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Portrait of staff nurse, Leila Mary Brown, Australian Army Nursing Service 1916. (Image: Australian War Memorial)
Portrait of staff nurse, Leila Mary Brown, Australian Army Nursing Service 1916. (Image: Australian War Memorial)

This article, by Dr Vanessa Witton, appeared in the Glebe Society Bulletin, Issue 1 (March 2015): 5-7.

Nurses with connections to Glebe answered the call to serve in WWI. One of these women was Leila Mary Brown who served with the First AIF Nursing Corps in Egypt, England and France.

Leila was born in Glebe on 31 August 1889 to accountant Stephen E. Brown and Caroline M. In 1890 the family was listed as living in Albert St. We know little about Leila’s early life, but know she began nurse training as a Probationer in 1911 at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown. In those days the four year training course for nurses was hospital-based and they ‘lived in.’ Nurses enjoyed very little freedom and their lives inside and outside the hospital were strictly controlled. Like all trainee nurses, Leila was not allowed to marry. Great camaraderie existed between RPA nurses however, and many socialised during their little free time on the hospital tennis court.

Leila moved through the ranks as Junior Nurse 1912, Nurse 1913, Ward Nurse 1914 and Charge Nurse by 1915.

She spoke of her early RPA nursing work:

“We spent all our time in the wards, it was hard work because the patients were actually nursed back to health since there was hardly any medication … we wore a long purple dress down to the ankles, a long apron that came right up under the chin, a stiff collar with studs, stiff cuffs with studs and a starched, little round cap … we were up and down those long wards the whole time, changing dressings and applying poultices. We were often very busy if there were a lot of typhoids but mostly it was accidents or operations … there were plenty of bad accidents from the railway workshops near St Peters.” (Interview with Leila Brown, Sunday Telegraph 25 Feb 1973.)

At the end of nurse training there was no formal graduation, and Leila received her certificate without fanfare in April 1915.Leila’s work at RPA would have been extremely challenging, as that year an unprecedented number of nurses left to volunteer for the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). In spite of this, hospital historian Dorothy Armstrong described the nurses at RPA in 1915 as “keen” and “stimulated by the necessities of war.”

Like other Australian hospitals during WWI, RPA had difficulties obtaining hospital supplies as many were made in the enemy countries of Austria and Germany. In the face of such shortages Leila would have been expected to practice immense resourcefulness and initiative.

Leila served at RPA as Probation Sister until August 1916 when she resigned to join the AANS, which only accepted trained nurses. Her 27th birthday that year is likely to have been memorable as it was the day she enlisted with the 1st AIF. Two days later she embarked from Sydney as a single woman on board RMS Kashgar, 2 September 1916, with the rank of Staff Nurse. At this time she and her family were listed as living far from Glebe on the other side of Sydney Harbour at Ithaca in Effingham St Mosman.

After a long sea voyage Leila disembarked in Egypt in January 1917. The following month she was transferred to Rouen in France, and in March 1918 attached for duty in England. Three months later she was sent back to France and attached to the British Forces as part of No. 1 ACCS (Australian Casualty Clearing Station) from June 1918. Throughout September and October of that year Leila was stationed at the St Venant Asylum in St Omer, 68 km west-northwest of Lille:

“The scene for the Casualty Clearing Service was one old Lunatic Asylum which had been badly shelled. Some parts of it were burnt to the ground but all was more or less damaged. In the main surgical ward, which was upstairs, we could look through a shell hole in the floor and see what was going on in the ward below. There was not a pane of glass in the whole place, the windows were fixed up with oilskin, and blankets put up to keep in the light at night. The amount of cleaning done to this place was tremendous but the work here was extremely heavy… eventually we quietened down a little and No. 2 ACCS got in front of us. There I was put on a team and sent to them for a few weeks. The work there was almost entirely French civilians ranging in age from three months to that indescribable old age of the French peasant.” (Leila Brown, Nurses’ Narratives, Butler Collection, Australian War Memorial.)

Nursing enabled Australian women like Leila to actively take part in the war. She served with distinction as part of a surgical team which moved along the Hindenburg line, close to the fighting. The duties of army nurses were much more varied than those of civilian nurses, and Leila would have developed a broad range of skills from working with wounded servicemen. Intensive nursing was critical for the survival of infectious cases in an era when antibiotics did not exist, and in a 1980 interview with ABC Radio, Leila remembered winters nursing soldiers with scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles and mumps. She was also deeply distressed by their gas warfare injuries and recalled, “I hated their misery!” After three and a half years of war service, Leila returned to Australia on the Port Napier on 12 February 1920 and was demobilised in March.

After Australian nurses had served in WWI, the nursing profession gained an elevated respect from both the medical profession and the general public in Australia. For the next 20 years Leila dedicated her life to it in Australia, and later the United States and Hawaii where she was awarded certification as a Registered Nurse. She never married nor had children.

Leila came back to Australia in 1939 at the outbreak of WWII, hoping to join the Army Nursing Service once again. Being an older woman, she was sent instead to Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and Prince of Wales Repatriation Hospital at Randwick to serve as Senior Sister. A 1952 newspaper article details a colourful incident during her Prince of Wales service, in which she defended a wards maid from a jilted knife-wielding Bulgarian suitor from Coogee. After the wards maid rejected the suitor’s offer of marriage, he stabbed her, then twice stabbed Leila in the thigh. After Leila pulled him away, “he plunged the knife into his own chest.” The man died from his wounds and the Coroner commended Leila for her courage. The Royal Shipwreck Relief and Humane Society of NSW awarded her the Silver Medal and Certificate of Merit for this act of service.

In 1955 Leila retired from nursing. She was known as a person of high principles and great character. In her later years Australians interested in her life interviewed her about her WWI service for publication and broadcast. She died in Turramurra in 1981. Her Defence and Victory Medals are held by RPA Museum.

Posted on March 14, 2015 by Peter

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  1. Comment by Rod Wells on June 18, 2018 at 7:41 am:

    Thank you for this great story about Sister Leila Brown. I am in debt to Leila who in 1952 as the Matron at POW repatriation hospital introduced two young returned service personnel to each other who worked at the POW and ended up getting married and being my father and mother.

  2. Comment by Vanessa Witton on December 27, 2015 at 3:49 pm:

    If using this original article for research purposes, please cite:

    Author: Dr Vanessa Witton

    Many thanks,
    Vanessa Witton