A Re-Discovered Irish-Australian War Hero(ine) by Rod Aanensen
At the opening of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club in 1921 (now demolished), NSW governor, Sir Walter Davidson, paid tribute to Australians’ war efforts. ‘Hereafter the highest honour that can come to any Australian’, he said, ‘is to have been identified in the great war. And the greatest honour to any Australian woman that she buckled down and did the same thing as fighting by giving up her time and pleasure and the things she most valued in life, in order to help the men who had gone to fight.’ (Daily Telegraph, 1 Aug. 1921)
We can only wonder what Alice Cashin, twice mentioned in dispatches, recipient of the Gold Royal Red Cross Medal and Bar (First Class), and the 1914 Star (Mons Star), thought of that.
Alice’s grandparents, Joseph and Ellen, were from Thurles, Tipperary in Ireland. They had arrived in Sydney from Limerick in 1838 on the ‘Strathfieldsaye’ with their two daughters. Joseph, Ellen and 256 other Irish immigrants had arrived as ‘bounty (sponsored) Immigrants’ to alleviate the labour shortage in the colony. Joseph was a carpenter and had been sponsored by the Colonial Government. Joseph and Ellen settled in Sydney and were to have a further 7 children, one of whom, Richard, was the father of Alice.
Alice was born in Melbourne in 1870 to Catherine (nee Mehan), Richard’s second wife. Catherine died just one year later, so Richard, with Alice and Joseph, the son of his first marriage, moved back to be close to family in Sydney.
After being educated at what she called a ‘private ladies’ college’ Alice, aged 19, began nurse training with the Sisters of Charity at St. Vincent’s Hospital. In the St. Vincent’s Hospital archives we find what appears to be an incomplete list of trainees; however, it is instructive. In Alice’s induction year of 1893 there are ten names listed, women aged between 18 and 22. All are listed as Roman Catholic bar one, Church of England, and with names like Connelly, Doyle and O’Connell it would be safe to say they had an Irish heritage. Of course, none of this is surprising given the origins of the hospital.
Alice remained at St. Vincent’s until 1897, when she left for private nursing. During this time, it seems that Alice was a nurse for hire and worked in Sydney, Richmond, and Lismore.
In 1909 Alice travelled to England and furthered her nursing studies. When the war was declared, at the age of 44, she offered her services to the British government. She also changed her middle name from the Irish, Alanna, to the more Norman/English Eleanor. She would be known as Alice Eleanor throughout her war years and revert to Alanna on her return to Australia.
Alice began working with the British and French Red Cross and was immediately in the thick of it, being posted to the north of France just 15 miles from the front. She led the 4th unit of the British Red Cross in charge of 33 nurses. ‘At first we were stationed not far from the front’, she wrote home. ‘They told us we were 15 miles, but we seemed nearer, for the sound of the guns was terrifying, day and night.’ (Barrier Miner 18 Jan. 1919, Trove)
After 4 months she was transferred to the relative safety of Calais as head of the General Hospital, treating soldiers, and escaping Belgian civilians. For her service during this time Alice was awarded the 1914 (Mons) Star, one of very few Australians to do so.
In the middle of 1915, Alice returned to England and joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve), QAIMNSR. Almost immediately (July 1915) Alice was sent to Egypt, posted to Cairo and Alexandria, where she ran the large surgical ward at a hospital at Ras-el-tin. This throws up the possibility that Alice worked with or alongside the Australian nurses in Egypt at the time.
Alice shone, again, in Egypt, being mentioned in dispatches by Sir Archibald Murray, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces. She was then awarded ‘the gold Medal of the Royal Red Cross, first class’ described by the Sydney Morning Herald as, ‘the highest a woman can gain.'(SMH, 25 April 1917)
With this level of praise for her work, it was not surprising that Alice was promoted in 1916 to ‘seas-matron’ of the ‘Gloucester Castle’, a hospital ship. She now had the responsibility of managing a large number of nurses and an even larger number of wounded men, some severely wounded. The ship travelled between England and a number of ports in the east; Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), Malta, Cyprus, Egypt, Moudros (Lemnos) and Mytilene (Mitilini, Lesbos).
Hospital ship work was dangerous, something Alice was well aware of. She wrote to her parents:
Today we had sad sights, passed no end of wreckage, but I cannot write about it. You would laugh to see my little lantern and matches, and a small bag, with a few things is ever ready to grab. (sic) It’s always a comfort when the daylight comes after the dark nights. We don’t like nights.
