Kitty’s War » Kitty’s War by Janet Butler

Kitty's War by Janet Butler
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Kitty’s War
Janet Butler
UQP; Nonfiction/History; $32.95

Officers of the Great War believed that nurses were a nuisance on the battlefield, fearing sexual liaisons between them and the men would undermine discipline. Refusing to acknowledge the enormous contributions to the war effort these women made, some ignored their presence, addressing any orders or comments to the (male) orderlies, which of course created discipline problems for the more highly qualified nursing staff. This happened in the early years of the war when nurses were considered “honorary officers”— not given actual rank. By 1916, the AIF, following the Canadian model, gave their nurses rank and allowed them to wear the insignia denoting it on their uniforms—though it never paid the women as much as any male of the same military status.
Janet Butler uncovers a fascinating history in Kitty’s War in which she is particularly preoccupied with society’s expectations for the “ministering angels” of WWI, and the nurses’ changing perceptions of their own roles, as observed in the diaries they kept. Kit McNaughton, from rural Victoria, was one of very few women allowed to go to war on the SS Orsova in 1915. She cared for the Gallipoli wounded on Lemnos Island, then was sent to France for the casualties of the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, completing her service as Australia’s first plastic surgery nurse. Like those of many other Australian nurses, Kit’s story is one of heart-breaking sacrifice, discrimination and petty officialdom, and broken personal health.
Some readers may find Butler’s academic approach, with references to other researchers, irritating. However I did not find this too intrusive, and, unlike some works that evolve from universities, the writing style is accessible to all and the subject matter so engrossing, this book should have a wide readership. It would be a timely read for or around ANZAC day.

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