Sneak peek: Scarlet Poppies (pp. 175-191)
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Australian nurses in India: A confrontation of cultures

Christmas was over and 1918 ushered in a new year which was full of activity because the Viceroy of India visited 34 WGH. The early stages of 1918 were a turning point for many of these staunch and loyal AANS nurses who would be forever affected by a series of accusations made against five of their number. The Australian nurses found to their detriment that a failure to understand the cultural and religious paradigms of those being nursed can create serious problems. In 1918 accusations of immoral behaviour were made by an English male medico who was the OC of 34 WGH, against five Australian nurses.704

The former OC, A. W. Sheen had earned the respect of Acting Matron Bennett and her staff, but his replacement, Colonel Seddon, only earned their contempt. Acting Matron Bennett recalled that … Jan 2nd 1918 was to be a busy and interesting day. The Viceroy of India and staff (Lord Chelmsford) was paying a visit to the hospital. The visit has been promised and arranged when our former O.C. Col. A.W. Sheen was in command, so altho he had given up the command, he paid many visits to the hospital in his present capacity consulting surgeon, still as keenly interested as ever in the hospital he so splendidly organised in 1916 and carried on successfully until Oct. 1917. Both Mrs Sheen and himself were present to welcome the Viceroy and party, also our present O.C. Col. A.W. Maturin RAMC and Mrs Maturin.705

This clearly establishes that another OC, Colonel Maturin, was in place when the plague and smallpox epidemic occurred and Colonel Seddon had not yet taken charge of the hospital. After the Viceroy visit in January Miss Bennett goes on to describe her rationale for enabling her staff leave. She claimed … I allowed none of the Sisters leave during these months but as soon as good weather set in I arranged their leave. In early March we were inundated with Officers coming in suffering from Scarlet Fever, coming from the officers convalescent hospital … (of 60 beds) 7 miles away. We had to move all our patients into the corrugated iron & wood bungalows which I might state we do not use during the hot months, March to Nov. unless compelled. However, there was nothing else to be done.706

In some ways it was unfortunate that in … March and April I took my leave, the first time I had taken any leave whilst at the 34th … The weather by this time was unbearably hot and I was really glad to leave the heat for 30 days, having waited over 12 months for leave, the Senior Sister carrying on my work in my absence.707 Therefore, it was during Acting Matron Bennett’s absence that the new OC Colonel Seddon gathered evidence that would be used against the nurses. Acting Matron Bennett … found the hospital very quiet on my return, but many changes amongst the personnel. Some of the medical officers had gone on to Mesopotamia to relieve others who had been there 2 years without relief.708 Indeed it would have been difficult for Acting Matron Bennett to have an opportunity to have formed any type of professional relationship, helpful or unhelpful, with the commanding officer on her return as the inquiry occurred shortly after her return.

On Tuesday evening, 7th May 1918, Acting Matron Alma Bennett was sent for by the Camp Commandant, Colonel Seddon. Colonel Seddon gave her a slip of paper with the names of five Australian nurses and an accusation that they were implicated in immoral conduct.709 Commander Seddon’s quiet word to Acting Matron Bennett about the conduct of the nurses backfired dramatically. Not only did she not believe him, she sent a cable to Miss Davis, the Australian Principal Matron, who made an immediate overnight train journey to the 34 WGH from Bombay. After interviewing the accused nurses, who refuted the allegations, the two nurse leaders demanded an inquiry to clear the nurses’ reputation.710

Colonel Seddon claimed that he had collected evidence from a Turkish interpreter which showed that the nurses whose names appeared on the list had been behaving immorally with soldiers and one nurse had been intimate with a Turkish prisoner-of-war, an orderly and a lower caste Indian. Signor Martirossi, an interpreter for the hospital’s Turkish prisoners, was the main witness against the nurses. The charge against one nurse was that … she was in familiar relations with the English patients in this Ward. Later on I was told by the same Turkish prisoners (by 2 of them) that one night they saw her in an empty tent in the arms of a “Mehtar”. I could not believe this charge.711 To place the situation in a religious, social and cultural paradigm; a female, Christian nurse was accused by three Muslim males, who were the enemy during a world war, of behaving in a promiscuous manner with a Hindu lower caste Indian male. The evidence was accepted and the charges were pursued with a vengeance by a male British medico who found the Australian laxness about respecting the status of officers difficult to accept.712

To put the seriousness of the charges in perspective for the Australian nurses it is necessary to consider what was appropriate behaviour for the AANS nurses at the time. For example, Miss Conyers, AANS Matron-in-Chief, heard reports that nurses from 14 AGH in Egypt had been behaving in an untoward manner by keeping late hours, taking wine in public places and smoking on the verandah while on duty. In response to Miss Conyers claims, Matron Rose Creal promptly replied that there was no substance to the rumours and that leave passes ceased at 11 pm and nurses only took wine with their meals in restaurants and hotels, not public places.713 She was quick to point out that no sisters would dare smoke in a public place as they were aware that the consequences would be a return trip to Australia immediately.714 It is not difficult to imagine the distress that charges of behaving in a sexually promiscuous manner would have caused these unmarried women in 1918.

