Friday, 26 May 2017

Janet Muir Gaff and World War I - Essay

The unit Families at War for the Diploma of Family History, University of Tasmania, required a biographical essay to be written about a soldier or nurse who served during World War I. The difficult part was compressing research into 1,200 words with 10% leeway.

I chose to write about Janet Muir Gaff, a nurse with the Sea Transport Service, whose name is listed on the Shire of Nunawading Honour Board. This post contains a slightly modified version of the essay.

Posts with more detailed information on a range of topics relating to research for this essay can also be found in this blog. - Link to Janet Gaff articles. Links to some of the also sections appear in the essay.

World War I saw more than 2,286 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) serving overseas.[i]  Think of First World War nurses and most people justifiably think of nurses working near the battle fronts but nurses also tended Australian soldiers on ships travelling from and to Australia. Janet Muir Gaff was one of 112 AANS nurses who served in the Sea Transport Sections (STS).[ii]  STS nurses played an important role managing the health of soldiers aboard Australian troop ships as well as working in Australian military hospitals in England and Australia. The important work of nurses like Janet should also be recognised.

Janet Muir Steel was born in Glasgow on 21 July 1860.[iii]  At the age of eighteen Janet married Daniel Robb Gaff, a timber merchant.[iv] In 1883 their son was born.[v] Six years later family life changed for Janet when her husband left Scotland to live in San Francisco.[vi]

Janet trained as a nurse working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.[vii] In 1891 Janet undertook her first long distance ship voyage when the Steel family migrated to Australia to live in Blackburn, Victoria.[viii]

Janet was not afraid of new experiences and challenges so this nurse from Glasgow continued her nursing career in country Victoria, initially at two hospitals in Warracknabeal and then at Willaura.[ix] Working in small hospitals with basic equipment and limited medical supplies no doubt proved useful when nursing with the STS.

From the beginning of the war Janet made financial donations to war related funds.[x] She also wrote letters to the newspapers expressing her concern about the welfare of soldiers during Europe’s winter.[xi]  But Janet wanted to be actively involved in the war effort so she joined the AANS on 11 August 1915.[xii]
For the next twelve months Janet worked at the No. 5 Australian General Hospital (AGH) in St Kilda Road.[xiii] As well as treating patients this hospital became a training centre providing AANS nurses with experience in treating war injuries. 

On 2 September 1916 Janet joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as a nurse in the Australian Medical Corps (AMC) No. 4 STS.[xiv] AIF Standing Orders stated:
 A candidate for appointment in Australian Army Nursing Service must have at least three years training in medical and surgical nursing in a duly recognised hospital, and must be either single or a widow, and between the ages of 20 and 45 years.[xv]

Janet certainly had the required nursing experience but she was married and older than 45. Occasionally the age restriction was relaxed so Janet gave her age as 50 years, although she was 56.[xvi] Not having seen her husband for twenty-seven years Janet also declared that she was a widow.

A major factor for Janet’s selection in the STS was probably her experience of long sea voyages, including a twelve month around the world holiday in 1910-1911 plus her original trip to Australia.[xvii] During her war service Janet made the return journey between Australia and England three times.[xviii]

After May 1916 the shipping route between Australia and England was via South Africa to avoid submarines in the Mediterranean Sea.[xix] The HMAT Euripides left Melbourne for England via Fremantle and Durban on 11 September 1916.[xx] Janet was one of three staff nurses aboard with two sisters, an acting-matron and 2,200 soldiers.[xxi] The Euripides sailed in a convoy of ten ships and the crew constantly watched for sightings of enemy ships and submarines. In a letter to her sister Janet stated, “I spent my life dodging submarines”.[xxii]

Staff Nurse Gaff soon learned that nursing at sea was different from nursing on land. Sea sickness was endued by both soldiers and staff. The area where the nurses worked was cramped with poor ventilation. Loose objects could not be left on benches making simple tasks challenging in good weather and almost impossible in rough weather. As well as performing general nursing duties, nurses trained orderlies. Learning ship routines such as life-boat drill was essential and nurses also learned how to work in a military environment.[xxiii]

During the voyage nurses inoculated soldiers against typhoid. Small outbreaks of measles or mumps required infected patients to be isolated as it was essential to limit the spread of infectious diseases.[xxiv] Other diseases sometimes encountered on the ships were pneumonia and cerebrospinal fever.[xxv] On this voyage soldiers were confined to the ship at Freemantle as two soldiers with meningitis had to leave the ship at this port.[xxvi]

As there were only three Australian hospital ships, troop ships were refitted to accommodate the needs of the injured soldiers for the trip to Australia. Mobile soldiers who could look after themselves slept in hammocks but double tiered berths were required for the use of amputees and others needing special nursing care. Sections were also provided for patients with infectious diseases. Deck space was provided for the use of patients and regulations stipulated that there must be adequate ventilation below the decks.[xxvii]

When the Euripides arrived in England on 26 October, Janet was sent to nurse at Southall, the No. 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital (AAH) which treated amputees. Two weeks later Janet boarded HMAT Wiltshire to return to Australia with injured patients.[xxviii] Hospital staff used invalid boat rolls to select patients returning home on the next ship. Sometimes temporary nursing staff assisted the STS nurses on the voyage.

Between voyages STS staff worked at Australian hospitals in England.[xxix] For Janet this included working for short periods at No. 2 AAH at Southall, No. 3 AAH at Dartford plus the St Alban’s and Southwell nurses’ hospitals. In Australia Janet worked at the No. 5 AGH until returning to England.[xxx]

1918, however, provided a different routine as Janet spent the year nursing at No 3AAH Dartford, Kent, a hospital that specialised with mental illness patients. As a nurse at the AAH at Southall, Janet encountered patients with horrific physical injuries.[xxxi] At Dartford the patients were treated for conditions relating to war trauma. Therefore as well as providing medical services a major role of the hospital was to provide activities and entertainments including concerts, film nights and athletics carnivals to aid patient recovery.[xxxii] But the war was never far away with air-raid warnings some nights.[xxxiii] The influenza epidemic also affected patients and staff in the hospital.[xxxiv]

When in England, Janet also had free time to explore parts of the country. In 1918 Janet and Matron Pocock undertook daytrips to Winchester in May, Seven Oaks and Canterbury in June and Windsor Castle in October.[xxxv]

On 12 December 1918 Janet boarded the Nestor arriving in Melbourne on 1 February 1919. She then worked at No. 5 AGH until her discharge from the Army on 13 March. Janet received the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal for her service during the war.[xxxvi]

Janet returned to Blackburn to live with her sisters however her adventures continued during her retirement. In May 1922 she travelled to Rhodesia to see the Victoria Falls before proceeding to England, Italy, Greece and Egypt.[xxxvii] In 1925 Janet travelled around the world exploring parts of Africa, Europe, South America and the United States.[xxxviii]

Janet Muir Gaff died at Box Hill on 7 September 1940 and was buried at Box Hill Cemetery.[xxxix]

The Shire of Nunawading Honour Board lists 565 names including Janet’s name.[xl]

Janet did not have to join the AANS. Disguising her age and marital status indicates it was important to her to support the Australian war effort overseas and also support her homeland. “Our boys are doing it, so it’s up to us to do it also” was a comment made when told that she was brave.[xli] Like other STS nurses Janet was able to use her considerable experience to care for injured soldiers plus have the compassion and ability to listen to patients affected by the trauma of war. It cannot be denied that STS nurses played an important role in the care and support of wounded Australians during the First World War.

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