Constance Mabel Keys enlisted in the A.A.N.S. on 21 September 1914, aged 27 years 10 months.
KEYS, CONSTANCE MABEL (1886-1964), nurse, was born on 30 October 1886 at Mount Perry, Queensland, seventh child of Irish-born James Keys, schoolteacher, and his wife Margaret, née Pelham, who was English. She trained at the Brisbane General Hospital and enlisted as a staff nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force, on 21 September 1914; she embarked three days later.
On arriving in Egypt Nurse Keys was posted to a British military hospital at Abbassia and then to the 1st Australian General Hospital at Heliopolis where she treated casualties from Gallipoli. She was promoted sister on 21 November 1915. On 4 December she joined the hospital ship Themistocles which was filled with wounded, and after arriving in Sydney re-embarked on 1 March 1916 for Egypt. There she briefly joined the 3rd A.G.H. at Abbassia, then went to England and on 5 October took up duty at the Kitchener Hospital, Brighton. She served in hospitals in England until 15 November 1917 when she was transferred to the 3rd A.G.H. at Abbeville, France. By this time she had been promoted head sister, A.A.N.S. On 9 February 1918 she went up the line as sister-in-charge of the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Trois Arbres near Bailleul.
For most of 1918 Constance Keys was seldom far from the front line. During the German offensive in March she and her staff were ordered to transfer the 2nd A.C.C.S. to Hazebrouck. On 12 April Hazebrouck was shelled and the station was transferred to St Omer which that night was heavily bombed. Five days later Sister Keys and her nurses rejoined their unit at Blendecques near St Omer and remained there until 4 September when the station was moved forward again to Hazebrouck. Conditions throughout this period were appalling. The retreat from Bailleul took place in cold, wet weather which made movement difficult and increased the suffering of the wounded and the escaping civilians. By the time Sister Keys had reached St Omer she and her staff had become, in her own words, ‘refugees’. At Blendecques they had to treat many gassed patients, cope with an outbreak of influenza in June, and deal in July and August with casualties suffering from exhaustion as well as from wounds.
After their advance to Hazebrouck in September the 2nd A.C.C.S. staff still had to nurse large numbers of sick and wounded. Two weeks later Sister Keys moved south with her staff to St Venant and then to Estaires, near Armentières, where many wounded civilians were admitted to the station. On 15 November the 2nd A.C.C.S. received cases at Tournai, Belgium, and after three weeks work there, opened again at Ath near Brussels. In January 1919 work slackened but in February influenza again broke out. Early in March the work of the station was handed over to the Royal Army Medical Corps Field Ambulance, and Sister Keys returned to England, where she spent some months with the 1st A.G.H. at Sutton Veny. She left England on 1 November and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 17 February 1920 in Melbourne.
Sister Keys was one of the most highly decorated nurses in the A.A.N.S. She was twice mentioned in dispatches (1 December 1916 and 31 December 1918), received the Royal Red Cross, second class (29 December 1916) and first class (3 June 1919), and was awarded the Médaille des Epidémies in recognition of work for French refugees.
After her return to Queensland Miss Keys became matron of a convalescent hospital for returned soldiers at Broadwater, Brisbane. While there she met and married on 3 December 1921 at Galloways Hill, Lionel Hugh Kemp-Pennefather, a Gallipoli veteran, who was in charge of the farm section at the hospital. Mrs Pennefather ceased her professional career after marrying but during World War II did voluntary work for service organizations. The Pennefathers lived in Brisbane until the 1950s when they moved to Southport. Survived by her husband, a son and a daughter, she died there on 17 March 1964 and was cremated with Anglican rites.
Connie Keys was a gentle, compassionate and fearless woman whose courage is amply attested to by her decorations. She was also an accomplished pianist. Her citations, medals and other records are in the Medical Corps Museum at the Australian Army School of Health, Healesville, Victoria.
Keys, Constance Mabel (1886 – 1964) – Australian Dictionary of Biography
Amid the horrors of World War I, a little nurse kept up her courage with her letters home
In a grim casualty clearing station in France in World War I, King George V was touring the wards packed with wounded soldiers. Suddenly a young, pretty Australian nurse thrust an autograph book in front of him, and he smiled and picked up a pen.
His aide tried to stop him. “Sir, the royal family doesn’t give autographs,” he said.
“That rule doesn’t apply on foreign soil,” said the King and signed the book of Sister Connie Keys, of Brisbane, who was one of the first four nurses selected from Queensland to go to that war.
Sister Keys went on to win the Royal Red Cross Medal and was twice mentioned in dispatches. She returned to Australia at the end of the war to take charge of the Anzac Convalescent Farm at Mt. Gravatt, and married Lionel Pennefather, a returned soldier.
Eight years ago she died in Brisbane and Mr. Pennefather went to live with his son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Thorsborne, in Southport. Recently the royal signature came to light in a book containing many other famous wartime names, along with the nurse’s diaries and letters to her family.
They contain a grim yet gay account of a woman’s view of the war.
From a hospital in Egypt, where she found a piano, she wrote, “I wish I had brought my music.”