Colonel Seddon’s original note contained the names of four AANS nurses and one temporary nurse, Miss Alston, from the St John’s Ambulance Service. However, on arrival in court after travelling for … 50 hrs thro’ the most appalling heat Sister McClean was excused as she was not the sister the main witness had identified.715 Daphne and Claudine Cadwallader were siblings and when the main witness informed the court that neither Daphne nor Claudine were implicated they requested a written apology. They were both excused and it is unclear if they ever received their apology.716 Therefore, there were three remaining AANS nurses, McAleer, Kellaway, Bell plus Miss Alston who had to face the charges levelled against them.717

The transcripts of the court case make distressing reading but the findings of Colonel Fetherston, Director-General of the Australian Army Medical Service, who conducted an investigation into the charges and the subsequent court case about six months later provide an excellent summary. In part he found:

When about to sail from Colombo I received from Defence, Melbourne, copies of papers which had been sent to Australia by the Viceroy of India without having been seen by the nurses concerned or by the Principal Matron … In fact they had asked for copies and had been refused; therefore they could not forward any statement to you. I had previously gone into this matter very fully, interviewed all the nurses concerned, all those who could furnish any information on the subject, and had also seen the Officer in Charge Deolali Hospital … I also saw the Chaplain of Deolali Hospital who had taken a great interest in the cases and was one of the very few who gave any help or assistance to the nurses who were falsely charged … The papers showed that every nurse was completely cleared of any imputation, but the treatment they received from the authorities in Bombay and Deolali Brigade, as the district is known, was, in my opinion, scandalous. General Knight, the general officer commanding the district, allowed these vile accusations to be made the subject of inquiry without taking the least trouble to verify them or to find out what evidence and what class of evidence was to be produced … When seen by Principal Matron Davis, he tried to excuse himself and stated that the whole trouble was caused by the nurses demanding a inquiry. The court … consisted of four members and not one word of help was given except from one member, a combatant officer. In fact everyone seems to have taken the whole matter as settled and proved without trial. Insinuations at the inquiry were made and not allowed to be contradicted at the court. Hearsay evidence was admitted. No one was allowed to be with the nurses in court, and Sister McAleer had to sit alone for hours in the presence of several officers and hear the vile charges made against her without anyone as a companion. One insinuation was made by Colonel Seddon that nurses had visited immoral houses. Two nurses, Sisters, (not those included in the charges) had one occasion gone to afternoon tea with the widow of a non-commissioned officer … Whilst at this house a Sergeant Clerk came. They were only there a short time on one afternoon and knew nothing of anything wrong at the place and still believe it was and is a perfectly reputable home. This seems to have been the real origin of the attack on our nurses. Speaking to a non-commissioned officer, which in the eyes of many imperial officers is an unpardonable sin, and not being able to prove anything against these two nurses, the Camp Commandant started a foreign spy to work, who, to show his zeal and acumen trumped up some cases and told lies…In justice to the Australian nurses, I consider that further action should be taken to ensure their protection or else they should be withdrawn from India…Not one word of sympathy was spoken to any of the nurses and not a word written by those in authority…This matter was brought under the notice of these officials by me and one and all expressed regret and tried to excuse their neglect for various reasons, but when their action was explained to General Sir G.C.Monro, Commander-in-Chief, he was also indignant and at once volunteered to write and did write a letter of sympathy to nurse… 718

While General Fetherston may be correct in his analysis of why a British officer treated the Australian nurses with such disrespect – because they failed to heed the policy of not speaking to an NCO – the reason the Turkish prisoners-of-war (POW) turned against the Australian nurses may relate to an earlier misunderstanding. The AANS nurses treated the POWs very well and had endeavoured to accommodate their cultural and religious beliefs under trying circumstances. However, when Principal Matron Davis accepted the POWs from the Red Crescent ship the Firefly there was a great deal of interest by the Turkish officers about the nurses’ badges of rank. Principal Matron Davis wrote the … T.O.s [Turkish Officers] were amused at our badges of rank and the conclusion they came to was: – That I was the wife of a captain; the sisters wives of 1st Lieuts. and the s/nurses wives of 2nd Lieuts. We did not bother to disillusion them.719 Therefore, all the Turkish POWs believed the Australian nurses were married women.

