Olive King: “the picnic gypsy life on the road”

In this blogpost, I’d like to introduce you to Ms Elicia Taylor. Elicia has been helping me prepare stories and images for the posts since I started this blog, and she is herself in the middle of researching a fascinating PhD in History on the subject of Australian single women and World War One. Elicia would love to hear from any reader who might have great stories or sources of historical information about single women’s experiences of the Great War – often we forget these women, because they tended not to leave behind descendants to remember them. Here, Elicia is contributing a guest blog, on a woman who is a key figure in her thesis, the remarkable Olive King. Enjoy!

While the First World War saw many Australian women drawn to overseas nursing and home front charitable activities, Olive King had other ideas.  Olive’s wartime correspondence with her father (later published by her half sister, historian Hazel King) revealed a variety of hair-raising experiences which would have been unimaginable to her friends back home in Australia.

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Born in Sydney 1885 into the wealthy family of business man Kelso King, Olive had always demonstrated an adventurous spirit.  As a young woman, she travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and America, and in 1910 she was one of only three women to have climbed Mount Popacatapetl in Mexico.  This was no prissy upper-class princess.  When the First World War broke out in 1914 Olive was visiting her sister in England and decided to offer her services to the war effort.

Dangerous Beginnings

In early 1915 Olive supplied her own large ambulance to the Allies Field Ambulance Corps and travelled to Belgium.  Soon after, however, the ambulance corps organisers were suspected of being spies and departed hastily, abandoning Olive and two other female drivers.  The three women were arrested but maintained their innocence, and were released just in time to avoid the invading German army.  Olive was undeterred by this traumatic introduction to war service and promptly joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals along with her trusty ambulance which she referred to as “Ella” (short for elephant).

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Olive served with the Scottish Women’s hospital in France and then Serbia.  In late 1915 the hospital was forced to evacuate from Guevgueli due to advancing Bulgarian forces.  Again, Olive only just managed to avoid enemy forces that had already ambushed French ambulances, stolen the cars and either killed or taken the French drivers prisoner.  Olive’s hospital station was bombed soon after her escape.

Olive seems to have thrived on wartime danger and turmoil.  Once hospital life had been re-established across the border in Salonica, Greece, she expressed her frustration, “I wish they would send us up to the real front, Salonika is getting too conventional and civilised for me”.  Olive’s desire for less convention and civilisation were soon to be realised.

In July 1916 Olive joined the Serbian Army as a driver attached to the Headquarters of the Medical Service based in Salonika, an assignment that was to occupy her for the next two years.  For the first two months Olive and “Ella” were on the road for some sixteen hours a day.  She later recalled these happy days and that she was “selfishly sorry when more cars and chauffeurs arrived and Ella and I got less work”.  However, her assignments were often exhausting and dangerous.  During the Great Salonika Fire in 1917 she worked a 20 hour stretch to bring civilians, soldiers and medical staff to safety and was later decorated for her efforts with the Serbian Army’s Silver Bravery Medal and Gold Medal for Zealous Conduct.

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Unspeakably happy & content

Olive expressed affection and admiration for her Serbian colleagues and the feeling was mutual.  This was in part due to her easy acceptance of insecurity and discomfort.  She freely admitted, “I simply love the picnic gypsy life on the road, much to the astonishment of the men, who hate the discomfort, the rain & mud & cold.”  Her exuberance and sense of fun also endeared her to the men.  Olive was considered to be a positive influence by her commander.  He confided in her that many of the men were in love with her, but rather than a distraction, her presence made a great difference to their morale and work ethic.

“I simply love the picnic gypsy life on the road, much to the astonishment of the men, who hate the discomfort, the rain & mud & cold.”

Olive also noticed the dire conditions affecting her Serbian colleagues due to their inadequate pay and rapidly rising food costs.  While Allied service men had access to canteens where they could purchase reasonably priced supplements to their rations, the Serbs were not allowed to use them and had none of their own.  Olive again used her privileged position to help her “dear Serbs”.  With help from her father back in Australia, she was able to produce sufficient funds to establish canteens for Serbian soldiers and the poverty-stricken refugees.

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The first Australian-Serbian canteen was set up in Belgrade in late 1918, followed by a further seventeen canteens in other locations selling reasonably priced food, blankets and clothing.  Olive often slept on top of the supplies in railway trucks and wagons to protect her goods from theft.  For her humanitarian efforts she was awarded the Samaritan Cross and personally presented with the Order of St Sava by King Alexander of Yugoslavia.

“I’m sure I must have got awfully rough & coarse, always being with the men”

Olive lamented that her wartime experience had irreversibly impacted her behaviour and looks.  “I’m sure I must have got awfully rough & coarse, always being with the men,” she confided, “I’m not a bit pretty or dainty or attractive.”  She also expressed her disdain at the prospect of returning to society life after the war, “I could not bear the conventions, the chaperonage, the gossip & million petty annoyances & restrictions of Sydney…and I know how you would hate to hear people talk of your uncivilised, unconventional, eccentric daughter.”

Back to Society Life

When Olive eventually returned to Sydney in 1923 she resumed her pre-war life but maintained her involvement in voluntary pursuits and was prominent within the Girl Guides movement.  Disappointed not to be able to serve as a driver in World War II, Olive instead became an examiner at the de Havilland Aircraft factory.  Olive’s First World War service in which she had been “unspeakably happy & content” appears to have influenced her post-war life in which she remained unmarried and committed to community service.

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