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This Tuesday is Remembrance Day, so today we will remember a World War I heroine. The Australian nurses who served in World War I have not always received the full recognition they deserve, but the award-winning television miniseries Anzac Girls, based on their stories, has brought these “other Anzacs” attention this year.
More than 5000 Australian nurses served during World War I, many of them in the sort of unofficial capacity that meant they are barely remembered today. They worked under gruelling conditions, underpaid, under-resourced, and often forced to improvise. They shared many of the soldiers’ hardships, including illness, physical danger, and psychological trauma.
Nurses were a vital part of the war effort, taking care of wounded soldiers, and offering comfort and cheer, giving them the courage to go back to the battlefield. No matter what horrors they saw, nurses had to remain cheerful, because the men depended on them. Many nurses became friends with their patients, meaning that losing one in battle brought deeper emotional strain. The Allied soldiers often commented that Australian nurses were amongst the kindest and most caring, and their professional standards were high.
Sister Constance Keys has been on the blog twice before – she was amongst a group of nurses whose photo was used for Girls Names from the 1910s, and a quote from one of her letters was used for the entry on Gallipoli. Constance Keys was a Brisbane nurse who enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1914, serving in Egypt, England, France, and Belgium.
Constance treated casualties from Gallipoli, and for most of 1918 was right near the front line in northern France, where her nursing station was heavily bombed more than once. Conditions were wet and cold, greatly increasing the suffering of her patients, and making movement difficult. She and her staff treated those who had been gassed, coped with influenza outbreaks, and had many casualties who suffered from exhaustion as well as wounds.
Sister Keys was discharged from the AIF in 1920 as one of the most highly decorated nurses in the AANS. Twice mentioned in dispatches for bravery, she received the Royal Red Cross, first and second class, and was awarded the Médaille des Epidémies in recognition of her work for French refugees. After the war, she became a hospital matron, and married a Gallipoli veteran; during World War II she trained Red Cross volunteers and entertained soldiers.
After her death, her wartime diaries and letters came to light, as well as her autograph book, in which she managed to get the signature of King George V. They give a clear picture of a young woman who was not only courageous and compassionate, but determined to remain in good spirits.
Under fire, Constance was “only afraid of being afraid”, and in the English fogs, “apart from the constant feeling of loss, quite well”. She writes of her little troubles, such as not having enough food, her hair falling out, and being a “bushwhacker” in regard to fashion, all in bright and amusing terms. She was a caring nurse who wrote letters and postcards to soldiers with no mail, felt guilty that she could only afford to shout ten men to lemonade and not everyone, and took time to make mud pies with a “little French kid”.
Connie also enjoyed those moments of pleasure and fun that came her way, such as buying a lovely pair of buttoned boots in England, seeing exquisite Oriental artefacts in Cairo shop windows, a mess room in Belgium with a sweet-toned piano for her to play, going on leave in Cannes to wake up to eucalypts and wattles outside her window. But she always remained a Queensland girl who had forgotten the taste of mango, and longed for a slice of passionfruit cake.
Constance is the medieval Old French form of the Roman name Constantia, the feminine form of Constantius, derived from the name Constans. This Latin name means “constant, steadfast”, referring to someone steady and faithful in their purpose or feelings. It is the basis for the English word constancy.
Traditional amongst European royalty and nobility, this name literally came over with the Conqueror, because Constance was one of the children of William I, said to have been the most gifted of his daughters. Princess Constance was her mother’s favourite child, so she wasn’t offered in marriage until she was positively ancient by medieval standards – in her mid to late twenties. She married a duke of Brittany, but died not long afterwards, reputedly poisoned by her servants.
Constance has often been used by the British aristocracy. One example is Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton, a suffragette who went by the alias Jane Warton so she wouldn’t receive special treatment. A vegetarian, campaigner for birth control, prison reformist, and supporter of Morris dancing, she never married, as her mother would not allow her to marry a man from a lower social class. She died from a heart attack and series of strokes in her fifties; it is thought from the force-feedings she endured while hunger-striking in prison.
Other upper-class Constances include the pacifist writer Lady Constance Malleson, who performed as an actress under the name Colette O’Niel, Lady Constance Gaskell, Lady in Waiting to Princess Marina, and (Constance) Gwladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a patron of the arts and friend of celebrities such as Oscar Wilde and Nellie Melba. This reminds me that Oscar Wilde’s wife was named Constance too.
Constance is a favourite choice for aristocrats in English fiction, such as P.G. Wodehouse’s imposing Lady Constance Keeble, and Lady Constance Chatterley who forms a close connection with her husband’s gamekeeper in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is also a Shakespearean name, because the historical character Constance, Duchess of Brittany, who married a son of Henry II, appears in King John.
But Constance was not just a name for dames, duchesses, and dowagers. Being a virtue name, it was appreciated by the Puritans, and Constance Hopkins was a teenaged girl who sailed on the Mayflower as a pilgrim: she was a sister of the baby boy Oceanus who was born on the voyage, and often mentioned in name blogs. Constance married and had twelve children, who provided her with seventy four grand-children; she has many living descendents. So the name Constance has plenty of history in America too.
Constance left the US Top 1000 in 2000, is still falling, and last year there were 103 baby girls named Constance – the same number as those called Arwen. It is much more popular in the UK, where Constance is #267 and stable. Constance is most popular in France, where it is just outside the Top 100 and rising.
In Australia, Constance was #83 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #76, before leaving the Top 100 in the 1930s. It dropped off the charts in the 1960s, and made a minor come-back in the 1990s at #751. I rarely see a baby named Constance, but it does get a bit of use as a middle name, where it makes a wonderful alternative to the popular Grace.
Constance is a beautiful, elegant traditional name; a strong, brave name for a woman, yet also modest and sensible. It’s in rare use now, but that may be a drawcard for those parents wanting a familiar name that isn’t common. The nickname Connie sounds dated, which probably helps explain its lack of popularity, but you could use something more modern, like Coco or Tansy. However, Constance doesn’t need a nickname in my opinion – it’s lovely all on its own.
Constance received an outstanding approval rating of 88%, making it the highest-rated of the featured names of the “Waltzing” category in 2014. 34% of people liked the name Constance, while 30% didn’t mind it. Only 1% (1 person) hated the name the Constance.
(Photo of Sister Constance “Connie” Keys from the Bundaberg News Mail)