May Duncan Smith

The war memorial which bears the name of nurse May Duncan Smith and all those from the district who enlisted for the Great War stands at the heart of the Canungra township on land donated by May’s mother in memory of her late father.

On ANZAC Day 1938, and with much fanfare, the rough hewn granite obelisk that is Canungra’s cenotaph was unveiled at the memorial park given to the community and named in honour of DJ Smith, who had passed away in 1935.

The daughter of David John Smith and Catherine Christina Smith (nee Duncan) of Beaudesert, May Smith was among those of the then Shire of Tamborine who, in answering the call for King and Country, joined the ranks of the lost generation of the Great War.

As for so many others, the war was a life-changing experience for May, who married a British officer while serving in Greece and then spent the rest of her days in England.

May was 25 years old when she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service, one of 2500 nurses from Australia to serve in the war.

She embarked on the RMS Moultan in Melbourne on June 12, 1917 and arrived in Suez on July 19. A few weeks later, she embarked on the Huntsgreen from Alexandria, bound for Salonika, in Greece, relegated to what was regarded as an outpost of the British Empire.

May arrived in Salonika on August 13, a little over a week after the Great Fire, which had destroyed two thirds of Greece’s second largest city leaving 70,000 people homeless.

According to Jan Bassett’s history of Australian Army nursing, Guns and Brooches, the nurses at Salonika worked mainly in tent hospitals treating mostly British and Greek soldiers, with some Turkish and Bulgarian prisoners of war, suffering from malaria, dysentery and blackwater fever.

“The war was a life-changing experience for May.”

The nurses often lived on bread and marmalade.

By 1918, one in five nurses at the British military hospitals in Salonika was Australian and many were disappointed they were not on the Western Front caring for ‘our boys’.

With a shortage of food, the nurses often lived on bread and marmalade and the shortage of fuel for heating added to their misery in winter.

Enduring freezing winters, they faced scorching summers in Salonika. The region’s streams and ravines were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and many nurses themselves succumbed to malaria.

Only a month after taking up her duties at the 60th General Hospital, May was admitted as a patient with malaria, according to her service record.

She spent ten days in hospital from September 18 and was admitted to a sisters’ convalescent camp on September 29.

May rejoined the 60th General Hospital on October 14. However, her health must have still been fragile as in August 1918, May was admitted to a Red Cross convalescent home.

We know nothing of how May met her husband, only that on September 4, 1918, she resigned her appointment on her marriage to Lieutenant Harry Morgan Woollam of the Manchester Regiment who, like May, was 27 years old.

May embarked for the United Kingdom, via Taranto, Italy, on September 5, 1918.

For her war service, May was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

May and Harry had a son, David Henry Morgan Woollam, born in 1921, who accompanied his mother home to Australia for a visit in 1936. It was May’s only known visit to Australia since leaving in 1917 and was one of the last voyages of the Orsova – a ship which had transported so many Australian troops to and from the war – before it was broken up.

May returned to her home in Harrow, Middlesex, where she lived for another 17 years. She passed away on December 23, 1953, aged 62. Her husband, Harry, lived on until 1974.

May (right) with a group of Australian Army nurses.

(Image: Australian War Memorial; Public Domain.)

Washing day at the Sisters’ quarters at the 60th General Hospital, Hortiach, near Salonika. Only a month after arriving there, May became a patient herself.

(Image: Sister Violet Hilda Kellick; Australian War Memorial; Public Domain.)

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