Balmain, Sydney-born Millicent Irene Henley (1887-) at a Remington typewriter in London at the outbreak of World War One. Miss Henley, the eldest daughter of Australian politician and building contractor Sir Thomas Henley, was working in the office of the Australian Comforts Fund shipping and transport department.Britain declared war on Germany on this day, August 4, in 1914. Australia and New Zealand, not once consulted by the "Mother Country" about events in Europe leading to the conflict, were automatically dragged into the madness of a global massacre, one which would claim more than 16 million lives. The day after Britain became involved, the first shots fired in anger by British Empire forces in World War One were fired in Australia, by the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery at Fort Nepean in Victoria. The German merchant ship Pfalz, a 6557-ton steamer operated by Norddeutscher Lloyd, was heading out of Port Phillip Bay at 12.10am when news of Britain's declaration reached the fort, with orders to "stop her or sink her". Battery shots from one of the fort's six-inch Mk VII guns crossed the bows of the Pfalz, forcing the ship to surrender. After its arrest, the Pfalz was requisitioned for the Royal Australian Navy and refitted as a troop ship, the HMT Boorara. In 1919, it was used to repatriate Australian troops from England.
Renamed the Boorara.
Among the first Australians to become more directly involved in the war, in Europe, were women - typists, nurses and nurses with typewriters.
Thomas Henley is on the left of this photo, Millicent on the right.
Millicent Irene Henley's father, Thomas Henley (1860-1935), was born in England and migrated to Sydney in 1884. He bought and developed land at Balmain, Petersham, Five Dock and Drummoyne and owned the Drummoyne, West Balmain and Leichhardt Steam Ferry Company. He was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 1904 until his death (he promoted the development of Canberra in 1924).
Soon after the outbreak of war, Tom Henley and his eldest daughter Millicent went to Egypt, Henley as commissioner for the Citizens' War Chest Fund. The pair organised the distribution of comforts from Alexandria, Marseilles and Le Havre and London. Millicent's brother Harold Leslie Henley (born 1893) was killed in action in France in 1916. Another of Henley's sons, Herbert Sydney Henley (1889-1966) became a member of the NSW Legislative Council from 1937-64.
In London in May 1919, typists in the War Diaries subsection of the Australian War Records Section work on the precis of diaries kept by soldiers and nurses in World War One. The precis was necessary to facilitate the work of historians and reduce the handling of original diaries.
The Photographic Records and Classification Subsection of the Australian War Records Section prepare prints, copy and file negatives, and classify and index photographs. Note the large metal case for a Royal Standard 5 typewriter (being used by Second Corporal Sydney Harold Heathwood, 3rd Machine Gun Battalion, centre) on a shelf at left.
Back in Melbourne, Australia, these women typed up the information gathered in Europe and the Middle East at the Australian Defence Department Base Records office.
Mary Ann Benallack (1876-1937)
One of the first Australian nurses to experience first-hand the horrors of World War One was Mary Ann Benallack, of Colac in Victoria. After three years on the Western Front, in 1917 Mary found good use for a typewriter, to write her recollections of her experiences behind the British lines.
Mary had actually travelled to Europe on a world cruise in 1914, never suspecting when she left Australia that she would soon become caught up in the slaughter. She had just arrived in London when war was declared.
She could not return to Australia to join the Australian Nursing Corps, so enlisted with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve and left for the Continent as part of a contingent of volunteer army nurses on November 14, 1914.
Mary Benallack's marvellous article, as it appeared in her hometown newspaper, the Colac Herald, on December 3, 1917. Here is the story, which was also published in the Glasgow Weekly News:
Colac Nurse at the Front
A THRILLING STORY
Sister Mary Benallack, of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service, who has been on duty behind the lines in France since November 1914, is a sister of Mrs T.W. Johnstone, of Colac. Whilst in London, where she was suffering from the effects of wounds and shell shock, she graphically described some of her experiences in the war zone in the following article which appeared in the “Glasgow Weekly News””:
Before referring to my own little adventures in that grim area of titanic combat - termed the Western Front - I desire to avail myself of the privilege of adding my tribute of admiration for the dauntless valour and splendid fortitude of the men now fighting on defence of righteousness and justice. The courage of the heroic lads of the Empire in the field is only matched by their calm, unmurmuring endurance under physical pain in the hospitals. I write of that which I know. For nearly three years I have had the honour lending the sick, the wounded, and the dying, and, looking back I cannot recall a single instance of a British warrior whose agony made him regret that he donned the uniform or whose glazing eyes showed a trace of fear as he approached the dark valley of the shadow of death.
