ANZAC Girls by Peter Rees

While more than forty Australian civilian nurses had served officially in the Boer War (1899 -1902) in South Africa, the outbreak of World War I on 4 August 1914 brought an immediate response from trained nurses keen to serve professionally as military nurses.
This book by Peter Rees is an account of some of the Australian and New Zealand nurses who volunteered and were accepted to serve. Large numbers applied and while the official number is approximately 2,286 nurses who served overseas, the number was more likely to be around 3,000.[1]

The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was formed at the outbreak of war as a trained civilian reserve of the Australian Army Medical Corps which the Australian Government offered to assist its British counterpart. Australian nurses therefore accompanied the men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) overseas to Europe. The waiting lists to serve were long for overseas postings and some Australian nurses, at least 130 of them chose to sail to England to join Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, a recognised body within the British Army.

Nurses could only be accepted into the Army nursing service if they had completed at least three years training in an approved hospital, be aged between 21 and 40 years and either single or widowed. If Australian nurses married, resignation was mandatory for them although this does not seem to have been enforced for Elsie Sheppard, married to Syd Cook, son of the Australian Prime Minister. While her enlistment details are still confusing and sketchy she succeeded in enlisting so   she could travel in the first convoy to Egypt and meet up with him there. She subsequently served as a married woman. When Syd was repatriated back to Sydney with a head wound from the Gallipoli campaign in early 1916, she was also, to home service at No. 4 Australian General Hospital at Randwick. Syd returned to the Western Front and Elsie resigned from AANS and was chosen to go with the Australian Red Cross contingent to France as one of the ‘Bluebirds’ to nurse on the Western Front. The experiences of this couple over four years of war, is followed throughout the book.

ANZAC Girls tells the personal stories of some of the 85 nurses, both Australians and New Zealanders documented. Peter Rees has used much material from diaries and letters and allows their personal individual experiences to bring the facts of medical treatment and professional nursing vividly to life. He also incorporates their stories within the overall Australian experience of overseas service in World War I. Through the eyes of the Australian nurses, we are also given an insight into the personal experiences and reactions of the soldiers, particularly but not exclusively, the wounded. The frustrations of dealing with the Army administration and the nurses’ persistence in gaining suitable treatment and supplies for the men and the recognition of their status as nurses, thereby ensuring better outcomes for the wounded, are followed throughout. Details of their professional and personal lives, rarely before documented in either official or individual accounts are openly recounted and give a very human appreciation of the horrors of conflict and the affect this had on the individual involved. Peter Rees has woven the experiences recounted by these serving military nurses from 1914–19 in Egypt, Lemnos, the hospital ships and the Western Front into a very readable but poignant narrative.

So often the nurses worked in appalling physical conditions where fresh water particularly was scarce, facilities, equipment and sanitation were almost non-existent and hygiene was very difficult to maintain. The establishment of No. 3 General Hospital on Lemnos in August 1915 for the treatment of casualties from Gallipoli was chaotic and supplies and equipment did not arrive for three weeks. The nurses slept in tents on the ground as did the casualties, tore up their clothes for bandages and amoebic dysentery was common. With so few facilities the washing of bodies as well as bandages was an enormous problem and when laundry went putrid it was burned. Their experiences highlight the inadequate preparation of facilities and supply by the Army hierarchy and the complete lack of appreciation of the possible number of casualties resulting from the Gallipoli campaign.

Extremely primitive medical facilities would seem to have been the norm. Even on the Western Front later in the war, while casualty clearing stations closer to the battle fields were housed in tents, so also were hospitals. In 1918 Arthur Streeton, by then an official war artist, painted the Field Hospital of the 3rd Australian General Hospital at Abbeville, France. It was made up of rows of large tents and some convalescent soldiers, dressed in ‘hospital blues’ with a nurse are in the fore ground.  Piles of dirty linen fill the rows between the tents.

Another constant was the noise of the continual bombardments which wore everyone down.  Nothing could have prepared them either for the huge problems of overcrowding, poor ventilation, vermin and the temperature. In France in 1916 everyone froze. There were enormous numbers of wounded to deal with and the nurses found themselves in the position of making triage decisions frequently. Without their intervention and commitment to their profession, many soldiers would not have survived.

While some of the nurses may well have dealt with shooting accidents in Australia, nothing could have prepared them for the horror of shrapnel wounds and the sheer volume of casualties with ghastly injuries. Dealing with the numbers of wounded, organising their feeding, the dressing of wounds and cleaning men who arrived filthy from battle took their toll. At these times 15 hour shifts would be common and sometimes antiseptics and anaesthesia were in very short supply.

These experiences bred a strong bond between the sisters and many of the medical officers recognised their achievements and admired their professionalism. Matron Grace Wilson was initially the main person responsible for her nurses’ reputation and she sought greater recognition, status and support by working to achieve military rank for them.

Any reader of this book cannot  help but be moved by the devotion to duty, the professionalism and courage, indomitable will and determination, exhibited by the nurses, over four long years. Their stories are also of the personal anguish of women in wartime, their loves, hopes and caring for the men in their lives while at the same time living in the trauma associated with the horror of war.   Many of them also suffered the deep exhaustion and the breakdown of their health that grief brings.

The book includes a fine selection of photographs, many of which have been reproduced for the first time. Honour rolls of casualties of Australian and New Zealand nurses are included. The index with the names of the nurses in bold, assists with the location of particular nurses in the text. The last chapter, ‘The Aftermath’ is fascinating to read as it explores the nurses’ experiences post war. So many of them married men they met overseas. One can only hope that civilian life gave them the peace of mind and security that had been denied them for the duration of the war and its immediate aftermath.

The centenary of World War I, while highlighting the campaigns of the ‘war to end all wars’ has encouraged historians to research and publish stories of other groups who contributed to the final victory and the sacrifices, stoicism and courage of ordinary men and women. ANZAC Girls is a very poignant but excellent account of one special group, the Australian nurses.

[1] Kirsty Harris.  More than Bombs and Bandages: Australian Army nurses at work in World War I. Big Sky Publishing Pty Ltd, Newport, 2011.

Contact Janet Roberts Billett about this article.

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