Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
RPA Museum & Archives

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1909 to 2011
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>> RPA and World War One

RPA's First Service in WWI

Britain (and Australia) declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The declaration was met with enthusiasm and the war was expected to last only a few months. Voluntary recruitment to the AIF began on 10 August but the navy's planning began before this date.

The SS Grantala was requisitioned on 7 August and made into the Hospital ship HMAHS Grantala. It served in the mission to capture German New Guinea. The territories surrendered to the Australian forces on 21 September. Six Australians died and four were wounded in the campaign—the first Australian causalities of WWI. The ship's seven nurses came exclusively from RPA.

They were Sisters DeMestre, Clouston, McMillan, Neale and Colless and Nurses Kirkcaldie and Burtinshaw (biographies below).

The Resident Medical Officers were Drs JW Farrar and CH Wesley. Mr Alexander Wilson also served on the Grantala. He was the chief operations attendant and had great experience of surgical work on the South African (Boer) War. He was chosen to design the Grantala's operating theatre.

Two wardsmen, Messrs H Bennett and A Jorgenson also went to work on the hospital ship.

Miss RA Kirkcaldie published her WWI memoir, In Gray and Scarlet, in 1922. The second and third chapters are about the Grantala and the capture of German New Guinea. Miss Kirkcaldie wrote:

The nursing staff consisted of a Matron and six Sisters and, as we had all been selected from Prince Alfred Hospital, we formed a happy little family. The ship had accommodation for about 200 patients….we were told we were under "Sealed Orders". This may or may not have been the case, but it sounded thrilling. I only know that none of us had the least idea of our objective. We all knew that Germany had possessions amongst the Pacific Islands, but were delightfully hazy and uncertain as to their whereabouts.

After returning from Rabaul, the nurses were discharged from their duties. Sadly, Dr Bryan Pockley, who received his advanced medical training at RPA, died in action. He was the first member of the AIF to die in WWI. As Sister Kirkcaldie wrote:

He...was well-known to us and a much valued friend, and it was with very real grief that we leant of his death. He was a fine personality and of great professional promise, and it was typical of the man that he should give his Red Cross brassard [armband] to one of his men and go into action himself unprotected. His loss was to us the first personal toll of the war and cast a heavy shadow over us.

Bryan Pockley was the son of one of the oldest members of the Honorary Medical staff of RPA, Dr F Antill Pockly, Honorary Ophthalmic Surgeon, whose portrait hangs in the "Red Room" of Building 72. Several of the Sister and Nurses later served in Europe. Sisters Clouston and Colless donated items to the RPA Museum, some of which are on display.

The biographies of each of the Sisters are here:

These were written by Clare Ashton, nurse historian. The references are available if wanted.

From the October 1914 issue of RPA Gazette: