Sister Duckett and the Gallipoli Autograph Books
Florence Duckett was born on 16 October 1882 in Lancashire, England where she grew up with two sisters and a brother. She qualified as a nurse and completed her midwifery training in Dublin where she entered private nursing of largely, the aristocracy. When war was declared in 1914, Sister Duckett was in London, nursing the wife of a member of the French government. She accompanied the woman to Paris and was quite distressed with what she overheard at French cabinet meetings. Complaints ranged from difficulty of obtaining soap to the trains being taken up, “With all those blessed Tommies going to the front line”. None of this impressed Sister Duckett so she returned to England.
In the meantime, she had met an Australian, Peter Coleman, who came from Sydney. Peter carried a torch for Sister Duckett and he wrote faithfully to her from the front line in France. It was because of their friendship Sister Duckett decided to volunteer to nurse at one of the outposts on the front line. She was one of the nurses sent to join the effort by the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, Highclere Castle in Hampshire (the setting of television’s Downton Abbey). Sister Duckett was given thirty-four hours’ notice that she was headed for the Middle East, not the Western Front as initially expected.
In mid-1915 she sailed out to Alexandria, Egypt to serve in Gallipoli where the battle had been raging since February that year. The badly wounded and injured men were sent by hospital ship or hospital carrier to hospitals in Egypt or Malta, and in some instances straight to England. Sister Duckett served on the HMHS Galeka, a Red Cross hospital ship transporting the injured from the battlefields of Gallipoli to hospitals in Egypt or Malta.
One time, she said they were chased by a German submarine. Apparently, the Germans didn’t respect The Hague Convention (1907) prohibiting the attack of hospital ships, whereas, “The Turks were meticulous, and extremely good”. The Galeka had to turn back and head for Malta as they couldn’t make it back to Alexandria with that load of wounded. Sister Duckett said it was just dreadful, nursing the wounded. All they could do was lay them out on the bare wooden deck, as there weren’t any beds or mattresses, hand out water and offer comfort in some way by talking to them. “There was nothing they actually could do because they had no medicines, nothing that would help,” according to her daughter. Despite this, Sister Duckett would never forget waiting on deck for the injured men to be plucked from the horrors of the front line, into the safety offered by the hospital ship.
Sister Duckett served in the Gallipoli campaign five times during World War One and after serving on hospital ships for a time, she was transferred to the Government Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. She felt at home in Egypt where she learned to speak and write Arabic. She met her husband, a doctor from Glasgow at a social event while in Egypt and soon after, they married and were repatriated to England in 1917. They both continued their medical careers and raised a family of four children in the United Kingdom. Sister Florence Duckett died in Italy at the age of seventy-three in 1956.
HMHS Galeka was a steam ship built in 1899 for the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company by Harland and Wolff. She served on the South Africa route until the First World War when she was used by the UK as a troop transport, carrying troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps to the Gallipoli Campaign. Galeka was then refitted as a hospital ship with accommodation for 366 wounded passengers. On 28 October 1916, while entering Le Havre Galeka struck a mine. She was not carrying patients at the time, but nineteen Royal Army Medical Corps personnel died in the sinking. She was beached at Cap la Hogue, but was a total loss - Union-Castle's first war casualty.
About the autograph books
Sister Florence Duckett was a warm and engaging person dedicated to the care of those in need. In her spare time, she visited wounded soldiers in their hospital beds and asked them to write an entry in her autograph book. She wanted to give them something to do, an opportunity to express themselves and a chance to take their minds off their plights. The soldiers warmed to her, evident in their entries at a time when everyone had seen too much death. Sister Duckett managed to fill three autograph books dated from mid-1915 to early 1917. They contain cartoons, poems, odes, the odd proposal and autographs from the allied soldiers who served in the Gallipoli Campaign