This is the kind of history I want to read. Thorough research, deep analysis and compelling writing, Kitty’s War by Janet Butler engaged me from cover to cover.
In Kitty’s War author, Janet Butler, does not merely recount what she has learned from the diary of World War I nurse, Kit McNaughton, she interrogates McNaughton’s diary, draws heavily on a myriad of contemporary historical resources and produces a searching analysis of war, gender and the nature of diary writing while maintaining an engrossing narrative.
Kit McNaughton served with the Australian Army Nursing Service from 1915 for the duration of the war. Initially stationed in Egypt, she served on the island of Lemnos treating men injured men at Gallipoli. After the withdrawal from Gallipoli she was transferred to northern France where she served in a number of hospitals in northern France treating enormous numbers of soldiers injured in the horrific battles on the Western Front.
Looking back through my notes in my reading journal I see that I have repeatedly used the word ‘perceptive’. Butler does not take the diary at face value and the book is all the better for it. The chapters about Butler’s service on the island of Lemnos treating soldiers injured at Gallipoli would have been bland if Butler had not dug deeper. Butler is sensitive to the cultural constraints under which the nurses worked. The ideals of a ‘good nurse’ required nurses to be stoic in the face of difficulty, ministering angels only thinking of the needs of the patient and not of their own. McNaughton reflects these ideals in her diary hence she makes little mention of the awful conditions under which she is working. Drawing on other sources Butler allows the reader to understand the context in which McNaughton’s diary is written.
On Lemnos the nurses suffered from lack of warm clothing and inadequate rations. Staffing levels were pitifully poor in face of the tremendous number of injured soldiers they had to treat. Medical staff suffered from diseases due to poor sanitation, diet and accommodation such as dysentery, pneumonia, beriberi and paratyphoid. By the end of the war one fifth of Australian nurses were assessed as ‘medically unfit’ on discharge. McNaughton suffered for the rest of her life from the illnesses she suffered during the war.
Butler’s chapter about Kit McNaughton nursing German prisoners of war in France encapsulates what I want to see in a war history. Just hours before I read this chapter I had written in a comment on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge website, “I want to see a person’s humanity revealed in a book about war, an appreciation of the moral tightrope on which they walk, their frailties as well as their strength of character”. This chapter shows the mixture of antipathy, ambivalence and sympathy McNaughton felt towards the enemy soldiers under her care. It is only while nursing the Germans that McNaughton speaks of the horrific injuries that she sees. Like other nurses in the war she wants to support the Anzac story. Tales of injury and death of Australian soldiers would tarnish this image. However, when she is discussing her work for enemy soldiers she is released from this constraint.
I extracted a bullet from a German back today, and I enjoyed cutting into him… the bullet is my small treasure, as I hope it saved a life as it was a revolver one…
Kit McNaughton, quoted in Butler p. 130
Through Butler’s guidance the reader understands that this says more than that which is immediately apparent. The nurses working in World War I confronted gender norms every day they worked. Under the sheer desperation of the times the nurses were asked to do work that was barred to them in civilian life. Here McNaughton is wielding a scalpel in surgery, an extraordinary thing for a woman to be allowed to do. Some nurses also administered anesthetics, another field from which the women were normally banned. While some male medical staff were supportive of the nurses others were at times hostile to their presence and work. To many people at the time, war was strictly a male domain. Women did not belong.
It is the depiction of the months that McNaughton served at the No. 2 Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Trois Arbres that benefit most from Butler’s searching analysis. The Australian field hospital at Trois Arbres was only six and a half kilometres from the frontline. “The silences in her diary at the clearing station are profound”, observes Butler. McNaughton had been writing in her diary daily for most of the war but after a few days at Trois Arbres the rest of her four-month period of service there was covered by only five diary entries. Butler does what other biographers would do and goes to other sources to piece together McNaughton’s time there. But she goes one step further and asks why did McNaughton stop her daily writing, why did she talk about trivialities while she was treating the tide of casualties from the 3rd battle of Ypres also known as Passchendaele.
It is this questioning of evidence or the lack thereof that sets Butler’s work apart from so many war histories. She contrasts the accounts of the male medical staff from those of the women. She compares the accounts of other nurses with those of McNaughton. A complex story emerges, of women who would quietly admit their fear but never draw attention to their feats, of the women’s silence about the hostility towards them from some of their male medical colleagues.
“… most diaries are written with an eye to an audience”, remarks Butler. She observes that McNaughton’s diary was not an outlet for emotional feelings and private thoughts. McNaughton wrote it with a view to sharing it with others. Butler explains that McNaughton saw her role as a diarist as being a “tourist, a recorder of culture and a chronicler of the affairs of women, of family and of Anzac glory”. Injury and death would tarnish the Anzac story so McNaughton’s brief accounts of her work do not convey the magnitude of what she had to deal with. In order to better understand McNaughton’s life in the war Butler draws on a wide range of other sources. I have learned so much from reading this book about using diaries as sources of historical evidence.
I also admire the skill that Butler employs to incorporate deep analysis throughout this book without compromising the narrative drive. There is a smooth interchange between the two. The analysis enhances the narrative. I was wiping away the tears while I read the story of the death of a soldier-friend of McNaughton’s towards the end of the book.
This is a standout depiction of life during World War I. Anyone can recount a story told in a war diary throwing in a direct quote here and there. The wartime diarists have often written enough to make an interesting book. But Kitty’s War is not a memoir. Janet Butler is a skilled biographer who critically examines McNaughton’s diary. She pauses and asks if there is more to the story and invariably there is. The result is an enriched narrative with the depth of context needed to sensitively convey Kit McNaughton’s wartime service.
A review copy of this book was supplied by the University of Queensland Press. Thankyou to Lisa Hill for bringing my attention to it. You can read her review here. This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.
12/9/2013: Kitty’s War wins the NSW Premier’s History Awards prize for Australian History! “I think that adds an enormous dimension to our understanding of Australia’s role in the war,” remarked senior Awards judge, Professor Richard Waterhouse, to ABC News.
2014: Kitty’s War won the W. K. Hancock Prize from the Australian Historical Association.
I am very excited that such a deserving book has been recognised in this way and congratulate Janet Butler on winning this prestigious award. What can we look forward to next from this fine author?