Anzac Girls last night on ABC

In March I read Thomas Keneally’s excellent novel Daughters of Mars. See Recent reading: Thomas Keneally, Alan Monaghan, John O’Connell, One hundred years ago or thereabouts… and Kept dry yesterday. So I was looking forward to Anzac Girls, which purports to be based on several real people, particularly dramatising Peter Rees, The Other Anzacs (2008) which I haven’t read.

By the end of The Great War, forty-five Australian and New Zealand nurses had died on overseas service and over two hundred had been decorated. These were women who left for war on an adventure, but were soon confronted with remarkable challenges for which their civilian lives could never have prepared them.

They were there for the horrors of Gallipoli and they were there for the savagery the Western Front. Within twelve hours of the slaughter at Anzac Cove they had over 500 horrifically injured patients to tend on one crammed hospital ship, and scores of deaths on each of the harrowing days that followed. Every night was a nightmare. Their strength and humanity were remarkable.

Using diaries and letters, Peter Rees takes us into the hospital camps, and the wards and the tent surgeries on the edge of some of the most horrific battlefronts of human history. But he also allows the friendships and loves of these courageous and compassionate women to enrich their experiences, and ours.

This is a very human story from a different era, when women had not long begun their quest for equality and won the vote. They were on the frontline of social change as well as war, and the hurdles they had to overcome and the price they paid, personally and professionally, make them a unique group in Anzac history…

I had hoped the TV series might have a really good informative web site, but instead it does offer a fairly comprehensive PDF document. You can also find cast details and so on at IMDB.


One story that featured prominently last night concerned Sydney and Elsie Cook.

…Cook, the son of Australia’s sixth prime minister, Joseph Cook, had been engaged to Elsie Sheppard for a few months when his father declared the colonials would throw their support behind Mother England and go to war.

The couple quickly married, enlisted and set off on transport ships to Egypt – Syd first, as an officer, then Elsie, who joined the Australian Nursing Service under her maiden name to get around a rule requiring nurses to be single.

Within a year, Syd would be shot in the leg at the Gallipoli landing on April25, 1915. Recovered, but still walking with a limp, he led a battalion into the Battle of Lone Pine, where he was shot in the head.

Elsie transferred to Syd’s ward to be at his bedside and, incredibly, he survived…

The grim realities are evident in diaries kept by Elsie, which are displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

‘‘What an eventful year! My engagement, marriage, finishing my training and old life at Prince Alfred Hospital, the outbreak of the Great War, my joining the Army Nursing Service and leaving home and Australia for the first time,’’ she wrote on December31, 1914.

‘‘New Year’s Day dawned … a gloriously moonlit morning, calm and beautiful, everyone bright and happy, and so begins 1915. It seems a good omen.’’

Just five months later, as the wounded trickled back from the failed Gallipoli landing, Elsie would write: ‘‘Hundreds of Australian wounded back from the landing at the Dardanelles.

‘‘Frightfully busy, getting off their bandages & dirty blood-stained clothes, washing them, the wounds to be dressed. Some had not been touched for days.

‘‘We have got 700 badly wounded men and six Sisters and a matron! Wounded still arriving in their hundreds.’’

The diaries, which cover a significant chunk of the war, helped Laura Brent get into character  portraying Elsie…

‘‘However, so much is taken from Elsie’s diary, and I actually met her grandson, Hartley Cook, who was an incredible help.’’

Hartley Cook still lives and works in Sydney, running Grafton Galleries at Rushcutters Bay, the antiques business his grandmother, Elsie, started in 1945.

He  has several strong memories of his grandfather. 

In the first, he is sitting on his grandfather’s lap,  running a finger along the indentation in his skull left by a Lone Pine bullet. 

The second memory is of being at a Sydney church in 1972, as his grandfather’s coffin is carried out through a guard of honour of World War I veterans…

See also Spotlight On – Georgia Flood of ANZAC Girls.

The hospital scenes were certainly well done – chillingly real. On the other hand I found some lines of dialogue – such as the one about “getting out from under England’s shadow” — less than convincing.

Meanwhile a kind of local connection. I suspect when I was very young I may have met the James sisters in Shellharbour: see Illawarra Remembers.

My current World War 1 reading includes Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. See also Christopher Hitchens on Hochschild:

In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever…

We read these stirring yet wrenching accounts, of soldiers setting off to battle accompanied by cheers, and shudder because we know what they do not. We know what is coming, in other words. And coming not only to them. What is really coming, stepping jackbooted over the poisoned ruins of civilized Europe, is the pornographic figure of the Nazi. Again, Hochschild is an acute register. He has read the relevant passages of “Mein Kampf,” in which a gassed and wounded Austrian corporal began to incubate the idea of a ghastly revenge. He notes the increasing anti-Semitism of decaying wartime imperial Germany, with its vile rumors of Jewish cowardice and machination. And he approaches a truly arresting realization: Nazism can perhaps be avoided, but only on condition that German militarism is not too heavily defeated on the battlefield.

