to do something to honour her memory. At a meeting between the Association and the CEO of the Woronora Memorial Gardens, Graham Boyd, a plan was hatched to erect a memorial for all nurses and midwives in NSW, inspired by Cashin, next to the place where she is buried.

The NSWNMA commissioned a life-size bronze statue of a nurse in a WWI matron’s uniform of the kind Cashin wore. NSWNMA Council President Coral Levett modelled for the work, wearing a uniform created by costume designer Caitlyn Newbury and a veil and headpiece by Bronwyn Shooks.

Speaking at the official dedication ceremony, Brett Holmes, General Secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, said the memorial “is a symbol for all nurses and midwives who have stood by us in times of war, hardship and joy”.

“As the first Australian to be awarded a Royal Red Cross (RRC 1st class) plus the bar for bravery during World War I, Alice was recognised for all the qualities nurses aspire to – courage, professionalism and devotion to duty.”

Former NSW Governor Marie Bashir paid tribute to Cashin’s place in Australia’s history: “She will be an inspiration, not only to nurses, but to doctors and all those who work in the caring profession.”

Cashin, who trained at St Vincent’s Hospital, joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) during the war. After surviving the torpedoing of the Gloucester Castle, she was put in charge of the 400-bed military hospital at Whittingham Barracks, Lichfield. On her return to Australia she was crowned the Queen of Marrickville. She died on 4 November 1939 from chronic nephritis.

The ceremony was attended by some 20 of Alice’s descendants, including Jennifer Furness

A Heroic Nurse

This is an edited version of Alice Cashin’s account of the torpedoing of the H.M.H.S. Gloucester Castle on 30 March, 1917 in the English Channel.

It was midnight – all the lights with the exception of a few emergency candles were extinguished at once by the terrible explosion – our wireless fell, rendering it useless.

Having the [ports and] watertight doors closed divided the ship into about five sections, which meant that should she meet with hostile craft she would not sink at once unless injured in more than one place. It made our work very heavy as we had always to come up on deck, and descend another stairs to get to each ward.

We were carrying about 400 wounded, an unusually small number, for oftentimes we carried 800 across the Channel. Our number of hopeless cases that night was about 250: we had English, Irish, Scotch and a big number of my own countrymen (Australians) on board.

The poor old ship was struck on the starboard side by a torpedo which made a hole that a train could enter: she listed over on her side, but soon came back into position.

I thought at first we were falling to pieces, and felt my last hour had come. At the time I was lying on my bunk fully dressed – I was stunned for a second, then I sprang, but trembled so that at first I could not strike a match to light the lantern which I had ready for emergency.

It was grand to see the splendid discipline of all the nursing staff. They went calmly to their boats and stood there helping and directing the patients who could walk. Then as the [life-]boats were full they got away, a sister – sometimes two – in each.

Everybody worked in silence, just as though we were all dumb. We had been together nearly a year, had confidence in each other, and were all well drilled.

The officers and the R.A.M.C. boys did splendid work with the sisters assisting helpless cases.

As the boats were filled I distributed blankets, and gave one to each walking case as he came up. I also gave out little bags of dressings to each boat with something in them to ease pain if necessary.

I met the chief engineer, and asked if any of his men were killed, and if there were any who needed dressing. He replied: ‘Don’t ask me, Matron, I have tried to get down to them, but the water is up to the ceiling’.

There were only a few walking cases, two medical officers, several R.A.M.C. and myself left on the sinking ship, in addition to the captain, chief engineer, and one wireless operator and some of the crew on the bridge.

The patients kept asking what were we going to do as there were no lifeboats left. I kept assuring them help would soon come, and that the good old ship would keep afloat owing to the fact of the watertight doors being closed, then all of a sudden it dawned on them that I too had no boat.

Then came the voice of the captain from the bridge asking if all the sisters were off. a reply was given: ‘Yes, all but Matron’. The dear brave man left his bridge to seek me, and asked me to go forward and get into a lifeboat that was full of wounded. It being so dark we had not seen this boat. So I obeyed orders and went forward, climbed the rail and got in.

As we passed the second deck, there stood two of my boys of the R.A.M.C. Linked arm-in-arm, looking like ghosts, they were awaiting their fate, for the poor old ship was gradually filling and going under. I pleaded with Pte. Atkinson and Pte. Leysham to get in: they hesitated because we looked already too many, but they obeyed my pleading and got in.

With such a heavy channel swell we all became seasick. We had a shell shocked insane soldier amongst the boatload. Just picture yourself for a second, a lifeboat loaded with suffering humanity, a poor stoker scalded from head to foot and a lunatic, and only four able bodied men to help keep her afloat; we were also shipping water and it was so cold that when I tried to help to row, my hands were almost numb.

All the boats from the port side were picked up early by H.M. destroyers, but our boat and another that left the starboard side got out of range of the light of the destroyers and were not picked up until much later. At last a huge transport appeared as if from the clouds coming to our rescue. After great difficulties we managed to pull around to the starboard side and a life line was thrown. [Then we heard a sailor]: ‘Captain’s orders – any ladies must go up first.’ A slip knot went over my head and fastening it around my waist he gave the signal for me to be hauled up. So up I went like a bundle of hay. As I am a heavy woman of about 13 stone, needless to say it was not pleasant.

Once on deck of the transport I began to forget my miseries, for there were others worse off than myself, and my attention was given to them. The cot cases, such as those with fractured limbs and amputations, were all brought up by means of a large coal basket, for it would be fatal if they were bumped on the side of the ship.

When we were all safely on board, hot coffee was given to each, and those who could walk were given a dry blanket and taken by the sailors to rest down on the troop deck. The more serious cases were made comfortable in the saloons. The poor engineer or stoker who was so badly scalded I gave at one a quarter grain of morphia under the tongue to relieve his agony and dressed him as well as I could with olive oil, the only thing I could obtain.

H.M. destroyers rescued 350 from the drifting boats. It was a happy moment when we all met at Southampton. The commanding officer of the Lanfrance and the matron marched us off for refreshments to their boat which was in dock, and there we remained until we came to London on leave.

 

The memorial was made possible thanks to support from Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, First State Super, St Vincent’s Hospital, the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, UK. the past NSWNMA General Secretary, Patricia Staunton, and Tradies Gymea..