It is Armistice Day here in New Zealand, a day to remember the end of the First World War.
Today it is just over a week since most women in New Zealand had cause to reflect deeply on their gender status and some of the prevailing perceptions in our country around that.
This piece in today’s Dominion Post newspaper by Jane Tolerton caught my eye for three reasons.
The first being that we need to remember today as that horrific and senseless war finally came to an end. If only peace had reigned since that date in 1918.
The second being that as women in New Zealand we know very little about women, other than the nurses, who went overseas to serve and Jane highlights several here. I hope you enjoy the short pieces she includes about these brave and courageous women.
But thirdly I was struck by how heartened and encouraged I was to read about these women and how empowered our growing girls would be if more of these real herstories were more widely known and celebrated. What powerful role models they present to us and how much they offer balance to gender perceptions.
I’ve copied Jane’s full article for you to read and respond to if you can help her in her search for more information.
OPINION: New Zealand women who went overseas to help in World War I war effort are a forgotten slice of our history, writes Jane Tolerton.
Today, on the 95th anniversary of the Armistice, we remember the 16,697 New Zealand soldiers who died in World War I, and about another 80,000 men who survived, most of them suffering the effects from wounds, gassing and shell shock.
But what are our images of the New Zealand women who were part of the war effort overseas?
We see nurses – of whom 550 served overseas – because they were officially employed.
But there were probably at least another 550, including doctors and volunteers (and about 60 government-employed VADs, as nurse aides were called).
Among the doctors was Wellington’s Dr Agnes Bennett – who, like the other female medics keen to go, was turned down by the authorities.
She went anyway, arriving in Alexandria to see wounded Anzacs being carried ashore. The medical officer she approached immediately asked her to escort wounded men to hospitals in Cairo. She must have wondered if her two brothers would be among them.
Dr Bennett worked in Cairo and later headed a Scottish Women’s Hospital unit – funded by British suffragettes – in Serbia. Among her staff was Australian author Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career) who wrote, “We all had great confidence in her sensitivity and her ability. There was a delightful spirit of sisterhood and we were not called to flap our wings in salute or act subordinately . . .”
Dr Bennett was given the Serbs’ highest award for humanitarian service.
Dr Mary Blair of Wellington and Dr Jessie Scott of Canterbury also ran women’s hospital units in Serbia. Dr Scott was even taken prisoner.
Yet when I recently did an informal survey asking people how many New Zealand women doctors they thought had worked overseas during the war, the first 20 female respondents said, ‘None’.
Dr Bennett was Sydney born and came to Wellington when offered a GP practice. Susanna de Vries includes her in Heroic Australian Women in War, specifically stating that Dr Jessie Scott and Sister Agnes Kerr (who came from Gisborne and joined Ettie Rout’s New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood) were Australian.
We should claim these women, and also note that Evelyn Conyers, matron in chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service, was born in Invercargill and went to Australia in her twenties.
Apart from the doctors and nurses, hundreds of New Zealand women sailed for Britain to take part in war service, or did so as part of their OE.
Lorna Monckton of Featherston went in 1915 and got a job as a “sculleryite”, laying tables and washing up in the New Zealand military hospital at Walton-on- Thames. She and her friends Enid and Vi (called Ding and Dong) Bell, daughters of Attorney General Sir Francis Dillon Bell, rose at 5.30am and worked till 8.30pm, with two hours off in the afternoon. Ms Monckton later did admin work in a military barracks and went to France with Queen Alexandra’s army auxiliary corps.
Why did such well-off women work so hard? Because they could not let the men down.
Before writing the famous Testament of Youth (1933) about her wartime VAD experience, Vera Brittain noticed there were no books about women like her.
“I began to ask myself: ‘Why should these young men have the war to themselves? Didn’t women have their war as well? . . . Does no one remember the women who began their war service with such high ideals or how grimly they carried on when that flaming faith had crumbled into the grey ashes of disillusion?”
When the guns stopped on the Western Front at 11am on the 11th of November 1918, thousands of New Zealand troops recorded the moment in their diaries and letters home, and described it in interviews for the World War One Oral History Archive.
The women so keen to look after them that they paid their own way to the war have gone largely unrecorded.
Jane Tolerton is seeking information for a book on New Zealand women who served overseas in World War I and asks those with diaries, letters, photographs or memoirs to contact her: email@example.com. She is the author of An Awfully Big Adventure: New Zealand World War One veterans tell their stories, drawn from the World War One Oral History archive interviews she and Nicholas Boyack did in the late 1980s.