In the winter of 1914, Ella Cooke was looking forward to a grand adventure. The Auckland-born nurse and her twin sister Lily had just departed New Zealand in a boat bound for Vancouver, New York and finally England. She was looking forward to seeing the sights, and eventually a working holiday in London, or maybe Paris.
The outbreak of war in July 1914 dashed all her plans. By the time the pair finally docked in London, Ella was contemplating an assignment in one of the many under-resourced hospitals in France. In November 1914, Ella was one of a group of 14 nurses who left England to serve with the French Flag Nursing Corps. She spent the next six months at a hospital in Bernay near Rouen.
Instead of returning home, Ella joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, and spent a harrowing few weeks in training at Connaught Hospital in Aldershot, England.
In a letter to family in New Zealand, Ella wrote, “The work is frightfully hard and we’ve a ridiculously small staff. Just now I’m on night duty and I’m responsible for 240 beds. I’ve only three orderlies to help me with all those patients. It’s killing work.”
Ella first completed her nursing training at Auckland Hospital in 1907 and later joined the staff of the Cook Hospital, Gisborne. In 1910, she joined Hawera Hospital and remained there for three years. She was then appointed Native Health Nurse for Waikato, basing herself at Ngaruawahia and travelling between an area bounded by Kawhia, Mercer, Te Kuiti and south of Morrinsville.
Ella’s final nursing assignment in Egypt was far removed from rural New Zealand. In September 1915, Ella was posted to No 17 General Hospital at Alexandria. Chief amusements for new recruits were excursions to view the Pyramids and the Sphinx, boat trips up the Nile and dinner at the Continental.
During her two years at the hospital, Ella was regarded by her colleagues as a “happy and popular” recruit. In a cruel twist of fate, Ella was killed instantly after taking a short cut across a railway line behind the hospital. She was honoured with a full military funeral and subsequently buried in Hadra Cemetery. Her name is inscribed on the World War I Nurses Memorial in York Minster, England.
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