“She was endowed with a beautiful disposition, and was in every way suited for the noble profession she adopted.” [Rev P.J. Edwards, Benalla]
Hilda was born at her parent’s home at Benalla in country Victoria on the 29th December 1883.
Her father James Baldock KNOX was born in London, but had migrated to NZ, then to Australia, where he had been appointed Shire Secretary at Benalla in 1878. In 1882 he married Hilda’s mother Mary Isabella BARLOW, and they lost their first child at only one month old in 1883. Following Hilda’s birth at the end of that year, her parents gave her ten more siblings; four sisters and six brothers, three of whom also served in WW1.
In her early years, Hilda was educated at the Benalla State School and attended the local Holy Trinity Church as a Sunday school pupil, then as a teacher, and a member of the choir
She completed her 3 years nursing training at the Homoeopathic Hospital in Melbourne in mid-1909, qualifying as a member of the RVTNA. Shortly after this she was urgently called home to tend to her parents; followed by 4 years of private nursing.
When war broke out in 1914, Hilda was among the early selection of nurses for service abroad, joining the AANS as a Staff Nurse on the 21st November 1914 along with Amy King. They had trained in the same hospital and would sail together on the A55 HMAT Kyarra, which departed Melbourne on the 5th December 1914. The ship had been fitted out as a hospital ship and carried the staff and equipment for 5 hospitals, theirs being the 1st Australian General Hospital (1st AGH); and as a result was somewhat overcrowded.
Surviving sea sickness, inoculation, the heat and an outbreak of ptomaine poisoning, they arrived at Alexandria on the 14th January 1915. Although given shore leave each day, they remained on the Kyarra until the 21st, when they were trained to their hospital which had been set up in the Palace Hotel at Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.
Following the landing at Gallipoli Hilda wrote to her parents: “I have only a few minutes. We are frantically busy, working night and day, on these poor men! It is simply heartbreaking.”
Her brother Frank who was also in Egypt, with the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance, wrote to their parents at about the same time: “My word, Australia ought be proud of their nurses who came over here. To see the poor girls (I suppose some of them would not like me calling them girls), but really I feel sorry for them, the way they work. No doubt you are proud of your daughter. (The fellows over here think Hilda a lovely girl.) I am glad to have her here with me, although I see very little of her now.”
These letters were soon followed by another after Hilda had been seriously ill with cellulitis:
“I noticed the soreness behind one ear, but took no notice, thinking it a swollen gland, when it became rapidly worse. I was ordered to bed and an incision made. Two days afterwards as my head was very swollen and temperature 104 was given ether and two more incisions made. Was painted with lethyol collodion and had half-hourly foments, so you may imagine how busy it kept the poor, tired sisters who have been wonderfully kind to me. Am ever so much better now. Of course, we have been working very hard for three weeks – day and night sometimes, because the trains come at all times and we could not cope with the work.
Jane Bell, Principal Matron (1AGH) during this time, later commented on Hilda’s illness, stating that she was one of a band of nurses who had “worked with untiring zeal until she herself became seriously ill after an acute infection. The sister who replaced her – also an excellent nurse – used to say, jokingly, that she was tired of hearing Sister Knox’s name, as the patients were always quoting her perfection.”
Frank had been able to visit his sister while she was ill, and she was extremely proud of him as he’d received promotion to Lance Corporal. Her happiness for her brother however, was tinged with the sadness that several men, who she’d liked very much, had been killed and numerous others wounded.
Her next letter stated: “I am better than I have been for weeks. I am having quite a jolly time – motor drives every evening. One never ventures out before 5.30 from here. Yesterday was really my first day out for three weeks. Motored to [Helouan], about 15 miles, in a beautiful touring car. It is a delightful trip, right along the banks of the Nile for miles; beautifully fertile country all the way, and ever so many house boats (called dahabeah) and other craft on the river. Next the Barrage I think it is the nicest run from Cairo. The roads are perfect all the way. Arrived there about 6.30, had tea in the charming gardens of one of the hotels, back to Cairo and dined at Shepheard’s on the terrace, a delightful orchestra played, then home. Am going for another spin this evening, also tomorrow.”
While Hilda continued to serve in Egypt, her friends Amy King and Valerie Woinarski served on the hospital ship Grantully Castle, transporting the wounded from Gallipoli. Both wrote to her at the end of July, and she forwarded these letters on to her parents to give them some idea of life on the transports. She also sent home newspaper cuttings, asking her parents to save them for her, as she was so proud of the wonderful things said about their men, and she felt it was such an honor to nurse them. Meanwhile she noted that she had forty-four patients under her care; most of whom had come from the Dardanelles.
