Edith Blake’s War
The only Australian nurse killed in action during the First World War
By Krista Vane-Tempest
Published by New South
RRP $34.99 in paperback | ISBN 9781742237398
Krista Vane-Tempest was inspired to write the story of her great aunt Edith Blake, who had begun her nursing training in 1908, through the discovery of a long-neglected cache of letters she had written to her family back home.
In those letters, she shared her homesickness and frustration with military rules, along with the savagery of the injuries she witnessed in the operating theatre.
Later, at Belmont War Hospital in Surrey, she writes of her conflicted feelings about nursing German prisoners of war even as battles on the Western Front raged and German aircraft bombed England.
When Edith missed out on joining the Australian Army, she was one of 130 Australian nurses allotted to the British Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in early 1915.
Her first posting was in Cairo where she nursed soldiers wounded at Gallipoli.
Her last posting, the British hospital ship Glenart Castle was to prove fateful.
In the early hours of 26 February 1918, the ship steamed into the Bristol Channel, heading for France to pick up wounded men from the Western Front. A lurking German U-boat torpedoed the ship in contravention of the agreement that allowed hospital ships safe passage.
32-year-old Edith Blake perished that night along with 152 of the 182 people on board.
As much as this book was written to honour the only Australian nurse killed in action during the First World War, it also, through her chatty and insightful letters home, gives us a window to look at the past and the daily life of food shortages and rationing that prevailed in a country fighting for survival.