This highly unsettling reflection is important above all for American readers. If General Pershing’s fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson’s intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor. (Unsentimental to the last, though, he shows that many of them went on to lose or waste their lives on Bolshevism, the other great mutant system to emerge from the abattoir.) This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.

Both books are excellent, offer fresh perspectives, and are not by Australians but by an American and a Canadian respectively, though MacMillan is currently Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. Funnily enough I find that rather a good thing.

One Australian book I am also reading is Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force. That review is from The Western Front Association:

Bad Characters is a very important new book. Not only is it scholarly, but it is also highly entertaining. It looks into the indiscipline of Australian Soldiers – the AIF – in the Great War. Rather than using sweeping, unsupported generalisations, Peter Stanley (who is head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum, Australia) has undertaken substantial research into specific examples of indiscipline and used dozens, if not hundreds, of cases from court martial files and soldiers’ letters to support his assertions. The list of archival sources consulted (from the bibliography) is awe-inspiring…

As Peter Stanley says “…Australians idolise the AIF….This admiration, though sincere, has tended to emphasise the positive, leading to a distorted, superficial understanding. It is time to see the AIF acknowledged in the round, appreciating that its unique character owed much to the mix of ‘bad characters’ and good soldiers.”

Bad Characters was the joint winner of the 2010–2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. It is very highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating and under-written aspect of the war.

More on Anzac Day, and other TV

This year’s Anzac Day was rather wet, even here in West Wollongong.


You know how I spent the night from my previous post, but during the day I didn’t go out, except to buy the paper in the morning. I watched proceedings on ABC. I thought the telecast of the Sydney march was very well done – nice to see that large Sydney Boys High band marching too. It was bigger than this one, but on the other hand this was also rather special – 2010:


Anzac Day Commemorations held at Bullecourt France on 25th April 2010

I preferred the dawn service at Villers Bretonneux to the one at Gallipoli, I have to say – though it is interesting to reflect on the fact that New Zealand has a Maori Governor-General and to note the place Maori language had in the order of service.

Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae was sworn in as New Zealand’s 20th Governor-General for a five year term on 31 August 2011.   He has previously worked at senior levels in the New Zealand public service and military as well as contributing to many sporting and community organisations.

He was born in Whanganui in 1954 and went to Castlecliff School, Rutherford Intermediate and Wanganui High School.  Of Māori descent, his tribal affiliations are to Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Kahungunu.  He also has links to Tūhoe and tribes in the upper Whanganui.  He is New Zealand’s second Governor-General of Māori descent…

In the afternoon there were a couple of treats. 

First an excellent short movie, The Telegram Man.

Second, a 2011 documentary called — unfortunately if you try to Google it! – The Art of War.  No, not Sun Tzu!

The First World War has been examined in many programs from a political and military point of view but it has rarely been seen through the eyes of painters.

The period 1914-1918 was a virtual catalogue of art movements: Impressionists, Expressionists, Realists, Cubists and Futurists all contributed images from the battlefields which were both accurate and intense. These styles often reflected avant garde movements in a number of countries, particularly Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The list of painters includes Braque, Derain, Bonnard, Chagall, Kandinsky, Hitler, Otto Dix, Schiele, Picasso, Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, David Jones and Stanley Spencer.

Before 1914 pictures of soldiers were patriotic or heroic. They were subjects of national pride but this war was different. It was mechanized. Technology enabled armies to kill each other on an industrial scale and the levels of destruction were unprecedented in history.

This unique documentary shows how the First World War transformed the world of art and changed the way images of war are conveyed.

And that from YouTube is all I could find about it! But you will note the international coverage in it.  An art historian named Richard Cook illuminated the many works shown, including these two:


Wyndham Lewis


John Singer Sargent — Gassed

Tonight ABC has a telemovie about war photographer/cinematogapher Damien Parer whose images of Kokoda in particular still resonate so strongly.


I would normally watch it, but for the fact that NITV is showing the final episode of The Tipping Points which brings it all home to Australia. After that I think I will watch Professor Iain Stewart, having greatly admired his earlier work – and being a sucker for Scottish accents.

Professor Iain Stewart, geoscientist and broadcaster, came to his old alma mater on the 4th of March.  Iain was at Strathclyde University to present the 2013 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Annual Lecture entitled “A Geologist’s View of Britain’s Energy Future”. Now at the University of Plymouth, Iain graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 1986 with a degree in Geology and Geography.  Since then he has built a research career examining earthquakes, natural disasters and their effect on human culture. Iain has won acclaim for his awe-inspiring BBC documentaries on our planet and the forces that shape it. This includes Journeys From the Centre of the Earth, Earth: The Power of the Planet, The Climate Wars, How Earth Made Us, How to Grow a Planet, and Making Scotland’s Landscape. He has also appeared in numerous Horizons and the Rough Science series.

