Line drawing of a nurse helping invalids to an ambulance for transfer to Maritzburg from Ladysmith during the Boer War.

Rose Shappere – Fearless nurse, Jewish adventuress

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Rose Shappere 1859-1943

Fearless nurse in the Boer War, Jewish adventuress

First published in J-Wire April 19, 2021

Jewish Nurse Rose ShappereWith the approach of ANZAC Day, it is an opportune time to take a step back to 1899 which was the start of the Anglo-Boer War. Australia not only sent soldiers but a small group of nurses to the South African battlefields. This was the first-ever group of military nurses sent to war by the Australian colonies.

One particular nurse was Rose Shappere, Ballarat-born from a Jewish family who had a serious taste for adventure. Born in 1859 and raised partly in New Zealand, where she attended a Jewish school, she tried her hand at teaching before studying nursing in Melbourne. She was not content to settle in one place and over the course of a few years, worked as a nurse in various parts of Australia. In an interview following the war, she remarked that she had chosen nursing because she wanted to show that ‘’Jewish girls did not mind how hard they worked.’’

Rose was unsuccessful in officially resigning from her position at Adelaide Hospital and so stole away in secret, leaving behind a letter of apology for the hospital authorities.

Boer War: a nurse helping invalids to an ambulance for transfer to Maritzburg from Ladysmith.Once in South Africa, she attached herself first to a Boer commando unit, and then to the British volunteers, traveling alone throughout the country by rail and steamer to reach the front lines at Ladysmith. Her persistence paid off, and whilst she saw many nurses being turned away by the British authorities, she was determined to serve and her efforts to do so were rewarded with success.

Employed at the Volunteer Military Hospital, Rose found herself in mortal danger more than once. A shell was dropped directly into the hospital at one point, and during a 118-day siege, conditions were so bad that she herself fell ill. Stormy weather, constant rain, and poorly-pitched tents left patients lying directly on the soaking ground, and food shortages affected everyone, forcing patients and nurses alike into a state of near-starvation. Scurvy and fever infected the camp. As a result, Rose was sent to England for a month’s convalescence.

Newspapers reported that she, and five other nurses, were to be presented to Queen Victoria and she enjoyed high recognition for her efforts and the British authorities insisted that she be paid a small salary. Later, she would receive the Royal Red Cross of Honour, as well as four medal bars for her service in four separate South African states.

After her recovery, Rose returned to South Africa, nursing the wounded in various hospitals across the country, as well as accompanying soldiers on transport trips. She was never in one place for long and continued her travels between South Africa, Australia, and England, continuing her nursing duties until the conclusion of the war in 1902.

In an interview in 1902 with the UK’s Jewish Chronicle, Rose said that ‘’whilst at the frontlines, she had nursed many Jewish soldiers. She noted that a large number of Jewish soldiers do not advise their religion, because the prejudice against Jews in South Africa is so great.’’

Once back in Australia, Rose was appointed Matron of the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Victoria, retiring from there in 1908 when she married. She had accomplished what she felt was her mission in life. In a letter to her brother in 1900, having received recognition from Queen Victoria, she said she would ‘’then feel proud and have lived for something, and my dear parents will then at least have something to be proud of in me.’’

Sister Rose Shappere – Boer War Memorial Entry

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​