forcesTo what extent were Australian and American female nurses treated as professionals in the armed forces?
We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and not to a partnership of privilege and right? U.S President Wilson, September 1918
My research for this essay showed that although there were similarities between American and Australian attitudes towards female nurses serving in their armed forces, some elements of the American War Department were more reluctant in allowing female nurses to serve as part of the armed forces in World War One.
The different types of sources consulted were useful for different purposes. For example, the Australian Defence Department website (See Web Reference 3) although very detailed, suffers the expected bias due to it being written and published by the nursing corps of the current Australian Army. I also discovered that it was essential to distinguish between different parts of the armed forces because in some instances, like the case of the US War Department and the US Army, they had conflicting views on female nurses serving in World War One.
This essay shows that there was a temporary marked change in each country towards the attitude of female nurses participating in the armed forces as the war progressed. However, after the conclusion of World War One, whilst they had earned respect for the nursing profession, their contribution was still not enough to admit them into the armed forces on a permanent basis.
The establishment of the Australian Army Nursing Service in New South Wales in 1898 (Adam-Smith, 1984, 16), and in America the creation of the Army Nursing Corps in 1901 (Bullough & Sentz, 2000, 77) opened the door for women to take part in some areas of the military, but only slightly. The outbreak of World War One was the major factor in the change of attitude towards nurses participating in the armed forces. Nurses were to become the most significant section of American and Australian women that directly took part in the war away from home.
World War One was the most significant opportunity for nurses and other groups of women to have direct involvement in public, national affairs and not just indirect private family matters as it used to be. World War One was the first time on a large scale that gave women the opportunity to choose either direct or indirect involvement.
The history of modern nursing stems from the pioneer work of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) who turned nursing into a respected profession and vocation. She also reformed hospital sanitation methods. (Cohen, 1997, 128) She worked for a year as an unpaid superintendent of a London establishment for gentlewomen during illness,(Cohen, 1997, 130) until she and 38 other nurses were recruited for service in the Crimean War. This was the first time women were introduced to work as part of a military hospital during wartime.
The change in the attitude towards female nurses and the respect they had earned by the end of World War One did not come easy. In Australia, the Federal Government was quick to create the first unit of nurses, who were to staff medical units overseas. To begin with, this brought much initial criticism from senior officers who preferred to train male soldiers as male nursing orderlies rather than female nurses. (See Web Reference 1) A primary source document of a comment for public consumption by the Director of Medical Services at the time, Major General Howse said,
The female nurse (as a substitute for the fully trained male nursing orderly) did little towards the actually saving of life in waralthough she might promote a more rapid and complete recovery. (See Web Reference 1)
In addition to this, female doctors were not allowed to join the medical services as a doctor because it was a widespread thought that women were too delicate to handle what they would face in a war-type situation. (See Web Reference 2)
Whereas the Australian Government rushed to enlist nurses quickly, when America joined the war effort, only some parts of the Federal Government supported the use of women power. The sources show that there wasnt an agreement between the US War Department and the US Army and Navy. On the one hand, the Army requested that the War department enlist women as clerks as well as nurses but this was constantly denied. The Army was as quickly as possible trying to figure out how to bypass the bureaucratic red tape to enlist women nurses. (Bullough and Sentz, 2000, 88) On the other hand the US War Department showed a lack of enthusiasm on letting nurses serve in the Army. Therefore the fate of women nurses depended upon who out of the Army and War Department would be the prevailing authority. Ultimately, nurses were the only group of women, who did serve in the US Army during World War One. (Bullough and Sentz, 2000, 88)
The US War Department seemed to be out of date in being reluctant to allow the Army to enlist women nurses. But the Navy and Marine Corps ignored the War Department. They quickly enlisted women who were given the same status as men. These were the first women in America admitted to some military rank and status.
However when World War One ended they were quickly ushered out of the service. (Bullough and Sentz, 2000, 89) This narrow-mindedness shown by some groups opposed to women taking part in the war was an attitude that would soon change shortly after the conclusion of World War One.
Now that female nurses had been recruited and ready to serve, it was the decision of the respective military authority where the nurses would serve. Australian nurses were eager to serve, and in total there were 2,319 Australian nurses who served overseas in places like Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Lemnos, Salonika, Egypt, Italy and Vladivostok. (Web Reference 2) Another 423 nurses served home in Australia. (Web Reference 1 and 3) The atrocities some of these nurses had to face was something a lot of people, both men and women, had a hard time dealing with yet they continued ruthlessly and tirelessly. This contributed to the nurses cause of having the old, outdated opinions changed. America only joined World War One in 1917 but with it came the contribution of some 30,000 nurses (Bullough and Sentz, 2000, 94) willing and eager to help in any way and served in Belgium, Italy, England and on troop trains and transport ships. (Bullough and Sentz, 2000, 94)
In both cases as the war progressed, the nurses were given more responsibility and authority. This showed that in the end their participation had not only been recognised as competent, but vital to the war effort. Although probably not evident to the American citizens, previous old-fashioned views on female nurses were changing during the course of the War, but this was not to last.
Prior to World War One, the stereotype view of a woman was the one of being a mother and a housewife, utterly feminine and delicate. (See Web Reference 2) However, World War One was seen as the opportunity for women to take on job positions that had been left vacant by the men who went to serve in the war. (Barker, 1989, 27) These women were encouraged to be tough, strong, and not afraid to get their hands dirty. For the time being, it was as if the idea of being feminine was tossed out the window, old fashioned and inappropriate during war.