From France: “I am only afraid of being afraid.”
From England: “I bought the loveliest pair of buttoned boots today.”
From Belgium: “What I should like just now would be a big piece of K.‘s passionfruit cake.”
Before the war broke out Connie Keys was a sister in the Army Nursing Corps and was nursing at Brisbane General Hospital, where she won the gold medal for practical nursing.
She sailed in the troopship Omrah, attached to the 9th Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the 1st AIF.
Her first patients were survivors from the crack German cruiser Emden, sunk while raiding Allied snipping lanes in the Southern Hemisphere. In her diary she scribbled in pencil on November 9, 1914:
“Got word this morning that the Sydney had destroyed the Emden. Great enthusiasm on board. Heard we were in danger last evening. Emden only 40 miles away and only that we went the wrong side of Cocos Islands would surely have been destroyed. All lights out this evening … Hart and I powdered our noses by my little torch.”
On November 16: “36 sailors and 14 officers of Emden came on board this afternoon. Strong guard. Big fat German officer watched as steward screwed porthole as tightly closed as possible with iron bar. Officer asked what for – pointed to his dimensions and asked did they think he’d get out through the porthole.”
On December 18 she wrote: “German prisoners left this morning on Hampshire. Sorry to see them go. Think they were very happy here. Jacob Geibit—one of them—presented me with his capband.”
(Mr. Pennefather still has the capband.) Sister Keys served first in the Australian military hospitals in Egypt, and within a few months she was nursing Anzacs wounded in the Allied attempt to unlock the gates of the Black Sea.
That campaign ended with the evacuation of Gallipoli; and in August, 1916, she mentioned seeing wounded soldiers arrive from clashes with the Turks on Egyptian soil at Katia, not far from the Suez Canal.
To her mother back in Queensland she wrote: “The Turks are very good friends with our men and do not like fighting them. It is hard they should be forced to. I’ve never heard our men speak against them. They say they are always fair . . .
“An officer today was telling me of the wonderful accuracy of the German aero planists. One dropped a message about ten yards in front of Colonel Chauvel’s tent telling him to mark his hospitals properly. He got an awful shock, I believe, but took the hint.”
On leave at Rasr-el-Bar:
“Dear K. — … Part of this morning I spent making mud pies with a little French kid. She and I never spoke a word. It would not have been any use, but solemnly made pies. You should have seen the table we arranged. All the shapes made in patty tins and pink matches stuck in them . . .
Back at No. 3 Australian General Hospital:
“Dear Mum. — … I wish I had a few spare pounds. There is so much I could do. Now yesterday, at the Barrage, after such a thirsty drive, I wanted to shout lemonade to all the patients, but the stuff is 5d a bottle. I shouted about ten men, but felt mean not treating the lot. Then I took their photos and each man, of course, would like one as a memento. These little items run away with the money. The £1 you gave me for them I spent in various ways. Rumors are still very persistent about our going on…”
A few days later, September 24, 1916: “Dear Mother, K., and L.-We shall entrain this evening for Alexandria. We do not know where we are going, but it will probably be to England.
“Yesterday afternoon Matron and I went around Cairo leisurely looking at things. We glued our noses to the shop windows like bushies. It will be many a long day, if ever again, before we see these exquisite oriental things . . . We have to wear stars on our shoulders now and feel wild about it. It is such a silly, stupid idea aping the officers.”
Now at sea, six days later:
“Dear Mum. — We are well on our way to England and will reach Gibraltar tomorrow … I was laid low last night, but I was one of the best, missed no meals, so I can reckon I am a fair sailor. We go with full lights, the Karoola being a hospital ship. There is practically no danger to us. There are 99 sisters. Imagine a great room of women sleeping, and imagine the 99 seasick…”
No. 3 Australian General Hospital was rapidly set up in England, at Brighton, on the Channel coast. She wrote on November ll:
“Dear Mum. — There is such a dense fog today. This weather is good for the com- plexion—I am developing pink cheeks. You don’t see a single healthy man in civilian clothes. All the men are either too young or too old or else not strong. Don’t worry about me. Apart from the constant feeling of loss, I am quite well.
“The other day I came across a sister in a ward writing to two of her patients. The poor boys had no mail and were feeling lonely so she addressed the letter to ‘two lonely Australians.’ I found a funny post card and wrote something on it and sent it along also. The boys were so pleased and next day sent me a return card. They are fine boys and have been in Gallipoli and France. I’ll give them each a pair of Mrs. Stewart’s socks and get her to write to them.”
Twelve days later:
“Dear Mum. — I am taking a guinea course for my hair. It came out a great deal in Egypt. We are having a great deal of trouble with our mess. You know we are allowed 2/6 a day for that. Food is very dear here and we have such big appetites and now we hear we are to pay for the maids, so living will be costly…
“Matron’s maid thinks she has reached the height of her ambition now she is wait- ing on the matron. She keeps bobbing in and out of the room the whole time with her cap on the side of her head. I heard her ringing up the butcher ordering meat: A nice piece of mutton to roast for the matron, then I want a small piece of mutton to make soup for the matron. Oh, only just 3-pinorth or 6-pinorth. Of course, you know I have the vegetables for the soup. Just a nice little bit of mutton to make a nice little bit of soup for the matron.’ She says she has always risen in life. First she married into the Navy and then into the Military, and now she is Matron’s maid. You want to see her to appreciate her…”
Sister Keys later came back to Australia on a transport bringing wounded men home.
