A combination of a strong family connection to the Great War and a lifelong love of history inspired Peter Rees to write Anzac Girls: The extraordinary story of our World War I nurses, the book on which the upcoming ABC TV series is based. Paula Grunseit reports.
By the end of the Great War, 45 Australian and New Zealand nurses had died on overseas service and over 200 had been decorated.
Using letters and diaries, Peter Rees tells the stories of the remarkable women who risked their own lives while nursing the wounded and dying in unimaginable conditions in France and Belgium, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Through the author’s personal approach, we are privileged to get to know the Anzac girls through their friendships, hardships, loves and losses.
Rees says his fascination with history began in his high school days. “I’ve had a deep interest in it since I studied modern history at school and that interest developed over the years,” he says. “As for the subject of Australian service nurses … I went to the ceremony to unveil the nurses’ war memorial in Anzac Parade [Canberra] in October 1999. I went along as a working journalist to cover the event. There were so many service nurses at the ceremony and I was quite blown away by the atmosphere that I found there. It surprised me — their emotional reaction to the fact that finally their service and that of their colleagues over decades was finally being welcomed and that they were being welcomed into the Anzac story. They were being acknowledged and it was pretty clear to me that they had seen themselves as having been sidelined in this story and for this to be unfolding here, in the Parade leading up to the Australian War Memorial, brought great significance to them.”
In addition to his love of modern history, Rees explains he has a strong family connection to the Great War. “I grew up with World War I in my family,” he says. “My grandfather Jim White and Fred White, my great uncle (they were brothers), both fought at Lone Pine, at Gallipoli in the 7th Battalion AIF. As it turned out, when I started researching more closely into my grandfather’s story, I realised that in fact he was hospitalised at Lemnos which is one of the important parts of the story that I write about in the book. That’s one of those connections that work for you to help spur an added interest.”
When Rees began researching aspects of his family history, he began putting missing pieces together. “I was stunned to find from my great uncle’s war record that he had been buried alive at the first battle of Bullecourt,” he says. “In later years when I was a boy growing up and I met him, the first thing that struck me was how nervous he was. He effectively had the shakes and it was only when I really started researching this that I understood what the cause probably was. He was buried in a shell explosion and was dug out but obviously never recovered from that horrific experience.
“Throughout his life, my grandfather carried a piece of shrapnel in his forearm which bulged and I always wondered about it. I was just starting to get him to talk about it when he had a stroke and eventually died. The story was lost so that made me realise that in terms of getting stories from participants from the veterans who take part in wars, you can’t waste a lot of time. My grandfather just wouldn’t talk about the war and he didn’t really believe in going to Anzac Day marches either. He’d seen the horror and he recoiled from it.”
Despite risking their lives and doing vital work in horrific conditions, service nurses not only experienced discrimination during the war on the job, but also back home in the post-war era, their work went unrecognised, unacknowledged.
“There was a certain amount of discrimination certainly in the early part of the war where the army medical hierarchy really didn’t believe in the need for nurses,” Rees says. “They thought the work that they did could be just as adequately handled by properly trained orderlies. Well of course that was nonsense and it didn’t take long for that to be understood.
“Another issue that perhaps touches on discrimination which occurred during the war was with anaesthetists. The medical services were so understaffed particularly to begin with but it continued right throughout the war. At the big battles where there were hundreds, thousands of causalities, there weren’t enough anaesthetists and the sisters were doing those and the medical authorities decided that this was only something that doctors should do. All the training the nurses had received was made redundant because they were prevented from doing that work,” he says.
The attitude of the Australian and New Zealand governments towards returned nurses was also discriminatory. “War gratuities were not given out on the same basis as they were for the men,” Rees says. “In New Zealand, they weren’t eligible for housing loans. There was a very nasty sexism evident at the time.”
Adjusting to post-war life was difficult and sometimes impossible. Shell shock, what we now know to be PTSD, was not recognised at all and this applied equally to the returned nurses as it did to the returned soldiers. “When the nurses came back they had to deal with it just as much as the troops did,” Rees says. “Some gave up nursing entirely, there were suicides.”
So, what is at the heart of this lack of acknowledgement? Rees says: “I think that for so long the nurses were seen as a service that had been secondary and that’s because the way the Anzac legend, the Anzac story, had been passed down over generations. It was very male-dominated and what that meant was that we as a nation had not had the opportunity to empathise with the experiences of the women who were involved in that and it really took the chance to be able empathise with them to understand their stories — for them to be included in the Anzac story.”
As for the relevance of the Anzac story today, Rees says:
“It shows that the real history of that war, the importance of that war, is in the stories of the ordinary people who took part in it — those who fought in it — the troops, not the generals but the infantrymen, the nurses, the people who took the orders putting their lives on the line in the trenches.”
Rees says that this is very much the approach that war historian Charles Bean took right from the start. (In fact, Rees is currently finishing a biography of Bean to be published in 2015.) “He wanted to tell the story from the point of view of those at the front line and not depend as the British did in their histories on having it related to them from general headquarters,” Rees says.