Sister Greta Towner: Greta the ANZAC
Guest blogger: Avril Fazel, Head of Department, Blackall State School.
On the 13th September 1915, a short entry in Greta’s war record marks the start of an experience that would no doubt have stayed with her for her entire life – it reads “detailed for duty at Lemnos”.
Greta had gone from nursing at the Rockhampton Children’s Hospital into the foreign world of Egypt and now onto the Number 2 Australian Standing Hospital (2ASH) at Mudros Bay on the Greek Island, Lemnos - some 100 miles from the ANZACs fighting at Gallipoli. The unit diary records her arrival on September 17th 1915, after the failed August Offensive and the beginning of winter conditions.
The conditions on Gallipoli had seen diseases such as dysentery, various fevers, rheumatics, gastritis and pneumonia become endemic. The sick and injured were transported to ships and islands including Lemnos Island where just months before the ANZAC’s had practised their landings before the landing at Gallipoli on April 25th 1915.
Greta and her fellow nurses at the 2ASH worked in primitive conditions, caring for patients in tents without running water, sewage systems and indeed often with a lack of proper medical supplies to care for the men. The commanding officers did not warmly welcome Greta and her fellow nurses – it was the first time women had served in the 2ASH.
The nurses learnt new skills in managing their tented hospital – mending tears, re-hooking the walls or tightening and loosening the guy ropes, depending on the weather. When winter set in it was common for tents to collapse on the patients with the nurses pitching in to salvage the situation, including those injured by the collapse. Water was rationed, delivered by ships. The nurses improvised, tearing up sheets for bandages, turning off lamps and sitting in the dark to conserve fuel and propping up patients with rocks when bedding was not available.
Butler, in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services “believed that the conditions at Lemnos were more crude than any met with afterwards, perhaps than in any other war. The physical discomforts were great.”
Perhaps Greta’s bush up bringing helped her cope with the challenging conditions, we may never know for sure, but she did survive her time on Lemnos, leaving the island on the 24th January 1916.
By September/October 1915, No. 2 Australian Stationary Hospital occupied sixty large marquee-tents, and had 1,200 beds and 25 nursing sisters (Butler, 388). On the island, 133 nurses served, Greta Norman Towner is counted in this significant group of women.
Greta’s service at the 2ASH on Lemnos Island sees her as part of a select group of Australian women who earned the right to be called an ANZAC along with nurses on, Imbros and Tenedos islands and those on the hospital and transport ships and the men who saw service during the Gallipoli campaign. Greta’s uniform signals her as an ANZAC with the small brass “A” central on the 1AGH patch on the upper left sleeve of her jacket.