The continued public interest in medical-based period dramas thanks to the wildly popular BBC series Call The Midwife, which tells the usually hidden stories of London's midwives during the 1950s and 60s, got us thinking that we should share some of the fabulous vintage images of wartime military nurses from our collection.  

Red Cross 'Bluebird' nurses awaiting embarkation on the troopship Kanowna, Melbourne, 6 July 1916. Photographer: Josiah Earl Barnes, ANMM Collection 00027608
Image: Red Cross 'Bluebird' nurses awaiting embarkation on the troopship Kanowna, Melbourne, 6 July 1916. Photographer: Josiah Earl Barnes, ANMM Collection 00027608

In 1916 a group of volunteer nurses known as the 'Bluebirds' (named such due to their distinctive dark blue uniforms) left Australian shores to serve allied troops in France. The Bluebirds were not members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, but a small group of volunteer nurses who had responded to an advertisement in the press. They were funded by the Australian Red Cross Society as a 'gift' to the French Government who were in desperate need of medical help at the front lines. Their wages were paid by the Australian Jockey Club and each nurse was supplied with a leather kit bag by the French-Australian League of Help. 

The Bluebirds were all required to speak French and served in dangerous locations all over France during the war, gaining enormous respect among those they served.

"I am proud to say that all the doctors are asking for Australian-trained nurses now."

Sister Grace Sheridan - Australian Red Cross Bluebird
Military nurses leaving Sydney, January 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022326
Image: Military nurses leaving Sydney, January 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022326

The Cunard Line's RMS Mauretania and RMS Queen Mary sailed from New York to Sydney in March 1940 to carry troops to the United Kingdom. These photographs show Australian nurses preparing to depart Sydney in May 1940, and were taken by renowned photographer Samuel J Hood

Australian troops and nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020453
Image: Australian troops and nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020453

Australian nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020458
Image: Australian nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020458

Australian nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020450
Image: Australian nurses preparing to depart Sydney, May 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00020450

Two nurses on board hospital ship TSS Oranje II, 28 June 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00021318
Image: Two nurses on board hospital ship TSS Oranje II, 28 June 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00021318

Nurses on board TSS Oranje II. After a refitting at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Prime Minister Robert Menzies hoisted a Red Cross flag on the Dutch liner TSS Oranje II, marking the handing over of the vessel from the Dutch Netherlands Indies Government to the Australian and New Zealand Governments to be used as a hospital ship.

Three nurses on board hospital ship TSS Oranje II, 28 June 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00021314
Image: Three nurses on board hospital ship TSS Oranje II, 28 June 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00021314

Nurses on board AHS Manunda, late 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022399
Image: Nurses on board AHS Manunda, late 1940. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022399

This photograph shows nurses on board AHS Manunda in late 1940. Left to right, on the back stairs is Lucy Staton, later Matron 2/1AHS Manunda (1944-1946) and Nell Marshall, later Matron 2/9AGH Middle East and New Guinea, then Principal Matron (Lieutenant Colonel) AANS Services, HQ New Guinea Force, Royal Red Cross (RRC). In front of them left to right is Deborah Ross Parker and Dorothy Deall, later in charge 102 CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) New Guinea. Standing left to right: probably Margaret de Mestre (killed in action 19 February 1942, Darwin), Vere Wilkinson, Lorraine Blow (seriously wounded 19 February 1942, Darwin), Alyson Mills, Clara Shumack (Matron 2/1 AHS Manunda, in 1944 Matron 128AGH Port Moresby and Redcliffe Qld, in 1945 Lieutenant Colonel, Royal Red Cross (RRC), 1945-1946 Matron 113AGH Concord, Barbara Millard (later in charge 110CCS, Royal Red Cross (ARRC)), probably Phyllis Back, probably Beryl Dwane, Amy Conway (later in charge 13 ACH (Australian Camp Hospital) Dubbo). Kneeling in front to the left is Kathleen Armstrong and an unidentified woman to the right.

Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022603
Image: Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022603

Although heading for dangerous situations, these nurses on board the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary bonded on the long journey playing shuffleboard, badminton and other deck games, and of course - tea! 

Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022602
Image: Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022602

Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022605
Image: Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022605

Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022607
Image: Nurses on the Aquitania and RMS Queen Mary, from South Australia and Bongilla, 3 February 1941. Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio, ANMM Collection 00022607

Would you have survived being sick on the high seas in the 17th to late 19th century? Read our blog about the strange and sometimes horrifying medical treatments at sea during the 'golden age of sailing'.

Danielle Voss

Danielle Voss is the Online Content Producer at the Australian National Maritime Museum.