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Friendship in war was not just confined to bonds between men

For nurses going on active service, to have the close friendship of at least one other woman was of primary importance. State Library of South Australia

In Australia, we are used to thinking of mateship between men as the definitive kind of friendship during the Great War. This concept is so iconic that we have rarely looked beyond it. As a result, many important questions about the nature and effect of friendships during the First World War have not been asked.

This is partly due to the importance we place on the experience of combatants and the masculine nature of the Anzac ideal. More generally, there was a lack of any scholarly consideration of the subject of friendship until the 1970s. The modern Western conception of friendship has been that it is private, personal and peripheral to other bonds.

In the discipline of history, with a few notable exceptions, examinations of friendship are less than a decade old. Yet friendships should be of interest to historians because, as sociologist Graham Allan has pointed out, friendships are a product of their time and place. They take on shape and meaning based on their particular situations and circumstances. When those situations change, so do the kinds of friendships.

My first book was based on the diaries of First World War army nurse Kit McNaughton. In it, I looked at how her ideas about herself – for example as a woman, a nurse, an Australian and a member of the British Empire – changed as she experienced the war.

The nurses’ diaries, including McNaughton’s, are unsurpassed sources for discovering the nature of friendship during war. This is because social conventions confined women to topics deemed suitable for the female pen: the domestic sphere, family, social life and the lives and activities of women.

What do the diaries tell us?

For nurses going on active service, to have the close friendship of at least one other woman – a special “Pal”, as they called them – was of primary importance. These friendships were formed, still, in the tradition of the deep and loving friendships between women of the 19th century, which have been so sensitively brought to light by historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. A friend provided a buffer and an “anchor” in an unfamiliar world.

Letters and diaries show that the nurses’ friendships at the time of the war were exclusive in nature, rather than inclusive. For a nurse setting out, this was a real concern. Army nurse Olive Haynes, already with Kit’s future unit in Egypt and destined to become her friend, had written in July 1915:

It’s horribly lonely; everyone seems to have each other.

The nurses at war were cut off from their own people at home. When we look at their friendships, we can see they were based on the relationships between sisters. They offered each other the emotional and practical support of family. This was particularly important given that nurses were moving into new roles in a male domain. They were forming, as the anthropologists would tell us, substitute kin networks.

These networks extended to their relationships with Australian men, to whom they were sisters-in-arms and sisters from home. The First World War brought men and women into contact in unprecedented numbers, in situations away from the eyes of their “village”.

Military authorities feared that relationships between nurses and soldiers would be a threat to discipline. The nurses used the idea of family to set acceptable boundaries to their relationships with men for the benefit of their family at home and for authorities at war. The soldiers were their “boys” or their brothers-in-arms, or they were “dear old chaps” – nice, safe, grandfatherly relationships.

Contingent of Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses marching along King William Street. state_library_south_australia/flickr, CC BY

Mutually sustaining friendships

The nurses gained entry into a full range of social activities through their friendships with soldiers at war. They were taken to concerts and dinners and for a “spin out to the pyramids” in Egypt. The soldiers, on the other hand, valued the solace they could find in companionship with their Australian sisters.

The climate of military manliness during the First World War, and the conventions that protected family from being told the realities of war in letters home, meant that the men were deprived of sources of emotional support.

Historically, in Australian culture, women have been regarded as better at offering such support within friendships. McNaughton’s diary contains much evidence of the nurses “yarning” with the soldiers and of the soldiers confessing their fears and the harshness of their experiences.

Not all stages of the First World War would encourage the kind of relationships that grew between Australian men and women on active service. On the Western Front, strict segregation and intense working conditions minimised opportunities for friendships to develop.

However, while travelling on the ships to war, in Egypt and on Lemnos Island, nurses and soldiers had the opportunity to begin friendships that would see them through the war.

The nurses would pay a high price – an unexpected one – for their new friendships. As their hospitals and the men they were serving moved to the Western Front, and as the shockingly wounded casualties flooded into their hospitals, the nurses would experience loss and the fear of loss.

Still, the comfort and companionship of their new friendships would be a rock on which they would depend in the darkest times at war.

You can listen to Janet Butler speak about the experience of Australian nurses during the Great War below, in a podcast produced by La Trobe University.

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