Janet Butler, Kitty’s War: The Remarkable Wartime Experiences of Kit McNaughton, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2013. ( Reviewed also for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2013).

I was lost inside this  book for several days. At random moments I found myself  thinking about Janet Butler’s ‘Nurse’, Kit, her daily life and her frequently harrowing experiences on the battlefields and hospitals of the Great War, all recorded in Butler’s book, Kitty’s War. I came to care about this woman who left Australia for a great adventure in 1915 and returned four years later ill, grieved, traumatized and, maybe, wiser. Certainly she was more assertive than the self-effacing Edwardian woman who left her family behind. My doorway into Kit’s world was with Butler’s opening sentences.( And here I must acknowledge Janine Rizzetti over at ‘The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’ who records a similar ‘first-sentence experience’).Butler writes:

Imagine, for a moment, that we are granted an eagle’s eye-view of the fields and villages, the roads and towns of northern France.  It is dusk on a mid-autumn evening.  This is the Western Front, one hundred and eighteen days after the beginning of Operations on the Somme…. (p. 1)

So imagine we do. We ride on the back of that eagle as it progresses through the days and nights, the battles and peaceful moments of Kit McNaughton’s life at the war. Butler’s source, Kit Mc Naughton’s war diary, was lent to her  by Kit’s family for this project. Kit’s thinking is revealed in her written words and in her silences and omissions. Throughout there is another voice, the historian who witnesses, comments and interprets. Butler is watching, assessing, aligning corroborative material to understand Kit’s changing sense of her place in the world. We do not enter Kit’s internal world as such but we are aware of its manifestations as she evolves from the rather sheltered 29-year-old woman from a small town called Little River in Victoria, Australia. Along with a contingent of nurses and soldiers, she set off  for an adventure on the Troopship, Orsova in 1915.Kit, a trained and experienced nurse, decides to write the diary as much as a letter home as anything else. It is a travelogue, a record of events and, as Butler observes, her writing reveals her consciousness of her place as a female within her social world at home, observing the conventions of proper conduct and family expectations. As the book proceeds ‘Kitty’ becomes ‘Kit’. Hers is both a physical journey – Kit was away from home for four years – and, potentially a voyage of discovery, a ‘Getting of Wisdom’. Or is it?

Butler writes,

For nurses travelling to war, the Anzac legend opens out the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Australian soldiers experienced a loss of identity as they entered training camps, left their individual civilian jobs, clothing and characteristics behind, and, as historian Bart Ziino points out in his ‘Journeys into War’ were informed that discipline meant the ‘sinking of the self for the good of the whole’. The experience of the nurses was directly opposite. They continued the work they did as civilians but their journey into war challenged and enabled them to expand and develop their sense of self. ( p. 18).

Kit begins with her observation of shipboard life. Here was a group of young men and women, freed from the social proprieties of  life at home. And as people do, they had sex with one another. Kit walks the fine line, too. She makes friends with someone called George, meets him at the various meeting places on board and observes during a trip to the boat deck with him that they ‘saw all the sights worth seeing – two that looked like one, etc.etc.’ Then as Butler notes, ‘Of course I was very good’. Kit is not one to reveal  her most private thoughts and actions, at least to an audience of readers back home.

We follow Kit first to Egypt where the opportunity to see the sights only ever read about and Kit’s first day on duty on the Island of Lemnos, where everything was in readiness for them was coloured by the fact that the nurses were not wanted – at Lemnos. They were undermined by the Officers who preferred the work done by untrained orderlies. Patients were not properly cared for. They were dirty, dishevelled and starving. Climactic conditions were harsh. The island, buffeted by winds was a death trap.Temperatures were low. It took months for warm clothes to be issued for the nurses. Some died, as did patients. Needlessly. Despite all this, Butler notes the silences in the diaries. Reluctance to complain, habits of self effacement and acceptance of one’s lot part and parcel of life at home meant that real need was not admitted to. After leaving Lemnos Kit contracted diphtheria, permanently damaging her heart.

Butler follows Kit to Cairo, for socializing and romance and eventually to The Somme where she nurses German wounded soldiers. Here she discloses some of the horror. She describes the gravity and severity of the wounds, of gas gangrene, amputations and suffering. She is trusted to operate , describing how she cut into a wound to retrieve  a bullet. Throughout she is aware that these men are on the other side, even as she owes a duty of care. She also comes to like them. Throughout Kit is supported by her friend Ida Mockridge. They are companions throughout the war. Such pairings were common amongst the nurses. They travelled together, were posted together and went home together. Butler’s account of the bonds of female friendship, part of life in the Victorian era, also suggests that these enabled survival, psychologically speaking.

After the Somme we accompany Kit into some of the most brutal battlefields on the Western Front. By this time Kit, along with her colleagues, are well able to assert themselves. No more are they the compliant self effacing martyrs that arrived in the middle east a couple of years back.

And the writing is superb. Butler is unflinching as she describes the conditions surrounding the hospital tents close to the front line – of bombs, bullets, and the cries of wounded men as they flooded into the hospitals. These are the places, later described by at least one writer in 1924 – a doctor treating war-traumatized veterans where the most brutal and crucial battles were fought.(1) Butler sustains her voice, weaving her story in and out of Kit’s diary. She uses the writings of Kit’s colleagues, her soldier friends, and that of the Matron in Charge to pull few punches about the relentless horror and madness of this war. She sympathises with Kit’s exhaustion and, without burrowing much into the psychological damage rendered by such experiences, and merely notes that these days Kit may well have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Psychoanalysis began to come into its own on these battlefields when doctors, treating battle traumatized soldiers among them, W H R Pitt Rivers,found that the ‘talking cure’, developed by Freud helped to heal those minds. One of the silences in Kit’s Diary, it appears, concerns these psychological processes. Perhaps ‘mental cases’ as Kit put it were outside her ambit, or were considered to be cases of malingering or cowardice, even as the medical journals were beginning to document cases of  shell shock as a hysterical condition. Kit also suffered from what she witnessed, from grief from losing her friends and comrades. On looking at  photographs taken before and after Kit went to war  Butler remarks upon the grief and pain shadowing Kit’s eyes in the ‘after’ photograph. Kit may not have felt the need for psychological assistance. Or may be she would have baulked at the idea, thinking it a weakness.

Butler’s account though, does much to contextualize the emergence of psychological understandings of trauma, loss and grief as well as apprehension of the usefulness of psychoanalytic therapies from doctors in the field. Perhaps Kit’s silence on the psychological impact of war also reflected wider perceptions of mental illness. Indeed the Australian Doctor John Springthorpe, whose main work was in insane asylums prior to leaving for the war, fought an uphill battle with the Australian Government’s   Repatriation Commission to have it accept war neurosis as grounds for disablement and the granting of war pensions. As Butler might note,  silence about the impact of war on nurses at the front may be continuing. Archival sources and journal articles describe the aetiology of war trauma on the men who returned from the front. And yet Kit who subsequently married after her return, also suffered from ill health and may well have died earlier than she would have had she not gone away.

This is an important book,a tale of one woman, told seamlessly and with compassion. It is a journey into war and into the psyche of a personage of another time and place, and yet one that is also part of our formation. It deserves a place alongside Pat Barker’s War Trilogy, Regeneration.


Reference: J P Lowson (1924), ‘Some points in the psychology of a nervous breakdown’, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, Vol.2, Issue 2, pp.113-132.