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What it is to be Australian

Professor Raelene Frances discusses how Australian nurses created a sense of national identity.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Historians have spent a great deal of time considering how war affected national identity, particularly for the soldiers. But how did nurses’ service affect their ideas of Australianness? Because we see with Tev Davies, her ideas of Empire and Australia change quite significantly over her time away at war.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: You know, I think that the experience of actually confronting ‘home’, as people always referred to Britain, in the flesh was a little bit disillusioning for a lot of nurses, in particular, who served overseas. That they went over thinking, you know, they had this rosy idea of what home was. But when they actually got there, and particularly those who were working closely with the British military or those who went to some of the outposts like India, became very, very jaded in their view of Britain. And the things that they really didn’t like about the British was how stuffy they were and how class-ridden they saw every aspect of society.
And they saw that as meaning that people had no scope for freedom of action, no scope for initiative. They saw the English soldiers as being, you know, ground down and frightened of their officers. And they also became very homesick for the wide-open spaces of Australia. And at first they really liked the English countryside. It was all so pretty and green and manicured. But after a time, a lot of them just felt that it was overdone, that everywhere you looked was contrived and man-made. And they really longed for something a bit more wild.
So I think the combination of that kind of physical longing for what really was their home– Britain actually wasn’t their home, in most cases– and that feeling that Britain was an old, tired country, that they longed for the freedoms and the optimism, I think, of Australia. And I think that was a bit of a shock to a lot of people.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: So the nurses, do you think, mirrored the same kind of new nationalism that comes about?
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah, look, I think that we see this really clearly, that sort of growing sense of what was good about Australia. And how, even compared to Britain, which used to be the gold standard, there were things about Australia that were better about Britain. So someone like Tev Davies, for example, in her diaries and letters, she’s very, very clear. I mean, you see that sort of transition over the course. She served through the whole world, from Lemnos through to France. And she comments often on how people relate to each other, the different nationalities. And as the war increases, the comparison is increasingly less favourable to Britain, and she has a growing confidence in what it is to be Australian.
It’s a young, free, open society with more possibilities than the old stuffy Britain.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: I remember that description. She writes of the Tommy soldier who’s in bed, wounded, but he’s still more worried about what’s going to happen when the General comes. And is he coming, is he coming? And that really bothers her.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that Tev Davies was not the only one that that bothered. And they saw it not just as bad for the Tommy, but bad for the army, that it crushed the spirit and the initiative out of the soldiers.
LAURA JAMES: Well, speaking of nursing, traditionally nursing is often seen as a woman’s sphere. It’s all about nurturing and caring. However, a lot of the women in “The 100 Stories” don’t quite conform to these conventional roles. I’m thinking here about Ettie Rout again and how her experience of the war was slightly different than some of the nurses’.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. I mean, some of the nurses did have the opportunity to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity in peacetime. Obviously, going to the war is one thing. But many of them still did nursing, the kind of nursing they would have done at home. It’s just in a different zone. But in other cases, this was not the case. People like Elsie Tranter, for example, had the opportunity to give anaesthetics, and a lot of them had the opportunity to do surgery, because they were just so short of labour during some of those big pushes towards the end of the war. So for them, the war provided them with professional opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Watch Professor Raelene Frances discuss how Australian nurses negotiated a sense of national identity.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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