Readers of our WWI blog may remember a previous post about Nurse Constance Keys and her correspondence and diary entries about the aftermath of Gallipoli, including a graphic account of nursing the wounded in Egypt. The complete collection, which spans her service in Egypt, and on the Western Front, right through to the end of the war when she served in a military hospital in England nursing Australian troops, has now been digitised and is available through our catalogue.
This is arguably State Library’s most significant World War One collection created by a woman, and it is certainly one of the most intimate and moving. The collection provides a first-hand account of a nurse’s experiences in Egypt during the Gallipoli campaign; serving on a hospital ship travelling to Australia; working in casualty clearing stations near the front lines in France and Belgium; and nursing in military hospitals in England. Constance, through her photos, diary entries and letters, provides insights into the WWI experiences of a wide array of Queensland soldiers and nurses, many of whom were her companions and close friends.
Items in the collection include diaries, intimate letters from Constance to her family in Brisbane, photographs, postcards, ephemera, personal papers and objects, including souvenirs and jewellery which Constance bought in the bazaars of Egypt.
Some of the wonderful photographs from the collection are previewed below:
A highlight of the collection are Constance’s letters and diaries which provide a rich and intimate account of her experiences during the war. The following was written in her pocket diary for 1918 and recounts the terrifying experience of evacuating the casualty clearing station during the Battle of Hazebrouck in northern France. Constance was sister-in-charge of the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station during this time.
Friday 12 April 1918
Work still very heavy. Received orders about mid-day to evacuate station. Wounded still arriving being evacuated. Sisters left about 2pm. 15 of us in an old London bus. 13 on top and 2 on the front, most of our luggage inside. A very trying journey – bus nearly toppled over several times – was very bad. Had to get out and walk several times, disorganized traffic everywhere. Passed hundreds of refugees all going towards St. Omer, ambulances full of wounded not knowing where to go. Arrived at St. Omer about 4 pm to find about 60 other C.C.S. [Casualty Clearing Station] sisters refugees like ourselves. A terrific air raid over St. Omer during night. Air raid during night terrific – noise of bombs, falling buildings, simply deafening. (Accession 30674/33)
Despite the horrors of life near the front lines Constance still finds delight in simple things.
Letter to her mother 29 April 1918:
You will know by now that most of the fighting the last few weeks has been round about where we were before and I’m afraid you will be worrying about me. But Mum there is no need. Our M.O.s [Medical Officers] here are so very good and considerate of us and if there is any danger we are their first thought. I am very happy here and like this C.C.S. immensely. The life is so free, the food much better and more liberal than anywhere else. This is such a lovely place… Our quarters are in a big paddock. You would love this place, such lovely green springy grass. We have made a little garden, three beds and filled with violets, cowslips and primroses already blooming out of the woods. The Q.M. [Quarter Master] brought us our daffodils we had planted before in the other clearing station we had to leave. It was so good of him to bring them when so much valuable stuff was left behind. Now those daffodils are blooming in the garden and they are so lovely.. We have made our mess tent look pretty, everyone who had a cushion put it in, also pictures… I am very very fat. You would laugh if you saw me”. (Accession 30674/37)
After the war Constance returned to Brisbane and worked at a convalescent hospital for returned soldiers in Brisbane where she met her future husband, Lionel Hugh Kemp-Pennefather. For the rest of her life she was revered by World War I veterans who remembered her as a compassionate, tireless and brave young nurse with a ready smile and a great enjoyment of life.
Starts: 26th Mar 2018 10:00am-5:00pm
Runs: Every day, until 31st Mar 2019
Venue: Talbot Family Treasures Wall, level 4, State Library, Stanley Place, South Bank
More information: Queensland Memory
07 3840 7887
The Constance Mabel Keys Collection, Accession 30674, is available at the John Oxley Library or online.
Margaret Thorsborne AO Digital Story, Accession 29355 ( A moving account of Constance’s service during WWI by her daughter).
Australian Dictionary of Biography – Keys, Constance Mabel (1886-1964)
Lynn Meyers, Specialist Librarian, Queensland Memory