Staff Nurse May Hennessy


Author: Western Front Association Central Victoria Branch

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Staff Nurse May Hennessy, Australian Army Nursing Service

Born in Castlemaine in November 1894, May Hennessy undertook 3 years medical training at the Gippsland Hospital at Sale before she enlisted into the Australian Army Nursing Service on 29 May 1917.

Before this, in 1916, a number of British and Canadian hospitals had been established in Salonika, supporting the Anglo-French force assisting the Serbian Army resist Austro-German forces. By early 1917, German submarines in the Mediterranean Sea presented such a threat to Allied shipping, it was considered safer to send Australian nurses from Egypt than British nurses from England to supplement the British nurses already in Salonika.

Staff Nurse May Hennessy was one of 146 Australian nurses, mainly from Victoria, under the command of Principal Matron (Jessie) McHardie White who arrived in Salonika, via Egypt, on 30 July 1917. They were the first Australian Army Nursing Service contingent to Salonika and quickly took over No. 66 British General Hospital at Hortiach - an 800-bed tent hospital - and in November 1917, they transferred to No. 52 British General Hospital at Kalamaria.  

The physical and climatic conditions in Salonika were appalling. The extreme winter temperatures caused drugs, ink and hot water bottles to regularly freeze, and many nurses would faint from carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by burning charcoal in brazier fire pits. The summer was dominated by the heat and mosquitos that bred in the many ravines and streams in the area. Most of the nurses were affected by malaria at one time or another.

By early 1918, 62 Australian nurses had been returned to Australia due to sickness, leaving 302 in Salonika. This represented 20% of the nursing staff of British hospitals. 

By the end of the war, 2,229 Australian nurses had served overseas, in Britain, France, India, Egypt and Salonika. A request from the British in February 1918 for additional Australian nurses for Salonika was opposed by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) Director of Medical Services, MAJGEN Neville Howse VC.

In early September 1918, Howse recommended the nurses be withdrawn. He argued that the original reason for them (the German U-boat threat in the Mediterranean) no longer applied, that they were not nursing AIF soldiers, and that many of the nurses were suffering ill health. Despite this, the nurses remained until after the war ended.

May Hennessy was one of those nurses waiting to return to Australia in late 1918. She had been admitted with malaria to the ‘Sisters Ward” of No. 43 British General Hospital, Kalamaria, and was repatriated to Australia in February 1919.

She became very sick again during the sea voyage home and was taken off the ship at Geelong on 31 March 1919. She was admitted to the Rivera Private Hospital in Myers Street with malaria, complicated by dysentery and jaundice.

Staff Nurse May Hennessy died in Geelong on 9 April 1919. 

As her mother lived in McIvor Road, Bendigo, May was buried in Bendigo Cemetery.    

She was 24 years old.


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