2017 Premier’s Anzac Spirit School Prize Essay – Ella Jane Tucker

Source: Hannah Zerk, Lock Area School

The Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought side-by-side in the First World War were called the Anzacs and are still remembered and respected today. The Anzac Spirit originated during the Gallipoli campaign. Although there was no victory for the Anzacs, they displayed mateship, courage, selflessness, determination and resilience. These such qualities eventually came to be seen as the Anzac Spirit we know and reflect on today. The anniversary of the landing is commemorated each year as Anzac Day, a tradition dating back to 1916. The nurses that played a role in assisting the diggers with their various injuries are often forgotten. Few remember or look up to nurses who tended to the wounded. It is undeniable, however, that Sister Ella Tucker, an Australian nurse, showed these traits during her service.

Ella Jane Tucker was born on 16 February 1886 in Derby, Tasmania. She and her twin, Ida, were the eldest of six children born to William Thomas Tucker and Marion Sarah Tucker (nee Button.) Ella lived in Derby, where her family owned a general store. In 1900 the family moved to a nearby farm, called North Holme. Ella and Ida were sent to Launceston for their final years of schooling, and while waiting for admission to nursing school, Ella set up a small school for children. Here, she taught her four younger siblings—Cora, Nina, Keith and Ewart – for two to three years before they started at Moorina State School.

Ella trained to be a nurse at Launceston General Hospital between 1907 and 1911, graduating on the 18 September 1911. She then studied midwifery in Melbourne and later returned to Launceston General Hospital. Sister Ella enlisted in Melbourne with the AANS shortly after the outbreak of World War I. She was one of the first nurses from Tasmania to do so.

On 5 December 1914, Sister Ella Tucker embarked from Melbourne on the HMAT Kyarra and whilst on board the sisters and nurses were given lectures from doctors who had served in the Boer War. The content of these lectures included constructing the Liston Splint, treatment of bullet wounds, morphine dosages, crepe bandage preparation and, most importantly, the treatment of sepsis and gas gangrene. The nurses were also kept busy sterilising dressings and padding splints.

After landing at Alexandria, Egypt, Ella travelled to Cairo and was attached to the 2nd AGH. Shortly after, she was transferred to the HMHS Gascon. This was due to one nurse suffering measles. While on the HMHS Gascon she met Sister Peters, who became her lifelong friend.

The ship approached ANZAC Cove two hours before dawn. Under the cover of darkness, troops were silently transferred to small crafts and towed towards the beach. As dawn broke, the ship’s crew were met with the 900ft sheer cliffs of Sari Bair Ridge and its narrow beach. The Turkish troops opened fire on the approaching boats. The first troops attempted to scale the cliffs, but were met with heavy losses. Casualties arrived in small crafts; wards and decks were filled beyond capacity with the wounded. The Gascon was in the line of fire from enemy battle cruisers and stray rifle fire.

Sister Ella described the situation aboard the Gascon:

the first casualties arrived at about 9am with 4 dead in the first boat. Patients poured into the wards both walking and stretcher cases, most with first aid dressings and some soaked through’.

Her experience on board the Gascon in Gallipoli became typical of her service across the Western Front.

In early 1916, after the Gallipoli campaign had drawn to a close, Ella was awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd class), presented by King George V at Buckingham Palace. Ella enjoyed a cup of tea with Queen Mary. Ella was later seconded to other units including the 1st AGH in France, Rouen, for a year. Sister Ella also worked at the British Hospital in Cairo. These hospitals dealt with all kinds of cases, though they mainly dealt with physical injuries, diseases and shell shock. Limb amputation was frequent from shrapnel, sniper and machine gun and shell wounds. Infection led to serious complications. There were no antibiotics or sulfonamides. Wounds were soaked in hydrogen peroxide and morphine was given by injection. Carbolic lotion was used to wash the wounds. They were wrapped in gauze and soaked in the same solution. They used “debridement,” where tissue around the wound was cut away and then the wound was sealed. Other amputation wounds were “bipped” using bismuth idoform paraffin paste smeared over the wounds to prevent infection. Many thousands of lives were saved using amputation.

Ella continually praised the surgeons for their skills in theatre, under extreme pressure and working conditions. For the nursing staff and orderlies most worked endless hours with very few breaks. Ella was frequently woken at early hours to resume work. Ella states in one of her diary entries:

Every night there are 2 or 3 deaths, sometimes 5 or 6 its just awful flying from one ward to another… each night is a nightmare, the patient’s faces all look so pale with the flickering ship’s lights…

It is clear from her service that Sister Ella Tucker epitomises the Anzac Spirit, working endless hours, in unimaginable conditions, selflessly dedicated to helping others.

At the end of the war, Sister Ella was temporary Head Sister of the Australian Flying Corps Hospital in Tetbury, England. This hospital treated airmen with injuries from air crashes, burns and horrific wounds. Australian Convalescent hospitals were also set up in England, predominantly dealing with serious injury resulting from shell explosion and infectious diseases. Ella served at the Croydon War Hospital from 1917.

Established in 1883, the Royal Red Cross (RRC) was the first example of an Order exclusively for women. Men became eligible only in 1976. No Australian men received the Royal Red Cross or Royal Red Cross (second class). This is presented to people who have shown exceptional service while performing nursing duties.

Sister Ella Tucker’s RRC award shows a high level of professional proficiency and exceptional qualities of selflessness, respect, mateship with other nurses and patients alike, courage and determination to continue her duties over a continuous period of time. Following duties after the Gallipoli campaign, Sister Tucker served in the 1st Australian General Hospital first in Cairo, then in Rouen, France nursing soldiers from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, South Africa, Canada and Australia.

Further to her award, a letter written by Ella shows how she portrayed the Anzac Spirit.

May 6 1918 (Croydon War Hospital, England) 

The matron is away on leave and I am taking her place, so fall in for all the troubles… On Friday Sister McNeill and I each got a taxi and took four of the double amputation cases for a drive into the country. We bought food and took it with us. You would have laughed to see the car drivers, sister, and I pick-a- backing the boys to our picnic spot. The poor boys had only stumps an inch or so long. They did enjoy it. I should love to have plenty of money, so that we could take them out more often

Sister Ella was determined to make the wounded feel at ease by showing great mateship, being selfless and spending her own money on them. Ella demonstrated great courage by stepping up to do the matrons duties whilst she was absent.

Following Ella’s return to Tasmania in 1919, her gallantry and war effort was celebrated by her local community at a gala dinner. The scars of destruction and loss weighed heavily on her, spending over 12 months unable to work, being financially supported by her two brothers. They had been required to stay in Tasmania supporting crucial food production as huge numbers of Tasmanian men and women volunteered for the war.

Ella married in the years following the war and her first-born daughter was named Joan, after Joan of Arc from France. Ella had been inspired by her during her service in France, due to Joan of Arc’s bravery and devotion.

Ella always displayed humility for her service, and empathy for others involved in the horrors of war. She attended every Anzac Day commemoration at Glenelg and attended the Adelaide Anzac Day March for many years until suffering advanced dementia later in life. She passed away peacefully in 1979. There has been much interest in the story of Sister Ella Tucker.

For the 50th Anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, a journalist borrowed her war diary. Unfortunately they were never returned.