As her brother had commented, Hilda was well loved, and not just by her own patients; as she made a point of seeking out all Benalla lads and passing on local papers, little treats and kind words to cheer them.
Trooper Sherwill of the 8th Light Horse stated that in October 1915, “I was in the Palace Hospital at Helipolis with a mild attack of typhoid fever, where Sister Knox was on duty, and I can truly say that there was not a morning but that she would come to my bedside with a cheery “Good morning,” “How are you?” and other words of comfort that are so pleasing to the sick, and she would never forget to bring me little dainties such as apples, biscuits, etc. This was apart from Sister Knox’s duties, as I was in an adjoining ward.”
And Corporal Dobson who was a patient at Luna Park Hospital, Heliopolis, had the following to say:
“Miss Hilda Knox, of Benalla, who is a nurse (and sister of the inimitable Frank), came in to see me last night, and we had a bonzer old yarn, recalling our school days, etc., and discussing Benalla and people. It was kind of her, and she was extremely nice.”
Hilda’s friend Amy returned to Egypt from hospital ship duty at the end of September, and on the 1st of December, having completed a year of service; both ladies were promoted to the rank of Sister.
On the 3rd of March 1916, Hilda and her two mates Amy and Valerie embarked on the Argyllshire for transport duty, tending to the sick and wounded that were being returned to Australia.
Back in Victoria, Hilda returned to her family for a visit, and a huge Welcome was arranged for her at the Holy Trinity Parish hall. The hall was beautifully decorated for the occasion and the Boy Scouts formed a ‘guard of honor’ from the gate to the front door. Among the many addresses the Rev P.J. Edwards informed the gathering that “During the last three months he had met hundreds of returned soldiers, and asked them if they knew Nurse Knox. They said, “Do we not know Nurse Knox! She is one of the bravest women in the world.” One said, “She is a bonzer!” Another said, “She is a beauty!” while another said, “She is an angel!”
Superintendent Davidson said that his son who had been shot at Gallipoli had met Sister Knox at Heliopolis, “and he said she was considered to be one of the first and foremost nurses in that hospital. In spite of her many duties she found time to visit Australians in other hospitals. She visited his son, and on behalf of his wife and himself he had to thank her.”
The Rev A.C. McConnan, who had a hand in Hilda’s placement at her training hospital, and ever since had watched over her career with pride, said, with great pleasure it had fallen to him to pass on to her a small token of the towns esteem: a wallet bearing the inscription “Presented to Sister Hilda Knox by the people of Benalla district.” The wallet contained 68 sovereigns. She was also presented with a handsome silverback circular mirror, on behalf of three local lads who she had nursed in Egypt.
As well as thanking the townspeople on Hilda’s behalf, her father also mentioned that he had had letters from local soldiers sounding her praises, and he was proud of her and all the women performing such noble work. The final speaker summed up with the hope “that she might be long spared to continue the good work she had taken up, and that she would return safely in the not very distant future.”
Following her short holiday with her family and friends, Hilda returned to Melbourne where she served for some time in the Caulfield Base Hospital. It wasn’t until the 19th August 1916 that together with Amy and Valerie, she re-sailed with the 14th Australian General Hospital (14th AGH) on the A63 HMAT Karoola, which arrived at Suez on the 19th September. Sailing with them also as a member of the 14th AGH was her brother Gordon.
They disembarked on the 20th and were taken by train to Abbassia, where the hospital was situated in the Main Barracks. The 14th AGH were taking over this hospital from the 3rd AGH, and worked alongside them on the 21st & 22nd, before the 3rd AGH were withdrawn the following day. The hospital at that stage only contained 366 patients.
Hilda was in charge of G6 Ward, and one can only hope that some time was taken from celebrating with her staff and patients on Christmas Day, and spent with her brother Gordon; as it would have been her last opportunity. Gordon was seen to leave Abbassia in the early evening of the 25th, and was never seen alive again. Twelve days later his body was found in the Nile River at Benha, and on the 9th January 1917 Hilda cabled home to Rev Edwards: “Gordon drowned, accident, writing.”
A Court of Enquiry was subsequently held, but nothing could be proved as to how he met his death. The fact, however, that he had been robbed and that there was evidence of a violent blow on the head, lead the court to believe that he was the victim of foul play rather than an accident. He was buried in the Greek Cemetery at Benah on the 9th, and a short Memorial Service was held in the Garrison Chapel, Abbassia on the 11th, at which every available member of the 14th AGH was present.
