2016 Premier’s ANZAC Spirit School Prize Essay – Ethelda Runnalls Uren

Source: Tayla Wilson, Kangaroo Island Community Education


zoom_UREN___Acting_Principal_Matron__Ethelda_Runnalls__-_18-7-1915_-_croppedEthelda Runnalls Uren


Much has been written about how service men and women in WWI typified the Anzac Spirit.  Using a range of sources, describe the journey of a South Australian man or woman who served on the Western Front during WWI.

During WWI, Australian women travelled across the world to join the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS).  For many, it was a chance to gain independence, to travel or to be closer to their loved ones.  They worked in hospitals, train or ship wards, or even on the frontline in casualty clearing stations.  (AWM, Great War Nurses).  These women showed the qualities of the Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Spirit; courage, endurance, initiative, discipline, compassion, teamwork, resilience and mateship.

While men fight one another, women tend the wounded, and there can be no doubt at all but that theirs is the nobler part.  Naturally enough the eyes of the world are on the firing l ine and sometimes the work of the nurses, from the very firing line to the hospitals is overlooked.  It was ever thus.  Those who scar the tree of life, a great thinker once said, are remembered by the scare, but those who water its roots have nothing by which they may be known.  But theirs is the tree.

  • Christchurch Star, 3 November 1915 (Rees, P. 2008)

Sister Ethelda Runnalls Uren served in the AANS during WWI.  Uren was born on September 13 1871, in Adelaide, South Australia.  Uren was the first-born daughter of Elizabeth Runnalls and Jonathon Uren.  She has twin sisters; Sister Amelia and Sister Catherine (RSL Virtual War Memorial) who also served as nurses.  Urens niece, Nursing Sister Captain Elizabeth Irene (Betty) Uren, followed in the Uren sisters footsteps and served as a nurse during WWII (AWM, The Uren Family)

Sister Amelia and Sister Catherine served at the No.1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield Park, in London, treating patients wounded on the Western Front.  They remained together throughout the war and later worked on a hospital ship transporting patients from England to Australian (RSL Virtual War Memorial).

Before embarking to the war front Uren trained for three years in Adelaide Hospital (Australian Nurses in WWI).  Uren was Acting Principal Matron for South Australia at the time that she was sent overseas (RSL Virtual War Memorial).

Uren was highly trained and capable; she would have had a great influence on the nurses already at the war front.  She was capable of leading nursing teams and wards, which would have been of great advantage for the AANS.

Uren enlisted in the AANS on May 22, 1917, and embarked on June 9, from Sydney, heading for the Mediterranean (Australian Nurses in WWI).  The AANS was one of the only two women’s services during WWI; the other was Voluntarily Aids Detachment (Trove, Births, Marriages and Deaths).

During April 1917, an urgent request was placed by the British Director General of Medical Services for four contingents to be placed in Salonika, Greece.  Uren was appointed Matron of the third contingent.  She remained in the position until 1918, when she returned to Australia (AWM Mettle and Steel:  the AANS in Salonika) – two weeks prior to the declaration of the Armistice in November.  Uren was later joined by her two sisters.  All AANS nurses had the status of officers, however their pay was only a fraction of the male officers (RSL Virtual War Memorial).

During her time as Matron, Uren was responsible for 90 nursing staff and over 1500 patients.  The conditions in Salonika were tough; throughout the hot season there was a constant risk of malaria, for both nurses and patients; and during winter the nurses wore many layers of clothing just to keep warm.  Both water and food were scarce, resulting in Uren having to walk kilometres for just a little produce.  (AWM, The Uren Family).  Uren devoted her time and hard work to collect food for many others.  She sacrificed her energy, time and safety in order to fee other nursing staff and patients.

Often nurses suffered from infections, usually on their hands from treating wound of injured soldiers.  They also caught diseases from the trenches like measles, influenza and mumps.  Nurses working close to or on the frontline were wounded from shrapnel.  They worked long hours, in tyrannous conditions.  They witnessed firsthand the suffering and the lives that were lost on the Western Front (Australian Army Nurses).  The war caused 71 AANS members to lose their lives, 53 were battle casualties and 18 died as a result of accident or illness (Defence).

Matron Uren received Royal Red Cross (1st Class) (Gazette) and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem for her work at 60 BGH at Hortiach.  (AWM, Mettle and Steel:  the AANS in Salonika).  The Royal Red Cross Award was founded by Queen Victoria (Qaranc, Royal Red Cross Award).  The Royal Red Cross was awarded to nurses without any restrictions on rank, who showed devotion or competency in performance  in any Auxiliary War Hospital over a long period of time or someone who had shown an exceptional act of bravery or devotion to their duty (Australian Women and Imperial Honours).

Nurses show many of the Anzac qualities; today and during the war.  Compassion, courage, teamwork, endurance, discipline and resilience are some of the many remarkable qualities that are often found in a nurse.  These values are the making of a nurse.  Uren’s royal Ted Cross Award is recognition of her exceptional service during the war and proves how she demonstrated the Anzac Spirit.  She was determined to save the wounded, was a capable leader of a team of nurses and showed a great deal of resilience while working in the wards.

Nurses, like Uren, need to show compassion to their patients and soldiers.  Uren demonstrated compassion by caring for her patients; wounded and ill soldiers.  The soldiers needed all the support in the world to overcome their injuries, wounds and psychological scarring.  Nurses during the war put their needs behind the needs of the wounded soldiers.  They sacrificed their own health and wellbeing for those who fought for our country.  It takes great courage to work through the harsh conditions that the nurses worked through.  It takes compassion, teamwork and endurance to treat wounded soldiers, one after the other helping them to recovery.  Finally, it takes discipline and resilience to keep going and to continue treating each and every soldier.

Uren displayed remarkable amounts of courage and teamwork while she served with the AANS.  She showed teamwork by leading her nursing staff and by supporting then to help patients recover  Working through the conditions and treating the bloodied soldiers took endless amounts of strength and resilience.

The community left in South Australia would have felt great impact of Matron Uren’s departure.  At the time she left Australia with the AANS, she was Acting Principal Matron of South Australia.  Uren leaving would have left a position that needed to be filled by a new matron.  However, this was a sacrifice she felt she needed to make in order to serve her country.

All men and women who were posted overseas during WWI left behind their families and friends.,  Children, partners, parents, siblings and communities pondered the return of their loved ones.  Constantly awaiting their letters, anxious of telegrams arriving for them and most of all hoping that they will survive and return home.  Uren inspired others to become nurses and serve in the war.  Her younger sisters, and many others, followed in her footsteps embarking to the warfront to serve as nurses.  Then later, in WWII, Uren’s niece also served as a nurse.  Uren was someone women looked up to; they aspired to be like her.

Matron Ethelda Runnalls Uren passed away on October 2nd 1947, at her residence “Gnarwyn”, Mount Lofty (Trove).

Lest we forget.

Read the PDF version of the essay below:

Ethelda Runnalls Uren – Tayla Willson