Mabel ‘May’ Tilton joined the Australian Army Nursing Service on 4 August 1915. She was attached to No. 1 Australian General Hospital.
May was 31. She had five years experience at Launceston General (1909-1913) and 12 months private nursing in Melbourne.
4 September 1915 – reported for duty at 1 A.G.H., Egypt
3 April 1916 – temporarily attached to 3 A.G.H., Abbassia;
9 June 1916 – “1st Aux” [?], Heliopolis
7 August 1916 – 1 A.S.H., Ismailia
20 August 1916 – with 3 A.G.H., to England on the hospital ship Essequibo
24 February 1917 – 3 A.A.H., Dartford
16 March 1917 – Kitcheners Hospital, Brighton
24 March 1917 – 3 A.A.H., Dartford
5 May 1917 – No. 4 General Hospital, Camiers
16 July 1917 – 3 A.G.H., Abbeville
22 August 1917 – 4 C.C.S., St Omer
31 July 1917 – 3 A.C.C.S., Brandhoek
19 September 1917 – 47 C.C.S., St Sixte
3 October 1917 – 3 A.C.C.S., Nine Elms
8 December 1917 – 3 A.G.H., Abbeville
20 February 1918 – ‘proceed to England for transport duty to Australia’
27 February 1918 – 2 A.A.H., Southall
11 March 1918 – detached from duty with 2 A.A.H., transport duty to Australia in the Kenilworth Castle
May’s brother Jack served with the artillery.
24 April 1917 …we have had a rather exciting time lately & Fritz very near captured the whole crowd of us.
He came at us very early on the 15th inst, & caught us all asleep & we (or rather most of us) only just escaped him. Jack Tilton is missing & we believe him to be a prisoner with several of his mates. He was only 100 yards from our position at the time & it’s a wonder we all did not share his experience. Our infantry soon chased Fritz off with heavy loss & we got our guns back, he had only time to blow one of them up & we have “straffed” him to some tune since we returned.
Jack was last seen going toward an old German trench, and this is where Fritz was in good numbers, so I suppose Jack ran right into his arms. Some of our Infantry told us afterwards that they saw some Germans with several of our boys hurrying towards the Hindenburg line & we have reason to assume that Jack was with them. There was only two of our battery caught & 2 from Jack’s. I got a great surprise to know that he was missing when I got back. I have let May Tilton know.
1 June 1917 … Well dear Girl, so Jack Tilton is in Wahn Camp, Germany, & May has heard from him so he escaped our barrage alright & is very lucky to be alive because the gaps in the wire thro’ which they had to pass was heavily shelled by all sorts of shells, including gas shells & only he can tell us after the show is over what he went thro’.
Letters from Norman Griffiths Ellsworth, AWM collection
In England, we had talked and joked about this Spring Offensive, but I never imagined that anything like it could happen, or that anyone could face such frightfulness. We wondered how far it was possible to go before the limit of human endurance was reached. Tragedy was a commonplace of every hour, every night. We forgot ourselves in the bravery of the boys in their suffering. Almost dropping with fatigue, my tent companion, Sister Slater, and I went to bed at 9 a.m., and fell asleep at once. At 10.30 a.m. we were wakened by a terrific explosion, and rushed to the tent door to see what happened. A Jock, working in our compound, said:
“They’ve got us this time; it was a shell. I’ll go and find out where it fell.”
Almost at once, a second shell followed and burst much closer, getting our Q.M. stores.
A very agitated M.O. pushed his head into our tent and said: “Come on, you girls. Put on your coats and slippers. The C.O. says you have to get into a dugout at once. They are shelling us.” We were incensed because he would not allow us to wait long enough to get into our clothes. We wanted to go to the wards, not into a burrow in the ground.
“Good God! That first shell killed a night sister at 44 in bed asleep. Come on!” he said.
Like Brown’s cows, we scuttled across no man’s Land, with our plaits flying, to some trenches occupied by Scotch Canadians who were out of the line resting. Before I reached them, another long drawn-out crescendo followed me closely.
“I’m gone,” flashed through my mind.
