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Australian Nurses and the 1918 Deolali Inquiry: Transcolonial Racial and Gendered Anxieties in a British Indian War Hospital

Victoria K. Haskins

Over two long hot Indian summer days in May 1918, a military court of enquiry at Deolali considered allegations of immorality against Australian army nurses working at a large British military hospital there. Colonel Thomas Young Seddon, the commandant of the army camp nearby, brought forward a witness to testify to various improper relations between the nurses and soldiers, but the most incendiary charge was the claim that one nursing sister had actually been seen lying on the ground of a tent, in the arms of a low-caste Hindu attendant. The court of three high-ranking British military officers found all the allegations unfounded and exonerated the women involved, but the humiliated and indignant nurses, supported by the Principal Matron for the Australian nurses in India based in Bombay, Gertrude Davis, agitated for redress. The Director-General of the Australian Army Medical Service, Major-General Richard Fetherston, investigated the proceedings and concluded that the commandant had seized upon unreliable evidence in retaliation for an incident in which two other nurses had socialised with a non-commissioned officer in contravention of the rules of rank. Fetherston recommended that Seddon’s

V.K. Haskins (*)

University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_5

superior, District Commanding Officer General Knight (who called the enquiry), should be censured for “not assisting and protecting nurses under his charge,” and that Seddon—who had been placed on leave— should have been dismissed.1

There is no evidence of any further action. The whole matter was suppressed by the British-Indian and the Australian governments at the time, and, as nursing historian Ruth Rae has shown, was omitted from histories of Australia’s involvement in the First World War for many decades.2 Accounts of the enquiry emerged from the early 1990s in histories ofAustralian war nurses, concurring that the nurses were wrongly and indeed unjustly accused as a result of a combination of mutual cultural misunderstandings and British snobbishness.3 In this chapter, I argue the episode’s larger significance resides in the rupture in imperial gender and sexual politics it represented, a clash over the issue of white women’s agency that was produced by the peculiar transcolonial conditions of the British imperial war effort (Fig. 5.1).

Four Australian nurses seated with officers, No. 34 Welsh Hospital, Deolali, Maharashtra, India, ca.1917. (Annie Sims Album, Pierce Collection, John Oxley Library, SLQ.)

Fig. 5.1 Four Australian nurses seated with officers, No. 34 Welsh Hospital, Deolali, Maharashtra, India, ca.1917. (Annie Sims Album, Pierce Collection, John Oxley Library, SLQ.)

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