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WWI treasure found at Caboolture

Posted: 10am 09 Apr 2022

A WWI nurse’s carefully crafted and captioned photo album of her service in France has been discovered in a storage cupboard at a Caboolture aged care facility and now the search is on for her descendants.

The album found at Bolton Clarke’s Fernhill residential aged care community belonged to the late Sister Martha Burns, who was one of the home’s first residents when it opened as Queensland’s second War Veterans Home.

She was the sole occupant of the top floor quarters for retired nurses in 1959 and died later that same year.

The album includes precious personal snaps from WWI during which, as both a trained nurse and Queensland’s first female dentist, she served in the Australian Voluntary Hospital at St Nazaire and later at Boulogne, near Ypres.

The photos, many it is believed she took herself, include images of soldiers in trenches, nurses treating patients, soldiers and nurses at sea and much more. Each image has a handwritten caption underneath.

“We found the photo album recently when going through a storage cupboard in the Fernhill Community Centre,” a Bolton Clarke representative explains.

“It was stored along with early records including the sign-in register for visitors from the community’s earliest days.

“Our hope is to find a good home for this detailed piece of local history; either with an ancestor or the State Library so that Sister Burns’ carefully articulated memories can be preserved long into the future.”

Who was Sister Martha Burns?

Born in 1873, Miss Burns was one of eight children and the daughter of a marine engineer and granddaughter of a marine engineer.

It is little wonder, she “had no intention of becoming a lady, driving out in the buggy and taking tea” and instead became a nurse, training at the Brisbane Hospital from 1896-1900, despite her family’s objections.

Her career as a dental student began with an argument with her father who reportedly said: “no daughter of mine will work at such a thing as dentistry”. But she pointed out that they would both be building bridges and in the end she prevailed.

In 1907, Sister Burns graduated as the first female dentist and bought her own car, becoming one of Brisbane’s first female motorists alongside Dr Lillian Cooper.

Having nursed patients through the bubonic plague in 1900, she ran her own private practice while playing a leading role in Red Cross including on their military hospitals committee, leading New Farm’s Women’s Emergency Corps branch during the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1919 and serving as president of the Brisbane Women’s Club.

Volunteering to serve

Sister Burns was attending the International Dental Congress in London, when WWI began in 1914 and immediately offered her services to the War Office as a nurse.

During interviews later in life, she says the offer initially received a lukewarm response until she mentioned she was not only a nurse but also a dentist and could drive a car.

Sister Burns joined Lady Rachel Dudley’s Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH), an independent Field Hospital set up by Lady Dudley but staffed with Australian volunteer doctors and nurses and funded by Australians.

The medical team travelled to France on board a yacht. On their arrival in Le Havre, they found the town filled with Belgian refugees and inhabitants preparing to evacuate, with the Germans bombarding the outskirts of town.

The unit spent a week there until they received orders, on September 2, to move to St Nazaire, near the mouth of the Loire River.

On October 26, the AVH moved to Wimereux (north of Boulonge) where it established a 200-bed hospital. The hospital was well equipped with motor ambulances donated by organisations in Australia, a pathology laboratory and the only X-ray unit in the area.

The day after it opened, on October 29, it began receiving patients from the first Battle of Ypres.

The AVH at Wimereux was only 20 miles from the battle and Sister Burns reported they could hear the booming of the guns at the hospital.

In post‐war interviews for the Red Cross Society, Sister Burns described the work at the time: “The nurses and their orderlies were obliged to work as many as 30 hours without a rest - when big, strapping University graduates, who left their studies to join the first Australian Hospital as orderlies, used to drop from weariness and fall asleep almost immediately”.

Eventually more staff came to relieve them, but by this time Sister Burns had succumbed to the strain of four months continuous work. She had also been suffering from a bad throat and the surgeon in charge advised her to return home.

Sister Burns was ‘invalided’ home in December, 1914, and was the first Queenslander to return from the actual “seat of war”. She left from London for America in February 1915 aboard the Lusitania and travelled through America, visiting the dental college at Harvard, and travelling via New Zealand, Tasmania and the southern states to her home in Brisbane.

She was met at Roma Street Station by her sister, Mrs John (Jessie) Mowbray and a number of representatives from the Brisbane Women’s Club.

Once home, Martha resumed her private practice where she worked until retirement in 1932.

She was awarded the 1914 Star (or the Mons Star), the Victory Medal and the British War Medal by Imperial Authority in 1919.

Sister Burns never married and died on March 5, 1959, aged 86 years after a long, interesting and full life of service.

If you have information about possible descendants, email corporatecommunications@boltonclarke.com.au

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