A MEMORABLE DAY
My most exciting day in France - from a strictly personal viewpoint - was Sunday, 22nd July, 1917, for it was then that I obtained a practical lesson of what it means to be wounded.
It happened in this fashion. I was on board a barge which had been converted into a hospital. The flotilla comprised four of these barges, which were proceeding along a canal “somewhere in France” for the purpose of bringing back wounded men from the Front.
About eight o’clock on that lovely summer morning we reached a small town fully a dozen miles to the rear of the firing line. The bells were ringing for church service, and but for the booming of guns in the distance one would have found it difficult to believe that the scene of the world’s most fearful conflict was near at hand. There were three other nurses besides myself on board, and after breakfast we went up on deck to enjoy the fresh air, and probably, to pass under review the Sunday attire of the French women of the provincial town. That, alas, was not a difficult task. The great majority of the women in France are in mourning.
The four of us - representing England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia - were seated on one of the hatches chatting away about nothing in particular when the peacefulness of the picture was rudely shattered by the arrival in a neighbouring field of a great German howitzer shell.
One of the town’s officials informed us of the character of the unwelcome visitor, and added that the place had frequently been under the fire of the Kaiser’s most powerful guns. “They are trying to smash up that foundry,” he said, “but they haven’t registered a hit so far.”
During the next two hours over a score of monster shells landed in and about the town and the bombardment had the disturbing effect of making one ponder over the uncertainty of life.
Shortly after ten o’clock the unforgettable event occurred. A shell collided with a potato field bordering the canal and at a point not more than twenty yards distant from our barge.
The concussion treated us in a most undignified manner. We were hurled off the hatch and thrown violently to the deck. “What next?” was the question that flashed through my brain as I struck the boards. I had not long to wait for an answer. The atmosphere suddenly became filled with earth and stones – and potatoes! My recollections of what took place within the next few seconds is of the vaguest description. In fact, there are blanks in the film.
FRIGHTENED THE DOCTOR
For instance, I was informed by one of the doctors that I gave him the fright of his life. It appears that I was completely buried beneath the debris created by the bursting of the shell. Subconsciously I must have fought and struggled against this premature burial, for the medical man informed me that my head suddenly emerged from the mass.
“And you were a pretty sight, I assure you,” he said. “Your face was covered with blood, and just at that stage you wouldn’t have run the ghost of a chance in a beauty show. I didn’t know you at first. It was only when you spoke that I became sure of your identity.”
“What did I say, doctor? “That was the funny part of the business,” he laughingly replied. “You looked round you dazedly, and then remarked - “ We are all right, aren’t we? Is anybody hurt?”
Later in hospital I learned that I had got the worst of the deal. My real features were concealed behind a discouraging mask of cuts, bruises, and abrasions, whilst I suffered rather severely from shell shock.
One man in the barge next to ours was struck by a bit of shrapnel as he lay in bed down below and a few of the nurses on that same barge met with quite a number of hair-raising adventures while crawling about beneath the beds in search of shelter.
The cook on our barge, who escaped without a scratch, afterwards quoted the old proverb, which announces something about its being “an ill wind that blows nobody good”. The reason for his joy was the discovery of a quantity of potatoes on the deck of the barge, sufficient to supply the whole outfit for fully a week.
And I still cherish the opinion that it was a potato that presented me with one of the most radiant black eyes that ever adorned a human countenance. Verily, I looked a most disreputable creature.
MISTAKEN FOR A MAN
Just how many yards of bandages they wrapped around my devoted head I shall never know. One thing is certain - they tied me up so voluminously that at one stage of my journey I was actually mistaken for a man!
It was after leaving the Channel steamer at Dover that this horrible “tragedy” occurred. Hundreds of wounded Tommies had crossed in the same boat with men, and also a number of sick nurses.
I was a stretcher case, neatly enfolded in the regulation blanket, and my head and hair concealed from view beneath the aforementioned bandages. My destination was London, while the wounded soldiers were en route for Bournemouth.
Dusk was falling on the stretcher on which I lay rested on the Dover platform. My stretcher was on the right flank of those of the sick sisters, and next to those of the Tommies.
In due course two stretcher bearers suddenly materialised, and without speaking a word they carried me into the ambulance train and deposited me in a lower berth. My mind was not particularly active at the moment. I was feeling faint and tired with the journey and my injuries, and longing for the peace and rest of a hospital bed.
