One of only eight Australian nurses to be awarded the Military Medal in the First World War, Sister Eileen King stood alone in the fact that she wasn’t serving with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). In early 1915, a request had come through from the Imperial Government for nurses to be sent to England to join Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR). Eileen was one of those selected by the Australian Department of Defence, and together with 28 other volunteers, she boarded the RMS Orontes at Port Melbourne on the 14th of April 1915. Travelling with her in this little group were 3 other nurses, who like Eileen, had received their nursing training at the Homoeopathic Hospital in St Kilda Rd, Melbourne: Katie Heriot, Constance O’Shea & Estelle Doyle.
Eileen had followed in the footsteps of her older sister Amy who had also trained at the Homoeopathic Hospital; but Amy was already in Egypt, having sailed with the large contingent of AANS nurses on the Kyarra in November 1914. The King sisters had been born in Queensland almost 7 years apart; daughters of Thomas Mulhall King, I.S.O., retired Auditor-General, and Commissioner of Railways of Qld, and his first wife, Jane MacDonnell.
The Orontes deposited her contingent of nurses at Tilbury Docks on the 23rd of May and they were taken under the wing of the War Office. Eileen then embarked for France on the 9th of June, where she served in what she considered “a very pretty little spot” at the 7th General Hospital in St Omer (together with some of her other Orontes mates). She remained here for almost a year; until following a month of sickness, she was transferred to the 14th General Hospital at Wimereux in the May of 1916. Her matron at the 14th GH considered Eileen to be an excellent nurse – quiet and good tempered and much liked by her patients. However, it was toward the end of the following year of 1917, while in Belgium not far from Poperinge, that she showed the greatest ‘bravery and devotion to duty’.
Two months after her posting to No. 63 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Haringhe (named Bandaghem by the troops); Eileen escaped death, but not injury, when the CCS was bombed by enemy planes on the 29th November 1917. The ‘London Gazette’ noted that “She was severely wounded in both legs and though suffering from shock and loss of blood, continued to give directions etc., as to the care of wounded. She showed great pluck and presence of mind.”
Sister Mary Loughron, one of Eileen’s Orontes companions, had the following to say about the bombing: “The day sisters had all gone to bed when the warning was received, and the patients were prepared for quick transference. Sister King was amid the din, but took no notice until she was thrown down, and, being unable to move, it was found that she was struck in the thigh and calf of the leg.”
The tented CCS consisted of seven wards, and while still under fire, the patients were moved to the least damaged areas, where they could be cared for until evacuated. Eileen sadly noted that she was only able to save six of her men that had been injured. Her own injuries as Sister Loughron noted, consisted of bomb wounds to the right thigh and the left calf, which resulted in a compound fracture of the left fibula, and destruction of the tendo achillis; as well as burns to her left foot.
When she too was evacuated back to the 14th General Hospital, this time as a patient, Eileen had the good fortune to be re-united with her sister Amy, who had been specifically transferred there to care for her. The sisters where then transferred to England on the 2nd January 1918, where Amy continued to care for Eileen at Southwell Gardens in London. This hospital had been opened in July 1917 to cater specifically for ill Australian nurses. Located in a bright, cheery house with accommodation for 26 patients, and staffed by Australian nurses, it provided not only the necessary medical facilities, but also maximum comfort, for these ladies who were so far away from home and friends.
The Times carried news of Eileen’s award in February 1918: “It was announced on Jan 30th that the King has been pleased to approve of the award of Military Medal to the following lady for bravery and devotion to duty on the occasion of a hostile air raid on a casualty clearing station. …..”
At the beginning of April Amy returned to duty in France, and after having her sick leave extended, Eileen eventually resumed nursing in the July. She was posted to the Sister’s Hospital for the QAIMNS at Vincent Square in London for light duties only. By this time her right thigh had quite healed, but her left leg was still weak, and caused her to limp slightly. Over the following months she had various periods of sick leave as her left leg tended to break down whenever she worked for any length of time.
In the February of 1919 Eileen was invested with her Military Medal by the King at Buckingham Palace, following which she was entertained at Marlborough House by Queen Alexandra and presented with a photograph and a book. That same month also saw another appearance before the Medical Board, where the decision was finally reached that she was unfit for work for a prolonged period, and should therefore be repatriated to Australia. Matron Conyers (AANS) tried to arrange for her sister Amy to return home on the same boat with her, but to no avail; however it was arranged that one of Eileen’s original Orontes companions, Sister Madge Donnellan would travel with her.
Yet, although the King sisters sailed in different ships, they both began their journeys home only days apart: Eileen on the Roda, sailing on the 8th May 1919 and Amy on the Wahehe sailing on the 10th. Arriving back in Brisbane in July, they spent some time with their family before returning to Melbourne, where Eileen received further treatment for her injuries at the 11th General Hospital in Caulfield. Following an operation by Dr Syme, she underwent a period of massage & electricity therapy, but in March 1920 she was still experiencing problems when she wrote a letter to the Matron-in-Chief of the QAIMNS, Miss Beadsmore Smith: “My old leg gives me quite a lot of trouble & the one that was not so badly wounded is not behaving at all well. I suppose it’s because it has most of the work to do. Col Syme operated soon after I got home & broke down adhesions. I was in hospital for over three months with that & when I left was practically as bad as before he started. About a fortnight ago I started to take millinery lessons, but don’t know if I will be able to go on with these as I find it very tiring. I only hope I will as I have to do something & I will never be able to nurse again.”
Aware that Eileen was struggling financially, Miss Beadsmore Smith organized to have a draft of £25 sent to her from the QAIMNS Benevolent Fund in the hope that she would put it towards the cost of her millinery lessons.
Amy continued nursing in Melbourne; sharing a house with Eileen in South Yarra, and although Eileen said she would never nurse again, she eventually took on the position of assistant matron at Melbourne Grammar School, where she was considered as very efficient and well-liked by the boarders. It was however noted in November 1926 that her health had broken down again, and she was once more spending time in the Caulfield Military Hospital. In 1936, still in South Yarra, the sisters were living with their stepmother Aniella, with Eileen’s occupation by this time listed as ‘home duties’.
The following year at the end of January 1937, Eileen boarded the Mongolia for England, where she was intending to stay for some considerable time. Her brother Reginald, a former Deputy Premier of Qld, travelled down to Melbourne to see her off, before following up with a trip to England himself some months later.
In April 1939 Eileen was honoured with an invitation to propose the toast of “Fallen Comrades” at the Diggers Abroad reunion dinner in London, which was also attended by the Duke of Kent and Field-Marshal Lord Birdwood. During this time her sister Amy was also in England, and they took the opportunity of visiting Paris together.
Having already survived the blitz, Eileen made out her Will in the December of 1942, perhaps with some premonition, because just over three months later she was lost at sea. Embarking on the merchant vessel, Melbourne Star on the 22nd March 1943, she was returning home via the Panama Canal. Carrying a cargo of munitions and 31 passengers, the ship was crossing the Atlantic Ocean about 480 miles south-east of Bermuda, when she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-129 on the 2nd of April. Of the handful of survivors that managed to scramble from the water onto intact life-rafts, only four crew members were eventually rescued.
Eileen is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website along with other Civilian War Dead.
Endnotes: Eileen’s sister: Amy Evelyn KING (1882-1961) – Sister, AANS (MID, ARRC)
Heather (Frev) Ford, 2011 & 2014