Medical personnel

This hook provides a letter and a diary extract from two medical personnel working with injured soldiers. These two very different pieces of writing provide opportunities for discussing how people’s experiences of an event can differ as well as exploring the ways particular voices may be portrayed.

“A Nurse’s Letter”, Taranaki Daily News, 15 October 1915, page 6.(external link)

“A Nurse’s Letter”, Taranaki Daily News, 15 October 1915, page 6. Source: Papers Past. bit.ly/nurseletter1

Diary entry by Dr Agnes Bennett, 1916–1917. Alexander Turnbull Library.(external link)

Diary entry by Dr Agnes Bennett, 1916–1917. Alexander Turnbull Library. Typescript of MSPapers- 1346-074_234.tif

Context

Miss Bessie Young was a nurse in the 21st General Hospital, Baseltin, Alexandria. The first extract above is from one of her letters to her mother. Dr Agnes Bennett of Wellington kept a diary of her service with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit serving with the Third Royal Serbian Army during the First World War. As a commissioned captain in the New Zealand Medical Corps, she had under her charge 50–60 nurses and orderlies working in a hospital that could treat up to 250 patients.

The First World War prompted social change in New Zealand, especially in the role of women and attitudes to social health issues. Some women fought hard to be included in the war: women doctors such as Dr Bennett volunteered but were turned down. Nurses were told by the government that they were neither needed nor wanted. Finally, under pressure, defence Minister James Allen agreed to allow nurses to be sent.

The experiences of medical staff provide a chilling perspective on the effects of war. They often treated injured and dying soldiers for long hours. Some worked within range of enemy weapons in dressing stations, while others served in casualty clearing stations, in the New Zealand stationary hospitals, or on hospital ships. Conditions were difficult, with huge numbers of wounded soldiers arriving at once, primitive conditions, and a shortage of medical staff and supplies. Serving overseas as a nurse or doctor provided the opportunity for women to contribute to the war effort and support the men serving on the front line.

Possible discussion questions

  • What emotions does Bessie Young convey in her letter? How does her voice help you to imagine what it would have been like for a young nurse during the First World War?
  • Why do you think the Taranaki Daily News chose to print Bessie Young’s personal letter to her mother? How might people at the time have felt when reading her letter?
  • What emotions does Dr Bennett convey in her diary? How does her voice help you to imagine what it would have been like as a doctor during the First World War?
  • What are the dominant voices of medical staff during the First World War that you have seen portrayed in books and movies? What are the similarities and differences between those portrayals and the experiences shown here? Why do you think they are similar or different?
  • How would the experience of military medical staff today be different to those during the First World War?
  • Whose voices and stories dominated the public arena before, during, and immediately after the war? How do the voices of medical staff differ from these dominant voices? Whose stories dominate what we know about war today? What might we learn about war by listening to medical staff today?
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