Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Nurses during World War I

According to Kirsty Harris, at least 2,286 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) served overseas.(p3) Janet Muir Gaff, one of these AANS nurses, served in the No 4 Sea Transport Service (STS) from September 1915 until March 1919. For twelve months prior to this Janet had worked at the No 5 Australian General Hospital (AGH) St Kilda Road.

Before leaving Australia, nurses needed to  make sure that they had the necessary clothing and supplies that may be needed when working overseas.

Nurses serving overseas were expected to supply their own uniform. According to Butler, when they enlisted the nurses were provided with a £21 outfit allowance to assist with the purchase of the uniform. Initially there was an annual allowance of £16 for maintenance of the uniform.Later there was a daily allowance of ten pence for maintenance and another ten pence for laundry of clothing items. (p 547)

The nurses required an outdoor uniform as well as the uniform worn when nursing in the hospitals. Because the women had to organise their own clothes there was some variation in the clothes worn. There were also different regulations for the outdoor uniform in 1914-1915 compared with 1916-1918. The Australian War Memorial has three blog posts with photos describing the outdoor and working uniforms of Australian nurses.

The AWM website provides the following description of the working uniform.
The working dress, or ward dress, introduced in 1914 remained virtually the same throughout the war, except for a slight shortening of the skirt in line with fashion. The working dress for the entire 1914-18 period consisted of:
  • A grey zephyr cotton dress similar in pattern to the 1914 outdoor dress of blouson and skirt, with detachable starched white collar and cuffs.
  • A starched white apron with bib front, a curved neckline and cross over straps at the back. Grey zephyr aprons were sometimes worn for very dirty work. The aprons were fastened with a self-fabric belt and two buttons or studs at the waist, or occasionally a belt buckle.
  • A scarlet shoulder cape fastened at the throat with the silver Rising Sun badge. The cape was usually of scarlet cotton that could be laundered, hence the term ‘washing cape’.
  • A white linen veil, 1 yard (91.5 cm) square.
  • Black stockings.
  • Black boots or shoes.
As the war progressed the skirts of the dresses were made shorter as fashion changed. Practicality may also have played a part. Nurses also had chocolate brown facings for their colour patches

As they were in the military the nurses had honoury ranks as officers but they received much lower pay than an actual army officer of the same standing. A staff nurse such as Janet received 7/- a day.

From April 1916 it was ordered that all nurses were to wear badges on the shoulder straps of their capes according to their rank. A staff nurse wore one star (equivalent to a second lieutenant), a sister two stars (equivalent to a lieutenant), a matron three stars (equivalent to a captain). (Butler p548 and Bassett p 55). All nurses wore silver rising sun badges.

Nurses were also expected to provide their own small equipment which they carried in a chantelaine.

Bassett, Jan. Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992
Butler, A G. The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War 1914-1918. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1943. volume 3
Harris, Kirsty. More then Bombs and Bandages: Australian Army Nurses in World War I. Newport: Big Sky Publishing, 2011
Australian War Memorial - Australian military uniforms and equipment - website

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