His lecture at Strathclyde built on research for his new Horizon documentary he is currently filming. He summarised the current and future state of energy supply in Britain, and examined new sources of energy with a particular focus on shale gas and fracking. He looked in detail at the fracking industry of North Dakota.  Overall he took a neutral stance to this new way of extracting oil and gas, but his ideas constantly challenged the audience.  This capacity audience of more than 400 people included students and staff from seven Scottish Universities, representatives of the energy, engineering and water industries, local government, media and NGOs. The talk was followed by a lively debate around the future of energy supply in the UK, which ranged from discussion of gas extraction in Falkirk, the implications for Scottish independence, and issues of global politics, ethics and economics.

The documentary tonight is Fracking: the New Energy Rush. A blogging friend in the UK, Martin Lack, posted about it last year. SBS1 at 9.30pm.

Anzac Day

One of a host of poignant images one could have used:


Still encrusted in Somme mud, the First World War officer’s watch frozen in time at the moment he died when German mine exploded

THE FARMER REMEMBERS THE SOMME by Vance Palmer (1885-1959)

Will they never fade or pass!
The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming
In file through the foul morass,
And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,
And the steel wings drumming.

The hills are bright in the sun: There's nothing changed or marred in the well-known places; When work for the day is done There's talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun On the old folks' faces.
I have returned to these: The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing; But all that my mind sees Is a quaking bog in a mist - stark, snapped trees, And the dark Somme flowing.

See also John Kelly, A Soldier’s Story.

Anzac Day stories abound this time of year and remind us of sacrifices made, heroic deeds undertaken and the absurdity of wars. This day is special because of that. We take time out to remember. We listen to stories of great heroism in the face of incompetent decisions by senior military staff. We revile at the carnage on both sides and in the process are forced to examine what makes humans treat each other this way. Three constants stand out among these stories. They are all interesting, they are all informative and they have embedded within each of us an indelible connection to someone or something associated with those who have served. They also enrich our knowledge and have contributed to an ever more revealing and grander story of our country’s history. Yet, despite the great victories and defeats, the logistics, the weaponry, the massing of great armies, it is the stories of individuals that most attract our imagination and our interest. It is the ordinary men and women who capture our thoughts and attention, because without them, wars cannot proceed, causes cannot be pursued and evil cannot be challenged.

One such story is that of my grandfather, Frederick Harrison Capper…

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Gary Foley sounds a note that some might object to on this day, but I honestly can’t see why. He makes a pretty good case, I think: Gallipoli not the only war to define Australian warfare.

As an Aboriginal person who had family serve in World War I,  I am acutely aware that there are many Aboriginal families who had relatives who fought at Gallipoli. I am nevertheless always deeply concerned each Anzac Day about the way in which Gallipoli has become so politicised in the evolving memory of so many Australians. As historian Don Watson has written, “the more politicians and media commentators talk of the values of Anzac Day, traduce it for convenient contemporary instruction and daub themselves with the soldiers’ moral courage, the more like a kitsch religion it becomes”…

Recently I read Anzac’s dirty dozen : twelve myths of Australian military history ed Craig Stockings (2012).

Australian military history is a landscape of legends. Yet across the length and breadth of our military heritage, accuracy and objectivity are often shunted aside so that tales and myths bent on commemoration, veneration, and the idealisation of Australian virtues can thrive. In Anzac’s Dirty Dozen a team of renowned historians resume the battle to expose a host of stubborn fantasies and fabrications that obscure the real story.

Uneven, but still well worth reading.

Craig Wilcox begins by tackling the fiction that our military history begins on Gallipoli, as well as the wider doctrine that this is where ”the nation is born”. So central to Australian self-awareness has the notion become that, in Paul Kelly’s words, ”The re-energising of Anzac has become the central organising principle of Australia’s past”. Wilcox tests the weight of our pre-Anzac history, as well as the stereotypes that grew out of 1915 and became so rapidly entrenched.

Fellow historian John Connor follows up with a careful study of the popular belief that our first AIF was an all-volunteer (indeed the only all-volunteer) army of World War I. This ”fact”, in turn, is understood to explain the superiority of the Australian soldier. Connor provides clear evidence of several other volunteer forces in World War I, as well as contrasting the contemporary understanding of ”volunteer” as ”freely choosing” with the social and cultural realities of 1915…


This is on ABC1 at 6pm tonight.

