ANZAC GIRLS by Peter Rees

In Primary School days, way back in the 60’s, one of the things that made the annual Anzac Day Ceremony so special was that you could wear your Cubs or Brownies uniform to school. My sister and her friends wore their white aprons with red capes and little hats bearing a Red Cross. My Annie Oakley outfit and cap guns were unacceptable.

Tragically, throughout my entire schooling, there was never any other mention of the magnificent work of the nursing services during either World War 1 or 2. Florence Nightingale was it.

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I read Anzac Girls after watching the 2014 ABC Mini series of the same name, as well as attending a one act theatre production called The Girls in Grey, both of which were based on Peter Rees’ book.

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 battle fronts of human history. But he also allows the friendships and loves of these compassionate women to shine through and to enrich our experience.

This is a brilliant read. Forgetting about the courage, strength and humanity of these magnificent women amid all the expected carnage, there were some other factors that made this such a fascinating book.

Firstly, Rees cleverly wove other stories into the fabric of the Anzac Nurses which fleshed out Australian history and highlighting the time line and providing perspective. This included references to Banjo Paterson, poet and war correspondent, as well as C J Dennis, another poet who immortalised a “situation” regarding the AIF and brothels in Cairo in his poem , The Battle Of The Wazzir. http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/denniscj/gmick/wazzir.html.

There was little recognition for these women at the time. Despite working in a theatre of war for over four years there was no financial assistance for housing, although soldiers were entitled. Some nurses had to work their passage home attending to soldier’s wives and children on board, and others had to depend on their families paying the passage home even though the British Government was paying the costs for transporting war brides. Woeful, absolutely woeful.

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Lastly, and what I found particularly inspiring, is that many of these women went on to do magnificent things in civilian life regardless of the terrible things that they had endured. They were indeed trail blazers.

Best read for the year, and I will just add that I made a much better cowgirl than nurse.

There’s a Rose that grows in No Man’s Land,
And it’s wonderful to see.
Tho’ it’s sprayed with tears,
It will live for years
In my garden of memory.
It’s the one red rose
That the soldier knows,
It’s the work of the Master’s Hand;
In the War’s great curse stands the Red Cross Nurse,
She’s the rose of No Man’s Land.
(American song)

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