Johnsonville - Ida Willis

Ida Willis trained as a nurse at Wellington District Hospital. She was on holiday in Fiji when the war began and joined a troopship en route to Samoa.


Ida Willis was born in Wellington on 29 December 1881, one of thirteen children. Her father was Alexander James Willis who was Secretary to the Cabinet 1885-1907, until his retirement.

While living at Pipitea Street in Thorndon, Ida attended Fitzherbert Terrace School (later Marsden Girls' Boarding School) under the guidance of the Misses Baber, Richmond and Swainson. The family moved to Johnsonville when Ida was six, and she attended Johnsonville School and then Wellington Girls’ High School (now Wellington Girls' College).

Between 1907 and 1910, Ida trained as a nurse at Wellington District Hospital. She received her registration at the age of 28 and began working at Wellington Hospital - first as a ward sister, and then as a night sister.

The war in Samoa

Ida spent two years doing further training and working in Australia, but was once more living and working in Wellington when war broke out in 1914. However, that August Ida happened to be holidaying in Fiji, which meant that when the ships transporting the advance party of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force stopped by on the way to Samoa, she joined the six nurses on board.

The New Zealanders took Samoa, which had been under German occupation, and Ida worked at the hospital in Apia for ten months.

Egypt, England and France

Afterwards she returned to New Zealand, nursing soldiers at Wellington Hospital who were suffering from meningitis, and in July 1915 she left her hometown once more, bound for Egypt on the SS Maheno as a member of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS).

Ida worked at the New Zealand General Hospital near Cairo, where the wounded soldiers who were evacuated from Gallipoli were cared for between August and November 1915.

In June 1916 Ida was transferred from Egypt to England, where she worked at the No 1 New Zealand General Hospital in Brockenhurst, and then to France. In France Ida worked at the No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, nursing many of the soldiers who were wounded at the front.

Ida survived shelling and the risk of trench foot throughout an exceptionally hard winter at Wisques in France. At the beginning of 1918, Ida returned to New Zealand and nursed patients at Featherston Military Camp in the Wairarapa, where many soldiers who had survived the war succumbed to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Matron-in-chief and an OBE

Ida continued to be involved with the NZANS over the coming decades. In 1933 she gained the position of matron-in-chief, meaning that when war broke out again in 1939, it was Ida who directed nursing proceedings. She received numerous medals recognizing her service to military nursing, including the Associate of the Royal Red Cross (second class). In 1944 she was appointed an OBE.

Two years later, Ida retired from nursing. She lived out the rest of her life with her sister at Raumati Beach. Ida died in 1968, at the age of 87.

Find out more

  • Details of New Zealand soldiers’ activity in World War One can be found by examining their digitised defence personnel file, most of which can be accessed online via the Archives NZ catalogue.
  • Ida is profiled on Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  • A partial transcription of an interview Ida did just a few years before her death, reminiscing about her career is available at Nga Taonga.
  • More about the New Zealand Army Nursing Service’s involvement in WWI can be found by following the links on their homepage.
  • Read more about the 1918 Influenza epidemic on our Story Map.

Image references

  1. Nurse Ida Willis. Accessible at Archives NZ ; reference: R24184804.
  2. Wellington District Education Board Class Schedule, Johnsonville School, 1890. Accessible at Archives NZ.
  3. Part 2 of a 2 part panorama of Wellington Public Hospital, Newtown, Wellington, photographed in 1910. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-020140-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  4. Lizzie Ida Grace Willis, photographed in 1910 while she was a sister at Wellington Hospital. Photographer unidentified. Lizzie Ida Grace Willis. Ref: 1/2-104591-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  5. Letter indicating that Ida has been taken on strength in Suva, from her defence personnel file. Accessed via Archives NZ.
  6. Group of nursing staff and members of the armed forces at Apia Hospital during World War I. Photograph taken in August 1914 by an unknown photographer. Ref: 1/2-010896-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  7. Union Steam Ship Company vessel Maheno in Wellington Harbour, photographed, probably between 1905 and 1914, by an unknown photographer. SS Maheno. Shipping prints collection. Ref: PAColl-3713-0960-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  8. World War 1 nurse, Sister Ida Grace Willis (right), and an unidentified matron, riding camels in Egypt, on their way to see pyramids. Taken in 1915, by an unidentified photographer. Nurses riding camels in Egypt, during World War 1. Willis, Ida Grace: Photographs of NZEF in Samoa and Belgium. Ref: 1/2-148832-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  9. A general view of the New Zealand Stationary Hospital in Wisques during World War I. Shows a number of buildings, huts and a few tents. A large sign on the right includes a Union Jack and a Red Cross. Photograph taken 17 August 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. The New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association: New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013471-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  10. Hospital at the Featherston Military Camp. Photograph taken by Frederick George Radcliffe between circa 1914-1918. Hospital at Featherston Military Camp. Radcliffe, Frederick George, 1863-1923: New Zealand post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-005955-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  11. Image of Ida's medals from the National Army Museum’s website.
  12. At a reception for veteran nurses at the Wellington RSA. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1965/1393-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  13. Miss Lizzie Ida Grace Willis by M Richardson, 1919 (Oil). National Army Museum, Waiouru. (Accession No. 2000.510).