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By Janet Butler
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2013 Janet Butler
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Journey into war
And it was Goodbye 'Australia'
On the middle Saturday of July 1915, Sister Catherine 'Kit' McNaughton stands under a grey sky on Port Melbourne's Station Pier, surrounded by the bustle and emotion of military embarkation. Crowds line the wharf. Orders ring out as officers and men of the Siege Artillery Brigade, the Australian Engineers, and nearly a dozen medical and dental units climb the gangways carrying their white, sea kitbags. As a newly enrolled member of the Australian Army Nursing Service, Kit is in the tiny minority of Australian women permitted to be part of it all and she will later describe the scene:
July 17th 1915 – Embarked on "Orsova" 10.30 – signed on & returned to pier, met all the "Riverites" & took fond farewell – was almost left behind had to run up pier. Cabin very nice ... Afternoon tea 4 p.m. officers & nurses together best fun of day Concert given by troops on Aft deck & returned by nurses, also Boxing match in progress – the whole show is just like a nice big picnic.
Kit is one of sixty-five nurses from Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, dressed in their new outdoor uniforms, who are surrounded by well-wishers on that wharf. Her family, the 'Riverites', are there to see her off. They are farmers of sheep and oaten hay from Little River in Western Victoria. It is in this district of dry-stone walls, meandering creeks and bluestone schools at the foot of the You Yangs range that she has spent her first twenty-five years. The 1911 census counted 300 inhabitants – man, woman and child – of Little River district. Kit is one of thirty-nine Riverites who will enlist. Twelve will not return.
Answering the summons of photographer Josiah Barnes, Kit joins the other nurses for an official photograph. She stands massed with them in her ankle-length dark-grey serge dress, her hands hidden under her matching cape and the tails of her chocolate and grey bonnet blowing in the Melbourne breeze. Then it is time for the 'fond farewell', and embarkation. Watched from the ship's rail by sixty nurses who had already boarded in Sydney, Kit McNaughton is about to take her first step on a journey that will change forever the way she thinks about herself and her place in the world. In stepping onto His Majesty's Australian troopship the SS Orsova, Kit is stepping out of place in the eyes of many of those who are watching.
This is an era when travel and war – and their firsthand narration – are largely the preserve of men. Ideas about what is appropriate for the feminine gender, particularly in terms of place, tether a woman to home. Panic about what will result if these boundaries are breached place obstacles in the way of women's active involvement in war. As Kit emerges on deck and waves to her family as the Orsova pulls out, with troops crowding every vantage point around her, the role of women promoted by military authorities and in the media in Australia is the traditional one: of support, sacrifice and quiet waiting on the home front, not active service on the battlefront. Many of the wives, mothers and sisters now waving handkerchiefs on the wharf will be granted a Nearest Female Relative's badge by the Commonwealth Government. Engraved around the base, inscribing sacrifice as their role, is the citation: 'For Duty Done'. At war's end, Kit's local newspaper, the Werribee Shire Banner, will report from a Welcome Home Ball, that '[t]he days of anxious waiting and watching for the mothers and sisters, wives and sweethearts, had now passed. The hearts of fathers and brothers were gladdened and welled with pride at the warrior's return with the honors of war and victory upon them.' It is an ancient division, based on ideas that go back to Homer and the Iliad, which tie the full rights of citizenship to the defender of the realm, and in 1915 it still has force.
The women of Australia do not agree, and they rush to offer their services in any capacity, in their thousands. Yet the nurses now moving away from the Orsova's rail are some of the few women, estimated to be about two thousand and seven hundred nurses and a small number of masseuses, who are accepted for active service with the Australian Army. Although nurses from the Australian colonies did travel to the Boer War in 1900, Nightingale-trained nurses had only been in their first generation in Victoria at that time, and there had been much prejudice against the use of female nurses in the British Army. As the Great War begins there is still evidence of these attitudes among senior medical officers, including Neville Howse who will become Director of Medical Services, Australian Imperial Force. The Principal Medical Officer of the Commonwealth forces in Victoria, Colonel Charles Ryan, is quoted as saying that 'most women were a nuisance on the battlefield, even in the limited capacity of nurses, and [should] keep within their own sphere to the best of her knowledge and ability'. There are concerns that hospital camps are not fit places for women, that some medical cases are unsuitable for female nursing, and that the possibility of sexual liaisons poses a threat to discipline. Fully trained male orderlies are the preference.
Kit's record of the voyage she is embarking on provides us with a window on the manner in which she negotiates her unconventional position. For her, the diary is also a tool in this process of negotiation. Viewed in new ways, it can also tell us about the effects that her movement outside the boundaries begin to have upon the identities of the woman she had once been, when she was captured in that moment in time in Josiah Barnes' photograph.
