Australian Nurses at Deolali

“Delolali [sic] is a Hill Station, & is a five hours run from Bombay,” wrote Sister Ella McLean in July 1917, newly arrived in India from Queensland. Likening the country to the ranges of Toowoomba back home, she told the canon of her church in Brisbane that she had seen the extraordinary sight of “a native” ploughing, “knee-deep in mud & water.” “It’s no wonder they get malaria,” she remarked. Established in the 1860s for British soldiers in transit, Deolali (‘Doolally’) cantonment was already a byword for the derangement brought on by malarial mosquitoes, heat, and most crucially, excruciating boredom.13 “The only relief,” writes military historian M.A. Martin, “was the nearby town of Nasik.” Nasik (Nashik), one of the holiest Hindu cities, was also “famous for its gin parlours and brothels,” due no doubt in large part to the location of the army camp, and known as a hotbed for venereal disease.14 It is unlikely, however, that McLean was aware of that aspect when she told the cleric about the village: “There are Temples, & Caves & all sorts of old & wonderful things here. We are going up one day when we come off night Duty.”15

McLean had been despatched along with a number of other Australian nurses to replace the Welsh nurses at the 34th Welsh General Hospital at Deolali (with accommodation for between three thousand and five thousand patients, and a smaller isolation hospital, the 44th British General Hospital, nearby).16 Australian nurses had been arriving in India since July 1916, in response to a request from the Indian colonial government for nurses to replace those of the British imperial service, Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service in India, who were being sent on to the Mesopotamian front (in present-day Iraq).17 But the Australian nurses in India—some 450 to 500 women in the end—were often disappointed not to be going to the front themselves.18 Their resentment was reflected in rumours circulating within the AANS that the British believed that

Australians were better able to withstand the testing climate and diseases than their own countrywomen, and that this was the reason they had been sent for.19 Feeling that they were somehow being put on a par with Indian colonial subjects, the Australian nurses also bridled at their perceived subordination to Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs—local staff trained in first aid only). This was a tension that featured wherever the Australian nurses were employed, but it took on a particularly racialised inflection in India where the local “temporary nurses” who remained were typically Eurasian girls and women.20 If the nurses sent to India were not envied, however, the nurses who went to Deolali were especially pitied by their compatriots. “I wish I could get on to Egypt where our own boys are,” one of the nurses who had come on the same ship as Ella McLean had written wistfully, before consoling herself that at least she had remained in Bombay rather than going on to Deolali with the others—“I am glad I am here instead of serving the Turks.”21

The hospital at Deolali catered primarily to sick and wounded prisoners of war (POWs) captured on the Mesopotamian front and destined for POW camps in India.22 Described uniformly as Turkish, these were Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire from what was then known as Greater Syria, comprising present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. While Australian nurses generally disliked nursing enemy patients, and openly demonstrated their antipathy to Turkish patients elsewhere in India, it seems that caring relationships developed between the Australian nurses and their POW patients at Deolali.23 Nurse Bessie Hooper described the Turkish patients as “grateful, and clean and immaculate.” She told her friends at home, with a somewhat defensive pride, that “If you could see some of the cases, you would say Gallipoli has been avenged,” and argued that the nurses’ famed kindness to these patients encouraged their comrades at the front to change sides and join the British.24 Ettie Richards, another nurse at Deolali, compared the prisoners to Australian schoolboys in their eagerness for cigarette cards and pictures of English girls. When they were sent away to the prison camps, they “cried like children,” and one of them, a particular favourite with the nurses called Doosan, “demonstrated his affection for an Australian nurse by wearing a snapshot of her over his heart.”25 Such accounts belie cross-cultural antagonism as an easy explanation for the Deolali affair. But in any case, it would not be the nature of the nurses’ relationships with their Turkish patients that would be called into question (Fig. 5.2).

Turkish prisoners, patients at No. 34 Welsh Hospital Deolali Maharastra India ca.1917. (Annie Sims Album, Pierce Collection, John Oxley Library, SLQ.)

Fig. 5.2 Turkish prisoners, patients at No. 34 Welsh Hospital Deolali Maharastra India ca.1917. (Annie Sims Album, Pierce Collection, John Oxley Library, SLQ.)

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