Discussions: Professor Rae Frances

Dad's on the line busy fighting

Professor Rae Frances has written and co-authored many books relating to women at war both at the battlefront as nurses or back at the homefront organizing things to be sent to the soldiers.

She looked at some artefacts lent to the university for the 100 stories project. These were:

  • letters written by a matron and sent home to a dead soldier’s mother
  • medal sent by government to mother of soldier who was killed
  • instructions for knitting socks

Many historians used the term  ’emotional labour’ to describe the work done by women to help their sons, husbands, fathers who were at the battlefront.

Many Australian nurses were disillusioned with the “Mother country” (Britain) where they saw stuffy and pompous people and a society where there were different classes. Yes Sir, No Sir from the British while the Aussies were more larrikins. They also wanted the wide open spaces of Australia instead of the cramped, manicured areas of Britain. They were now longing for Australia as their nation rather than Britain. They could see the positive sides of living in Australia rather than in the “old country” of England.

Nursing also became more of a profession from WW1 where opportunities to do surgeries and provide  anaesthetics were given to nurses. But upon returning from war, nurses also suffered from what we now term PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. Some nurses who survived the war also returned to civilian life and began Nursing Unions as they now had more skills learnt on the battlefield.

Back on the homefront, it was often the middle class women who organized ways for women to help their soldiers who were fighting. Women in many factories around the country ran programs to make comfort packages, raised funds both in and out of their factories but would often come back during the evening to work voluntarily to make more clothing for the troops.

This was also a time for women to show their initiative, travel broadly and begin careers that would last them through their lifetime. Some women who were opposed to women’s rights (they thought they should be staying at home looking after the husband and family) now started speaking out about conscription and changing their view of the women’s roles in the modern world.

Sex was something not spoken about by governments or army officials which is probably why Ettie Rout was disliked by many. Yet her prophylactic kits and safe brothels certainly allowed soldiers to feel more comfortable about having sex during wartime. It also helped families when soldiers returned home and they didn’t have any sexually transmitted diseases. Australian men, being the furthest from home, were more likely to get VD than the British, where men on leave could go home to their families.

Readers: Were we a class-less society here in Australia before World War 1?

Week 2: Women at war

"Tev on Greek Donk"

Creative Commons License ThruTheseLines via Compfight

Back when I was teaching, there was a great resource in schools about women at war. I used it often as it had links to many primary resources as well as interesting questions for researching.

This week our course looks at just this topic. Again we have the silent videos to watch and comment upon.

The first four videos look at women mobilized at the battlefront.

  • Racheal Pratt who lived through the war but because of injury, it followed her until her death.
  • Evelyn (Tev) Davies who had such a positive outlook both during and after the war
  • Elsie Tranter tells us about the final moments of war
  • Narrelle Hobbes nearly made it home after 4 years surviving the war

My Reflection

The four stories show dedication to the profession of nursing. All four nurses would have had terrible memories of what they were seeing or what happened to them. The most compelling to me was that of Racheal Pratt while researching more of Tev Davies I could see her positive side coming through in her images as well as her letters.

The second group of videos looks at women’s unpaid labour during the Great War

There were over 10000 societies created in Australia and New Zealand during early war time to help send comfort to the men at the battlefront. All this work was done voluntarily and without it, the war could not have been won says one historian. Women were empowered during this time period, especially when the conscription debate started. They also travelled to the home country to help out “our boys” from there.

  • Ettie Rout – sexual health reformer behind the battlelines
  • Lizzie Armstrong – masseuse and tour guide organizer
  • Hilda Williams – civilian nurse who died after the armistice
  • Mary Chomley – looking after POWs through the Red Cross

 My Reflection

To me the most compelling was that of Nurse Hilda Williams – a civilian who volunteered when she probably knew there was a chance she would die. But I was also extremely inspired with Ettie for thinking ahead to what life was going to be like for these men and their families when they returned home with VD and other sexual diseases. Mary and Lizzie were very impressive with their efficiency and organization skills.

Readers: Have you heard of other experiences perhaps closer to home of women at war? There must be many unsung women heroes who stayed at home to do their part.