With the ship underway, Kit has lunch ('I was almost starving'). We can imagine her, then, making her way past gangways posted with guards to the cabin she will occupy with two other nurses. The cabin, though 'very nice', is not, she laments, shared with her close friend and fellow nurse Ethel Buchanan. Kit will begin to unpack what she needs for the voyage, and the nurses do not travel light. Matron Grace Wilson, acting matron-in-chief, AIF, dictated that, 'Baggage should be limited, and this rule enforced.' But that baggage consists of, 'One regulation cabin trunk, one large holdall, a hat bag and one large suitcase, and in addition a small suitcase that can be carried in the hand', which is considered 'quite enough under active service conditions'. Packed also are the smaller items enumerated on an Australian Imperial Forces memo headed 'Nurses Outfit': 'Each Nurse is required to bring her own Bed or Stretcher, which should be strong as well as light, and Pillow, Rugs &c. ... Camp Stools or Deck Chairs or both are extremely useful.' Nurses going to France are later advised to add a washing bowl, galoshes, oil stove and a torch or lantern to their kit.
The formidable amount of baggage is another clue that, in contemporary eyes, the nurses are moving out of place. Femininity is synonymous with delicacy. It signals that they are intended to be restricted, as befits their sex, to the less mobile hospitals in Base areas. The official establishment tables of more forward medical units – clearing stations, field ambulances and stationary hospitals – do not include female nursing staff. After the war, Sister Briseis Belstead, who also quotes the contemporary argument that 'a woman's emotions unfit her for Active Service in times of storm and stress', observed that 'certainly the baggage of the AANS has been a problem'.
The nurses, in negotiating their way into war against the background of these prejudices, have to convince authorities – both military and familial – that their contribution will be uniquely valuable, and that their travel to war will be within the boundaries of respectable middle-class feminine behaviour. In 1915, the admissible reasons for travel are those that reinforce the traveller's identity as a proper lady. Nursing is an acceptable womanly profession. An article in Una, the journal of Kit's professional organisation, declares, 'Nursing is pre-eminently a woman's work and it therefore follows that to be eminently successful in our profession we should be pre-eminently womanly.' When nursing authorities insist nurses be included in Australia's response to Britain's declaration of war, it is in fact these 'womanly' aspects – her attention to domestic detail, maternal instincts and sympathy, and the 'humane alleviation and support, physical and moral' that she offers to the sick and wounded – that the medical authorities agree have value. These are not qualities deemed necessary in medical officers, and Australian female doctors are not permitted to enlist. The nurses, given the public image they project of themselves, can also point to missionary and philanthropic work, both extensions of appropriate feminine home-centred fields of activity, as precedents. The higher calling of these fields can now acceptably take a woman overseas. Kit refers to her role, on reaching Egypt on 11 August, as 'our mission'. It is an answer to others' objections as the nurses sail away from lives of social constraint, as well as their potential usefulness as domestic carers.
At six o'clock, Kit is taken into a special afternoon tea with the officers on the arm of Major Hurst of the Siege Artillery Brigade. '[P]layed around afterwards', she writes, '& fed "Jacko" the kangaroo, mascot of ship'. Roll call is followed by boat drill ('rather good fun, as you have to roll up even if you are in bed'), then dinner at 7.30 p.m.: 'Went right thro the menu, much to the steward's amusement & had to have the menu translated into English – Have a nice table Misses Humphries, Bull, Corkill, Buchanan & self & we make the most of our time.'
The visual picture Kit presents, on the arm of Major Hurst and in her severely modest uniform and symbolic veil, tells us how the nurses succeed in navigating their way into this male domain where others have failed. The professional space they now occupy was opened up for them by religious nursing sisters in the previous two centuries. The pious nurses, taking the protection of the cloister out into the world, showed how to do such work outside the home, among male bodies, without loss of status. Florence Nightingale generalised this model of nursing as moral work to a wider group of women. In the pages of Una nursing is held up as a vocation, their ministry 'an immortal one' and the work idealised as sacred, as service to mankind. Kit and her fellow nurses are certainly involved in the same process of negotiation and representation, and on much of the same grounds as the religious sisters had been in their own movement, into the male domain of travel and war. They sail forth clothed not only in their chaste attire but also in the discipline and skill of their training, their vocation and their sense of mission, and the cloistered respectability of their separate, single lives under the supervision of matrons.
