Of St Aidan, ANZAC and Serbia

Another year and another commemoration of the sacrifices of WWI for ANZAC Day (25th April) is upon us. We’re so focused on the horrors of Gallipolli, victories of Palestine and madness of France and Belgium that we forget (actually I don’t think it ever really comes up at school or in NZ war histories) the Great War was spread over much vaster areas.

I have a thing for country churches something about the wooden neo-gothic architecture and I’ve always had a fascination with the stained glass images. Traveling in and out of the Hakatere over the summer I’d noticed a bell tower standing over some oaks near Mt Somers Village so heading home for the weekend one Friday evening I checked it out, St Aidans, Anglican Church.

St Aidans, Anglican Church, Mt Somers, NZ. January 2017.

Built in 1900 it’s the only church I’ve ever seen with mooring blocks, to prevent it  sailing away on the teeth of a Nor-wester not a problem for now with a good block of trees around it but as the old photo shows….

St Aidans Aglican Church, Mt Somers, NZ. Possibly prior to 1920 as the lychgate built in 1920 is not to be seen although it may be out of frame. Tree size would put it near 1920 if they were planted soon after construction in 1900. The background is the south face of Mt Somers

Click on any photo in the gallery to see it in detail.


It seems to me that a lot of Anglican churches have memorials to those who fell in conflicts far, far away. ST Aidan’s has a register of those “On Active Service” that clearly was never finished. If the lack of an end date wasn’t enough, that George and Harold Harrison aren’t on the list clinched the deal (see stained glass image above).

Roll On Active Service – St Aidans, Mt Somers

While you’ve got to admire the penmanship, what really got my attention was the 2nd entry ‘Jane Emily Peter, Nurse, Lady Paget’s Unit, Amongst first to Serbia’. In our popular narratives on WW I Serbia doesn’t get a mention and Bosnia, where it all began, gets two lines at best, so I had a real HUH? moment. Viva la internet, all things are connected.

St Aidans, Mt Somers, line 2 reads, Jane Emily Peter, Nurse, Lady Paget’s Unit, Amongst first to Serbia

Lady Paget, was the wife of the British ambassador to Serbia. She established the Serbian Relief Fund, using volunteers and charitable donations sought from both sides of the Atlantic, which then funded and provided ongoing support for a mobile hospital unit tending to wounded Serbian soldiers. The first hospital unit (nurses, doctors, medical supplies, tents, etc) was headed by Lady Paget herself, hence Lady Paget’s Unit.

L-R: Gertrude Littlecott, Emily Jane Peter, Grace Webster & Annie Hiatt at No 4 General Hospital of the Mooi Camp, Natal.

Jane/Emily was Born in Burra, Australia, later moving with her parents to Anama, Mt Somers, Jane went, as a nurse, with the NZ adventurers to the Boer War, and took herself to England to help in France but was turned down, the British Army wouldn’t accept women at that time, however British women did not agree, so she joined Lady Paget’s Serbian Relief Fund hospital.  I’ve copied straight into this report brief biographies for Sister Emily and another NZ nurse, Ethel Lewis, who in another unit had taken part in the Serbian Great Retreat.

Five New Zealand women received Serbian Awards as well as two women who later came to NZ. source

Dr. Jessie Anne Scott, Christchurch, NZ.  Surgeon with the Scottish Womens Hospitals, Serbia (twice-having been a POW and repatriated via Switzerland she went back), Russia – Romanian Front, Serbian Army and in 1919 France.

Sister Ethel Lewis, Otaki, NZ.  (see below for full account)

Dr. Agnes Lloyd Bennett, born in Sydney, became attached to an NZ medical corp serving in Egypt, Salonika, Serbia and Wales.  Between the wars she worked in the Wellington Childrens Hospital and as an obstetrician at St Helen’s Wellington, NZ.  She returned to England for WW II, and died in Wellington aged 88.

Sister Jane Emily Peter, born Burra, South Australia, childhood and later life Mt Somers, Canterbury, NZ

Sister Elizabeth Buchanan Young, New Plymouth, NZ

Dr. Mildred Ernestine Staley, born in Honolulu came to NZ sometime after 1923

Sister Mary O’Connor, Fairhall, Marlborough, NZ

A New Zealand medical contingent was sent to Salonika but …

No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital was mobilised in October 1915 to deploy to Salonika and provide medical support to the wounded of the new battle area.  The group departed Alexandria aboard the Marquette, a transport ship travelling as part of a British Ammunition Convoy.  The Marquette was unfortunately torpedoed by the German U-boat U35 on 23 October 1915, resulting in the lost of 10 nurses of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service and 18 members of the New Zealand Medical Corps.  The survivors were taken to Salonika and while several kiwi nurses returned to Egypt or New Zealand to recuperate, many offered to remain and establish the New Zealand Stationary Hospital as planned.  However, as military historians Sherayl Kendall and David Corbett record, ‘their offer was not accepted and as conditions in Salonika were not good it was fortunate the nurses were sent back’  source