The men shouted, “Run!” Others called, “Drop quickly!” My slipper tripped me, and I fell, just as the shell fell in the cemetery behind. I looked back to see a huge mass of black smoke and debris flying in all directions; felt myself lifted and dragged into a huge dugout where all the day staff had gathered.
May Tilton, The Grey Battalion
Norman Griffiths Ellsworth died 31 July 1917, only two miles from May. He was Battery Sergeant Major, Australian Field Artillery. He had been at Gallipoli and on Lemnos, at Sarpi Rest Camp, and 2SH and 18CCS (enteric).
That night, just as we finished dinner, I noticed a 4th Battery sergeant standing at our mess door. I hastened to inquire whom he wished to see. It was I: I knew it at once. He came with the news that my beloved cousin, Norman, had died of wounds the very day I came up here. My letter had reached the battery just too late. The boys opened it to obtain my address, I was only two miles behind them. Sergeant B— came at once to tell me his last words, and how it all happened. He died at the 19th Field Artillery at Dickebusch, seven hours after he fell wounded.
The rain ceased by midday on the 4th [August]; the clouds cleared, and the sun came out. All places outside the hospital were “out of bounds.” More than anything, I wanted to visit the spot where Norman lay buried. Three of the girls volunteered to accompany me, and we set off along the road towards Dickebusch, ploughing through mud and slush almost to our knees. It was too much for two of the girls. They returned, while Elsie Grant and I went on. The shelling had almost ceased, except for an occasional one that went over our heads. We had almost despaired of finding the place, when, by a miracle, Sergeant B— appeared, crossing a field. He guessed our intention when he saw us in the distance. When he could not persuade us to return, he went with us to the grave. He was carrying a wooden cross which he had made to place there. The men who were digging graves stood to attention while we breathed a prayer beside a loved one. There were then only three rows of new mounds in the cemetery where, to-day, there are thousands.
May Tilton, The Grey Battalion
This cemetery takes its name from a line of huts strung along the road from Dickebusch (now Dikkebus) to Brandhoek, which were used by field ambulances during the 1917 Allied offensive on this front. Plots I to X and XII to XIV were filled between July and November 1917. Plots XV and XI followed. Nearly two-thirds of the burials are of gunners as many artillery positions existed nearby. The cemetery was closed in April 1918 when the German advance (the Battle of the Lys) brought the front line very close.
May’s letter to Norman’s mother is in the AWM collection.
The nights were like day, and as long as the moon lasted, the air raids lasted. Backwards and forwards, all night, Fritz came, loaded with bombs to distribute about us.
One night at eleven he landed a bomb in the midst of our tents. The sisters were all in bed (all who were not up looking at him—a risky game). Our tents were riddled with holes. We could push a fist through one in my tent. We were ordered off in our night clothes to the chateau.
Next morning a huge crater was revealed in our compound. Beside my stretcher, on the outside of the tent, a jagged piece of shrapnel, four inches long, was picked up—a souvenir which I brought along home.
The advance up the line resulted in a heavy toll of victims, and patients were admitted before the hospital was properly equipped and ready. It was pouring with rain, making conditions bad for the men in the line, and worse for the wounded who lay out in it, sometimes for days.
Patients began to arrive at 11 a.m., and in the first twenty-four hours about three thousand patients passed through our C.C.S. We admitted for twenty-four hours at a time in turn with the other C.C.S. alongside us. Hospital trains stood by and carried the wounded away as fast as we could get them ready. Only the worst cases could we possibly hope to attend to.
The work in the Resuscitation ward was indescribable. The butchery of these precious lives— men of such splendid physique! To watch them dying in such numbers was ghastly. Their frightful condition was appalling: clothes saturated; faces caked with mud; the conscious ones smiling grimly, glad to be wounded and out of it. It was after midnight when matron insisted on the day staff going to bed for a few hours’ rest. The orderlies refused to go to bed. Matron (Miss O’Dwyer) herself rarely, if ever, went to bed before the early hours. She watched over her staff; or would be found writing letters to the relatives of the “dangerously ill,” or to those whose loved ones had passed away—a colossal task.
May Tilton, The Grey Battalion
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