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Kirsty Harris, More than bombs and bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War I.

Kirsty Harris, More than bombs and bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War I, Big Sky Publishing, Newport NSW, 2011, xvi + 344 pages; ISBN 978 0 98081 405 7.

A.G. Butler, the official historian of the Australian Army Medical Services in World War I, described the work of military nurses in that conflict as 'routine'. But as Kirsty Harris tells it in More than bombs and bandages, the work of Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses in World War I was anything but 'routine'. This is a meaty, nuts-and-bolts history of women's work, the remarkable details of which Harris believes have been hidden from the annals of military and nursing history.

Harris's interest in military nursing came about for personal reasons, starting from a simple question posed by her sister, a registered nurse. Their grandmother, Bessie Proudfoot, had served with the AANS in World War I, but beyond personnel files indicating where Bessie was located and for how long, there was nothing to explain what she had been doing as a service nurse.

In her engaging and accessible text examining the work of AANS nurses in World War I, Harris has succeeded in lifting the veil on this most interesting era in Australian nursing. Her meticulous research leads to her assessment that almost 2500 women served under the banner of the AANS in World War I, on a par with service numbers in World War II.

Harris's argument is that civilian nurse training ill-prepared nurses for what they were to experience in the military arena, but that military service offered them unique opportunities to extend their scope of practice well outside the bounds of what was possible for their civilian nursing counterparts engaged in hospital-based work. To anchor this argument, the text gives an overview of civilian nurse training.

From nurses' diaries, correspondence and professional association journals to name a few sources, Harris then constructs a narrative of nurses' military roles as diverse, sometimes frustrating, and nearly always challenging. This is a history rich in detail and context in which the evidence on military nursing is particularly strong and well-referenced.

For nurses serving in World War I, applying their surgical nursing skills to major trauma was of course incredibly important, but because this was merely one aspect of war work it is discussed in the penultimate chapter. Other nursing work was perhaps more mundane, but no less challenging. This was the medical care of men with malaria and typhoid, trench foot, and other serious consequences of war service such as infections and bums from gas exposure.

Some AANS nurses triaged and assessed the injured and ill prior to evacuations on the battlefield, while others oversaw the preparation of meals for hundreds of servicemen. Some nurses were their own removalist, packing up and re-establishing their casualty clearing stations when these frontline services had to relocate with little notice. It was difficult for nurses to obtain the appropriate equipment and even the necessities to do their work, such as the water and fuel by which the operating theatre instruments and various dressings could be sterilised.

Harris argues that the military nursing context in almost every circumstance drew out their capacity to innovate, modify, extend and, in some cases, abandon altogether civilian nursing practices to achieve the outcomes required. What is clear from the evidence is that the nurses worked extremely hard in the most trying conditions.

A small frustration for this reader was that innovations in nursing practice were specifically named in introductions to some chapters but then not explicated until much later; for example, the Carrel-Dakin irrigation system for wounds, and nurses' use of scalpels.

The explanatory material (appendices, endnotes and bibliography) amounts to more than 110 pages, a third of the book itself, although for a 'full bibliography' readers are referred to the author's PhD thesis. For readers unfamiliar with military structure, and even historians not so familiar with World War I history, it may be useful to read the appendices first, particularly the glossary, which contains important definitions of positions and terms (for example: VADs, Sister, Staff nurse, enteric and so on) which might otherwise have been incorporated into the text. Of the appendices, particularly useful for family historians is 'Appendix F: Training Hospitals of AANS nursing members'. Also useful is 'Appendix A: Locations where AANS members served', which illustrates the diverse geographic locations of the nurses' workplaces.

More than bombs and bandages is a welcome addition to the Australian nursing history canon and particularly to the history of Australian military nursing. It is a fabulous resource for family historians, historians of nursing and women's work, for its detail of individual nurses and for its examination of nursing practice in service to the Australian nation. It brings an illuminating and a refreshingly realistic perspective to the work of military nurses in this conflict.

Madonna Grehan

School of Health Sciences

University of Melbourne
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Author:Grehan, Madonna
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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