The role that female nurses had to play was an ambivalent one. They had the most difficult job of all women, physically and emotionally. On one hand, they worked diligently cleaning wounds, performing minor surgery, administering treatments and frequently doing heavy physical labour. They had to face living in appalling conditions, usually understaffed with minimal supplies. Then there was also the constant fighting off of exhaustion and contagious diseases, which was rife due to poor hygiene. On the other hand, nurses were still expected to play the old stereotypical role that women prior to World War One had. That is, feminine, cheerful and a mother-like figure to every patient. (Barker, 1989, 35)
Through the Wars Great Curse
Stands the Red Cross Nurse
Shes the Rose of No-mans Land. (P Adam-Smith, 1984, 16)
Playing this dual role in the short term helped the nurses cause of fighting off the image of just simply being glorified first aid workers and turned nursing into a well-respected vocation for the duration of the war, but not a permanent profession for peace time.
Historians must always be careful not to treat people as only anonymous members of a group, but also as individuals. I consulted an individual primary source document of a diary entry by an Australian nurse. Sister Alice Ross-King, MM (Military Medal), AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) was awarded the Military Medal for her bravery when her casualty clearing station came under aerial attack in 1918. She recorded her experience after she returned home (Cochrane, 1996, 69):
I seemed to be the only living thing aboutI kept calling for the orderly to help me and thought he was funking, but the poor boy had been blown to bitsI had my right arm under a leg which I thought was his but when I lifted I found to my horror that it was a loose leg with a boot and a putty on it. one of the orderlys legs which had been blown off and had landed on the patients bed. Next day they found the trunk up a tree about 20 yards away. (Cochrane, 1996, 68, 69)
Because nurses shared similar personal experiences of the soldiers during wartime, they were highly valuable in the eyes of soldiers and were respected as professionals even if it was only for a short period of time.
Unfortunately despite the majority of Government and military authorities who had changed their attitude towards nurses, there were still a minority whose attitude had remained unchanged. Despite the heroism displayed by Australian Nurses in World War One, their names were not recorded on war memorials for they were not combatants.(Cochrane, 1996, 69) This seemed unjust as they were excluded from the heritage of battle. (Cochrane, 1996, 69) It was not until 2nd October 1999 that an Australian Service Nurses National Memorial was unveiled in Anzac Parade, Canberra. (See Web Reference 4) It took 100 years for Australian Nurses who had served and suffered in every major conflict Australia had been involved in to gain service recognition. (Web Reference 4)
During World War One, the American Army petitioned the US War Department for women to become a permanent part of the military. When hostilities ceased on November 11, 1918, plans for women to become part of the military were scrapped by the US War Department. (Bullough & Sentz, 2000, 91) World War One opened the door temporarily for women to become part of the military but it was another twenty three years before women were again remotely considered as part of the United States military establishment. (Bullough & Sentz, 2000, 91)
It wasnt until after the end of World War One with soldiers returning home that it was realised how important the contribution of nurses was. There had been resistance by Australian medical officers in the beginning to nurses even joining the medical corps, let alone serve in base hospitals. (Adam-Smith, 1984, 36) However, sources show that opinions certainly changed after the war. One example of a changed opinion was a primary source document of a comment by Major J.T. Tait, Act. Registrar at No.1 AGH who remarked upon the work of the nurses after the end of the war. The source shows that he was just one of many who had come to respect the work of the nurses:
The outstanding feature of their work through all the vicissitudes of administration was thatthey made it plain that they were there to nurse and care for the sick men, and that duty they were going to do, in spite, if necessary, of rules and regulations and military procedure. (Adam-Smith, 1984, 36)
American women had the support of President Woodrow Wilson who saw how bravely they served on the war front. (Bullough & Sentz, 2000, 104) A speech for public consumption by President Wilson who addressed the US Senate in September 1918, urged the Senators to recognize the contribution made by American women in World War One:
Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give, service and sacrifice of every kind. And still say we do not see what titles that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nations and ours?(Bullough & Sentz, 2000, 105)
Female nurses in both Australia and America during World War One had to struggle in order to change previous attitudes some groups had towards the involvement of women in general taking an active role in some part of the military. These days we not only recognise the importance of male and female soldiers in the war, but also female nurses, who tend to the soldiers in times of sickness and injury. Acting under such adverse conditions, Australian and American nurses proved their dedication to serving their country in times of need; they truly earned the title Front-line angels. (See Web Ref 1) However, though attitudes towards nurses did change during the war, it was only temporary. Their direct involvement in World War One was still not enough in proving that women nurses were capable of serving as a permanent part of the armed forces. (See Web Reference 5)
Bullough, V.L & Sentz, L. American Nursing, a biographical dictionary. Vol I. 2000, Springer, New York
Barker, M. Nightingales in the Mud: The Digger Sisters of The Great War 1914-1918, 1989, Allen and Unwin, Sydney
Cohen, I.B. Florence Nightingale, 1997, Springer, New York
Cochrane, P Australians at War
AdamSmith, P Australian Women at War 1984, Thomas Nelson Australia, Hong Kong