Tag Archives: war
Fiona McLeod, The University of Queensland and Martin Crotty, The University of QueenslandThe revival of interest in Anzac since the 1980s has depended in part on the repositioning of soldiers as victims. We rarely celebrate their martial virtues, and instead note their resilience, fortitude and suffering.
This shift in emphasis opens up more promising space for the inclusion of women. Nurses were not warriors – they were caregivers. But they too suffered trauma as a result of their service.
In what must be regarded as something of a miracle, no Australian nurses were killed. But like the men they devoted themselves to, they were worn down and in some cases shattered by the horrors they witnessed.
From 1916, Australian nurses served in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS), almost on the front line, often under fire and always under immense pressure. This was the most dangerous and intense working environment in which they could serve. It was far removed from the hospital ship environment at Gallipoli, or the hospitals further from the lines, where there was at least the prospect of regular respite.
The CCS was a 1915 innovation designed to provide treatment to men as soon as possible after they were injured. They operated close to the front lines, and so took nurses into the danger zone. CCS nurses were assailed by the realities of trench warfare and the demands of treating damaged men. Soldiers came to the CCS within hours of wounding, bloody and dying, needing urgent surgery for their shattered limbs and mangled bodies, or blistered and blinded from gas attacks.
The sight of the battle front was terrifying and compelling — Sister Elsie Tranter, for one, was captivated. She wrote in her diary that on her first night at a CCS near Grevillers, in March 1918 she:
[…] had the flaps on the tent fastened back and spent most of the night watching the flashes in the sky from the guns […] everything seemed so surreal.
[…] a continuous rumble and roar, as of an immense factory of vibrating machinery filled the night. The pulsing sounds and vibration worked into our bodies and brains; the screech of the big shells, and the awful crash when they burst at no great distance, kept our nerves on edge.
Shrapnel falling to the ground, the thrilling sight of aerial dog fights, damp and dirty dugouts, sandbagged tents, constant artillery fire, the smell of gas, the tremble of the earth — this was the landscape of the CCS.
Sister Connie Keys did not expect they would come through safely, and later confided to her mother that now “I’m only afraid of being afraid”. She had experienced terror beyond measure.
CCSs struggled to cope at the height of battle, and staff worked extremely long hours to deal with the flood of casualties. One of them, 2nd Australian CCS, had a nursing staff of 20 and put through 2,800 patients in the first 18 hours of the “Messines push”.
May Tilton recalled in her memoir that she often “went on duty at 8pm, worked continuously during a ‘stunt’[a minor military operation], until the following midday, with ten minutes for supper at midnight, and half an hour for breakfast at 8am”.
The experience of nurses attests to the aphorism of war as long periods of boredom interspersed with brief periods of terror.
Static attrition warfare, conducted through artillery bombardment, gassing and close fighting, produced fighting conditions and wounds that appalled both the victims and those who cared for them.
The resuscitation wards were the greatest test for nurses. Tilton recalled that:
[…] only the worst cases could we possibly hope to attend to. The work in the resuscitation ward was indescribable. The butchery of these precious lives […] To watch them dying was ghastly.
The night sister confessed
I cannot speak of it […] I want to scream and scream.
Nurses were brought to despair – not because they were unable to save lives, for nurses were accustomed to death, but because they were unable to care for patients as they would have done “at home”. They had been trained to fashion order out of chaos, to bring a patient through the days and nights of a health crisis with patience, gentleness and watchful vigilance, and in some cases to ease their path to a painless and tranquil death.
But in war, they wrestled with the irresolvable conflict between duty and fear, and between their compassion and the realities of conflict. Death on the Western Front was ugly, chaotic and painful, so much so that some “ministering angels” came to doubt their Christian faith. “I can’t believe there is a God,” wrote Sister Alice Ross King after the Ypres Offensive, “it is too awful for words”.
Nurses, like soldiers, knew when they were at breaking point, and feared being unable to fulfil their duties. Tilton confessed:
[…] the privacy of our tents was a welcome relief for the weakness we dared not show before our brave, suffering boys.
Even the Armistice, when it eventually came on November 11 1918, brought little comfort. Anne Donnell became terribly depressed and, like many, found joy impossible when she contemplated the sadness of empty homes and hearts.
Nurses carried the burden of putting back together the victims of conflict, yet struggled to maintain their own physical and mental health. For many, their return to Australia was marred by ill-health, and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they also displayed courage and resilience. The experiences of Australian Army nurses on the Western Front can be a starting point, reaching through all Australia’s wars, for discussion of the response to extreme physical and psychological stress borne by those who treat the casualties of war. They too were war’s victims.
