Major General John Caligari - Book Launch 'More than Bombs and Bandages'
2 March 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to assist in the launch the book by Dr Kirsty Harris titled “More than Bombs and Bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War One”, which has resulted from her research, doctoral thesis, and been the subject of the CEW Bean Prize for Military History.
I was always interested to read a book about nursing in World War One as I am enthralled by Australian history, but in particular, military history, and have a close association with nursing, my wife being a Registered Nurse. But as I read Kirsty’s book, I appreciated more and more how the vantage point that she had taken gave a whole new perspective on the personal realities of war - the human suffering characteristic of war. We soldiers often talk about campaigns and battles but seldom get specific on the detail of human suffering. For us it tends to be all about tactics and strategy, numbers killed and wounded, amount of ground taken and lost, especially in World War One.
So the further I read, the more fascinated I became.
The outbreak of World War One in 1914 prompted the Australian Government to offer medical services – including nurses from Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS)– to its British counterpart. The offer was accepted and Australian nurses accompanied the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) overseas to the battlegrounds of World War One. At least 2,286 – and possibly as many as 3,000 – AANS members served overseas. AANS nurses served in locations as diverse asEnglandandIndia(includingBurma, modernPakistanand the North-West Frontier) and almost every theatre of war. They were spread over a vast area extending from the coast of the Dardanelles inTurkey, toGreece,Egypt(including the Sinai) andPalestine,France,Belgium,Germany, South Persia andItaly. Australian nurses also served British hospital and transport ships in the Mediterranean running toBasraand toGerman East Africa. The AANS worked in Australian military hospitals and in those of the British, Canadian, Indian, and South African services. They were present in 192 different locations and in 39 ships. At least 388 nurses were decorated, several of them winning military nursing’s highest honour, the Royal Red Cross. Other distinctions included the Military Medal and civilian awards from host and foreign countries.
To put the work load in perspective, in the Great War there were over 323,000 Australians either sick or wounded which is a number that is greater than the total number of AIF soldiers who embarked from Australia. So accounting for those who reported twice, there would not have been very few soldiers who did not experience the work of the nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service. My great-grandfather and my wife’s great uncle amongst them.
As I read the book, I found my thoughts wandering off to my own family history. My family had relatives involved in World War One, but I had not thought past the battles that they might have been involved in. My great-grandfather was wounded in Francein World War One and spent a significant amount of time in hospital. My wife’s great uncle (Lieutenant David Brown) was wounded at the Somme and after several days in hospital, died in the 1stAustralian GeneralHospital inRouen inFrance, having won a Military Cross as a mortar platoon commander. It struck me that while we are all proud of their efforts and sacrifice, we were perhaps deliberately not conscious of the human suffering and the conditions these men and women had to endure while the war continued. Nor did we naturally contemplate the service provided by the AANS in tending to the wounds and illnesses of Australian soldiers.
This book is at times a ‘gut-wrenching’ examination of the Australian Army Nursing Service in World War One. It is a well researched and presented view of life in the Australian Army Nursing Service and shows that nurses did much more for the war effort than just nurse. Much of the effort required to successfully recuperate a wounded soldier relied on non-clinical and non-nursing skills and tasks. Their roles included counsellor, protector, facilitator, and surrogate parent or sibling for the wounded. The distinction between civilian and military roles is that these non-combatants in a war zone often found themselves undertaking the activities and responsibilities of visitors, relatives and ladies hospital auxiliaries who were commonly found in hospitals in Australia. In most cases, it was these additional duties in combination with the professional nursing that saved the soldiers lives rather than the necessary medical attention offered by the doctors. British surgeon R. Campbell believed that “blankets, warm soup and cigarettes were more important than our crude surgery” (p.108). And clearly many doctors recognised the importance of the basics of “blood, and the pan and cloth” (p. 7). Fever, shock and post operation treatment for example were almost entirely the nurses’ province.
A telling example of the power of the nurse is given in the book in the story of a nurse named Kitty McNaughton who saved the life of a soldier from her own town whom she recognised in the mortuary, a place where soldiers were commonly left to die. She had him removed to the operating theatre for treatment, and made sure he was nursed back to health. He eventually survived his wounds.
Expertly researched by Dr Kirsty Harris, a military historian whose grandmother was a World War One nurse, it is evidence rich and personal. She draws on personal and hospital diaries, interviews, service records and autobiographies. The book offers an empirical and statistical examination of unexplored sources and establishes an alternate view to the stereotypical view of nurses ‘devotion to duty’ or public view of the ‘angel of mercy’.
In summary, “More than Bombs and Bandages” exposes the false assumption that military nurses only nursed. Based on Kirsty Harris' CEW Bean Prize winning PhD thesis, this is a book that is far removed from the 'devotion to duty' stereotyping, offering an intriguing and sometimes emotion stirring insight into the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War One. At the heart of this book is the detailed examination of the transformation of the World War One Australian nurse from civilian to military nurse and the evolution of military nursing.
To conclude, may I also thank Blue Sky Publishing and the Australian Army History Unit (AAHU) for their support of this most worthwhile project. And finally, may I once again congratulate Dr Kirsty Harris on her splendid book.