The reason the Indian ‘spy’ may have been so persistent in undermining the respectability of the Australian nurses may relate to an earlier misunderstanding about the caste system, that is part of Hindu religion and culture. When Principal Matron Davis arrived at Victoria War Hospital in Bombay with her AANS nurses  … there was no matron to give any information as when I took over she was ill … the ward work was performed by native servants of different casts [sic] and the main difficulties with them was to know what their duties were. There were ward boys who did the dusting, washing of lockers and dishes. Bhestis, who carried water to and from the patients. Sweepers, who swept floors and attended the latrines. Many were the mistakes made at first and as none of these servants could speak English and the sisters did not know Hindustani so all communication had to be made by sign and gesture.720

In retrospect, it is surprising that more problems were not caused by the lack of preparation of the Australian nurses. They were expected to manage an 800 bed hospital during wartime when the staff did not speak the same language; they had to try and appreciate the intricacies of Hindu culture through sign and gesture; they provided personal body care to male Muslim POWs who believed they were married Christian women. These incidents occurred earlier than the Deolali accusations but Principal Matron Davis makes a quick but important reference to the fact that … we never had less than 500 T.P.of W. [Turkish POWs] then the 34th WGH Deolali, which I shall mention later took most of them.721 The above observations are mentioned as a possible explanation for the events at Deolali and are not intended to excuse or blame any party.

General Fetherston’s reference to the need for an apology to one particular nurse was justified. The charges against her, which she had to sit in court alone and listen to, included that she had sexual relations with a number of soldiers, orderlies, POWs and a lower caste Indian who was a sweeper. The charges were so damaging to her reputation that when asked in court if she had any statement to make she replied that … I am not guilty of any of the accusations made and I have nothing further to state except that I consider that I have completely vindicated myself by my consent to be examined by a Medical Board. This nurse, a member of the AANS, signed a consent form on 14th May 1918 which gave permission for a medical board consisting of three male doctors to examine her at the Sisters Quarters of 34 WGH. The result of the medical examination is recorded as … The Board having assembled pursuant to order, proceed to examine the above named nurse and found that she is “virgo intacta”. All charges of immoral behaviour against her were dismissed.722 The nurse was not given the opportunity to charge her accusers of unethical behaviour.

The injustice of the accusations and the obvious distress caused to the nurses appears to have been matched by the ability of the army to keep the entire incident quiet. It has been claimed … The matrons’ discretion was such that neither Miss Davis nor Miss Bennett even mentioned the inquiry at Deolali in their later accounts of their wartime experiences written for the official medical historian’.723 However, the evidence that Principal Matron Davis and Acting Matron Bennett were ordered to withhold information about the incident is overwhelming. This was achieved through censorship because the Viceroy of India considered it desirable to avoid scandal and publicity.724 Even after this trauma the nurses did not receive an apology or an opportunity to vent their anger.

Despite all of the charges against the Australian nurses being dropped – due to lack of evidence and mistaken identity – the nurse leaders, that is, Acting Matron Bennett, Matron-in-Chief Conyers and Principal Matron Davis do not mention the incident in their narratives and the medical historian, Colonel Butler, also omits the inquiry from the Official History.725 Sister McClean, who was mistakenly identified as one of the accused nurses, makes a vague reference to her time at Deolali as being unpleasant.726 Claudine Cadwallader claimed that during her time at the 34 WGH … Matron & Nursing Staff were Australians and the male personnel RAMC, but it worked extremely well.727 This claim is incongruous with the court proceedings which indicate that she and her sister, Daphne, requested a written apology for being falsely accused. Furthermore, Daphne Cadwallader makes mention of the incident in a letter to her parents at the time of the inquiry. She wrote:

There has been a Great Scandal (that all ended in smoke) in Deolali; Avenal will send you the letters telling you all about it. It was an amazing thing – like a cheap novelette, & the Australian Sisters you – may bet your life – are going to have full reparations to say nothing of Sweet Revenge. Everyone is regarding us as perfect heroines, but we’d much rather they hadn’t had the chance.728

There is no specific reference to Colonel’s Seddon, Sheen or Maturin or Acting Matron Alma Bennett by the official medical historian. Principal Matron Gertrude Davis had a distinguished career and she is mentioned a number of times but there is no reference to the Deolali incident.729

The decision to censure the incident does not mean the army did not take the situation seriously and a fair assessment would be that it was a political decision, not a military one, to keep the matter quiet. After all General Fetherston was instructed by the Secretary of the AIF to make a full inquiry of the matter by visiting India on his way back to Australia after a tour of inspection in Egypt.730 General Fetherston did this with his usual vigour and his sense of outrage was ignited once again whenever members of the AANS were treated unjustly. In many ways General Fetherston was a true advocate for the AANS nurses during the First World War.731 He has been criticised for implementing policies such as making nurses wear symbols of rank and thereby inadvertently preventing them from having social contact with non-commissioned officers.732 However, there is little evidence that this was his intention.733 His reports are littered with expressions of frustration at the lack of consideration given to the nurses in places like Lemnos, Salonica, India and in the frozen CCSs in France. They are also full of praise for the good sense and straight thinking that many of the AANS nurses displayed when faced with such adversity. 734

