WWI Greek Medal of Military Merit for Australian Nurses

Salonica (Also referred to as: Thessaloniki, Salonika, Thessalonica, Thessalonika, Saloniki, Thessalonike, or Thessalonice). We shall use Salonica for purposes of this article. Located in northern Greece on the Thermaic Gulf, Salonica was far removed from the action of the Western Front for most of the war. Nevertheless, it did afford the Allies the ability to exert control on the Balkans and protect the Suez Canal from being attacked and controlled by enemy forces.

A number of British and Canadian hospitals, both stationary and temporary, were based in Salonica. While no Australian military personnel served in the Salonica Campaign, which provided aid and support to the Serbians, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) personnel were dispatched to relieve British Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps nurses.

For most Australians and New Zealanders, the focal points of the war were Gallipoli, Palestine, France, and Belgium on the Western Front where ANZAC military personnel served. As a result of the war and a concurrent typhoid epidemic, Serbia lost 28% of its population, by far the highest casualty rate in proportion to any nation involved in the conflict.

There was a small but significant number of Australians and New Zealanders directly involved in military and medical operations in Serbia. The first to arrive in Serbia during the First World War were Australian Dr. Thomas Alexander Benbow and Australian-born New Zealand Nursing Sister Jane Emily Peter, serving as a member of Lady Paget's American Red Cross. Both arrived during November 1914.

Before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli in 1915, Australian and New Zealand medical volunteers were already in Serbia, treating wounded soldiers and fighting the typhus epidemic. As many as 1,500 Australian and New Zealand soldiers, airmen, sailors, doctors, nurses, and medical staff have been identified to date as serving on the Serbian Front during the First World War.

By September 1915, the Serbian Army was forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal southward. At the same time, a joint force of British and French troops was concentrated in the Greek port of Salonica with the intention of aiding Serbia.

In April 1917, the British Government asked Australia to send nurses to staff four 1,040-bed British General Hospitals on the Salonica Front. Using Australian resources in Egypt and Palestine was considered more economical and convenient than supplying resources from Britain. The Australian Defense Department agreed to send Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses. The first contingent of Australian nurses arrived in Salonica in mid-1917 and a second contingent arrived the following year. An additional two contingents would follow. It is estimated that 340-390 AANS nurses served on the Salonica Front.

Australian Army nurses about to depart from Adelaide for Salonica, 14 June 1917. From the left: Miss Molly Wilson, Mrs. J. Tyers, Miss Edith Horton, Miss Marion Geddes, Miss Laura Begley, Mrs. Jessie Mc Hardie-White (Principal Matron), Mrs. Forsyth (wife of General Forsyth), Miss Violet Mills (Matron of No 5 Australian General Hospital who was on a visit to Adelaide), Miss Alice Prichard, and Miss Florence G. Gregson. (Courtesy Australian War Memorial)

The nurses were stationed at several hospitals during the Balkan campaign. The first contingent took over No. 66 British Hospital, a tent hospital at Hortiach, about 20 kilometers from the city, high in the hills towards Bulgaria. Subsequently, they moved to No. 52 British General Hospital (BGH) at Kalamaria during about November 1917. The second contingent took over No. 50 BGH, a hut hospital at Kalamaria. The third took over No.60 BGH at Hortiach. These nurses moved several times, spending summers at Hortiach and winters close to the coast at Lembet. The fourth contingent took over No. 42 BGH, a tent hospital at Kalamaria, and later moved with it to Uchanta. For the duration of the campaign each contingent battled numerous adverse-situations. To ensure the welfare of their patients, but their own as well. AANS nurses suffered from deprivations and hardships, yet they proved their mettle and contributed to the legacy of military nursing.

During the winter, there were heavy snow falls and very low temperatures at night. The extreme temperatures caused drugs, ink and hot water bottles to regularly freeze in the morning. Wintery conditions were also a danger to the nurses as some fainted, while others were affected with carbon monoxide poisoning as fuel was almost impossible to obtain and the only means of heating came from charcoal burnt in braziers.

