ON Armistice Day 2008 the Launceston Examiner, unlike most other mainstream daily newspapers, published a lavish 90 page special supplement, featuring stories on war memorialization throughout Tasmania, family stories and other brief segments on selected individuals, events and wars.

The supplement demonstrated in an interesting way how we as a society have memorialized wartime sacrifice, and the sheer abundance and diversity of public memorials that exist in Tasmania to honour those who served and died in wars, especially in World War I.

Inadvertently, I think, the supplement also revealed what we as a society have chosen not to memorialize in the past as the result of wartime sacrifice, or have excluded through prejudice, denial or other reasons, and continue to do so.

There remain several areas of serious, if not egregious neglect in out memorialization, one of which is the sacrifice of women in all conflicts, and I would include in that the sacrifice of women on both sides in the warfare in Tasmania in the first decades of the19th century.

This needs rectifying, and rectifying publicly.  I would like to begin that process in a small way, albeit several weeks after the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, by giving some focus to one aspect of women’s sacrifice in war, and that is the story, in summary, of Tasmanian women of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS).

Military nurses have been recruited within Tasmania to serve in all wars involving Australian troops since the First World War, but not in the Boer War. The Boer War is instructive.  The Tasmanian government refused to fund Tasmanian nurses to serve in South Africa and rejected overtures from nurses to rescind the decision.  Consequently, a number of Tasmanian nurses enlisted directly with the British army nursing services, paying their own fares.  At least six Tasmanian nurses served in South Africa in this way, but there may have been more.

Tasmanian nurses served in all theatres of war during World War I, as well as in military hospitals in England and Tasmania.  Eighty nine nurses are listed in Tasmania’s War Record, seven of whom were decorated, and one of whom, Sister Clare Deacon, was awarded a Military Medal for bravery under fire in 1917, near Armentieres, when she rescued patients during an artillery attack on a casualty clearing station.

During the Second World War 129 Tasmanian nurses served in places such as Malaya, Singapore, the Middle East, New Guinea, Greece and England, as well as staffing military hospitals throughout Australia, one of whom, Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Haines, became Principal Matron in the Northern Territory.

The blurring of the distinction between noncombatants and armed forces exposed nurses to greater risk.  Three Tasmanian nurses who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke in February 1942 and the subsequent machine-gunning of their colleagues on Banka Island, were captured by the Japanese.  Two of these nurses, Dora Gardam and Wilhelmina Raymont, died of maltreatment in a prison camp in Sumatra in 1945, just months before war’s end. Jessie Simons survived, writing the story of their ordeal, While History Passed, in 1954.

After 1945 some Tasmanian nurses served in the Allied occupation force in Japan from 1946 to 1948, were members of the British Commonwealth Hospital at Kure in Japan and Seoul in Korea during the Korean War, served with Australian forces in Malaya during the 1950s and 1960s and in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  The most distinguished Tasmanian nurse since the Second World War, Colonel Nell Espie, served in all those locations, and between 1976 to 1980 was the Director of the Australian Army Nursing Corps.

Perhaps one of the reasons that there is such a lack of recognition of the service and sacrifice of Tasmanian military nurses and women in general during wartime, is that not many of them were killed.  But some were, and many of them were subject to the same life-threatening experiences and traumas as troops in battle.

It is worth remembering also that throughout the 20th century they worked in an environment of tacit discrimination.  In 1916, when they formally acknowledged as “honorary” officers, they continued to be paid as “other ranks”.  It was only in 1943 that they were granted full military rank, but even then continued to receive discriminatory rates of pay.  By the late 1990s returned military nurses were denied the full range of repatriation benefits extended to servicemen.

Peter Henning

NOTE: I would be indebted to anyone who could provide me with a list of Tasmanian members of the AANS who served in theatres of war during the 20th century, especially from 1914 to the end of the Vietnam War.

Sources:  Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, 1992; Rupert Goodman, Our War Nurses, 1988; Jessie Symons, While History Passed, 1954, republished as In Japanese Hands: Australian nurses as POWs, 1985; L. Broinowski, Tasmania’s War Record 1914-1918, 1921.

 

Peter Henning
Inadvertently, I think, the supplement also revealed what we as a society have chosen not to memorialize in the past as the result of wartime sacrifice, or have excluded through prejudice, denial or other reasons, and continue to do so. There remain several areas of serious, if not egregious neglect in out memorialization, one of which is the sacrifice of women in all conflicts, and I would include in that the sacrifice of women on both sides in the warfare in Tasmania in the first decades of the19th century.  Tasmanian nurses served in all theatres of war during World War I, as well as in military hospitals in England and Tasmania.  Eighty nine nurses are listed in Tasmania’s War Record, seven of whom were decorated, and one of whom, Sister Clare Deacon, was awarded a Military Medal for bravery under fire in 1917, near Armentieres, when she rescued patients during an artillery attack on a casualty clearing station