During World War One 3141 Canadian nurses served overseas and on the home front. Included in this number was Marion Smith. What distinguishes her from other nurses was her particular Australian connection. Although resident in Canada since childhood she was born in Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia in 1891. Marion’s grandmother, Lucy Leane belonged to the Cabrogal (Liverpool) clan of the Darug. In 1893 two years after Marion was born Lucy Leane petitioned the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board describing herself as
The only surviving Native Woman of the Georges River and Liverpool District, residing here ever since her birth Fifty Three Years ago, as the undersigned witnesses can vouch for and attest. Being a bona fide Original Native of Australia & of this District, your Petitioner requests of you the supply of a boat as granted by Government in all such cases, for the purposed of carrying on trade on the Georges River. Sydney Morning Herald 9 June 1893
Lucy Leane’s daughter Elizabeth, Marion’s mother was also born in Liverpool. After marrying an English cousin George Smith and Marion’s birth, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Canada.
Marion Smith trained as a nurse at New England Hospital, Rosebury, Massachusetts USA and after graduating in 1913 joined the Victoria Order of Nurses in Montreal. On 7 March 1917 she volunteered for World War One and became a staff nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. She sailed soon after for England to begin active service and embarked for France on 30 March 1917, joining No. 41 Ambulance Train on 9 December 1917. She served in France until 1 September 1918 then Italy with the [British] Italian Expeditionary Force. Her service record shows that during her war service she became known as Marion Leane Smith.
A ward on a British Ambulance Train in France
Ambulance trains like No 41 were specially fitted trains which were used in France and Belgium to transport injured soldiers from casualty clearing stations to base hospitals. Some included theatres for emergency operations. Patients were crammed into triple layered bunks either side of a narrow aisle. This combined with the movement of the train, the over all cramped nature of the converted carriages and lighting issues made for very difficult conditions for both the patients and the medical staff attending to them. One nurse described difficulties associated with the movement of patients onto an ambulance train at a clearing station in France:
Patients lying everywhere in the grounds of the clearing station, the walking wounded were in hundreds and were fighting to get on the train, they had to be kept back by a Guard to enable the bearers to get the more serious cases on the train.
Sister Leila Smith, No. 15 Ambulance Train
Such conditions would have tested Marion’s skills and nerve but her service record shows she more than adequately met this challenge. Comments in her record state that she was ‘a very good surgical nurse most attentive to patients.’ Another report of 2 August 1918 says more.
Staff Nurse Smith has given complete satisfaction in the carrying out of her duties whilst on the train. Her work is both quickly and efficiently done. She is most capable in every way. Power of administration satisfactory as also tact and ability to train others.
Although her contract expired on 7 September 1918 she sought an extension and moved to the University War Hospital Southampton on 5 October 1918. She remained there until 4 May 1919 when she returned to Canada. Here she resumed life with her family at Home Farm New Brunswick but later married Victor Walls. He also had served in WW1 and some speculate that the two first met during the war years.
The couple subsequently left Canada for Trinidad where they took up positions at a missionary school, Naparima College. Victor went on to become Head Master and Marion supervised extra curricular activities at the boarding house. The Naparima school hymn which is still sung was written by Marion.
Marion maintained her connection with the Red Cross and was responsible for bringing the Red Cross to Trinidad. She also served in World War Two in Trinidad where she was commandant of the Red Cross and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Her trajectory from her Indigenous ancestral lands at Liverpool New South Wales eventually to Trinidad and the responsibilities she undertook there (and before) was an amazing testament to her own abilities and strength and no doubt also to the spirit inherited from her grandmother, petitioner Lucy Leane, ‘bona fide Original Native of Australia’. In addition to Marion, three other descendants of Lucy Leane served in World War One. Marion’s cousin Albert Edmund Leane known as ‘Darkie’, his brother William Arthur Leane and her uncle Albert Charles Leane all served in France with the AIF. Another uncle Edmund William Leane volunteered in 1918 at the age of 43 but was unsuccessful. However of the descendants of Lucy Leane, Marion Leane Smith is unique in that she is so far the only woman of Australian Aboriginal heritage who is known to have served in World War One.
Although Australian, Marion Smith’s training was overseas and her service not with the army of her own country. The questions remains would she have had the opportunity to acquire nursing skills if she had not left Australia and, given the lack of uniformity in acceptance of men of Indigenous heritage into the Australian army, would she have gained acceptance as a nurse in the AIF.
My thanks again to Marion’s niece Judy Joyce for telling me that Marion had served in World War One enabling me to seek further information from the National Archives UK and also for directing me to information about her time in Canada and Trinidad.
Philippa Scarlett 30 October 2013