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Never the same again

Professor Raelene Frances on how nurses returned home after the war and readjusted to the civilian world.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: For many of the one hundred stories we have drawn on the repatriation files to chart someone’s life beyond the war–
REBECCA WHEATLEY: –how well did nurses readjust to civilian life, and do you think the war forever changed them?
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Well, I think very few of the women who served in the nursing services– whether they were the army or the other services, like the Red Cross, for example– very few of them were unchanged by that. And most of them found it really tough emotionally, and they were suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress as the soldiers were– many of the soldiers who came back. And their repatriation files, I think, provide a really vivid insight into what women went through. And Rachael Pratt– one of the one hundred stories– is a really good case in point. She was someone who came back. She never adjusted to post-war life and ended up in an asylum.
It’s a very sad case, and I mean, perhaps an extreme one. But women suffered in various ways, whether it was psychologically or physically. The physical toll– particularly women, who went right through from Gallipoli to the end was enormous. It was absolutely exhausting. They were confronted with diseases. A number of them died on service, not necessarily killed by bombs, but through sickness which they contracted from their patients or through just being so rundown.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: And there are a number of them buried in England and France who died in the later stages of the war. It was soon after. From pneumonia, typically, that they got because they were so rundown.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Edith Moorehouse.
LAURA JAMES: Yeah. Or even–
LAURA JAMES: –Hilda Williams in Western Australia. She signed on to help soldiers that were suffering from the Spanish flu and contracted it herself and died, and she’s buried in Western Australia. So it just shows you the cost of war coming back home to Australia as well.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. But hopefully, when we see more of the repatriation files, we’ll get a better sense of the full range of that experience and how women actually managed to adjust, if they did at all, to the post-war situation. Those that survived, of course.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And even physically, with Rachael Pratt’s injury on the battlefield, the shard of shrapnel getting lodged in her lung was a problem for the rest of her life. So just that thing–
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah. Her war wound. Exactly.
LAURA JAMES: And hers is a really great example, actually, because she did not just suffer from the physical wounds. She suffered from the mental, emotional toll that war took on her, too. And she tried to readjust to life after the war– running nursing stations
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Keeping busy and–
LAURA JAMES: Yeah. And patients, but she never really adjusted. And eventually, it caught up with her.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: But having said that, there were a number of nurses who returned from the war who actually used their war experience to advance the profession of nursing because they had learned a lot more skills through their war service and they had certainly become a lot more confident.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: And they were the backbone behind the nurse’s unions that became active in ’20s and ’30s. So that’s–
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: another interesting side light, I think, on the war service.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And do you think it would have been hard for someone– I’m thinking of nurses that come home and then perhaps don’t marry or follow the traditional route that they might have before they left? And some of the examples we have of women who’ve come home and continued a career
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Rachael did continue a career And perhaps that suburban life was not an option after you’ve been to the battlefront and you’ve had a completely different–
REBECCA WHEATLEY: –experience like that.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. No. We used to–I think, thinking about men and not being able to settle down when they come home because it does all seem a bit tame after what they’ve been through. And the same was true of women– that it was very hard to settle back to life on a farm in some cases or in a country town or a suburban Melbourne, I don’t imagine, was all that exciting either–
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: –in the 1920s and ’30s. And also, there weren’t that many men around to marry. So they may not have had the option to get married.
PROFESSOR RAELENE FRANCES: But there’s certainly– a number of them went on to have successful careers as matrons of hospitals in many cases.

Watch Professor Raelene Frances discuss how nurses returned home after the war and readjusted to the civilian world.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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