Nestled in the records of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNS) is Dharug woman, Marion Leane Smith, the only identified Aboriginal Australian woman to serve in the First World War. Rather than volunteering as a part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), Marion was among the 3,141 Canadian nurses who worked overseas and on the home front.
In Australia, women were only able to serve in the national army as nurses or other medical staff and only if they were already trained In the field. Given that many official and unspoken barriers prevented Aboriginal women from accessing such nursing training, it was Marion’s Canadian connection that made her the only identified Indigenous Australian nurses in the First World War.
Last native woman of the Georges River
Marion was born in Liverpool, NSW in 1891 and comes from a long line of courageous Indigenous women. She is the granddaughter of historic woman of the Cabrogal tribe, Lucy Leane, wife of farmer and landowner (and Marion's grandfather), William Leane. It's said the couple met one another while Lucy was foraging in the Liverpool river, and William thought she was drowning and dived from his boat to ‘rescue’ her. Lucy and William reared 13 children, including Marion’s mother, Elizabeth, and remained married until Lucy's passing. Lucy was a proud Aboriginal woman and is on record in 1893 for petitioning to the NSW Aborigines Protection Board to be able to use a boat in order to sell her farm produce along the river, describing herself as ‘The only surviving Native Woman of the Georges River and Liverpool District, residing here ever since birth’.
Life in Canada
Marion’s mother, Elizabeth, married her English cousin (yes, first cousin), George William Smith in 1890, with Marion being born the following year. When Marion was two-years-old, her parents moved to Canada where Marion was raised. An article by Tamsin Hong of the National Portrait Gallery states, "It is not clear what prompted George and Elizabeth Smith to move to Canada with their daughter Marion. However, the turn of the century was textured by growing concerns about the welfare of ‘half-caste’ children, leading to the devastation of the Stolen Generations. Had the Smiths remained in Australia, Marion’s upbringing would have been decidedly different."
As a young woman, Marion Smith trained as a nurse at New England Hospital, Massachusetts US and after graduating, joined the Victoria Order of Nurses in Montreal in 1913. When she was 26, she volunteered for the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and became known as Marion Leane Smith during war service. What prompt her to serve using her maternal family name is unclear, but mostly likely to be differentiated from other service people who shared her common surname. Marion is one of a few of the Leane family to volunteer for service, with her cousins, Albert Edmund Leane, his brother William Arthur Leane and her uncle Albert Charles Leane all serving with the Australian Air Force.
No. 41 Ambulance Train
Marion was taken to France in March 1917 where she was placed in No. 41 Ambulance Train. Having lived and worked in Montreal, it’s assumed Marion could speak French and possibly assigned to an area which operated in France and Belgium. Hong explains that, "Ambulance trains were specially fitted to transport injured troops from casualty clearing stations on the front to base hospitals, and were in operation in France and Belgium." These trains of course made for an unpredictable work environment: bumpy, dim and narrow. Nurses like Marion would have had to work around the difficult, dangerous and dirty conditions, with staff at risk of catching disease and even being bombed. Ambulance trains were often overcrowded, patients were crammed into triple bunks, and hundreds of injured soldiers fought to get on the vehicle. In some cases, these trains even included theatres for emergency operations.
Despite this, Marion proved herself a skilled nurse, with the sister in charge of No. 41 Ambulance Train noting,
Staff Nurse Smith has given complete satisfaction in the carrying out of her duties whilst on the train. Her work is both quickly and efficiently done. She is most capable in every way. Power of administration satisfactory as also tact and ability to train others.
When Marion’s contract ended in September 1918, she sought an extension and she served in Italy with Britain’s Italian Expeditionary Force. She then continued her work in nursing, working at the then-University War Hospital Southampton, UK where she remained until the war ended.
In May 1919, Marion returned to her family in Canada in New Brunswick. She later married a former soldier, trained teacher and missionary, Victor B. Walls, who had also served in France in WWI. Many speculate the two met in Europe during the war years.
Naparima College and Trinidad
Not long after their wedding, Victor and Marion Walls relocated to Trinidad where Victor was posted as principal of Naparima College, a secondary school founded by Canadian Presbyterian Missionaries. Victor was the headmaster for near 30 years. The long-serving principal oversaw great changes while running the school and subsequently in 1959 ‘Walls’ became a school house and remains so.
As does the school hymn which was written by his wife, Marion which include some telling lyrics given her own life story, “Our island home, no matter where we roam, if near or far from home. Let us be always one.”
“Our island home, no matter where we roam, if near or far from home. Let us be always one.”
With a commitment to raising medical awareness, Marion compiled an elementary first-aid and home nursing text book during her time in Trinidad, which catered especially for the tropics. She also set up an infirmary for the school’s dormitories, and was a central figure in the lives of the students at Naparima College.
When World War II eventuated, Marion was directly responsible for bringing the Red Cross to Trinidad, in which she stood as commandant for. She was also in charge of the Nurses’ Council and the Junior Red Cross. Marion received a Distinguished War Service Medal for this role.
After her husband’s retirement, she and Victor returned back to New Brunswick, Canada. Marion died four years later, age 66, leaving behind a legacy as a trained nurse, a distinguished war service veteran, a community leader, a wife, mother and the only known Aboriginal Australian woman to serve in World War I to date.
Marion's story first emerged publicly and was originally documented by Philippa Scarlett on the Indigenous Histories blog in 2013.
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