The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 2 - June 1968

Some notes on the South African Military Nursing Services

Compiled by NEVILLE GOMM

As far back as the Anglo-Boer War, and before that in the Zulu Rebellion military nurses had served in South Africa. In the former war many nurses served with the Boer forces as members of "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis" the Red Cross organisation started in Pretoria with the approval of President Paul Kruger before the war. A number of nurses served with the Natal and Transvaal Medical Corps. As members of the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps, 18 nurses took the field in 1899. Some of the original 18 served in the Siege of Ladysmith. They were, however, not part of an independent service. Other nurses served in the Assembly Hospital at Pietermaritzburg. Sister Dick was for a time in charge of two wards at the Alexandra Road Barracks, also in Pietermaritzburg.

With Union in 1910 came many changes and problems for the newly formed Union Defence Force. One of the necessities was the establishment of a South African Military Nursing Service. Under Section 121 of the S.A. Defence Act of 1912, the S.A.M.N.S. was established, but remained dormant until August, 1914. Government Notice No.970 of 1915 also gave authority for the establishment of the S.A.M.N.S.

In August, 1914, South Africa found herself at war. Matron E.R. Creagh, OBE, RRC, of Weskoppies Hospital in Pretoria was appointed Matron-in-Chief and called upon to establish and organize a military nursing service.

The immediate object was to establish the service, to take over from the Imperial nurses at the hospitals at Roberts Heights (now Voortrekkerhoogte), and Wynberg, to staff the newly acquired hospital ship "Ebani" and to provide the nursing staff for the field hospitals and other medical establishments. Mrs. Creagh did sterling work and the service was operational in a remarkably short time.

The first Nursing Assistant, or "probationer", was attested a week before the original S.A.M.N.S. contingent embarked for the United Kingdom from Cape Town on the 27th September, 1915. Before that time there were no Nursing Assistants in the service. Only trained staff, some 174 in number, served in German East Africa. Members of the S.A.M.N.S. staffed No. 1 S.A. General Hospital (2,000 beds) in Abbeville in France as well as the S.A. Military Hospital at Richmond, Surrey, in England and those in the Union.

Farewell to Cape Town - September 1915
L. to R.: Staff Nurses C. Nothard and Katie MacKay and Pte. Colin Shaw, S.A. Scottish,
photographed at Cape Town Docks before embarkation for Active Service
(from a negative kindly lent by Comdt. D.O. Stratford)

In August, 1916, 22 members, all probationers from the four provinces, embarked for England. They were recruited specifically for service in Europe from the ranks of the S.A. Red Cross Society and the St. John Ambulance Brigade.

From 1916 until the peace in 1918 Mrs. Creagh was in France and Miss M.A.M. Nutt, OBE, RRC, acted as Matron-in-Chief during her absence.

Fourteen nurses, of whom four were probationers, made the supreme sacrifice during hostilities. Two of the probationers lost their lives at sea. Mrs. Creagh served as head of the service until 1925. In 1921 a reserve was formed on the lines of that in the United Kingdom. From 1925 to 1934 Miss M. Tilney, MBE, RRC, served as Matron-in-Chief.

The post of Matron-in-Chief was made pensionable by special regulation in 1925. Government Notice No. 1937 dated 18th December, 1931, provided for pension benefits for Matrons, who to all intents and purposes, held permanent status in the force. The service was at its lowest ebb between the wars. The total strength in 1931 comprised only 18 members. This included the Matron-in-Chief, a Matron, two masseuses and a probationer.

Miss C.A. Nothard, RRO, MRF [Medaille de la Republique Francaise], Matron of Addington Hospital, Durban, was appointed head of the service in 1934, and served in this capacity until 1946. In April, 1937, she toured the Union, arranging for the transfer of 10 per cent of the trained hospital staffs for military service if required.

