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.

Ambulance Train. France WW1

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

About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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  1. Phillipa Scarlet and Judy Joyce,
    BRAVO for bringing to light the story of a remarkable woman: Marion WALLS (formerly Smith) nee LEANE.

    Thank you very much for a well researched and beautifully written tribute to Marion Leane Smith a fine nurse and an inspirational woman. Two of our members were moved to post your article onto our WW1 Australian and New Zealand Nurses Facebook page.

    Do you know from her service record what part of France she served in? You say she served with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, embarked 30 March 1917 for active service in France, joined No. 41 Ambulance Train on 9 December 1917 and was in France until 1 September 1918. I would be interested to know if you had any more specific information on what areas of France she served in.

    Warmest Regards.
    Alison McCallum

  2. Allison

    Thank you fro your comments about Marion Leane Smith. There is no additional information about where she served in Marion’s service record. The only information re place is that she was in France and with the 41 Ambulance train and also with the Italian Expeditionary Force. Investigating these two clues within the time frame of Marion’s service could help to show just where she was.

    I will pass your email to Marion’s niece Judy Joyce who I am sure will be pleased at her aunt’s recognition on the WW1 Australian and New Zealand Nurses Facebook page.
    Marion was born Marion Smith and it is her mother whose maiden name was Leane

  3. Irene Peachey says:

    What a truly inspirational story, I love hearing about our Aboriginal peoples achievements, and i do agree with the last comment if she would have grown up in Australia I am pretty sure she would not have been trained or given the recognition for any of her achievements , my dad fought for this country and was not even allowed in the RSL club when he returned to Australia

    • Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately as you say an Aboriginal woman would have been unlikely to have had a chance of training as a nurse in Australia at that time. It was not so long ago that Aboriginal mothers had to give birth on verandas and similar not in the delivery wards with white women and hospitals in some areas had separate cutlery and crockery for Aboriginal patients – there are probably more shocking stories about Aboriginal people and hospitals. I would be interested to know you father’s name. I feel that the treatment of Aboriginal men after WW2 was sometimes worse than after WW1 – can’t prove it but am working on it.

  4. Hi Philippa,

    Thank you for your interesting article on Marion Smith. After reading it, I searched for other indigenous WW1 nurses, predictably without success. The closest I came was an auxiliary nurse called Mary (surname unknown) who worked at the Fourth Australian Repatriation Hospital (now Prince of Wales Hospital). Here is a link to a photo of Mary, which identifies her as Aboriginal, with other auxiliary nurses taken at the hospital in 1918:

    Christine Cramer

    • christinecramer says:

      Actually, looking at the photo again I noticed that Mary’s uniform is different to the other girls, suggesting she may have been involved in duties other than nursing.

  5. I had seen the photo of Mary but there seemed no way of tracing her. I had not noticed the difference in uniforms you note which could be a clue. Comparison with other photos could confirm her status as nurse – or other. Perhaps there are records relating to staff at the Randwick hospital. The fact she appears Indigenous – certainly not white is significant in view of the general prejudice alive at the time. One scenario could be that she was an Aboriginal child sent to service – many were in the Sydney area – and her relationship with her employer was a springboard into nursing at the AGH.

  6. christinecramer says:

    Hi Philippa,

    Yes, I haven’t been able to find any way of tracing Mary. I have emailed the Nursing History Research Unit at Sydney University to see if they can offer any advice.


  7. It would be great if this bore fruit. One other avenue could be to get in touch with the family of the person who donated the photo. A while ago I noticed that there were other nursing photos donated by this person and an outside chance is that the family may have information about the donor which could pinpoint the nursing unit or group in the photo.

  8. christinecramer says:

    Hi Philippa – I followed your suggestion and traced the donor. He is Robert James Neate (son of Sheila Ashman who appears in several of the photos). Unfortunately he died 5 years ago and his widow was unable to help. Regards, Christine.

  9. kjhharris says:

    Dear all, none of the women in this photo – – are actually trained nurses – they were Red Cross VADs, or volunteer auxiliary staff. These women could have been working outside the wards, in the kitchens or laundries, for example; we cannot tell from the photo. The caption cannot be considered an authority as the name of the hospital is incorrect. Photo P01561.002 in the series shows a trained nurse wearing a cape.

  10. Damien Seden says:

    We also have Sgt Debra (Schell) Perkins who is a Torres Strait Islander Woman who did 4 Tours of Duty in Iraq & is a receipt of the US Army Commendation Medal (1 of 2 Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Women to receive that award in both Afghanistan & Iraq – the other is Captain Chloe Dray of the Australian Army).

  11. Thank you Damien. My own focus is primarily the First World War but news of women from later conflicts – or male nurses too -is very good to hear,

  12. Marjorie Lyons says:

    Marion Smith .1st World War nursing sister was my great aunt married to my great uncle Rev Victor Walls . I met her as a child and loved her .

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