Book Review: Kitty’s War, by Janet Butler
Posted by Lisa Hill on April 15, 2013
Somewhere in the archives of the War Memorial in Canberra, there is a small diary scribbled in pencil. It was donated by The Spouse’s family because old Eric was a gunner in the 7th Field Artillery Brigade and he was awarded the Military Medal in The Great War. Before he lost his leg in the conflict he recorded his impressions of the first tanks to arrive on the battlefield so it’s a most interesting document. Transcribing this diary is an eventual retirement project for The Spouse.
We had always thought that this would be a fairly straightforward task, but now that I have read Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, I realise that there is much more to a war diary than first meets the eye. What’s not in a war diary can be just as interesting as what’s in it… and what’s in it, is sometimes not much about war at all, but rather about changes in identity because of the war.
When Kitty McNaughton sailed away to do her bit as a nurse, she, like most of the other volunteers aboard, had never been out of Australia. The war (which everyone expected to be over soon) was an opportunity to see the world, and she devotes many pages to describing the journey. The troops and nurses were ferried to Egypt on the troopship Orsova, which was formerly a passenger liner. So this young woman enjoyed all the excitements that are common to cruise ships today: games and sports, fancy dress parties, a crossing-the-line ceremony, fancy dinners and so on. But there is no mention of any serious flirting because nursing was still cultivating a respectable image to counter Dickens’ Sarah Gamp. Kitty was always conscious that her diary was going to be read by others, especially her mother, and she is circumspect about what she writes.
That’s why, later on, when she’s nursing on the island of Lemnos, when she writes about the four young men who became important to her, she always refers to them as ‘boys’ or ‘youths’, and she always records the presence of some other person, making it clear that she is never alone with a young man. She is careful to adopt a sisterly tone, sometimes maternal, never romantic. Reading between the lines, we wonder what her feelings were, especially when we know that for most of the young men thrust into relentlessly all-male company for long years in that war, that mateship offered no outlet for emotional release. Men could talk about their feelings to women, but not to each other…
What’s also noticeable is that she doesn’t write much about the shocking injuries she encounters. Butler says that this is because Kitty feels constrained by her audience: these horribly mutilated young men often dying in dreadful pain were the husbands, sweethearts, brothers and sons of her friends and family back home. So, like others reporting to those at home both formally and informally, she maintains the conspiracy of silence about their suffering in order to protect them from the awful truth. It is when she is nursing German soldiers on the Somme that she finally feels able to write about the horror of what she witnessed, because they are Other, and she can describe their injuries and how their needs were addressed.
What is also most interesting about this period, is that for the first time, she indirectly acknowledges her own skills. A modest and self-effacing nurse had to be careful about this, because it was not thought seemly for women to have ambitions beyond their gender-assigned roles. It was in reading the passage below that I realised the importance of documents such as Kitty’s dairy being interrogated by an historian:
I have eleven with their legs off and a cuple [sic] ditto arms & hips & heads galore & the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this Gas Gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. 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… (p.130)
Now when I first read this I recoiled at the idea that Kitty ‘enjoyed cutting into him’ – to me it felt as if she was enjoying a sort of vengeance against the enemy. But what Butler’s analysis reveals, from looking at the diary in its entirety and comparing it with a host of other documents and diaries, is that what Kitty is enjoying is being entrusted with the scalpel and being allowed to perform procedures that traditionally were the sole preserve of male doctors. To read Kitty’s self-effacing diary at face value without realising that it deliberately undercuts her own achievements is to overlook that Kitty was in fact a very good nurse indeed: she received commendations; she was mentioned in dispatches; she was in sole charge of the whole Bosches Line of German wounded (more than one huge ward of very serious cases); and she was allowed to undertake surgical procedures as well.
What is also revealed by this rare documentation of the suffering of the German soldiers is that it offers Kitty emotional release. She describes her distress at the confronting injuries and the pitiable state of soldiers arriving with maggot-infested wounds, an outlet which is promptly closed when Allied soldiers arrive and she no longer gives herself permission to write about them.
Butler analyses the Conscription Referendum in terms of how it impacted away from home; the class issues including the hostility from Imperials to Colonials; and the decline of the ‘war diary’ from a place to share matters of interest to its role testifying to grief and despair. The appearance of gaps, when for long periods of time Kitty can find nothing of interest to write about, signals that the relentless tide of the wounded is contributing to what we would now call stress. When she is on the Western Front after the Somme, Kitty and her friends succumb themselves to illness, and she openly acknowledges it, perhaps in part because her own mother has died and she longer feels that she has to hide her suffering. (There is a remarkable pair of photos in the book that shows the impact of this ongoing stress on Kitty’s appearance. The nurses joke that first their hair goes, then their teeth and then their reputations, but it was true: the bad diet and the appalling conditions made Kitty’s hair go grey while she was still only in her thirties.)
While close female friendships were nurturing and supportive, they could not salve the ongoing stress entirely. This is especially true when Kitty is transferred to a clearing station near the front line, where the nurses are carefully chosen for their suitability and monitored for signs of strain. Where the official histories make no mention of the fact that the nurses are much closer to danger, Kitty and other nurses write about it in detail. She has to undergo gas training before the transfer, and we know from the diaries of other nurses that their clothes stank afterwards of the gas. Kitty also records shelling, missiles falling into the camp and the crash-landing of two allied planes in the field beside it, but she does not record her own bravery, as for example when she is ordered to fall back because of an impending German attack and refuses to go. Yet there is a striking absence of any commentary about the sick and wounded, at a time when the casualty rate is shocking. Medical officers reporting to their professional journals provide information about the horrific situation that is omitted from Kitty’s diary, and the testimony of a Matron O’Dwyer confirms that nothing – not even experience at the base hospitals further back from the front line – could prepare nurses for what they were to encounter at a clearing station. But Kitty’s experiences here are at war with the identity she has crafted for herself within this diary: as a tourist, a recorder of culture and a chronicler of the affairs of women, of family and of Anzac glory. (p. 181) In her four months at this clearing station, she does not know how to write about the relentless flood of seriously wounded men in pain.
There is so much more that I could write about this brilliant book but I will confine myself to recommending that if you read just one book about the ANZAC experience, it should be this one. Butler’s humane analysis covers much more than just the experience of one woman at war, and the issues raised by this book have been the subject of many conversations with friends and family while I’ve been reading it.
The book includes B&W photos of Kitty, comprehensive notes, a select bibliography and an index.
The launch at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance was a slightly more sombre affair than other book launches I have been to. Held in the visitor’s centre, proceedings began with a recitation of the Ode of Remembrance, and the book was launched by Colonel Jan Mc Carthy ARRC (retd) from the army nursing service. Many of the people there were descendants of Kitty McNaughton who shared the author’s pride that the story of this remarkable young woman has been told at last.
Highly recommended for teachers of Australian History, teachers teaching on the topic of War, and teachers teaching Gender Studies.
Author: Janet Butler
Title: Kitty’s War
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP, and autographed on the night by the author!
Or direct from UQP.