‘Digger Nurses on the Western Front, 1916-1919’

I have been reading this book by Rosemary Lancaster about Australian women who travelled, lived and worked in France from 1880 to 1945. It is wonderfully interesting and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I was going to do a full review when I’d finished it but last night I read the chapter on the WWI nurses who went to France and worked in unbelievable conditions and under horrendous stress to deliver the best medical care as they’d been trained to do. In fact, Australia was a world leader in educating and training nurses at this time and many of the ‘digger’ nurses had a hard time convincing doctors from other Allied countries of the dangers their ‘old’ ways posed for the soldiers.

This chapter was completely absorbing. It meanders through the experiences of six or so nurses whose diaries mostly lie languishing in archives. In fact, and I didn’t know this, the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) sent 1,716 nurses overseas during the war but there were others who volunteered with the Red Cross (see one of my first history lecturers, Melanie Oppenheimer’s All Work No Pay. Australian Civilian Volunteers in War(Walcha, 2002)), others who joined foreign medical bodies and others still who joined Britain’s military nursing corps. Twenty-five died. Nurses are always added to the lists of serving, but the impression I always got was that there weren’t really many of them and we are just including them to be inclusive. In fact, the experiences of the nurses could easily be compared to the soldiers’ – where soldiers spent an enormous amount of time waiting for battles, nurses dealt with huge numbers of casualties day in day out (Ethel Gray lists 8091 admitted and over 660 operations in one month alone), constant relocating of the hospitals away from or towards the front as it moved, shelling that meant having to decide whether to move seriously ill men or leave them to fate, and often staying with them to wait it out. They had one day off a week and two weeks of leave every six months, but often these breaks were not taken as there was just too much work. They lived in tents and huts or were sometimes billeted in nearby villages. They had to carry all they needed with them when they moved, which meant if they couldn’t get help to lug mattresses or blankets or washbasins they were left behind. They never knew where they were being sent to next and moved so often that their precious mail from home often never arrived. They knew the importance of cleanliness to ward off disease but struggled to get water and in winter it, along with the ink they were using to write their diaries, was frozen solid.

Lancaster includes a lengthy quote from Edna Nicholls that explains so evocatively the experience of just a few hours in “a tumble of broken sentences, in which facts, figures and emotions indiscriminately merge” (p. 74). It starts:

By 9.0 a.m. hut full again. 8 Patients had not had their injection of ATS given, so proceeded with the needle after giving them Tea and some bread and butter. By this time the guns were getting closer to us – civilians passing with their carts of furniture; big guns and lorries going towards Corbie – Water scarcity – two water carts went for water but did not return – Patients thirsty, dressing scarce, food scarce…

I think I will return and return to this chapter. Lancaster’s use of the diaries is just perfect and lets the women tell their story themselves. Their experiences are well supported with detail from other sources, but it is the diaries that make the chapter come alive.

Well worth reading.


Lancaster, R. (2008) JeSuis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945, UWA Press, Crawley.

2 Responses to “‘Digger Nurses on the Western Front, 1916-1919’”
  1. Just found your blog and like it. I am just putting a diary about the hospitals in WWI. My father was in the Medical Corp as a male nurse and this is his diary from the time he inlisted until he returned home from France in 1920. It will take several days to get it on but do check it out. oumapetts.wordpress.com

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