Sunday, April 2, 2017

(Note: This Private W.A. Smith, while bearing the same initials, is not the same Private W.A. Smith who married Sister Lantz.)

Since the end of the First World War, much of the historical focus has been on male contributions to the war effort. Even the cover of Sister Lantz's second record book proudly states "Book and Record of Brave Heroes." Female contributions to the war effort were largely ignored and erased, perhaps because they were largely non-combatants and, as females, their contributions and accomplishments were seen as inherently less significant as those of their male counterparts. Even when women's achievements and contributions were acknowledged, it was often with a demeaning tone. However, as we know, nurses were among the most influential and accomplished female participants in the war. Without these women, continued participation in and perpetuation of the war would have been impossible. Although they were healers as well as parts of the war machine and therefore negotiated a fine line between sentimentality and utilitarianism, nurses like Sister Lantz were imperative to the Allied armies' success. This poem by private W.A. Smith salutes the Red Cross nurses for their "glorious" work:

282. Pte W.A. Smith. A Company 24th Battalion 6th Inf Brigade A.I.F.
“The Woman's Part”
1.We often read of heroes
And deeds of gallantry
But what about those faithful souls
Who toil most patiently
I mean our Red Cross nurces[sic]
Who cheer each aching heart
They nobly do their glorious work
And play the woman's part.

2. Amongst the wounded soldiers
They spend their restless hours
Oh! could I say a word too much
For these dear ones of ours
Bravo! You Red Cross workers
Heroines, thou art
In this terrific struggle
You play the woman's part.

3. In our Red Cross Hospitals
You see them at their work
These kind and gentle sisters
Who, duties never shirk
With cheerful smiling faces
They look so neat and smart
And always show a willingness
To play the woman's part.

4.When we're lying wounded
And may be, in despair
They comfort us with kindness
And tender loving care
Oh! God install your blessings
In each and every heart
Of our dear Red Cross sisters
Who play the woman's part.
Original WS. 14/8/1916

The author of this poem, like much of the Western world, had strict notions of the roles each gender had to play in the arena of war. To Private W.A. Smith, nursing was an exclusively feminine realm. Nevertheless, he praises the Red Cross nurses for their valor and hard work in the "terrific struggle" of the war, citing them as "heroines." He casts them as veritable angels for playing the woman's role in the conflict, and never uses a masculine word, phrase, or symbol in his imagery. Even in his praise, he emphasizes their inherent difference from men/soldiers. In the microcosm of the 22nd General Hospital, there were strict gender binaries to be upheld.

A propaganda poster made towards the end of the war depicts a Red Cross nurse holding an injured soldier in a stretcher as one would a baby; this image draws on conventional mothering imagery as well as Christian symbolism like the mother Mary. Foringer, Alonzo E. “The Greatest Mother in the World.” World War One Propaganda Posters. December, 1918. Accessed February 23, 2017.

Gender roles were present and enforced in all the World War One hospitals, and everywhere women were present. The nurses assumed the domains of mother, sister, sweetheart, and caretaker all at once, which necessitated an attitude of mercy and cheerfulness. Indeed, authors within Sister Lantz’s record books wrote many poems about her gentle smile and kind demeanor, which was expected of women and especially women nurses. Numerous entries liken her to the patients’ literal sister. Many entries engage in not-so-subtle flirting, casting Sister Lantz (as well as several other nurses mentioned in the record books) as a surrogate sweetheart or ‘girl back home.’ Such was the role of women, and especially nurses, in the war.

Private William Alexander Smith was twenty years old when he enlisted in the Australian Expeditionary Force in 1915. He was from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia and worked as a clerk. Private Smith was admitted to the 22nd General Hospital on August 8th, 1916 for a "mild" gunshot wound to the forearm, and rejoined his unit on September 21st. Private Smith's military paperwork states that he had suffered from a heart condition since he was twelve years old. He was discharged for "cardiac insufficiency...aggravated by active service" in March of 1917, and records list him as being "an inmate of Kyooma[sic] Sanatorium" in February of 1923. The Kyoomba Sanatorium was a hospital mostly for patients with Tuberculosis, those with lung problems brought on by German gas in the trenches, and those suffering from 'consumption' (source: Kyoomba RSL Research Project). He passed away in 1966.

Foringer, Alonzo E. “The Greatest Mother in the World.” Digital image. World War One Propaganda Posters. December, 1918. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Fell, Alison S., and Christine E. Hallett. First World War Nursing: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
Kyoomba RSL Research Project. 2015. Accessed February 25, 2017.
Smith, William A. William Alexander Smith Army Documents. 1915-1958. Enlistment papers, medical documents, and correspondences belonging to Private William Alexander Smith, Australian Imperial Forces. National Archives of Australia.
Lantz, Birdie Genevieve. Record Book Number 1, June-September 1916. Diary. Camiers, France.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Max, Congratulations on completing your project. You have achieve a very high standard and I have enjoyed reading the entire work. The way that you dealt with the information contained in the diaries and the insight into these men's lives at a particularly harrowing time, has been well constructed. It has been a pleasure to share information with you in regard to William Alexander SMITH (Australia). Great work. Deborah Wheeler