As far as I can work out there were seven British hospital units in Serbia, four of which were operated and funded by the Scottish Womens Hospitals for Foreign Service, the linked wiki page also provides further interesting reading on the Serbian situation. This report by Lady Paget covers the first 3 months in Serbia, https://archive.org/stream/withourserbianal00page/withourserbianal00page_djvu.txt it’s sombre reading and to quote the recently late John Clarke ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’.  Where Lady Paget chose to remain with her patients when the Bulgarian forces entered Skopje, other hospital units retreated with the Serbian Army and ultimately joined the ‘Great Retreat’ where some estimates are 150,000 died of cold and starvation. Lady Paget’s unit remained working at the hospital while the Bulgarian Army was in occupation but when the Bulgarians were replaced by German troops, Lady Paget and her nurses were forcibly repatriated to Britain, which is covered in this Grey River Argus, article https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/GRA19160529.2.35.


Though Serbia bows her stricken head,

Hope whispers that she is not dead,

That Serbia, like the Phoenix, dies

A Greater Serbia to arise.

The Story of a Red Cross Unit in Serbia. James Berry, B.S., F.R.C.S., F. May Dickinson Berry, M.D., B.S., W. Lyon Blease, LL.M., and other members of the unit.

The following biographies are abbreviated from the website of the:

New Zealand Army Nursing Service – Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps http://www.nzans.org/Honours/Serbian%20Awards.html

Sister Ethel LEWIS
Ethel Lewis had gained experience nursing in Otaki but had travelled overseas and was in England at the outbreak of war where she volunteered for overseas service.  She worked for nine weeks in Belgium before being evacuated and subsequently travelling to Serbia where she worked with the 1st British Hospital attached to the 2nd Serbian Army.  While working in the trenches she was slightly wounded by shrapnel and was decorated by King Peter for saving the life of a Serbian officer.   When the German and Austrian armies forced a Serbian retreat she helped to evacuate the 400 patients through the mountains but only the hospital staff survived with Sister Lewis suffering frostbite.  The conditions were exceptionally bad with one patient dying on her back after she had carried him two miles.  After leaving Serbia Sister Lewis nursed in England before returning to New Zealand midway through the War.

The Great Retreat, the caption reads: Dr.  MacGregor leading the retreat of the Scottish nurses from Serbia

For her services in Serbia Sister Ethel Lewis was awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle (class unknown), Order of St Sava 3rd class and the Serbian Royal Red Cross 2nd class.  She then returned to New Zealand and in 1917 joined the New Zealand Army Nursing Service

Sister Emily Jane PETER
Emily Peter was born in Australia but came to New Zealand with her parents in 1861and spent her early years on a farm in Mid-Canterbury.  In 1891 she travelled to England to train as a nurse and worked at Westminster Hospital, London until returning to New Zealand in 1899.  She was selected to lead a group of four nurses sent to support British Forces in South Africa by the New Zealand Government in January 1900, and was one of the first nurses to enter Ladysmith after its relief.  Emily Peter turned(sic) to New Zealand in 1901 and worked at the Sanitarium Health Home in Papanui, Christchurch until leaving for England in 1914.  When the Great War broke out she was unable to obtain a place in the military forces and instead joined Lady Paget’s American Red Cross supported Serbian Relief Fund venture. Sister Peter travelled through Salonika to Skopje and later Vrnjatchka Banja where she nursed battle casualties, before succumbing to typhus just prior to the ‘Great Retreat’.

Jane Emily Peter standing. The original caption reads ‘These nurses from Canterbury were the first to depart New Zealand for the South African War in January 1900. From left to right: Sister Annie Hiatt; Sister Gertrude Littlecott; Sister Emily Peter; and Sister Grace Webster.’

For her services in Serbia Sister Peter was awarded the Serbian Samaritan Cross and Serbian Red Cross Medal.  After the war Emily Peter returned to New Zealand and died near Mount Somers in 1927.  Sister Peter’s medals are held in the collection of the Ashburton Museum, there are also a journal and photographs held by the Canterbury Museum.


Emily Peter’s Serbian Samaritan Cross


Emily Peter’s Serbian Red Cross – but I’m not sure this is hers as it is dated 1912 – 13

The two group photographs are from http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/record/C68871



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