• Marion Leane Smith is the only known Aboriginal woman to serve in World War I (NITV)Source: NITV
Marion Leane Smith's family members hope more people learn about her remarkable story.
The Point
8 Nov 2018 - 3:00 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2019 - 2:21 PM

In the back garden of Judith Joyce’s Western Sydney home, vibrant red poppies poke out through the green leafy shrubs.

The symbolic flowers hold a special significance to Mrs Joyce and her family.

“These poppies were grown from seeds brought back by my Uncle Albert from ‘Flanders Fields,’ he brought them back in 1919,” she told NITV News. 

“They’ve been passed on through the family, through all the generations, and the family has kept them alive… so we can remember, Lest We Forget.”

Albert was one of six of Mrs Joyce's family members to serve in both world wars.

Her second cousin, Marion Leane Smith, is the only known Aboriginal woman to serve in World War I. 

“She must have thought, you know, like most people, the war is on. I'm going to help,” Mrs Joyce said.

“I think she just thought it was her duty.”

Marion was just 26 when she was sent off to France in March, 1917 where she tended to injured troops aboard the No. 41 Ambulance Train, as part of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service (QAINS).

The ambulance trains transported wounded or sick soldiers to hospital, but they were specifically designed so that nurses could continue the care of evacuated soldiers.

"They used to pick up the soldiers that were wounded and brought them back onto [the] ambulance train, so that's what she would have had to do, pick up the soldiers, then treat them on the train and say they might even have to operate," Mrs Joyce said.

"It was the first hand from the war where they were hurt, onto the train, you know. And they had to save their lives."

The conditions were harsh, unsanitary and the nurses would have only been treating soldiers less than a mile from the frontline.

Despite being a trained nurse, Mrs Joyce says her aunt would have faced many things she hadn’t seen before. 

“Those bad injuries and people [with] no limbs, and people who might have gone mad because that gas I think sent a lot of people, you know, up the wall. So she would have had to face a lot of things that she wasn't used to," she said.

"I think it would have been horrendous really.”

Australian War Memorial Indigenous Liaison Michael Bell said nurses displayed great courage working in such conditions.

“[They were] dealing with the injuries of war, the disease, [and] the problems that the men were bringing were amplified in the nursing homes, it was such small facilities for such large numbers,” he said. 

“But needs must in times of war and the development of skills and ability and the bravery and tenacity of these women is highlighted by their continued service and how many men they actually saved.”

'One of the earliest role models'

Marion displayed that very bravery and tenacity when she extended her year-long contract with the (QAINS) to serve in both Italy and England, until the war ended.

Mrs Joyce says she worked longer than she needed. 

“She didn't finish until 1919, then she went back. So, I think she must have been really looking out and feeling sorry for the people,” she said. 

Marion was subsequently moved to the University War Hospital in Southhampton, England where she worked until May 1919. But Marion’s service didn’t end there.

After the war, she and husband Reverand Victor B Walls relocated to the Caribbean where they became missionaries.

They spent nearly 30 years at the Naparima College in Trinidad where Victor was the principal and Marion wrote the school’s hymn. She was also responsible for bringing the Red Cross  to the region and was their commandant during the Second World War.

She was later awarded with a distinguished war medal.

Marion was also responsible for the establishment of the Nurses' Council and the Junior Red Cross. But by 1953, Marion and Victor returned to Canada where four years later she passed away.

“She did have a very strong character and she was very loyal to her fellow men,” Mrs Joyce says.

Michael Bell says Marion was a powerful and strong-willed woman.

“She was a magnificently strong woman,” he said. “She was an achiever; she achieved her goals and led her life the way she wanted to. She was one of the earliest role models.”

Canadian connection 

Mrs Joyce has spent years researching her family's military history.

Among her discoveries, the remarkable fact that unlike her family, Marion served for Canada and not Australia after emigrating there as a child with her parents.

“I don't know what possessed them to go to Canada,” Mrs Joyce says.

"They [Marion's parents] had two more children over there. She didn't have any choice in the matter, she was taken by her parents over there."

In her research, Tamsin Hong from the National Portrait Gallery, said "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."

Either way, the move would prove crucial for Marion. It was in North America where she trained as a nurse at the New England Hospital, Massachusetts and after graduating, joined the Victoria Order of Nurses in Montreal in 1913.

She eventually volunteered for service, something that may not have happened had she stayed in Australia.

“The restrictions on nurses serving were very harsh,” Michael Bell said.

According to the Australian War Memorial, serving nurses had to be fully qualified and either be single or a widow.

Despite this, they say there were far more applicants than they needed, nurses with theatre or surgical experience were taken without question and sent overseas as soon as humanly possible.

Nurses who were looking for, or appeared they may be looking for, romantic adventures were always rejected.

'I didn't know they were Aboriginal'

But to know Marion’s story, is to know the story of her family.

The Leane family were one of service, with one of Marion’s uncles and four cousins serving in both world wars.

In Mrs Joyce's research, she discovered all six family members descended from an Aboriginal woman named Lucy Leane.

“I knew that they were in the war but I didn't know they were Aboriginal, I was very proud,” she said.

Lucy was a proud Cabrogal woman from the Dharug nation, hailing from Liverpool in Sydney’s south-west. She was married to farmer and landowner William Leane rearing a number of children, including Marion’s mother Elizabeth.

Two of Lucy's sons Edmund and Albert were the first to sign up for war. Five of her grandchildren, including Marion, also served.

Michael Bell says it was common for Aboriginal families to sign up in large numbers.

“We have some well-renowned families with or four and five brothers signing up as well as the commitment back here,” he said.

“I think the current record here is one family giving seven brothers.”

He says the Leane family epitomised those who in times of war ‘stood up’ and ‘put their hands up’ to serve, as it was at times the only opportunity for equality and recognition.

“War gives us an opportunity to be advanced,” he said.

“It enabled women to move into non-traditional roles, it allowed to them to show that they were capable of doing [other] roles, and those opportunities were seized by our communities and by our women, and Marion Leane Smith, and the Leane family, is just one example of that.”

But once they were home Indigenous servicemen and women did not receive the recognition they deserved. For Mrs Joyce, this discovery was upsetting.

“It is sad that they weren't recognised,” she said.  “And when they got back I think they were treated awful, too. [They] didn't get the grants and everything like the ordinary people did. So I think it's very, very sad.”

She says more recognition, particularly of her aunt Marion, would dispel many myths about Aboriginal people.

“Some people think ‘oh Aboriginals [are] lazy, that they want everything handed out to them, but that's not true. You know we've had to fight not as much me, because I did not know that I was Aboriginal, but I know a lot of Aboriginal people have had to fight, you know, to be recognised,” she says. 

“And I think she had that spirit, that fighting spirit. She wanted to do what she could.”

As time progresses, more stories of Indigenous service are beginning to be heard, but the Australian War Memorial says many more need to be told.

“We hope that Marion does inspire not only others but also enable the community to bring out other women’s stories that we may not have found as yet,” Michael Bell says.

"That recognition could always be greater... even if she had another five, ten companions, that recognition that all of our nurses deserve is little known... [and] Marion as an Indigenous woman needs to be greater known and her story needs to be told."

For Mrs Joyce, her historical research of her aunt Marion and the Leane family has been a labor of love but she knows it will be part of the war archives forever and never be forgotten.

“Very, very proud. I'm glad that I did it and I'm glad that it's there.”