There was little respite in the warmer months as the mosquito infestation and the heat of the summer was as intense as the cold of the winter. The heat also contributed to the malaria which dominated the difficult summer months. The many ravines and streams in the area made ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos and Matron McHardy White later reported that most of the nurses were affected by malaria at one time or another. By August 1918, 45 nurses had been sent back to Australia from Salonica and another 14 were waiting to depart, primarily on grounds of ill health.

Although another request from the British Director General of Medical Services for additional Australian nurses was made in February 1918, it was opposed by Major General Neville Howse, Director of the AIF's medical services. In early September 1918 General Howse recommended to AIF headquarters in France that the Australian nurses be withdrawn from Salonica. He argued that the original reason for sending them to Salonica (the threat to shipping from German submarines in the Mediterranean) no longer applied and they were not nursing AIF soldiers at Salonica and could be utilized elsewhere. It was also pointed out that many were suffering from ill health. Despite these factors, the AANS nurses remained in Greece until after the war ended.

The AANS nurses were led by Principal Matron Jessie Mc Hardie-White from Yarra Glen, Victoria. Jessie White was appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE - Civil Division), Member of the Royal Red Cross Mentioned in Dispatches, and awarded the Greek Medal for Military Merit and the Serbian Order of St, Sava in recognition of her work at Salonica.

Multiple commentaries report the 4th Class Medal of Military Merit as being awarded to an additional 11 unnamed AANS nurses by Greek King Alexander. This might possibly be interpreted as the eleven nurses, who actually received the medal directly from the from the King. In my research, I discovered award of the medal, 4th class, to at least 15 AANS recipients, in addition to Jessie McHardy. To develop this information, I cross-referenced the Australian War Memorial listings for Salonica-based nurses with individual biographical data on Google. In addition, Jennifer Baker's web site, Looking for Evidence, and the web site, Australian Nurses WW I both provided additional information. Additional known AANS recipients of the Greek medal include: Sisters Florence Paton, Katie Campbell, Mollie Carney, Alice Davey, Ellen Agnes Riordan, Agnes Ellen Dwyer, Alice Jane Thompson, Minnie West, Florence Lynch, Emily Rebecca Parsons, Ann McGrath AKA Annie Winfred, Marjorie Walker, Nellie Younger Wood, Cecil Dallas Wray, and Ellen Baird McLaughlin.

The 39.5mm X 44.7mm (inclusive of ball suspension) Greek Medal of Military Merit was created in1916 for meritorious wartime service. The WW 1 version was instituted by the National Defense Government on October 28, 1916 and adopted nationwide by Royal Decree on June 30, 1917 in four classes. The first, second and third-class awards were distinguished, respectively, by a gilt, silver or bronze circular laurel wreath on the ribbon drape. The fourth-class ribbon drape did not have the wreath ribbon device. The planchet alone weighs 22.7 grams and the entire medal (including ball suspension and ribbon weighs 24.6 grams).

The original design by the French sculptor, Andre Rivaud, consisted of a copper Cross Pattee with a Phoenix rising from the ashes at the center of the obverse laid over two crossed short swords and encompassed by a laurel wreath allowing the arms of the cross to extend beyond the wreath. The arms are inscribed in Greek DEFENDING THE FATHERLAND, a quote by Hector from the Iliad. The reverse is inscribed in Greek GREECE with the dates 1916-1917. Some versions omit the reverse inscription and/or dates. The ribbon is yellow with two thick black stripes.

During WW II, a slip over clasp, 1940, was added to the 4th class for award to Captains, recognized for outstanding acts.

Example of Bronze Wreath on 3rd Class Medal Ribbon Drape

In 1974, following abolition of the monarchy, the medal was completely redesigned replacing the Phoenix on the obverse with the Greek National Emblem, adding a new ribbon design and a new curved reverse inscription. The medal was also reduced to three classes and became an award reserved for officers. The wreath utilized on the 1916-1917 version was replaced by an oak leaf device (gold, silver or bronze based on class).

Medal of Military Merit 4th Class 1916-1917 Version (Courtesy Dimitris Giannoglou)

QAIMNS-R Sister's Bar: British War Medal, WWI Victory Medal, Greek Medal of Military Merit 4th Cl., and Reserve Tippet Badge

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