More than bombs and bandages – Australian nurses in WW1

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This is a guest post by historian Kirsty Harris about her book ‘More than Bombs and Bandages, which is about Australian World War 1 nursing practice. Kirsty is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical Studies at Melbourne University.

Australian Army nurses attached to the Egyptian Government Hospital, Suez, 1918 courtesy  Judith Doig

Australian Army nurses attached to the Egyptian Government Hospital, Suez, 1918. (courtesy of Judith Doig)

I come from a family of trained nurses – both of my grandmothers, a great aunt and my mother were nurses and my younger sister is still a nurse (she trained at the Alfred Hospital) – and my grandfather was a doctor. However, as I have bad needlephobia, faint at the sight of blood and have trouble visiting hospitals without passing out, I am relegated in the family to writing about nurses.

At the same time I come from a long line of military officers – going back hundreds of years in the Indian Army to my grandfather and three of his brothers serving in World War I and later my own years in the Australian Defence Force.

One of my grandmothers – Scottish born Bessie Proudfoot – lived in Western Australia and trained at the Perth Children’s Hospital. Her older sister Isabel was also a trained nurse from the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. At my graduation as an army officer in the 1980s, I mentioned to my father that I was the first female officer in our family and he told me I was wrong – that Gran had been a World War I nurse who served in Egypt and England. But he pushed my historian buttons when he remarked that she ‘arrived late and didn’t do much…’!

So when my sister asked ‘what did Gran do during the war?’, I didn’t know the answer and decided to find out. That was 15 years ago. Since then I have completed a doctorate trying to answer that question, not just for Gran but for all Australian Army nurses, and have published a book called More than Bombs and Bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War I (Big Sky Publishing, 2011).

Book Cover photo

World War I stands out as the last major war with a significant death and injury rate from terrible wounds from shrapnel, bombs and guns. There were also millions of sick soldiers affected by debilitating diseases and gas warfare. In this environment, a British military doctor called nursing ‘the most important job of all’.  My book briefly examines Australian nursing schools and the training that nurses received, then compares this baseline of learning against what nurses did during the war as members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) working overseas. The AANS contained not only trained professional nurses but also trained masseuses, ward assistants, one stewardess/ seamstress, one Volunteer Aid Detachment worker and one bacteriologist – but the book focuses mainly on the nurses; an appendix lists their training hospitals.

Just what did Australian Army nurses do? It seems logical to reply that ‘they nursed’, they looked after sick people, they provided care — but war environments, such as those created in World War 1, threw up unpredictable situations and created diverse opportunities. No member of the AANS would have dreamed on embarkation from Australia that they might end up running a hospital kitchen for a year or managing a ‘hotel’ for 200 nurses. What theatre nurse would have thought of running more than one table at a time in an operating theatre or giving anaesthetics? And who could have predicted the advent of Spanish flu when doctors were largely helpless and recovery rested on the nursing skills of those present?

These diverse and non-nursing roles go to the heart of More than Bombs and Bandages — and the important words here are ‘More than…’ Other World War I nursing histories feature Australian nurses who received the Military Medal for their bravery under fire when their hospitals in France were bombed and those awarded Royal Red Crosses for professional work and achievement. They frequently mention bandaging wounded soldiers. But military nursing work in World War I was so much more.

I think it is important that contemporary nurses in Australia understand the breadth of the nurses’ collective effort. These nurses were the cream of Australia’s trained nurses at the time, as enlistment in the AANS was very competitive. Careful nursing prevented the onset of pneumonia, prevented conditions such as dehydration, excessive blood loss and further infection — all common in soldiers. These women reduced depression in soldiers and increased their will to live. Experience showed that under war conditions, nurses providing hot drinks and warm blankets could often save more lives than the surgeons’ operative skill. To me, military nursing practice is so important that the absence of discussion about it lessens any World War I military history.

Tom Harris1st Light Horse Regiment Staff Nurse Bessie Proudfoot AANS Cairo 1918married 1925

2Lt Tom Harris, 1st Light Horse Regiment, and Staff Nurse Bessie Proudfoot, AANS, in Cairo in 1918. (They married in 1925 and became Kirsty’s grandparents.)

As for Gran, she didn’t leave us any letters or postcards or a diary, just a small brown folder of miniature photos of her in uniform, often only with one-word captions. And a photo of her when she met Grandfather in Cairo during the war. So to find those elusive mentions of nursing practice, my research meant I had to look at all the personnel files of the nurses in the National Archives of Australia (they weren’t online then!) as well as every diary, photo and file on nurses I could find across Australia, as well as overseas. It has been an extraordinary journey and such a privilege to read both of the joys and the trials of being a military nurse. I am still reading as more war diaries come to light with the arrival of the Anzac centenary and the showing of Anzac Girls.

As well as my book, if you would like to read more, I have written several articles and book chapters.

I also have a blog on Facebook called Australian nurses in World War I at  where I welcome questions and comments. I love getting questions from Australian nurses who want to know more about their forebears and how nursing worked 100 years ago.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I too have been enjoying the various writing genres and tv associated with WW1.
    I have enjoyed much Australian WW1 history at uni and always sought the medical, health, social aspect and impacts. Our nurses write of experiencing condensation, bullying etc from their English peers – can this be where our endemic problem of peer bitchiness began?
    This book Bandages and Bombs is a good read, it demonstrates friction when nurses become competent at anaesthetics, the need to go to battle with administration to ensure adequate equipment, to say the least.
    Somewhere, on Radio National, I have heard the Australian historians are the only ones to acknowledge the role of ambulance officers and how this changed.
    Explore.

    Such material helps us see the struggle and drive of our forebears, trailblazing at times and enduring great hardship

  2. 10.9.17 Hi Kirsty, Fascinated to come across this article.
    My Name is Geoffrey Walker Graham-parents (Arch Graham & Margaret Graham (nee Walker).
    My mother was the daughter of Pat Walker & Nettie Harris so Tom Harris-your grandfather, was my grand uncle.
    As a full-time performer -one of my shows is Voices of War:An Anzac story and in October I fly to Israel to take part in the Beersheba reenactment, that includes riding across the desert for 4 days and partaking in the Light horse charge at Beersheba.

    Nurses is a favourite topic of mine for many reasons-(My mother also was a nurse)-also interested in our family involvement in WWI.
    I live in Eaglehawk (Bendigo)and this Wednesday, I travel to Yass for a festival—via Tumut to connect with any Hariss people still in the area.
    Love to make contact with you
    Geoffrey
    GWG 0412 725 470 geoffrey@dinkumoz.com.au

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