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)

Australian Author Challenge: Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley.

I don’t do illness, or ill people, well. A character flaw and I blame the military patriarch who would yell at his daughters at the first sign of any slight weakness, “Toughen up. Stop being girls”. My father did not get sick until the month he died and I follow in his footsteps. The young things flag at work – I just march through it, soldiering on.

I softened once my own daughters came along and did not have the stomach for children’s illness’. If the six year old vomited, the seven year old had to clean up after her. Poor parenting I know, but I would be kneeling over the toilet bowl in sympathy. I remember having to take the teenager to the Dentist to get the last of her baby teeth pulled. She entered the surgery bravely whilst I fainted on the footpath outside.

Both my daughters have always had a fascination with medical procedures, and are addicted to those ghastly shows on the television that feature an assortment of lumps, bumps and stumps. There was one dinner party where the kids were far too quiet for my liking so I sneaked in to see what mischief they were up too. What did I find? Half a dozen cherubs fascinated by the DVD of my recent Colonoscopy!

So I was surprised when an acquaintance handed me a book and said “ I know that you will just love this!”

Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley, tells fifteen stories about civilian and military nurses, as well as a couple of medics, who all played their part in saving lives and comforting the wounded during this period of history.

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There were several common threads throughout this book:
• None of them had any previous knowledge of Vietnam and it was very much a “think on your feet “ process when they landed in the middle of a war zone.
• All those interviewed saw their efforts as both crucial and rewarding
• All feel as if there lives changed direction from the experience of serving in such a manner

Yes, the book did dish up blood and guts as to be expected, though many of the cases detailed had positive outcomes, with the larrikin spirit of young Australian Soldiers shining through. The constant themes were the camaraderie, strong working relationships and commitment to achieve the very best with the little that they had to help the injured.

This book is primarily personal recollections which added to my interest. It made the history more real.

One hundred and six nursing officers from the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Sisters ( RAAFNS) we’re deployed to No.4 Hospital at Butterworth Airforce Base in Malaysia to care for military personnel based there and to fly medivacs into Saigon or Vung Tua evacuating wounded Australian soldiers back to Butterworth, and then home. Between 1965 and 1971 thirty two of them were attached to the United States Air Force for 60 day rotations flying missions into Vietnam on a daily basis to evacuate wounded American soldiers.

There were also more than 200 civilian nurses who were members of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation who assisted civilian surgical medical teams across a similar time line, and operating within Vietnam.

And you know what horrified me the most? Not the shattered bodies, infestations of worms, or grenades under hospital beds. Did you know that it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that all RAAF nurses who flew from Butterworth to Vietnam to medivac injured Aussie soldiers, or who were seconded to the USAF, were acknowledged for their contribution?

Another pox on the Australian Government, who currently cannot find $200,000 to send a handful of weary Bomber Command veterans to the opening of the International Bomber Command Centre in England this year. They say they are “ too old”. I would argue that they were “too young” when they did their bit.

Great read. Highly recommended even if amputations aren’t your thing.

You’ll just have to wait till I share my dental experiences……..

 

PS Vietnam Nurse song by Australian, Russell Morris, who has long since lost his hair, but not his voice. (Courtesy of You Tube)