Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Sisters in a Distant Land: The Exploration of Identity and Travel through Three New Zealand Nurses' Diaries from the Great War

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Sisters in a Distant Land: The Exploration of Identity and Travel through Three New Zealand Nurses' Diaries from the Great War

Article excerpt

Introduction

What do we, as historians, know about New Zealand nursing experiences during the Great War? The answer is 'very little'. There is no single work dedicated to New Zealand nurses who served on the frontlines, unlike their Australian, British, and Canadian counterparts. Very little is also mentioned about them in World War I (WWI) historiography. Steps have been taken in recent years to introduce nursing into the national memory of the war, but these attempts have been stylised and gendered to a certain extent, never reflecting a well-rounded representation of a nurse's experience. Soldiers have been attributed with forging the Anzac identity on the hills of Gallipoli, but the nurses who served in the hospital wards, in casualty clearing stations, or on hospital ships have been neglected. The under-utilised accounts of three New Zealand nurses, Louisa Higginson, Mildred Salt, and Fanny Helena Speedy, shed light on their contribution within shaping the broader Anzac identity and demonstrate that the often neglected role of the nurses during the war was significant in establishing a name for New Zealand separate from their colonial identity.

As a part of the British Empire, imperialism permeated all sectors of Aotearoa/New Zealand's society, shaping the identity of its citizens. This was reflected in the nurses' writing. All three nurses wrote about their interactions with the British public and the 'native' people of Egypt, particularly emphasising the difference between being a 'colonial' in the eyes of the British and a 'colonial' from their own perspective. Their interactions highlight the change in traditional gender expectations in British society during the Great War period, with women breaking away from the restrictions of Victorian life. Travel was one of these new freedoms, and, just as for male soldiers, war could give nurses the opportunity to travel to the heart of the British Empire or other exotic places. Travel was a significant experience for Higginson, Salt, and Speedy, featuring heavily in their diary entries. At times the nurses' diaries read more as travel memoirs than the accounts of their medical experience. Having the ability to travel for leisure for months at a time was something only readily accessible to the wealthy prior to the war. Travel allowed nurses to escape the horrors they faced in the wards and enabled independence, a change in scenery, and the ability to establish a new sense of normality.

Louisa Higginson, Mildred Salt, and Fanny Helena Speedy represent a small sample of professional nurses who trained in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the early twentieth century, with their pre-war life shaping their experiences during the Great War. Born in 1884 in the Waikato, Louisa Higginson was the youngest of the three nurses. Trained in Hamilton and gaining qualification in 1910, Higginson worked as a Sister and Matron at a number of hospitals before the outbreak of war (State Examination of Nurses, 1910). At age 30, Louisa Higginson paid her own way to Britain to nurse soldiers, embarking on February 26, 1915. It took some time in London before Higginson was attached to the British Red Cross and stationed in the Middle East. She was then attached to the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserves (QAIMNSR or QA) for the remainder of her war service, having the title of 'Acting Matron' attached to her name by the end of the war (Higginson, personnel file). Born in Wellington in 1873, Sister Fanny Helena Speedy gained her qualification in 1905 and worked at Wellington Hospital prior to the war. At age 42, Speedy was one of the first 50 nurses to embark for service on April 8, 1915 on SS Rotorua. The first nine weeks of Speedy's diary are missing; the account of her experiences of nursing begins in Egypt attending to soldiers in the latter stages of the Gallipoli campaign. For her services during the war, Speedy was awarded the Royal Red Cross before she was discharged from service in June 1919 (Speedy, personnel file). …

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