#AceHistoryReport – Dec.06: After three years of war, Elizabeth McGregor could not have imagined she would finally return home safely — only to be killed by an invisible enemy.
#AceHistoryDesk says Elizabeth was born on a remote property in the New South Wales central west near the town of Condobolin and was known as Bess: In her early 20s, she trained as a nurse in Sydney, passed her examinations with credit and moved to England to pursue her career.
The year was 1912.
A ‘spiritual daughter’ of Florence Nightingale
Bess’s great nephew, 92-year-old John Norton, has researched her life and found a transcript of a memorial service 10 days after her death.
It was published in the local newspaper, the Lachlander and Condobolin and Western District Recorder, and recorded details of her life and career.
The service by the local reverend referred to her as one of the “spiritual daughters of the revered Florence Nightingale”.
He said she had displayed “heroic disregard of personal comfort and safety, that enthusiasm in her work, that confidence in her mission, that compassion for the sick and wounded”.
At the outbreak of WWI, Bess enlisted with a voluntary nursing hospital in France, landing among the first contingent of medical staff.
Records show she returned to Australia in 1917, after at least a year nursing in Greece, and began working at the Randwick Military Hospital.
At the end of the conflict, a call went out for nurses to care for returning soldiers who were “stricken” with a virulent disease.
The armistice had been signed but it would not be the end of global tragedy.
Killed by an invisible enemy
The influenza strain that came to be known as Spanish flu was far deadlier than the war that helped spread it, remaining among the world’s worst pandemics until another respiratory virus emerged in 2019.
Sister Elizabeth McGregor was posted to the quarantine station at North Head, Sydney, where veterans returning from the frontlines were becoming ill with this new, invisible, enemy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, within a few weeks of beginning work, she became sick.
Tragically, at 7:15am on December 5, 1918, she died, aged 33.
A photograph from her funeral shows she was buried with full military honours, including an Australian flag, draped over her coffin.
John Norton never knew his great-aunt and did not know much about her until recently.
“I think it was just that time when people didn’t speak about too many things like that [the war],” he said.
Since becoming aware of her life and service, he was “quite proud” of Bess.
He is not the only one.
Like Bess, she was from a small country town, had arrived to help treat sick returned veterans at the hospital and become ill herself.Annie was a practising Catholic and was denied the Last Rites as she lay dying, causing national outrage.
Annie died two days before Bess and was buried in the same cemetery.
‘Slipped through the cracks’ of official history
The two nurses have been largely forgotten to history and Mr Miles said that was the tragedy of a conflict as long and bloody as WWI.
“The small players, like Annie, like Elizabeth, even the doctors at North Head are a very small notation, maybe a line, if they’re lucky a paragraph, in our history,” he said.
Even so, he felt they deserved further recognition.
“I felt that recognition was not a true reflection of this young woman’s life, her service and ultimately her sacrifice in service to her country, so we started the ball rolling.”
Last month, Mr Miles and about two dozen of Annie Egan’s descendants gathered in her home town Gunnedah, northern NSW, to erect a monument in her memory.
A similar one is planned for Bess McGregor at Condobolin next year.
There will also be further commemorations at the North Head cemetery that is the final resting place of both women.
A plaque will be laid in a ceremony today to remember their lives, which Mr Miles said had been given in defence of Australia.
“Their service, their sacrifice and their dedication to duty – they were still actively engaged in fighting an enemy you couldn’t see, the virus itself,” he said.
But that won’t be all.
Mr Miles, and Bess’s great-nephew, John Norton, would also like to see both nurses listed at the Australian War Memorial.
Mr Miles said there may be others, too, who slipped through the cracks.
“I believe that both of these young ladies, and maybe there is another couple of people that we are looking at from that period from that same complex at North Head, require some adjustment to their service records,” he said.
#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: Dec.06: 2021:
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