When modern humans arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, they made a discovery that was to change the course of history.
The continent was already populated by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, which recent evidence suggests had their own relatively sophisticated culture and technology. But within a few thousand years the Neanderthals were gone, leaving our species to continue its spread to every corner of the globe.
Precisely how Neanderthals became extinct remains a subject of fierce debate among researchers. The two main explanations given in recent years have been competition with the recently arrived modern humans and global climate change.
The persistence of Neanderthal genetic material in all modern people outside of Africa shows the two species interacted and even had sex. But it’s possible that there were other kinds of interactions as well.
Some researchers have suggested that competition for resources such as prey and raw materials for stone tools may have taken place. Others have proposed violent interactions and even warfare took place, and that this may have caused the Neanderthals’ demise.
This idea might seem compelling, given our species’ violent history of warfare. But proving the existence of early warfare is a problematic (although fascinating) area of research.
War or murder?
New studies keep moving the threshold at which there is evidence for human warfare progressively earlier. But finding such evidence is fraught with problems.
Only preserved bones with injuries from weapons can give us a secure indication of violence at a given time. But how do you separate examples of murder or a family feud from prehistoric “war”?
To an extent, this question has been resolved by several examples of mass killing, where whole communities were massacred and buried together at a number of European sites dating to the Neolithic period (about 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, when agriculture first emerged).
For a while, these discoveries appeared to have settled the question, suggesting that farming led to a population explosion and pressure for groups to fight. However, even earlier instances of group killing suggested by the bones of hunter gatherers have re-opened the debate.
A further challenge is that it is very difficult to arrive at a definition of war applicable to prehistoric societies, without becoming so broad and vague that it loses meaning. As social anthropologist Raymond Kelly argues, while group violence may take place among tribal societies, it is not always regarded as “war” by those involved.
For example, in the dispensation of justice for homicide, witchcraft or other perceived social deviance, the “perpetrator” might be attacked by a dozen others. However, in such societies acts of warfare also commonly involve a single individual being ambushed and killed by a coordinated group.
Both scenarios essentially look identical to an outside observer, yet one is regarded as an act of war while the other is not. In this sense, war is defined by its social context rather than simply by the numbers involved.
A key point is that a very particular kind of logic comes into play where any member of an opposing group is seen as representing their whole community, and so becomes a “valid target”. For example, one group might kill a member of another group in retribution for a raid that the victim wasn’t involved in.
In this sense, war is a state of mind involving abstract and lateral thinking as much as a set of physical behaviours. Such acts of war may then be perpetrated (usually by males) against women and children as well as men, and we have evidence of this behaviour among skeletons of early modern humans.
So what does all this mean for the question of whether modern humans and Neanderthals went to war?
There is no doubt that Neanderthals engaged in and were the recipients of acts of violence, with fossils showing repeated examples of blunt injuries, mostly to the head. But many of these predate the appearance of modern humans in Europe and so cannot have occurred during meetings between the two species.
Similarly, among the sparse fossil record of early anatomically modern humans, various examples of weapon injuries exist, but the majority date to thousands of years after the Neanderthals’ disappearance.
Where we do have evidence of violence towards Neanderthals it is almost exclusively among male victims. This means it is less likely to represent “warfare” as opposed to competition between males.
While there is no doubt Neanderthals committed violent acts, the extent to which they were capable of conceptualising “war” in the way it is understood by modern human cultures is debatable. It is certainly possible that violent altercations could have taken place when members of the small, scattered populations of these two species came into contact (although we have no conclusive evidence for such), but these cannot realistically be characterised as warfare.
Certainly, we can see a pattern of violence-related trauma in modern human skeletons from the Upper Palaeolithic period (50,000 to 12,000 years ago) that remains the same into the more recent Mesolithic and Neolithic times. However, it is not at all clear that Neanderthals follow this pattern
On the bigger question of whether modern humans were responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals, it’s worth noting that Neanderthals in many parts of Europe seem to have gone extinct before our species had arrived. This suggests modern humans can’t be completely to blame, whether through war or competition.
However, what was present throughout the period was dramatic and persistent climate change that appears to have decreased the Neanderthals’ preferred woodland habitats. Modern humans, although they had just left Africa, seem to have been more flexible to different environments and so better at dealing with the increasingly common colder open habitats that may have challenged Neanderthals’ ability to survive.
So although the first modern Europeans may have been the first humans capable of organised warfare, we can’t say this behaviour was responsible or even necessary for the disappearance of Neanderthals. They may have simply been the victims of the natural evolution of our planet.