Australian Nurses in the First World War

Up to three thousand Australian military nurses—members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS)—served overseas in diverse locations, including England, Europe, the Middle East and India, and in almost every theatre of war, as well as staffing hospital and transport ships in the Mediterranean.4 The Australian nurses’ experience of the war was a distinctly transnational one, but also, as Kirsty Harris has observed, one that was “in stark contrast” to that of their male compatriots. While the men of the Australian Imperial Force spent their working military lives largely in the company of fellow Australians, the AANS nurses’ everyday interactions with nurses from other allied forces and servants and assistants at different locations, and their work tending wounded men from many countries, took them “completely outside the bounds of Australian culture.” It was a confronting experience for many, raised as they were on “a diet of White Australia propaganda.”5

The other challenge faced by the Australian military nurses was their subjection to military law and authority.6 Expected to conform to military discipline and etiquette, the Australian nurses found the demand that, as honorary military officers, they were not to socialise with non-commissioned officers or privates, nor even speak with them if not on duty, especially irksome.7 This insistence upon non-fraternisation arguably reflected unease within the military regime about single, mobile young women living and working among soldiers. Feminist scholars have argued that the nurse, tending to the intimate bodily care of incapacitated men, occupied an ambivalent space in wartime discourse, reflected in the persistent tension between the binary representation of war nurses as angelic and nun-like, or predatory and seductive.8 With the latter referring to prewar anxieties about educated and modern women, the nurses themselves preferred to adhere to the chaste identity of loving sister to their patients in their own self-representation, as Katie Holmes discerns in the writings of Australian nurses.9 A grievance against the non-fraternisation rule raised in the Australian parliament was couched in such terms—“The nurses were not allowed to walk even with their brothers”—and the language of sisterly devotion to brothers is striking in positive representations of Australian nurses across the board.10 The eruption of the Deolali affair would reveal the unsustainability of that rhetorical defence, when nurses worked with men who were clearly not their blood relatives.11

That rumours and gossip about the Australian nurses circulated both at home and abroad is beyond doubt, and nurses were at times sent back in disgrace, but few traces are left to the historian.12 Public scandals involving Australian nurses are non-existent. The Deolali incident, itself covered up by the authorities, provides us with a rare glimpse into the profound anxieties and instabilities that surrounded the wartime deployment of white Australian nurses within other, non-white, colonial spaces.

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