This audio recording of Lil Mackenzie’s family member reading her wartime letters comes from Museums Victoria (2014-2018) Love and Sorrow Exhibition.

Introduction by Hannah Ekin

Dearest Lily, so glad to get 2 letters from you by the last mail
….Yes, the world is in an awful tangle as you remarked, and the poor little dove will have very hard work to carry the olive branch…I don’t think there will be any lasting peace.
May God bless you, dear Lily, and keep you safe is my constant prayer.
From your loving mother.

This letter was written to Lil McKenzie in London nearly a hundred years ago.
Lil was my great Aunt, the sister of my grandfather.
Lil was a nurse, that was very much part of her identity and she volunteered when World War One started.
Lil was very modest about her war service.
She never spoke of it very much.
I think the whole experience was probably so grueling and traumatic that she wanted to put it behind her.
I think the war experience shaped Lil.
It certainly dictated the course of her life in that she never married.
Lil did suffer from bouts of depression after the war.
I imagine we would now call it Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
The whole family is very proud of her.
Its only really since she died that we’ve researched her story and discovered what an immense contribution she made, how highly she was regarded and what a sacrifice she made.”

Sister Selina Lilly (Lil) McKenzie was born in Ballarat in 1882 and began nursing in 1907 at the Melbourne Woman’s Hospital. Lil moved to New Zealand to work in the Taihape Public Hospital where she became head nurse, but returned to Ballarat to enlist in the Australian Army Nursing Service in October 1915. She was given the position of staff nurse, the lowest rank despite her  experience, as was often the case with female nurses. Lil was first posted to Egypt, working at the Australian General Hospital (AGH). The AGH was housed in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, a grand building on the edge of Cairo with marble walls. Planned as a 520-bed hospital, by June 1915 it held nearly 2,500 patients. The hospital expanded into nearby buildings: the racecourse, the casino, the barracks of the Egyptian Army, and Luna Park. Here the ticket office became an operating theatre and the skating rink, bandstand and scenic railway became wards.

In February 1917 Lil was transferred to France, where she served at various hospitals on the Western Front. When the Austrian Army was making a big effort to break through the Italian frontier in 1918, Sister Lil MacKenzie was despatched there for nursing duty. She was the only Australian nurse sent to this battleground, and for some time lived in a dug-out in the side of the Alps, in charge of an advanced casualty clearing station. For gallant services at this centre she was awarded the Royal Red Cross. In 1919 she returned to England, retraining as a public health officer while continuing to serve as a nurse until October when she returned to Australia. Lil bought a herb farm in outer Melbourne with her sisters Rose and Eden upon her return, converting it to a rest home following financial difficulties in the 1920s. Lil spent her last years in RSL House in St Kilda alongside some of her former nursing colleagues. Lil died in 1972. She was 90 years old.


Nursing during war time: The duties of the army nurses were much more varied than would have been the case in the civilian nursing profession. They were often forced to improvise, using what limited and under-resourced supplies and equipment they had. They needed to be decisive and quick-thinking when determining treatment, cleaning wounds and attending to minor surgery. Physical strength and a high level of efficiency were required. They were frequently understaffed and endured an excessive workload. During World War I, 1000 patients in a makeshift hospital of hundreds of tents were often tended to by just one head nurse, 15 sisters and 30 staff nurses.

The conditions made life even more difficult for the nurses. The burden of understaffing resulted in exhaustion and they experienced shock and terror on the occasions when they came under fire. The nurses experienced many of the same hardships as the soldiers. They were also at risk of contracting contagious diseases such as influenza from the sick soldiers. The harsh, foreign climate, inadequate basic necessities and consequent dysentery were all endured by the female nurses as well. Having seen all this horror and devastation, many nurses suffered from the same types of psychological traumas, such as depression and nightmares, which plagued the soldiers when they returned home.

(Source: The archival audio was first recorded for the Museums Victoria ‘Love and Sorrow’ Exhibition, Source: Daybreak Films. Copyright Museums Victoria and Janet Mackenzie 2014)

Photo: World War 1, Portrait of Sister Lil Mackenzie (R) with a Friend, Egypt, 1915-1917
Creator Sister Selina Lily McKenzie, Image provided courtesy of the Mackenzie family
Museums Victoria MM 107493 Public Domain (Licensed as Public Domain Mark)

Armistice Centenary – World War 1 Stories is a partnership between the Alice Springs Peace Action Think Tank and 8CCC Community Radio. This project was made possible through the support of the Alice Springs Town Council Community Assistance Grants, The Australian Government Armistice Centenary Grants Program and Produced with the assistance of the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at