During this same month the hospital was beginning to get much busier due to increased fighting, yet 35 of their nurses were being sent to the Western Front. Hilda & her 2 best friends Amy & Valerie were among them. Only a week after learning of her brother’s death, Hilda was leaving the desert sands for the last time. During her time in Egypt she had collected ebony & ivory elephants, as well as oriental metal work and other curios.
Embarking at Alexandria on the 16th January 1917 on HS Essequibo, Hilda and party landed in England on the 26th and then crossed to France on the 8th of February. Writing to her parents on the 12th, Hilda informed them of her eventful journey:
“We had rather a thrilling experience on our way here. A town where we spent the night was bombed. The noise was terrific, and we were rather frightened. Some anti-aircraft guns were quite close to our hotel, and we could see flashes. The bombing started about 9 p.m., and went on at intervals of two hours until 5 a.m. My room was the only one on the ground floor, so all the other girls trooped down, and we shivered together until 6 a.m., when we all left in the dark for our train.”
The nurses were farmed out to British hospitals around Rouen, and separated from her two mates Hilda was attached to the 11th British Stationary Hospital (BSH) on the 11th of February. However, they were still close enough to keep in touch, and not far from her original Unit, the 1st AGH. She called on her many friends there over the following days, and told Matron Mary Finlay, that being so close to them “was next best to being ‘home’.”
Both she and Amy had enjoyed a visit with Sister Nora Kerr on the Friday evening of the 16th, but on Saturday morning Hilda woke with a painful headache. The effort to dress made her vomit twice and she returned to bed. Matron Allen brought the Medical Officer to see her and prescribe something for the pain, but by 4 o’clock that afternoon she was unconscious. Hilda died two hours later as she was being transferred to the 8th General Hospital; just seven weeks into her thirty-fourth year. The cause of death was Cerebral Spinal Meningitis; although there had been no cases of the illness at the 11th BSH.
The funeral took place the following afternoon of the 18th to the St Sever Cemetery. Hilda was buried in the officer’s section of the cemetery in full military style, and after the procession had reached the graveside, the pipers and drums from one of the base depots played a ‘lament’. The large honour guard, coffin bearers and pall bearers, consisted of an equal number of members from both the 11th BSH and the 1st AGH. Also among the mourners were the entire officer’s mess of both of these hospitals, as well every matron in Rouen. The Base Commandant (General de Gett), the D.D.M.S. (Colonel Russell, A.M.S.), and a number of staff officers were also present. And of course there were a great many sisters and orderlies from the 1st AGH; as well as representations from all the other hospitals in Rouen. The wreaths were numerous and beautiful, and following a thirty gun salute, the ‘Last Post’ was played by the Australian hospital bugler.
With two children now buried in faraway lands, Hilda’s parents could not grieve at their final places of rest, but they could at least choose the epitaph for Hilda’s headstone: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
Hopefully they would have also felt some little comfort from Matron Finlay’s pledge that: “The cemetery is only about ten minutes’ walk from here, so you will please have no anxiety about her grave; we will attend to it.”
She also informed them that “Every one of us who knew Hilda loved her. She was the most popular girl in the unit, and so utterly unspoiled by it – sweet and gentle and unselfish. You have, indeed, great reason to be proud of her life….”
And Matron Allen also had the following to say: “Miss Knox only came to me on the 11th, and in that short time we had grown very fond of her, she was so sweet.”
Nora Kerr wrote home to her sister in Kyneton: “We are all sad here. One of our best-loved Sisters died very suddenly on Saturday night….” “…..and not one of us with her.” “A more beautiful character never lived…..”
Hilda’s parents also received hundreds of letters from all parts of Australia. One lady wrote that her only son was in the 4th L.H., and was in the ward in a hospital in Egypt of which Sister Knox had charge. He had been nursed by her, and spoke of the unfailing attention which they had received. He said, “We used to watch the door for her to come in. Every man of us loved her, and called her ‘Our Daughter of the Regiment’.”
Her parent’s would have also been assured of Hilda’s popularity during the Memorial Service held for her on the 4th March at their church, when it was filled beyond capacity and extra seating had to be provided. There was also a large congregation present two months later when a new pulpit was erected to her memory. The brass plate fitted to the front of the pulpit bore the inscription: “Erected by the parishioners of Holy Trinity, Benalla, in loving memory of Sister Hilda Knox, who died on active service, 17th February, 1917.”
At the end of 1917 it was proposed by the Homoepathic Hospital Nurses’ Club to erect a memorial to Hilda’s honour, and donations were called for. She is also commemorated on the Women’s National Memorial in York Minster, and on the memorial to overseas nurses, in the nurse’s home attached to the Elizabeth Garett Anderson Hospital in London.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
Heather 'Frev' Ford, 2015