For a period of five or six years immediately preceding World War II there were no Nursing Assistants in the service. In February, 1940, the attestation of Nursing Assistants again took place. They were designated "Female Probationer Nurse." This remained unchanged until 1944 when the present term "Nursing Assistant" was adopted. After one year's service and subject to recommendation they were upgraded to "Senior Female Probationer Nurses." In 1939 there were 150 Voluntary Aid Detachments comprising 3,000 members. They were not part or the S.A.M.N.S. but came from the S.A. Red Cross and the St. John Ambulance Brigade movements.

The service reached its peak during World War II. In 1944 the strength was recorded as being 1,886, of which slightly more than 1,000 were Nursing Assistants. Elsewhere mention is made that at the height of its strength approximately 2,500 nurses were serving, and of this number 1,453 were probationers - 1,283 in South Africa and 170 in the Middle East. Major-General A.J. Orenstein, CB CMG, CBE, Director-General of South Africa's wartime medical services has said that, at the peak of the war period, there were in employ 3,691 female nursing staff, of whom 300 were seconded Canadians. In 1946, Miss M.E. Stoney, RRC, was appointed to the post of Matron-in-Chief She died in office on the 7th March, 1948, and is buried in the military cemetery at Voortrekkerhoogte.

Miss D.M. Dixon succeeded Miss Stoney as head of the service and filled the post until 1953.

It was not until the 1st October, 1950, that the service was incorporated into the S.A. Defence Force (then Union Defence Force) as a unit of the Permanent Force. Until then nurses were not entitled to regular commissions and were not eligible for pensions. Fifty-two Nursing Assistants elected to remain on.

Until 1950 the status of the service may be likened to that of a Citizen Force unit, except that the members were employed on a full-time basis. From a military point of view, the members of the service had no legal status. One of the conditions of service was that members were subject to one month's notice, and vice versa. The trained nurse today, receives able and ready support from her untrained counterpart, the Nursing Assistant, whose employment has been a feature of the service almost from its inception. In 1953, Miss V. Smith was appointed Matron-in-Chief and she served in this capacity until 1957 when Mrs. D.E. van der Merwe took over. Mrs. van der Merwe served until 1959. Miss M.M. Maree has been at the head of the service since 1959.

From the beginning, and equally so since having attained permanent status, the strength of the service lay in its reserves, always ready when required. In August, 1964, the service celebrated its 50th anniversary of unbroken service to South Africa. It can claim not only to be the first organised independent women's service, but the only one that endured to celebrate that memorable occasion.

Matron-in-Chief E.R. Creagh, OBE, RRC,
in centre at back with a group of sisters

In his message of congratulation on the occasion of their 50th anniversary, Commandant-General P.H. Grobbelaar, SSA, DSO, mentioned that 19 nurses had lost their liwes on active service. Of these, eight were probationers who died during World War II.

The year 1964 was a memorable one for nurses throughout South Africa, for both the S.A.M.N.S. and the S.A. Nursing Association celebrated their golden Jubilees. The two are completely different bodies but all military nurses must be members of the Nursing Association. The first link between the two had its origin a long time ago when the S.A. Trained Nurses' Association petitioned the Minister of Defence for the establishment of a Defence Nursing Council. This was to obviate a repetition of the difficulties under which nurses enlisted for military service during World War I. The petition was successful and in October, 1921, the first meeting of the S.A. Defence Council was held. Two seats on the Council were allocated to representatives of the Trained Nurses' Association.


