Book re­veals women’s roles in WW1

The Wellingtonian - - Front Page - NI­CHOLAS BOYACK

New Zealand prides it­self on be­ing the first coun­try to give women the vote, but we largely ig­nored the con­tri­bu­tion of women in World War I, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Jane Tol­er­ton.

Her lat­est book Make Her Praises Heard Afar, fea­tures the largely un­told story of women – doc­tors, nurses, am­bu­lance drivers, mu­ni­tions work­ers and land girls – who put aside their life in New Zealand for the war.

The per­sonal sto­ries in­clude Lin All­man, a 19 year-old Palmer­ston North of­fice worker who went over­seas to work for the Bri­tish Red Cross.

Ian Ma­clean, of Welling­ton, said his mother came from a fam­ily of four girls and had taken cour­ses in first aid.

She worked as a clerk in hospi­tals in England and France and was over­seas for three years. When she left, her boss wrote her a touch­ing farewell mes­sage.

‘‘My word you will feel lonely af­ter you go away and that you are far from home and friends but … I be­lieve you have a brave heart and as I have al­ways told you should have been a boy.’’

Tol­er­ton’s ini­tial in­ter­est in World War I was sparked by Et­tie Rout - a dis­tant rel­a­tive.

Rout worked with New Zealand sol­diers in Egypt and France, sup­ply­ing pro­phy­lac­tics to stop the spread of vene­real dis­eases.

Work­ing in Paris, she would meet the trains car­ry­ing New Zealand sol­diers and tell them about safe sex, and and which brothel she rec­om­mended.

Al­though she was highly re­garded by New Zealand sol­diers, Rout re­ceived lit­tle recog­ni­tion back home.

When Rout died in 1936 the Press As­so­ci­a­tion de­scribed her as ‘‘one of the best known of New Zealand women’’ but did not say what she had done.

It was not un­til Tol­er­ton pub­lished her award-win­ning bi­og­ra­phy Et­tie Rout, in 1992 that Rout was recog­nised for the hugely im­por­tant work she did for the troops.

Tol­er­ton has now turned her at­ten­tion to the role played by women.

His­to­ri­ans ‘‘mas­sively un­der­re­ported the role of New Zealand women,’’ she said.

That was ironic in a coun­try that prided it­self on be­ing the first to give women the vote.

At least 25 New Zealand fe­male doc­tors worked over­seas, in­clud­ing two who headed all-women field hospi­tal units.

De­spite com­ing from the other side of the world, New Zealand women achieved a num­ber of no­table firsts. NZ nurses were in the first Bri­tish Red Cross group to go to Bel­gium and in the first French Flag Nurs­ing Corps groups to work with the French Gov­ern­ment.

Dr Agnes Ben­nett of Welling­ton was the first fe­male doc­tor to work in a Bri­tish mil­i­tary med­i­cal unit – with New Zealan­ders dur­ing the Gal­lipoli cam­paign.

Enid Bell was the first mem­ber of the Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice. About a dozen New Zealand women were among the first to re­ceive the new MBES and OBES in 1918 for war work.

Tol­er­ton is mys­ti­fied that such a rich his­tory has been ig­nored by his­to­ri­ans and largely left out of the of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing var­i­ous World War I an­niver­sar- ies.

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial un­earthed came from the Onslow His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. It held the records of Pixie Laing, who had mar­ried Nor­man Bell of the Bell Bus Com­pany, which op­er­ated in Welling­ton.

Onslow his­to­rian Judy Siers in­vited Tol­er­ton to the so­ci­ety’s rooms to in­ves­ti­gate a large trunk re­lat­ing to Laing.

Its con­tents re­vealed that Laing, from Dunedin, went to Paris to work as a dancer at the Folies Berg­ere in 1916 but gave up the glam­our to be an am­bu­lance driver with the New Zealand Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in Bri­tain.

A photo album pro­vided pic­tures of women am­bu­lance drivers, in­clud­ing a Ma¯ori woman. Tol­er­ton said Laing’s story was just one of many fas­ci­nat­ing ac­counts.

She hoped that Make Her Praises Heard Afar would give women like Laing a voice that had been si­lent for 100 years.

sa­cred, folk mu­sic from the Balkans, Nov 25, from 7pm. Po­etry at the Fringe: The Fringe Bar, 26-32 Allen Street, Welling­ton Cen­tral, open mic then guest mu­si­cians, lo­cal in­die group The Brook­lyns, fol­lowed by guest poet Karen Ze­las, Nov 19, from 4pm.


All Shook Up: Up­per Hutt Mu­si­cal The­atre presents a juke­box­mu­si­cal in­spired by Elvis Pres­ley, Up-stage Mu­si­cal The­atre, Moon­shine Rd, Up­per Hutt, from Nov 1.


Want to see your event on this page? Visit and fill out the on­line formwith your event de­tails. Make sure you do this at least one week be­fore your event. In­clu­sion is at the ed­i­tor’s dis­cre­tion.

Au­thor Jane Tol­er­ton’s book tells the story of women such as Pixie Laing, above, a Folies Berg­ere dancer who be­came an am­bu­lance driver in WWI. CAITLIN SAL­TER

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