Nevertheless the Deolali incident was different – these nurses were not enduring hardships because they were caring for soldiers who needed them. They were being victimised and it was not in the nature of the AANS nurse to relinquish the role of advocate and adopt that of a victim. The request to General Fetherston was sent some three months after the inquiry and there is evidence that the nurses at 34 WGH had begun to express their outrage by sending their account of the situation to civilians in Australia. An extract of a letter dated 6th June 1918 was obviously written by a nurse at 34 WGH but the name, signature and any other identifying marks have been removed.735 This letter was attached to correspondence from a Melbourne solicitor to the Acting Prime Minister, W.A. Watt, and reads in part that the … lady who has written the enclosed to me is known to me as an exceedingly conscientious and capable woman. She struggled hard to become qualified as a Nurse so that she might give her services to her country in this war. You will see from the enclosed how disgracefully these women have been treated.736 All those in authority were outraged but the result was the same – silence. The matter had already been brought to the attention of the Deputy Chief Censor in May 1918 by the Viceroy of India who believed it was … desirable [to] avoid scandal or publicity and trust measures will be taken in Australia with conformity [to] this end.737

Despite the lack of evidence about the Deolali incident in the nurses’ narratives or the Official History the situation had a serious negative impact on the nurses at 34 WGH and rumours of the matter did reach Australia.738 The Sydney Bulletin published a small article on 1st August 1918 outlining the snobbishness of civilians in India to the private soldier and how negative rumours about the conduct of Australian nursing sisters had begun to circulate. The article makes no reference to the Deolali incident but was noted by the AIF and a copy of the article was included in the archival file relating to the accusations.739

The staunch and loyal Australian nurses of 34 WGH were keen to leave India and an opportunity arose in October 1918 but not before an outbreak of influenza. Acting Matron Bennett continued to lead her nurses the best she could after the Deolali incident. She had proved herself to be a worthy AANS leader and was described by one of the nurses as … a very fine woman, [who] behaved with great dignity740 – one who was dedicated to the discipline of nursing but also cared for her nurses.

Acting Matron Bennett continued her narrative in August 1918  and recalled that:

… everything went on quietly until August when the Spanish Influenza made its appearance in the station. We were getting in all the local admission cases, as the 44th BGH had been converted into an isolation hospital the previous month. There were thousands of troops in the station, so we began to be busy again. In September it was at its worst. Continuing until Oct. and Nov. Until that time the health of my staff had been excellent but early in Oct. they were attacked with influenza having been then nursing the cases some weeks they were tired and soon fell victims, 18 being off duty at one time. To my intense regret one of my staff nurses died Oct. 17th from pneumonia following influenza, only five days ill. Another on the D.I. [dangerously ill] list for 5 weeks had a tremendous fight for her life and ultimately made a good recovery. I had a sick Sisters hospital attached to the hospital and it was a veritable harem of rest to those poor tired Sisters after the distressing time they had had.741

Some of these poor, tired nurses were given the opportunity to leave India and they took it. Acting Matron Bennett recounted that:

Nov. 18th I recd. orders for 16 of my staff to report to Head Quarters Bombay in 24 hours for embarkation to UK. The excitement was intense – after waiting so long it had at last come. I forgot to mention that 13 Sisters were transferred to Egypt in Sept. and not replaced so you can see I was very short of staff during the epidemic. Nov. 24th again urgent orders for 8 more Sisters to report Head qrs. For embarkation to UK including myself if I wished to go. Needless to say I reported to head qrs. With the Sisters already mentioned. 20 Sisters having reported to me for duty a few days previously just arrived from Australia. Miss A. Scott of the AANS having come aboard in 1914 & returned to Australia taking the position rendered vacant by my transfer to UK so ended my Indian Service, also my rank as Matron. I reverted to my former rank of Sister on choosing to leave India, having received my promotion in India for Indian service only.742

It is difficult to imagine a nurse leader who better deserved to retain her promotion. If every sister of the AANS had the capacity to lead her staff under such trying conditions as Alma Louisa Bennett, it is little wonder that the reputation of the AANS was one of excellence.743 Australian nurses in India were not confronted by the horror of nursing soldiers with severe battle wounds, shell-shock or the effects of gas. However, the staff of the AANS went to one of the more incapacitating climates to care for soldiers from all religious and ethnic persuasions, including Turkish prisoners-of-war. At a military level, service in India may not have captured the imagination of the Australian psyche in the way Anzac, Beersheba or Pozieres did, but from a nursing perspective the adverse conditions endured by our number deserves a place in history. This is particularly true for those nurses who endured unjust treatment, like those at Deolali, whose experiences are omitted from the official histories.

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