On the night of 30-31 March, Alice’s worst fears were realised. Some time around midnight, off the Isle of Wight, a German U-boat, SM UB-32, torpedoed the Gloucester Castle. Alice had drilled her nurses regularly on what to do in this circumstance. Each was to wear warm clothing and keep a light close at hand. As the ship foundered all the 399 wounded soldiers, including at least 200 bedridden cases, were removed from the ship. Previously prepared bags of dressings, sedatives and other medicines along with blankets were distributed by the nurses as the lifeboats were lowered.
Alice disobeyed orders and left the ship in the last lifeboat after everyone else was clear. Besides her ‘small bag with a few things’ she also ‘secured (her) crucifix, prayerbook and the cape that had been given (to her) by Her Majesty Queen Alexandra.'(Freeman’s Journal, 5 Feb. 1920 and Kai Tiaki, The Journal of the Nurses of New Zealand 1 July 1917)
Three of the severely wounded died from the disembarkation; however, the calm and ordered removal of the wounded received widespread coverage and high praise.
Alice was ‘mentioned in despatches’ by the Secretary of State for War and awarded the bar to her Gold Red Cross Medal, which was presented by the king himself. Alice was the first Australian nurse to receive this double award.
Her commendation stated that she ‘showed an example of coolness and devotion to duty, and rendered invaluable service’ (The Sun 29 Feb. 1920). Rather than return to sea, Alice was put in charge of the 400-bed military hospital at Whittingham Barracks in Litchfield, England where she remained for two years.
I Must Get Home
However, home and hearth were calling. Alice’s very proud father, Richard, now nearly 79 years old and in failing health, wanted her to return to Sydney. Alice’s telegram to the Matron in Chief at the War Office simply stated ‘I must get home’ (Letter in UK Archives). On leaving the hospital in 1919 she was presented with a gold linked bracelet inscribed with her war record by the nursing staff and showered with daisies by the soldier patients.
In Sydney, after a short period of celebrity and social rounds, Alice settled with her father and his third wife Sarah in Moore Park. It was only for a short while, as Richard died within 6 months. Alice’s time in Sydney is, naturally, not as well documented as her war years, but it appears that she continued in her nursing on a more personal level. After her father’s death, she moved in with her elderly uncle, Jeremiah, who lived in Queen Street, Marrickville. She remained there until his death in 1922.
Alice then moved to and operated a stationer’s shop on Marrickville Road while living upstairs. For a woman who had been four times invited to tea with the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, a little shop on Marrickville Road was quite a change. But Alice was to stay here until 1937 and during this time another elderly uncle, John, was to stay with her and died at her flat in 1926.
Queen of Marrickville
The Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club was founded in 1921 and Alice joined, and she may well have been one of its most highly decorated members. Certainly, she was extremely popular. The Club had cost over 3000 pounds to build and was paid for by public donations, by 1924 it still owed about 2000 pounds. It was decided to hold a fund-raising competition to find the ‘Queen of Marrickville’. The competition attracted a lot of interest and in the end, over 184,500 votes were cast raising 785 pounds. Matron Alice Cashin representing the ‘Diggers’ won easily with almost 40% of the vote (The Sun, 29 Feb.1920).
At the age of 66, Alice gave up the stationery shop and moved to her last home in Marrickville. She moved to Victoria Road, just around the corner from her uncle Jeremiah’s old home in Queen Street and just a few doors down from her aunt Catherine’s home. Alice was keeping close to her family.
Alice died on 4 November 1939, two months and three days after the start of the Second World War. A devout Catholic throughout her life, Alice received a full Requiem Mass at St Brigid’s Church, Marrickville and burial at Woronora Cemetery (Woronora Memorial Park). Members of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club were in attendance.
Sadly, while eight other members of Alice’s extended family are buried at Woronora, Alice’s grave remained unmarked for 75 years. Then in 2015, Kathleen le Gras discovered the grave while researching her family history. It turned out Alice’s family were not related to Kathleen’s but she felt it was important to make Alice’s story known (SMH 25 June 2015). After the Sydney Morning Herald article was published things moved rapidly. Alice’s great niece Jennifer Furness (who sadly passed away earlier this year) realised Alice might be related and found Alice’s medals, which she donated to the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. The NSW Nurses and Midwives Association started a fund to place a headstone and statue on the grave. This was officially unveiled on 11 October 2016 by former governor Marie Bashir (SMH 11 Oct.2016).
Alice may have rested uncelebrated for many years, but she has now returned.
Rod Aanesen is a resident of Marrickville, N.S.W. Writing a history for his daughter’s school’s 150th anniversary led to a deep interest and love for the area. Now as a member of the Marrickville Heritage Society he writes about its history and seeks to preserve historic sites for future generations.
Rod thanks Clive Baker (The Shire Military History Club), Anne Cooke (Archivist, St Vincent’s Hospital) and Frances Devlin-Glass (Tinteán) for her guidance.