Ettie went to Egypt and France and, through her work, discovered the extent of preventable venereal (sexually-transmitted) disease amongst the troops. She saw this as a medical rather than a moral problem and encouraged safe sex through education and prophylactic kits.
The first 10 Volunteer Sisters, all from Canterbury, departed for Egypt in July 1915. Sisters like this unidentified woman with an English soldier, assisted overseas hospital staff with the care of soldiers as well as laundry and other housekeeping duties.
Ettie hoped that the experience they gained could lead to probationary nursing positions. The New Zealand public praised the good work of Ettie and her organisation. One soldier called her “a second Florence Nightingale”.
New Zealand public opinion on Ettie Rout shifted towards the end of 1917 after she sent letters to New Zealand newspapers describing the widespread problems with venereal disease amongst New Zealand troops and urging the distribution of prophylactic kits to soldiers.
Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) condemned Ettie and the sin they believed she was promoting.
On 24 October 1917, The New Zealand Times published a long letter from Ettie detailing the shocking truth about venereal disease amongst New Zealand soldiers. Their rates of infection were higher than other overseas troops. Ettie estimated that at least 5,000 to 6,000 New Zealand soldiers were infected every year.
The New Zealand Government’s attempts at controlling soldier behaviour through moral persuasion, military orders and appeals to patriotism had failed. Impractical moral standards, she argued, needed to be replaced by medical measures such as prophylactic kits containing condoms.
The conventional but ineffective way of dealing with sexually-transmitted disease was to encourage soldiers to abstain from sex.
Cartoons and magazines warned men of the trouble they could get in and reminded them of the women who waited for them at home.