Australian Nursing Narratives in the Middle East (1914-1921)

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

Lured by the opportunity to serve or the promise of adventure, and apparently none deterred by the region's reputation for dangerous Arabs, dirt, dust, heat and disease Australian women provided much of the medical care for Allied servicemen in the Middle East. To work in the Middle East was to serve in the shadow of the pyramids, to be near the site of the Garden of Eden or the birthplace of Christ. Many women travelled to the region enthused by narratives of its ancient splendour, but found themselves dealing with its contemporary poverty, simplicity and perceived degradation. What were their expectations and what, consequently, were their reactions when faced with the harsh reality of service in desperately uncomfortable climates? Besides these historical, religious and mythological tropes, women brought with them a complex mixture of, sometimes contradictory, attitudes and opinions rooted in discourses of race, empire, ethnographical and travel writing – these are particularly complicated in an Australian context: how did changing attitudes towards Australian national identity further complicate their experiences in these theatres of war?

This paper offers an exploration of a gendered experience of the war beyond the European theatres, exploring the ways in which Australian women coped with, transcended, and were shaped by the demands of the First World War in the Middle East.