Writing 'Kitty’s War'

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This is a guest post by historian Janet Butler about her recently published book, ‘Kitty’s War’, which is about Australian WW1 nurse Kitty McNaughton. Janet is an Honorary Associate in the History Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Nurse Uncut has two copies of her book to give away – read on…

Kitty McNaughton and I grew up in the same quiet district of drystone walls and wheat fields, bluestone schools and meandering creeks near the You Yang ranges in Victoria, though we were generations apart. I found Kit’s name and that of her cousin Sadie McIntosh on our local Memorial Gates. The nurses were out of alphabetical order and under the names of the soldiers who were themselves the grandfathers of my school friends.

As I stood before the monument that day, the idea of this unknown woman setting out on a journey which would take her away from the familiarity of neighbourhood and family, across the world and into war took hold of me and would not let me go.

Kit (centre) at No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford 1918 (courtesy Therese Ryan)

All of those who went to war with Kit McNaughton are gone now. Each succeeding generation of Australians is captured by them and has their own questions. Why did they go? What did their going mean for us, as a nation?

I wanted to know that too. But more than that, I wanted to know what it had meant for her. What had happened to her? How had it affected her? And what had it been like, afterwards, to come home? This was the inspiration for the research, which began with a phone call to our local RSL and their answer: ‘McNaughton? I think there is still one McNaughton living in Little River…’ It has ended with the writing of Kitty’s War.

Kitty at left.

Kitty was the granddaughter of a Scottish immigrant, who became a pioneering white settler in the Little River district. Peter McNaughton, her great nephew, still farms the property across the road. Her nephew, John McNaughton, historian of his family and the district, drove with me to look at the places she had known, including the farm at the base of the You Yangs where she had grown up. He introduced me to Kit’s granddaughter, Therese, whom I asked about Kit’s war. I can still hear her saying the words, ‘You know, she kept a diary’.

It is Kit’s diary on which Kitty’s War is based. Researching women has particular difficulties: they are relatively invisible in the official record. The kinds of records we need to turn to are more intimate ones such as letters and diaries. These, however, are exactly the kind that allow us to ask the different questions I was trying to answer – about the meaning of war to an individual and its affect upon them – and through them on our society.

Kit was interviewed and listed as a probationer at Geelong Infirmary and Benevolent Asylum, the hospital in the nearby port and market town, in December 1907 at the age of 24. She was in the first generations of Nightingale nurses. Although she worked for a time as a charge nurse at the hospital in Bairnsdale, like most of her fellow nurses she worked mainly as a private nurse, based in a nurses’ home in Melbourne run by a Lady Superintendent.

As news of the Gallipoli wounded arrived in Australia in 1915, Kit enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She embarked on the Orsova for Egypt in July 1915, nearly missing the boat; she had to run up Station Pier after bidding a fond farewell to the ‘Riverites’ who had come to see her off. It was the beginning of a four-year odyssey which would change forever the way she thought about herself and her world.

The book follows Kit’s journey through war, from Egypt, where she cared for the Gallipoli sick and wounded, to the harsh conditions of Lemnos Island, off the coast of the Dardanelles, and thence to France and the Somme. Here she nursed severely wounded German soldiers for the British : ‘my Huns’, as she called them. During Passchendaele, a year later, she ran the operating theatre of a clearing station near the front line. Kit finished the war as Australia’s first plastic surgery nurse, assisting the discipline’s pioneers as they repaired the shattered faces of Australian soldiers. On her return home, she married the man she had dreamt about on the way to war – Joe Ryan, a Little River farmer.

Kitty’s War allows the reader to see the war through the eyes of this decisive, dryly humorous woman. It also enables them to consider her diary in the light of descriptions of the same events by nurses, doctors and soldiers who served with her. These accounts – letters, diaries, memoirs and reports – were found in private hands and archives across Australia and in England. Amongst other treasures, I found, in the State Library of Victoria, the diary of an orderly who worked with Kit in the operating theatre at Passchendaele, while the Battye Library in Perth provided an oral history of a nurse who served with her in France. Photographs of Kit were found in the albums of other nurses, such as that of Sister Olive Haynes, kept by her daughter in Adelaide.

Together these accounts enable us to build up a picture of daily life in the units in which Kit served. What Kit chooses to say, how she presents herself in her diary and, very importantly, what we discover that she leaves out also tell us important things about Kit, her world and the nature of such accounts.

Along the way, Kitty’s War reveals Kit’s changing sense of herself – as a nurse and a woman, an Australian and a member of the British Empire – in response to her experiences. Kitty’s War offers an intimate perspective of the Australian experience of war and therefore a different kind of knowledge of an iconic episode in Australia’s history: its meaning to those involved. It also sheds fresh light on the topic of friendship at war – this time between the nurses and between the nurses and soldiers – for which a woman’s diary is an unequalled source.

Nurse Uncut has two copies of ‘Kitty’s War’ (University of Queensland Press) to give away to NSWNMA members. To go into the draw, simply send your name and address to: nurseuncut@nswnma.asn.au by May 31, 2013.

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