Gallipoli from Above: The Untold Story is the true story of how a team of Australian officers used aerial intelligence, emerging technology and innovative tactics to plan the landing at Anzac Cove. Generals William Throsby Bridges and Colonel Brudenell White were charged with the difficult task of landing 20,000 ANZAC troops on a heavily defended and precipitous shoreline. They used an aircraft carrier, a tethered balloon and a squadron of biplanes to gather detailed information on the disposition of the Turkish defenders and developed a plan for the landing that avoided significant casualties.

It is now nearly 100 years since the landing and hundreds of books, movies and documentaries have failed to grasp the significance of the ANZAC achievement. Instead, the mythology has clouded the real story of how these two influential Australian officers took control of the landing using every innovation they could muster to safely land their men on Z Beach. Based on Hugh Dolan’s book 36 Days, Gallipoli from Above: The Untold Story will change forever the way Australians think about Gallipoli.

See also my post One hundred years ago or thereabouts…

My father’s cousin, Norman Harold Whitfield.

We called him “Mumbles”…

NOTE 31 July 2019

Reviewing this, I see an error! In fact Mumbles was my 1957 French teacher, in 3B. My 2B French teacher was the memorable also Mr Bonanno — always said when asked “I am Breetish!” He was in fact a veteran of the Maquis from France, I believe. What the war failed to do, I fear 2B did. He vanished, never to be seen again — and so we got Mumbles!

5 August: Dear me, my memory is playing tricks! Fortunately I still had my 1956 copy of The Record to check from, and I see Mumbles was my French teacher in 56 and 57. Mr Bonanno must have been a casual or a trainee teacher.

Back in time, people, to 1956—and here are my teachers at Sydney Boys High.


Can you make out the signature on the right? I didn’t ask for it, by the way. He just grabbed the book and signed! Silly old bugger!


M C I Levy, that’s who. Our French teacher in Year 8, as we would call it now. 2B French, that is. We called him “Mumbles” because he always spoke not much above a whisper, and compared with the other French teachers he had an atrocious accent. His lessons, for want of a better word, consisted largely of reminiscences of Paris some time in the Neolithic – or so it seemed to us. And the unfunniest funny stories we had ever heard. I seem to recall him reading a “Father Brown” story to us as well. Much of the lesson was occupied by him sending talkers – whether or not they were actually talking – to the Deputy Head to get caned; apparently – hearsay because I avoided this by sitting in front and, probably, talking to my neighbour – the Deputy would send them straight back uncaned when he heard Mr Levy had sent them. So we thought him a fossil and a fool, and we learned, I suspect, very little French that year.

And yet, if you go into the Great Hall these days, you will find on the World War One honour roll a name clearly added fairly recently: M C I Levy. I am not sure why he was omitted at the time. You can find him too in Parramatta:


He was an ex-student of Sydney High, and already a teacher aged 25 in 1914. Michael Charles Ivan Levy:


Bit of a poet too. The poem is called “The Men of a Thousand Days.”

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Given he was a boy from Balmain, the bushman image is a bit naff really – but a sign of the times. Mr Levy clearly was intervening on behalf of the YES vote in the Conscription Referendum of 1917.

In 1917 Britain sought a sixth Australian division for active service. Australia had to provide 7000 men per month to meet this request. Volunteer recruitment continued to lag and on 20 December 1917 Prime Minister Hughes put a second referendum to the Australian people. The referendum asked:

Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?’

Hughes’ proposal was that voluntary enlistment should continue, but that any shortfall would be met by compulsory reinforcements of single men, widowers, and divorcees without dependents between 20 and 44 years, who would be called up by ballot. The referendum was defeated with 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against.

The conscription referenda were divisive politically, socially and within religious circles. Newspapers and magazines of the time demonstrate the concerns, arguments, and the passion of Australians in debating this issue. The decisive defeat of the second referendum closed the issue of conscription for the remainder of the war.

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Norman Lindsay recruiting poster

See WW1 Recruiting Posters and Norman Lindsay

One hundred years ago or thereabouts…

Still reading Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally. Having read there so much about Lemnos I was interested to find this man was a patient there in 1915. That is, if I interpret the stories from The Illawarra Mercury correctly…

My father’s cousin, Norman Harold Whitfield. He ended up on Lemnos, it appears, after this incident in Egypt:

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See also. Mind you, I am wondering where Jack Rudkin was when he wrote this letter. “We are getting accustomed to bullets already, and they sing pretty close too.” Anzac Cove? If so, the withdrawal was not far off – indeed had happened by the time this story was published.

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The reference to New Guinea reflects that Norman Whitfield had taken part in the first Australian action of World War 1 as part of the  Expeditionary Force in German New Guinea in 1914. See:

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Norman Whitfield, whom I never met – he died in 1950 and by that time seems to have lost touch with our line of cousins – did go on to have a distinguished military career – Military Cross with 2 bars after all.

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See also my 2007 post Late Anzac Day thoughts. In World War 2 he reappears:


And to complete the story:

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