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…
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…
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.
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.