She returned to Europe, and for the rest of the war was moved to casualty clearing stations and military hospitals in Egypt, France, Belgium, and England.
Her letters contain accounts of her presentations to King George V and Queen Alexandra to receive the Second Order of the Royal Red Cross Medal and, later, the First Order “in recognition of her valuable services with the armies in France and Flanders.”
She also received the Medaille des Epidémies for “great devotion to the sick” from the French Government. She was mentioned in dispatches by General Sir A. J. Murray in 1916 and Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in 1918.
A letter from France on October 30, 1918, the Great War nearly over:
“Dear L. — I still like this life, it is so free and open. This part of France is not pretty. The houses, What are left, are all in ruins. Not one building left whole. There is not a civilian for miles, only troops.
“I don’t know how we will manage about the fashions when we come home. We are such bushwhackers. We went to Ordnance one day for some clothing and the man there told us that a Portuguese officer asked for a pair of gloves. On being asked what size, he thought for a while and then said, ‘Half past seven.’ Another day one wanted a coat with fleece lining. He asked for the coat, then paused a moment, then as a brilliant effort pointed to the inside of the coat and said, ‘Mutton’.”
Then on November 11 :
“Dear Mum. — Isn’t the news glorious. Peace. We cannot realise it. We have always been saying what we would do when peace came, but here we are and cannot do anything. Our MOs and orderlies have gone on and we are to follow. I can just see your excitement and joy over the wonderful news. We shall soon be home. Love from Connie.”
But there were many wounded needing attention on that side of the world. The next letters came from Belgium.
On December 14: “The room that we use as our mess is a long one with the loveliest old Louis XIV furniture, carpets, and the sweetest toned of pianos. One half of the room we use as a drawing-room and the other (as I said) as a mess-room. The kitchen is just off this and everything is so compact. Every room opens on to the conservatory, where palms, etc., grow. We ought to build that way in Australia.”
On December 19: “We have moved again, this time to Ath, a little town about 40 miles from Brussels. Soap and starch are practically unprocurable. Our clothes are a dreadful color. Washing is a big item and was so badly done at the last place.
“It will be great to be home again. We cannot realise it all, even yet … I have forgotten the taste of a mango or a passion- fruit. What I should like just now would be a big piece of K.‘s passionfruit cake. I have not touched my birthday cake. I am saving it up for Xmas. Many thanks for it. I shall surely be home soon.”
On January 13, 1919:
“Dear Mum. — I was very interested in your Armistice excitement. I should love to have seen it all. I fancy I can see it now. They say London and Paris went quite mad. Although we are quite in the heart of things we had no excitement at all. We were not quite sure if it were true or not . . .
“Dancing is still cut out for us. Xmas week as a great concession we were allowed to dance, lt is pretty hard . . . There is nothing to do here in the evenings, so we play old ping-pong.
“The next place we go to will be very different from this. We have had queer homes. One time it is a tent and we paddle around all day in the mud, and another time we are in a shell-smashed asylum . . . We surely will be home soon. Feel too unsettled to write more.”
Then from France on February 17:
“Dear K. — I have been a bad correspondent lately, but I’ve felt very tired. Even the simplest task was a worry to carry out. But now I’m on leave at Cannes. Imagine me on the Riviera. It is simply delightful, and to think that such a short time ago we were nearly frozen…
“The first morning when I awakened, looked out of my window and saw the whole hillside covered with wattle in full bloom and gums. I just lay in bed for hours and gazed out and drowsed and dreamed. I am almost ashamed to say that what I enjoy more than the palm, orange, and olive groves are the hot baths. I haven’t had one for a year-just a sponge over in a basin, and during the cold weather a very hurried sponge.”
Months later, on September 5, 1919, she was writing from England again, from No. 1 Australian General Hospital.
“Dear Mum. — Our stay here is still indefinite. Do hope we will be home for Christmas. Have set my heart on that . . . Don’t forget how to make flapjacks and K.K. her passionfruit cakes. You don’t know how I have boomed them up over here . . .”
Sister Keys returned to Australia soon afterward.
After her marriage she retired from nursing and lived at Indooroopilly with her husband and son, James, and daughter. During World War II she trained women in voluntary Red Cross work and entertained many soldiers at her home.
- AUDREY CHAPMAN
1972 ‘“Dear Mum… Don’t forget how to make flapjacks”.’, The Australian Women’s Weekly (1932-1982), 19 April, p. 22, viewed 21 June, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51273545
We're pleased that people are using this website as a source for locations, quotes and other primary source material. It's why we published our notes on the web. But we'd very much appreciate a footnote or credit. Much of the hospital (and other) location information for Lemnos and the Western Front is original research -- thank you, from Bernard & Cheryl