This Remembrance Day, we particularly honour a woman who gave up a burgeoning career to serve her country in the First World War, and who paid the ultimate price. Her name was placed on honour rolls in two churches within our Diocese, as well as on many others nationally and overseas. Her death was mourned by those at The Front, as well as back home in Queensland. Her name was Sister Norma Violet Mowbray.
Norma Mowbray was born in St George in 1883 to Thomas and Elizabeth Mowbray. She began her training in nursing at the Brisbane General Hospital, then nursed in Warwick and, due to her efficiency, was promptly appointed as Matron of the Charleville Hospital, located approximately 760 kilometres west of Brisbane.
As the war approached, Norma’s family were living in Eagle Junction, and attending St Andrew’s Church, Lutwyche.
Norma began to take on private nursing roles, contributing to her building reputation. As The Queenslander reported in 1916:
“At the time of offering her services to her country, she was private nursing in Brisbane, and was one of the most successful nurses in her profession…”
Norma decided to volunteer for active duty, enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) on 11 November 1914. She was among the first detachment of 12 sisters and nine staff nurses to be appointed to the No. 1 Australian General Hospital formed in that year. On 21 November 1914 she left Brisbane on the troopship HMAT Kyarra (A55), and was eventually stationed at Heliopolis, near Cairo.
More than 3,000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during World War I. They were posted to Britain, France, Belgium, the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East. They nursed in hospitals, on hospital ships and trains, or in casualty clearing stations closer to the frontlines. Of these nurses, 25 never came home – Staff Nurse Norma Mowbray among them.
Norma was far too busy to focus on anything other than her work, which was considerable. Not only were the nurses responsible for things like vaccinations and assisting with operations, they were also tasked with training male orderlies in the final months of 1914 and early 1915. As the Gallipoli Campaign raged, a huge influx of wounded and dead arrived at Heliopolis. It soon became overcrowded and under-resourced, with the nurses needing to work around the clock to manage the demand for care.
We know for certain that Norma was at Heliopolis during this time, as we have an account of her work there from her own lips. In October of 1915, Norma was assigned to the Hospital Transport Ulysses to travel with and care for the wounded who were returning home. She was able to visit her family and was interviewed by The Telegraph before she returned to the front:
“Sister Mowbray says that all the wounded were marvellously brave, but the Australians were wonderful, and she was proud to think that she was a country-woman of men who could remain cheerful and considerate, even when racked with the most intense pain.”
She also spoke of the incredible June/July heat and how, as well as caring for the wounded, they had to keep the sand from blowing into the hospital. They relied on the graciously received ice-chests, given to them by the Red Cross, to help keep things somewhat cool for the patients. Her time in Heliopolis, then, is well documented.
What we are unable to confirm, however, is whether she was on the Island of Lemnos, if not just briefly, during the height of the Gallipoli Campaign.
Lemnos is a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Turkey. It was the main staging area for Anzac troops during the Gallipoli Campaign. On 4 March 1915 there was a huge influx of medical staff, nurses, military staff and troops on the island. Was Norma one of them? It is certainly possible, and it should be noted that the Maryborough RSL have listed Norma Mowbray as one of the nurses who served on Lemnos Island in 1915.
After her brief stay in Brisbane in October 1915, she served on another troop ship as a Staff Nurse, and travelled back to Heliopolis. It is believed that she had only been back at the hospital for a few weeks when she came down with what was initially suspected to be bronchitis. Indeed, as is noted in The Queenslander newspaper on 12 February 1916, Norma’s mother received a cable on 17 January to say that she was ill with this malady. Mrs Mowbray sent a reply cable, asking after her daughter’s health, only to receive a response that she had died of pneumonia just days later.
The death of Staff Nurse Mowbray while on active service was a blow to not only her family, but the troops and medical staff at the front during those challenging years. She was well known and very well regarded. Chaplain Cecil Edwards, from our Diocese, took note of her death in his diary. People who made donations to the War Nurses Fund set up by The Brisbane Courier stated that they did so “in memory of Sister Norma Mowbray”. And, in the months that followed, a small memorial plaque was created commemorating her. She was buried in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt. Her name is listed on the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, among more than 60,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War
Sister Norma’s wartime service has been long remembered in our Diocese. In 1917 St Luke’s Church on Charlotte Street placed Norma’s name on the Nurses Board of Honour. In 1924, St Andrew’s, Lutwyche placed her name on their lychgate memorial, among 48 other parishioners from that church.
Perhaps one of the most significant of her memorials is seen in the York Minster, United Kingdom. Between 1923 and 1925, a large window dating back to the mid-1200s, was restored and re-dedicated as the Five Sisters Window:
“SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE WOMEN OF THE EMPIRE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE EUROPEAN WAR OF 1914-1918.”
Next to the window are wooden honour boards, bearing Norma Mowbray’s name. Norma’s name also appears on the Bundaberg War Nurses Memorial, the Toowoomba Soldiers’ Memorial Hall Roll of Honour, and at the Australian War Memorial in panel 188 of the Commemorative Area.
Sister Norma Mowbray’s more than two years’ service and her return to Heliopolis, demonstrate the willingness of young women and men to serve in the First World War. The Queenslander newspaper, in announcing her death, remembered this remarkable woman with:
“…but her wish to help in alleviating the suffering of others at the front made her put her own career on one side, and offered the extreme sacrifice.”
And, The Bundaberg Mail published:
Sister Ella McLean: Queenslander, Anglican and WWI nurse
“The death of this noble young woman whilst on ‘duty’s call’ will be the cause of lament throughout this community, as well as amongst those who have learnt to love and worship her for the kindnesses and attentions our wounded and sick soldiers have always received at her hands.”
A video of a ‘Last Post’ ceremony commemorating Staff Nurse Mowbray at the Australian War Memorial can be found online.
Lest we forget.
Editor’s note 11/11/2021: “Excerpt” added to captions of three news story clippings above.