Sister Catherine 'Kit' McNaughton, Royal Red Cross Medal, 1st Class. The Rose of No Man’s Land*
[A biography of Catherine (Kitty) McNaughton's war service can be found here]
Catherine 'Kit' or 'Kitty' McNaughton was one of thirty-nine residents from the small community of Little River who enlisted for service in the First World War. McNaughton's cousin, Sarah Helen (Sadie) McIntosh, also enlisted as a nurse. Sadie's brother, James David McIntosh, (Kitty's cousin) also enlisted in the A.I.F. Twelve of those Little River residents would never return.
Then 29 years old, Kit had been nursing for three years at the Geelong hospital when she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. When she enlisted in 1916 she joined the throng of more than 2,500 Australian nurses who were posted overseas to tend to the sick and the wounded on Lemnos, behind the front-line on the Western front and back in England. Kit’s war was an almost endless round of ministration to the wounded, patching up damaged soldier-boys from both sides.
During the Battle of the Somme almost her entire time was spent patching up wounded Germans. She was mentioned in despatches for ‘distinguished and gallant service and devotion to duty in the Field, France’ on 18 November 1916, and awarded the Royal Red Cross, 1st Class.
After taking leave in England in December 1917, after two years of harrowing, relentless work close to the front-line dealing with the death and disability of hundreds of young men, Kit decided that she has done enough behind the line and requested that she be able to stay and work in Britain. She was appointed to No.3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford, Kent.
In August 1918 Kit was promoted to the position of Theatre Sister at the new facio-maxillery unit at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. This was a real honour for her as she was the first Australian nurse to work in the new area of plastic surgery, and the first ‘colonial’ to be appointed to a position of authority.
After the war
Much has been written about the effect the trauma of war had on the lives of returned men, but little acknowledgement is given to the effect on the nursing sisters whose experience of war also exposed them to the same horrors. In their work they too saw the best and the worst that one man, one nation, can do to another. Devoted sisters nursed with loving care young men who just could not be saved. They saw boys, not out of their teens, whose limbs were shattered; farm-boys who would never walk or sit in a saddle again. They too shared the trauma of the fighting, wounded men. Nurses too were shelled by the enemy; by aircraft that bombed them from leaden skies, and they too got sick—pneumonia, enteric fever, tuberculosis, and dysentery—these were the viral infections carried from the trenches that also struck them down, causing the early demise of, many sisters already wearied by war.
When the sisters came home, just like many of the returned men, they too found adjustment to civilian life difficult. Already in their thirties few married, most were prematurely grey. Kit already grey herself, was in more ways than one quite unusual. She was dedicated smoker, a habit she picked up when she joined the army. When she arrived home she shocked the locals when they saw her step from the train with a cigarette in her mouth.
At age 36 years she married—‘the boy next door’. The Ryan family were neighbours and it was always expected that Kit and Joe would marry, but she eventually found the expectations of a normal family life too constricting. She stayed with her Joe on the Little River farm, they lived in the old Mt Rothwell Inn, until their children had grown, then, valuing her independence too much she moved to live in Greaves Street, Werribee in 1946, close to the Catholic Church which had always been an important part of her life.
In February 1953, aged then 68 years, Kit died of a heart attack at her home. She was buried in the Werribee cemetery. Nurses formed a guard of honour as her flag draped coffin was carried from the Church. Within a year Joe joined her.
In noting her passing the local newspaper dubbed her ‘The Rose of No Man’s Land’. The Rose of No Man’s Land was one of the most popular songs of the post-war period and resonated with returned men, in particular those who had been wounded or hospitalised during the war. The song refers to the Red Cross Nurse as the one ‘red rose’ the soldier would come to know and rely upon while recovering away from the front line.
The second chorus of the song reads: It's the one red rose the soldier knows, It's the work of the Master's hand; Mid the War's great curse, Stands the Red Cross Nurse, She's the rose of "No Man's Land".
In 1967, Kit’s daughter Patricia Barnes, who had been living with her mother in the Greaves Street house, wrote to the Central Army Records Office, at the Albert Park Barracks, enquiring whether one of the new medals that were being distributed to all Anzacs could be made available to their mother.
Kitty’s War by Janet Butler. University of Queensland Press, 2013.