Then it gradually dawned upon me that there was an extraordinarily large number of male voices sounding in the carriage. I failed to understand why there should be so many male orderlies to look after a few sick nurses, and I decided to investigate. Raising myself on my elbow, I glanced around with the solitary eye that had been left uncovered and was still capable of active service. On the other side of the carriage I beheld to my great astonishment several wounded Tommies. They glanced in my direction and one of them smiled and said, “Well, old fellow, and how are you getting along? That’s a fine bunch of linen they’ve tied round your cranium.”
Merciful goodness! The bold warriors regarded me as being of the male gender. This was a serious matter indeed, and when an orderly passed along the corridor I hailed him and asked, “Are you sure I am on the right train for London?”
I shall always remember the look of amazement that crept over the features of that orderly. He recognised my voice as being that of a women and he was not the only one in the carriage to do so. The Tommy who had referred to my “bunch of linen” sat up in his cot and gasped, “That fellow over there must be a woman, boys. At least, he’s got a woman’s voice.” Immediately I became the cynosure of all eyes. Every man who was able sat up and had a look at me, and the fellow in the cot above almost tumbled out in his anxiety to catch sight of the novelty - a woman returning from the war zone with a very dilapidated head.
Fortunately the train had not started and I was hurriedly removed from my cot and carried over to my proper quarters in the midst of the wounded sisters. And, would you believe it, they had never missed me! But when they learned of my mischance they teased my most unmercifully, the chief and most unfounded allegation being that even when wounded I could not keep away from the boys.
GAY GORDON’S PHILOSOPHY
One of my most poignant memories centres round the death of a handsome young Glasgow lad, a member of the Gordons. I shall call him Jack MacDonald, although that was not his real name. Jack was brought to us at Wimereux in the summer of 1916, and it was apparent form the first that his hours on earth were numbered.
“I have not long to live,” he said to me as I stood by the side of his cot.
“You are very ill” was the reply I made, adding “but one should never despair of recovery.”
“But there’s no hope for me, nurse, and I know it,” continued the wounded soldier. “I am not afraid of death. There is peace and rest in the grave.”
I was at a loss for words, and remained silent. I had seen many men die but had never stood by the deathbed of one who spoke so stoically of his passing into the Great Beyond.
From his speech I judged him to be a man of considerable education and this impression was strengthened when he said “Like Lucretius, I believe in the everlasting death. And it is that belief which has helped me to do my duty as a soldier.”
This confession of faith took me by surprise. I was aware that many soldiers gave but little thought to religion, being content to leave their future state in the hands of a just Omnipotence. But never before had I heard a dying man express in words that death was the end of all things. I tried to persuade him not to talk any more, so that he might conserve his strength.
“I want to talk as long as I am able,” MacDonald declared. “I want to tell you of the hope that has sustained me to play the man in moments of grave danger, when otherwise my courage might have faltered.”
“PEACE IS THERE BELOW”
I decided to humour the poor lad, and the following is a summary of what - with occasional pauses - he told me:
“Shortly after joining the army I became the servant of an officer, and it was while acting in this capacity that I renewed my acquaintance with the writings of Lucretius. This officer had two little paper covered volumes of “The Bibelot”, an American publication. The contents consisted of a translation of Lucretius on “Life and Death” in the metre of Omar Khayyám, the author being W.H. Mallock. I obtained permission to read the poem, and it comforted me. It removed from my mind any lurking fear I ever had of death. I wrote down some of the verse in my notebook, but I remember them even now. Listen, nurse, and I will repeat the verse I love best of all.”
And then in a voice that trembled a little Jack MacDonald recited the following lines:
Oh forms of fear, oh sights and sounds of woe!
Thy shadowy road down which we all must go
Leads not to these, but from them. Hell is here,
Here in the broad day. Peace is there below.
Jack MacDonald passed away that night. He took me by the hand and whispered, “Goodbye. It is growing dark - so dark.”
From his notebook I copied the verse which I have quoted. Jack was a philosopher and his philosophy, right or wrong, stood him in good stead. He died the death of a hero, and can any man travel into the unknown with a finer deed to his credit?
Three years in France! So dark with sorrow and suffering, and at times illumined with a glory unknown in the days of peace. I shall be going back soon, and I am pleased to go. But I trust that the end of the strife may not be far distant, and that the happy day may dawn when the brave and noble sons of the British Empire shall return to their homes with the light of a great and decisive victory shining in their eyes.
Matron Mary Benallack in 1934, seated centre, with staff at the Derrinook Private Hospital in Colac.
Mary returned to Australia and in 1918-19, during the worldwide flu epidemic that claimed the lives of almost 12,000 Australians, she set up and ran an emergency hospital at the Colac Showgrounds. She became matron of a private hospital in Colac, Derrinook.
Mary died in East Melbourne on May 19, 1937, aged 61.