Lest We Forget

On the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month, Australians stop for a minute’s silence to remember those who lost their lives in all wars.

People in shops, banks, pubs, post offices, schools and businesses all simply stop what we’re doing and remember. Drivers pull over to the side of the road. Parents ‘sshhh’ their little ones, the elderly struggle to their feet and we quietly bow our heads as, simultaneously, the whole country shares a deeply profound moment of grief that never fails to move me.

My thoughts during that minute often turn to those whose sacrifice has been less recognised. Almost 2,500 nurses served in 192 locations overseas during World War 1 but were never recognised as military veterans by our government. Indigenous soldiers weren’t even recognised as citizens until 1967. And what about those who served in humanitarian roles? Where are their memorials?

Who is Australia’s most decorated woman?

“That’s easy” you say. “Glad you asked. Nancy Wake of course”.


Does the name Joice NanKivell Loch mean anything to you?  Me either, until I did some research for an essay about a year ago. Joice NanKivell was named ‘one of the most significant women of the twentieth century’ for her intelligence and humanitarian work during war time. But not in her own country.

When she died in 1955, she was Australia’s most highly decorated woman. She was mourned by hundreds at her funeral from the poorest to the richest, atheists, bishops, Polish, Rumanian, British and most of all Greeks and yet, most Australians do not know her name. Probably because the lives she saved were not anglo Australian or English.

She makes James Bond look like Miss Marple. Almost single handedly, she smuggled nearly 1,000 Polish women and children out of Rumania the day before the German army invaded Bucharest. She was instrumental in founding the early international Red Cross organisation and was also a spy, a gifted writer and war correspondent.

This Remembrance Day marks the centenary of World War 1 and a hundred years of progress. In the spirit of the occasion let’s remember all those who sacrificed, because not all those who lost their lives died and not all heroes wore uniforms. I’ll be thinking of you Joice.

If you’re interested in reading about Joice I’d recommend Susan De Vries biography: Blue Ribbons and Bitter Bread, Joice Loch Australia most heroic woman, 2000; and her own autobiography The solitary pedestrian, Australian authors agency, Melbourne 1918.

Here is an excerpt from my essay about Joice ‘No place for a woman’ published as part of an ebook anthology by Writers Web for International Women’s Day 2013. The ebook is avilable here. 

No place for a woman (excerpt)

… It is a shameful fact that the name of the most decorated female war hero in Australia’s history (and possibly the world ) is not known by most of us. She has simply never entered the vernacular of Australian folk lore.

Her name was Joice Nankivell Loch and this is her story….

Born ahead of her time, during a cyclone and without assistance, Joice NanKivell came into the world in Ingham, Queensland in January 1887. Her mother was a beautiful seventeen year girl named Edith who had been forced into an early marriage after her father died leaving her and sister Lily penniless.

Edith married wealthy cane grower George NanKivell who was the son of Australia’s richest man and they moved to Farnham, one of four family sugar plantations on the Herbert river owned by the NanKivells. Here they entertained Queensland’s elite in their majestic homestead overlooking the river and five thousand acres of sugarcane. Edith and George lived a life of elegance and privilege.

The labour intensive sugar industry at that time relied wholly on the indentured labourers kidnapped from the Pacific Islands, known as ‘Kanakas’. The practice was the subject of growing distaste and condemnation in Australia. Edith and George’s financial future was on the precipice.

Joice’s brother Geoff was born before her second birthday. Shortly after, the government declared the scaling down of Kanaka importation. The price of sugar began to fall due to international competition and then came the cyclone of 1890, followed by the ‘red rust’ fungus of 1891, decimating both crops.

About this time, an Aboriginal baby had been abandoned at the homestead by his mother and crudely adopted by the family. They named him Tinker. The three children would spend their young days climbing coconut palms and ‘going bush’ together.

When Joice was six, she, Geoff and Tinker were allowed to go along as helpers on a hunting party arranged by their father for his neighbouring planters. There was a picnic and much alcohol. After lunch, the men decided to send Tinker into the lagoon to fetch the floating dead ducks like a dog.  And he did, one after another, until he finally refused.

“Mulloka dardu there” he said. Crocodile. The more Tinker refused, the more agitated the men became. They pulled out their whips and still he refused until one of them produced a gun, prodding him toward the murky water. Joice and Geoff became hysterical. They knew that Tinker’s instincts were right and were still crying and pleading when the little boy entered the water, tentatively swimming to the floating ducks. Then, to their horror, the boy was flung high into the air and down again into the crushing jaws of a waiting crocodile. The boy’s screams disappeared under a wave and flash of powerful, grey tail wash.

This was the moment that Joice NanKivell lost respect for her father. Her inability to stand up to the planters and to save her little friend would haunt her for the rest of her life. She vowed to devote her life saving those who couldn’t save themselves. It was a promise she would keep…


MEDALS AWARDED:                        



Gold Cross of Merit – Poland, 1922

Order of St Sava – Serbia, 1924

Order of the Phoenix – Greece, 1926

Orders of the Redeemer- Greece, ( Prior to WW2)

Orders of the Redeemer- Greece, ( Prior to WW2 )

Gold Medal, National Academy of the Arts- Greece,  1930’s

Order of Elizabeth- Rumania, 1941

Medal of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)- Britain, 1933

Gold Cross of Virtue- Poland, 1945

Orders of Beneficence- Greece, 1950

Orders of Beneficence- Greece, ( after 1950 )


“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” 

                   ~ Virginia Woolf