Stories from the Hadra War Cemetery (Egypt): Staff Nurse Ella Cooke

In the winter of 1914, Ella Cooke was looking forward to a grand adventure. The Auckland-born nurse and her twin sister Lily had just departed New Zealand in a boat bound for Vancouver, New York and finally England. She was looking forward to seeing the sights, and eventually a working holiday in London, or maybe Paris.

The outbreak of war in July 1914 dashed all her plans. By the time the pair finally docked in London, Ella was contemplating an assignment in one of the many under-resourced hospitals in France. In November 1914, Ella was one of a group of 14 nurses who left England to serve with the French Flag Nursing Corps. She spent the next six months at a hospital in Bernay near Rouen before to returning to England.

Instead of returning home, Ella was persuaded to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. After completing her training at Aldershot she was posted to No: 17 General Hospital at Alexandria, Egypt at the end of September 1915.

During her two years at the hospital, Ella was regarded by her colleagues as a “happy and popular” recruit. On a Saturday off duty – exactly two years after arriving in Alexandria she was killed instantly whilst taking a short cut across a railway line behind the hospital enroute to visiting her friends, Major and Mrs Walshe. She was struck on the forehead by some part of the tram and fell back onto the verge. She died instantly as a result of a skull fracture.

A Court of Enquiry chaired by Lt Col Godding R.A.M.C concluded that she must have been either hurrying or dreaming and did not look up to see whether the tram was approaching. The enquiry exonerated the Driver and the Tram Company of blame and recorded the death was ‘due to a temporary and regrettable want of care on poor Miss Cooke’s part’. 

She was honoured with a full military funeral and buried in the Hadra War Cemetery, Egypt. Her name is inscribed on the World War 1 Nurses Memorial in York Minister, England.

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Service Number 2/RESC/1266 Staff Nurse Ella Cooke

Cemetery/memorial reference: B. 25.

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‘A gallant and erudite Soldier’ – The Funeral of Major William Throsby Bridges

William Throsby Bridges was born at Greenock, Scotland, on 18 February 1861. As a youth he moved to Canada, where he later entered the Royal Military College but failed to graduate. In 1879 Bridges moved to Australia and joined the civil service, working in Braidwood, Murrurundi, and Narrabri. He returned to military life in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery, and that same year married his wife, Edith. For the next few years he held various positions at the School of Gunnery and attended several gunnery courses in England, passing them with distinction. Bridges served with the British army in South Africa from 1899 until he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. In January 1909 he became Australia’s first chief of the general staff and the next year was tasked with founding Australia’s first military college, the Royal Military College at Duntroon. By the time the First World War had broken out Bridges had attained the rank of Brigadier General and was given the task of raising an Australian contingent for service in Europe. He was promoted to Major General in August 1914 and was appointed the commander of the new Australian Imperial Force. Bridges travelled to Egypt with the first contingent in October and started to record his experiences in a diary from early 1915.

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From this diary we can observe the evolution of planning for the Gallipoli campaign, including his meetings with commanders like Lieutenant General William Birdwood and General Sir Ian Hamilton and with various Australian commanders who would rise to prominence in the years to come.

On 25 April 1915 units of Bridges 1st Australian Division were the first to land at Anzac Cove. In the desperate confusion of the first day the landing force suffered more than 2,000 casualties, and little progress was made towards achieving their military objectives. Bridges argued for an immediate evacuation but was overruled. From the outset Bridges insisted on inspecting the front lines on a daily basis, despite the danger to himself. On 15 May 1915 he was travelling with other officers through Monash Valley when he was shot through his right femoral artery by a Turkish sniper. The rapid onset of gangrene meant that immediate amputation for a 53 year old man would prove fatal so a medical decision was taken that it was better for nature to take its course, which in Bridges’ case was 3 days. He  died on board the hospital ship Gascon before it reached port. His last recorded instruction was “that his regret should be conveyed to the Minister for Defence that his dispatch concerning the landing was not complete — he was too tired now.”

William Bridges was initially buried at Alexandria in Egypt, but in June 1915 his body was exhumed and returned to Australia. A series of interesting photographs held by the State Library of  New South Wales show views from his original funeral.

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He became the only Australian killed in the First World War to have his remains returned to Australia. On 3 September 1915 he was buried on the slopes of Mount Pleasant at Duntroon in Canberra, under the words ‘A gallant and erudite soldier’.

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Sources and Acknowledgements 

The Australian War Memorial

State Library of New South Wales