As part of the British Empire, the role of Australian troops in the First World War has been well explored. The ANZAC legend is primarily focused on the contribution of men, yet Australian women also served in many ways. Over 2,000 women served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in Australia, Greece and India whilst other Australian women served overseas with the WAAC, Womens Reserve Ambulance and Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. 367 Australian women also served under the British, French and Australian branches of the Red Cross. One of these women was Louise Blanche Riggall.
Louise Riggall was born in Castlemaine, Victoria on 2nd March 1868 to Edward and Martha Riggall. With a natural artistic talent, Louise studied at the Bendigo School of Art, travelling to Paris to hone her skills. Becoming an accomplished painter, she spent time in Italy and France before returning to Melbourne where she was living when war broke out in 1914.
Louise was determined to ‘do her bit’ and joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Australian Red Cross, where as a fluent French speaker she was keenly received.
“I could not stop in Australia while the need for women at the front is so urgent. I am not a trained nurse, but I am willing and ready to serve in any capacity – in a kitchen or peeling potatoes, so long as I am helping the boys.”
VADs were civilian nursing orderlies who worked without pay in a variety of supporting roles. At the beginning of the war, Australian VADs were unable to travel overseas so Louise began working at Broadmeadows camp with new recruits for the AIF in Victoria.
In 1915 along with two other VADs Louise finally travelled to Heliopolis in Egypt on board ‘RMS Moldavia’ to work at the 1st Australian General Hospital, a vital hub for the sick and wounded evacuated from the Dardanelles. Louise gained a reputation as a woman simply devoted to her work and was much loved by the soldiers who she helped to care for. In March 1916, the 1AGH was ordered to close and relocate to Rouen. Following some rather rushed packing, the personnel and equipment of 1AGH, boarded H.M. Hospital Ship ‘Salta’ for Marseilles.
Arriving at Marseilles on April 5th the unit disembarked, and after a few days waiting for orders, arrived at Rouen on April 13th 1916. The hospital opened remarkably quickly and began receiving patients on 29th April. The hospital expanded rapidly, with over 1,000 beds to treat British and Commonwealth soldiers, and in latter years, members of the AEF. With her language skills and dedication to her work, Louise was put in charge of organising stores for the entire hospital. This was vitally important work which she excelled at. With her ‘indomitable spirit’ and work ethic, the Red Cross asked her to take on a larger role, supervising 12 hospitals in the area. Travelling across France, Louise helped to provide Australian soldiers with care and compassion in their darkest hours, along with supporting hospital staff. She would arrange entertainment for convalescents and even undertook the task of furnishing the Red Cross hall at Rouen. It was through her ceaseless work and Louise became well known for her dedication, with one colleague remarking that Louise could somehow manage to do the work of 3 people, no matter the conditions. No task was too big or small for her and with her knowledge of Paris she would often even visit to purchase gifts for the soldiers in her care to send home to relatives.
On 31st August 1918, just a few months before the Armistice, Louise suffered a cerebral hemorrhage whilst working in Rouen. Her sudden death led to an out pouring of grief, with telegrams and letters sent from not just her colleagues who felt her loss keenly, but the soldiers whom she had laboured tirelessly for. She was buried at St Sever cemetery in Rouen, her coffin carried by 6 officers and draped in the Union Flag, followed by staff and ex-patients a like, who contributed to a huge floral tribute in her honour. Reports of the funeral spoke of the turnout of a ‘mass of mourners who did not know her but knew her work’ such was Louise’s reputation. Mentioned in despatches, Louise had given her life just as truly and as any soldier.
In 1935 a memorial plaque in her honour was unveiled at the Johnson Memorial Hall in Maffra, Victoria, Australia. The inscription reads:
LOUIE B RIGGALL V.A.D.
Who Gave Her Life
For The Sick And Wounded
At Rouen, August 31st 1918.
In a newspaper article about the dedication, it was revealed that not only did Louise give her time and compassion to the sick and wounded, she also left a cheque for £500 for the relief of incapacitated soldiers in Gippsland, Victoria.
‘She was loved by the soldiers and her demise will be regretted by many an Australian soldier’