1914-1927: Tussore silk frocks. Outdoors a white panama hat was worn. During winter the dress consisted of a navy blue gaberdine coat and a felt hat. Staff nurses wore a tussore silk cape; matrons a navy blue cape with a navy blue cuff. Blue bands were worn on the sleeves of the frock. Nursing sisters wore two bands on each sleeve approximately two inches above the white cuffs Assistant-Matrons wore three navy blue bands. Staff nurses wore a tussore coloured cape with a blue border two inches in width and nursing sisters and Matrons a cape of navy blue cloth or thick silk.
1927-1939: White drill was worn indoors. The Matron-in-Chief wore white stripes on dull cherry epaulettes.
1939-1962: White drill overalls with cherry epaulettes were worn indoors and khaki drill or gaberdine coat and skirt with cherry epaulettes outdoors. In 1940 a system of distinction in rank by proteas interlocked for the Matron-in-Chief was approved but the insignia were not produced. In 1942 the same rank badges and orange flash as were worn by the Army were adopted. The nurses wore bush shirts and skirts on service. In 1950 gold braid stripes on dull cherry epaulettes were adopted.
1962 onwards: White drill overalls are worn indoors. Outdoors a maroon beret, khaki shirt and tie and gaberdine skirt are worn. A tunic is also issued for use during inclement weather and on ceremonial occasions. In 1965 it was decided that nurses would again wear the same badges of rank as those worn by the officers of the S.A. Army. The principal matron now holds the rank of colonel, senior matrons are commandants,junior matrons are majors, grade one sisters are captains and grade two sisters are field cornets. Depending on their service, grade one sisters may be ranked either captains or majors. The principal matron previously ranked as a commandant.


1914-1939 The springbok head facing left within a circle iniscribed with the full title in English.
1939-1962 The springbok head tracing left within a circle inscribed with the initial letters S.A.M.N.S. (English) and S.A.M.V.D. (Afrikaans). The ordinary springbok badge in silverwas worn on the coat lapels. The former badge was also worn on the lower edge of the cape.
The writer, while in hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte in 1962, observed a nurse wearing a hat badge as a brooch between the collar flaps of the white drill overall. In this respect Commandant D.O. Stratford of the S.A. Medical corps says: "This is possible - but not recognised dress. If this was in white metal it must have been the official badge worn by those nurses who completed their training and qualified during the period that No. 1 Military Hospital was recognised as a Nurses Training School. This is the traditional place for the wearing of the badge of the hospital at which a nurse trained and qualified."

1962 onwards: The new beret badge is the brass collar badge of the S.A. Medical Corps. It is also worn as a collar badge. On the tunic, nurses wear cloth shoulder titles inscribed S.A.M.V.D. (right hand side) and S.A.M.N.S. (left hand side). The lettering is in gold on a maroon ground. The initial letters S.A. in brass are worn below the collar badges on the lapel.

Medals The first official Army Order authorising the grant of Campaign Medals to women was published in 1901. This made provision for the granting of the Queen's South Africa Medal to nurses and nursing sisters.

Later, the King's Medal was also granted but women were not allowed to qualify for the bars which went with the medal.

Since 1913 the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, has presented its highest and most prized nursing award to selected nurses of the world. It is known as the Florence Nightingale Medal. This most coveted award is made for distinguished services connected with the care of the sick and wounded in time of peace or war. Only 10 nurses in South Africa have received this decoration. The first Florence Nightingale Medal to come to this country was awarded to Matron E.R. Creagh in 1920.

As they are members of the Permanent Force, nurses of the S.A.M.N.S. qualify for current South African decorations and medals where applicable. In this way a number of nurses have been awarded the Southern Cross Medal for outstanding devotion to duty.

Altar Cloth

During World War I, No. 1 S.A. General Hospital at Abbeville in France, had its own Chapel. In the Chapel was a beautiful and costly altar cloth designed by Martin Snape of the Royal Academy. It was presented to the hospital, through Staff Nurse S.B. Johnston, by Mrs. Elliot Curley.

After the war the cloth was brought to South Africa. It was of white brocade, with a green velvet centre medallion containing a white lamb with cross. It was presented for use at Weskoppies Hospital, Pretoria. It is not there any longer and its fate remains a mystery.


The writer is indebted to Commandant D.O. Stratford of the S.A. Medical Corps for permission to use information from articles written by him and for his kindness in checking the accuracy of the contents of this article.

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