The only Aboriginal woman known to have served in World War I.
Aunty Marion Leane Smith was a Dharug woman from New South Wales. She was born in Liverpool in 1891. Her grandmother was Lucy Leane, a proud Aboriginal woman who in 1893 petitioned the New South Wales Protection Board requesting a boat in order to sell her farm produce along the river.
Life in Canada
When Aunty Marion was two-years-old, her parents moved to Canada where she was raised. She trained as a nurse at the New England Hospital, Massachusetts in the USA and after graduating she joined the Victoria Order of Nurses in Montreal in 1913.
When World War I began, Aunty Marion joined the 3141 Canadian nurses who served in Europe and supported the military effort from Canada. If she had remained in Australia, it was unlikely that she would have been able to serve in the war, as Aboriginal women were given few opportunities to access the nursing training required to serve as a medical officer in the military and because of restrictions on Aboriginal people serving in the defence forces.
No. 41 Ambulance Train
Aunty Marion served in France from March 1917 where she worked on the No. 41 Ambulance Train. These trains were specially fitted to transport injured troops to hospital. Troops lay in bunks arranged in three tiers on either side of the crowded aisles. Some trains also included surgical theatres for emergency operations.
Aunty Marion demonstrated her skills in difficult situations, with the nurse in charge saying "Staff Nurse Smith has given complete satisfaction in the carrying out of her duties whilst on this Train; her work is both quickly and efficiently done. She is most capable in every way."
After 1918, she served in Italy with Britain’s Italian Expeditionary Force and then went on to nurse in Britain until the end of the war. After the war she returned to Canada.
Naparima College and Trinidad
After her wedding to Victor Walls, she moved to Trinidad where her husband was principal of Naparima College.
Aunty Marion wrote the school hymn in which she reflected...
“Our island home, no matter where we roam, if near or far from home. Let us be always one.”
Aunty Marion worked to raise awareness of medical issues in Trinidad. She compiled a first aid and nursing text book aimed at the tropics and set up an infirmary for the school dormitories.
In World War II, Aunty Marion was responsible for bringing the Red Cross to Trinidad. She was also in charge of the Nurses’ Council and the Junior Red Cross. Aunty Marion received a Distinguished War Service Medal for this role.
When her husband retired, Aunty Marion returned to Canada. She passed away in 1957. She left a legacy as a nurse and leader in the medical field, a distinguished war service veteran, a community leader and as the only known Aboriginal woman to serve in World War I.
- 'The fascinating life of WWI’s only serving Indigenous woman, Marion Leane Smith' (by Sophie Verass)
- 'The first nurse' (by Tamsin Hong)
- Leane, Lucy (Grandmother of Marion - The Dictionary of Sydney)
- An Indigenous Nurse in World War One: Marion Leane Smith (Philippa Scarlett 30 October 2013)
- Naparima College