Review Blog

Jun 18 2013

Kitty's war by Janet Butler

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Queensland University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780702249679.
Recommended. Biography. Memoirs. This book tells the story of Kit McNaughton, a nurse in World War I. It describes the conditions that nurses lived under in the pre-war years, the restrictions that female nurses endured and their position in society. Kit was a 'country girl' and the freedom and excitement of being on a troop ship, dining with the officers and enjoying the privilege that only rich people could usually afford, was heady indeed. Then came the arrival in Egypt, the experience of a change in culture and the life of the Egyptian people. Nurses were volunteers and didn't accept the British discipline very well. At this stage of the story there is more mention of visiting the Pyramids and Sphinx than the care and nursing of the wounded. Perhaps she didn't want to dwell on this as she was still in a state of excitement of being overseas.
Later she does describe the poor facilities, the hardships the wounded endured and the delay in getting them medical attention as they arrived in huge numbers.
On Lemnos Island, the hospital consisted of tents. The weather was freezing and the island was wind swept, causing the tents to collapse. This was bad for the nurses, but much worse for the wounded. The nurses didn't complain about the bad conditions - limited food, clothes and accommodation - as they believed they had to handle them, as did the troops. In addition to the abysmal conditions, the men were also wounded. This side of the war was not mentioned in the diaries of the nurses. As the nurses did not hold the rank of an officer, a difficult situation emerged where the nurses were unable to give instructions to male orderlies working with them - despite the fact they had three years nursing experience and the orderlies had only three months.
I have read much about the action on the front lines and the trenches but this story has been a real eye-opener.
Kit goes by troop ship to Marseilles and on shore there was little to do until the nurses went to a hospital to look after wounded German prisoners. She is eventually sent north to an English hospital where things were difficult - as the British nurses were attached to the Military - unlike our Australian volunteers. She is later stationed at an Australian Casualty clearing station, where the conditions are appalling. At this point, she is writing less of what she is doing in her diary. A lot of friends she has made along the way are being wounded or killed. The war is taking its toll on her health and the diary rarely mentions her nursing duties.
We eventually read of her trip back to Australia, her arrival in Melbourne and the subsequent parade. Her health is failing and she is on leave until she recovers. She then works in the Caulfield Military Hospital for a time, before going home to Werribee and marrying a farmer.
I was especially interested at this point, as my maternal Grandmother nursed the soldiers at this same hospital after the war.
I highly recommend this book to students of Australian war history, of the history of Nursing, and to anyone who is interested in Australians at war.
Bob Quinton

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