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Anzac Girls book and documentary :: We speak to author Peter Rees

Based in Canberra, Rees counts himself lucky to be so close to the Australian War Memorial (AWM), the National Library of Australia, and the National Archives. He began researching Anzac Girls around ten years ago as he explains: “I started calling up files at the AWM on the nurses I’d done some preliminary research on to get the names of a few and it went on from there. The more I read their letters and diaries and memoirs, the more I was fascinated. I transcribed all of this material. That is one of the important ways I work. I think it’s so crucial that you do actually soak up the feelings that are being expressed and to do that I find it’s absolutely essential to transcribe material because you can then go back and look at it and pick up deeper, wider meanings. I spent four years going through diaries and letters and along the way, I was fortunate enough to talk to family members and I really believe in firsthand primary research as far as possible. Of course by that stage none of the nurses were alive so I was dealing with family members.

“One of the fortunate experiences I had was to meet the daughter of Alice Ross-King [Alice being one of the women who features in the book and in the TV series] and I got to know her quite well. She showed me a letter Lieutenant Harry Moffitt had written to Alice professing his love for her from the trenches of Fromelles. For 100 years Harry Moffitt has not even been a footnote in Australian history but through this series I believe he may well become the face of Fromelles through this relationship and the letter he wrote to Alice.”

Rees was heavily involved in the TV series adaptation of his book acting as a consultant and providing diary transcripts, letters, and other background material. He also spoke to the cast before production about his interpretation of the characters, the real people, they were playing.

Click on the image to watch the ABC TV trailer
Click on the image to watch the ABC TV trailer

Studio portrait of five sisters of the AANS stationed at No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital and wearing the 1914 working dress. Seated in the front row on the left is Matron Ethel Gray, whose rank is shown by her thick brown cuffs and stand collar.
Studio portrait of five sisters of the AANS stationed at No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital and wearing the 1914 working dress. Seated in the front row on the left is Matron Ethel Gray, whose rank is shown by her thick brown cuffs and stand collar.

Rees says the adaptation does not shy away from portraying the reality of the war. “They’ve done that graphically,” he says. “The series has captured the horror that these women had to deal with. You get the sense of these nurses, young women who’ve grown up in Edwardian Australia, going off on an adventure to an exotic part of the world. And after a couple of months or so, suddenly, this adventure takes a completely new turn and overnight they’re confronted with the sight of horrific wounds on a mass scale and their menfolk dying before them. So, as a social personal experience, it’s captured quite graphically I think in the series.

“It is important to see the story of Anzac through the eyes of these women,” Rees says. “Just as the men were thrust into an experience they effectively knew nothing about, so were the women who went there to nurse them. I don’t think it’s really been understood how dangerous it was for these women and the more I researched the story the clearer that became.”

“The first night that they were at Gallipoli on the hospital ships, shells were lobbing in the water alongside them; bullets were landing on deck and then at the Western Front they were bombed. It was an incredibly dangerous experience. I think it’s great to have the opportunity to tell the stories of these women — to give them their due place.”

Anzac Girls premieres this Sunday, 10 August, on ABC TV, 8:30pm.

The Anzac Girls by Peter Rees

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