It is after the night-time concert that Kit, in her cabin and 'feeling rather tired & slightly lonely', puts pen to paper for the first time. The porthole open to the sea air, she inks her pen and considers what she will record of her first day's voyage into war. Opening her diary she reveals, on the flyleaf, the giver's inscription: 'To Dearest Kit with love & best wishes from Ethel.' It is dated three days previously, possibly the day of a farewell function. Yet, significantly, Kit will give no account of what she was doing even moments before she embarked. The woman who writes the diary is not the 'K. McNaughton' of 'Little River, Victoria, Australia' whose name is inside the front cover as the recipient of the gift. Rather, it is the woman whose name she is now inscribing in bolder ink on the bottom of the page facing it: 'K. McNaughton, Cabin 377' and, underlining it with a flourish, 'Orsova'. It is the extraordinary life that she is now commencing that her audience is expecting her to report upon.
The travel diary is a traditional gift upon departure. It is a literary form Kit will have been familiar with, through both private and public accounts. Although the nature and function of Kit's diary will evolve in response to changes in her circumstances and needs, it begins under this umbrella, and will continue to operate, sometimes valiantly, according to its conventions. From a distance of nearly a century, we can see Kit make her choices about what to write within this framework, and also within the overlapping borders of others, of which she is the centrepoint. They include the customs of her age, the expectations of her audience, the images of herself she is carrying into service and, as we shall see, her own desires. Although the image of the diary will evolve into a recipient of secrets by the middle of the twentieth century, most diaries are written with an eye to audience. Kit's diary is typical of its age: an aide memoir that she will read aloud, or that other women – her companions among the nurses, her ardently Catholic mother, or her cousin Manie at home – will enjoy reading.
There is quite clearly a 'you' addressed in its pages. 'We often think of the people at home & wonder what you are all doing,' she writes after describing a concert given by the troops, the first day out of Australian waters, '& if you could only see us all doing the grand you would know how we are enjoying our selves'. It is to this audience that Kit's presentation of herself has to be acceptable. Their image of the 'good woman' – the image Kit takes into war – is informed by ideals of female piety and submissiveness, of modest self-effacing behaviour, ideologies of propriety and, above all, of selflessness. It is in perfect harmony with the contemporary vision of the 'good nurse'. Kit identifies with the professional qualities of the nurse – discipline, rigour, efficiency and obedience – which are promoted by the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses' Association, of which she is a member. State loyalties, in the new Australian nation, are also strong. Ten days out of Fremantle, as serious illness begins to arise on board, she observes that 'some of these nurses ... ought to be put over board, the way they nurse'. She is referring to a unit of nurses who are very possibly from another state. She adds, 'I hope I never fall into their hands.' Kit is more approving of the nursing, however, on 2 August when Victorian nurses do duty in the hospital.
Entries in Una, under headings such as 'Jottings', contained quotations, excerpts and poems that highlight the personal qualities to which Kit is encouraged to aspire as a nurse. They include cheerfulness and optimism in the face of hardship, and a quiet, frank and refined manner. The pinnacle, however, is a selflessness that amounts to self-sacrifice. It is exemplified in the person of Florence Nightingale, and her ministering angel imagery of the nurse at war is current in popular imagination. Edward Cook's Life of Florence Nightingale has just been published and nurses receive lectures about her on the way to war. As a result, women's diaries are usually self-effacing in nature. This diary, though, will provide Kit with the means of reinventing herself, and presenting her new personas to her audience. The travel diary carries with it permission for Kit to record her tales for the education and entertainment of an audience at home. This explains why Kit, in common with many of her fellow nurses, begins her diary with the very first step on her journey: 'embarked on Orsova 10.30.' Ending the entry describing her first day, she writes, 'No more tonight as bed is calling me – Goodnight'. But within a few hours of the Orsova steaming out of Port Phillip Heads and into Bass Strait on the first, westward, leg of the journey, rough seas and seasickness make Kit temporarily impervious to anything else. The open porthole let in water and 'I didn't care a D____if I was drowned', is what she manages to scrawl the next day. She is back in bed by 5 p.m. The day after she records, miserably, that 'my "Major" came & took me round the deck a cuple of times. Went to bed 8.30 – getting rather gay staying up so late.'
Excerpted from Kitty's War by Janet Butler. Copyright © 2013 Janet Butler. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction – Boulogne, France: October 1916,
1 Journey into war: July–August 1915,
2 Interlude in Egypt: August 1915,
3 Lemnos Island: September 1915–January 1916,
4 Friendship and romance, Lemnos Island: September 1915–January 1916,
5 Interlude in Cairo: January–March 1916,
6 Interlude in Marseilles: April–June 1916,
7 Nursing wounded German soldiers, the Somme: June–October 1916,
8 The Western Front after the Somme: October 1916–August 1917,
9 On the frontline, Trois Arbres, France: August–December 1917,
10 The end of the diary, Dartford: January–August 1918,
11 Sidcup, the Wiltshire and home: August 1918–February 1953,