World War One and Australia’s Frontline Women

A literary review by Sarah Dempster, The healing touch of frontline women, published here in The Australian this past weekend, caught the eye of CHE Postdoc Rebecca McNamara. In the review, Sarah explores Susanna de Vries’s recently published account of women who served as nurses and reporters on the frontline in WWI, a subject which seemed appropriate for historians of emotion to reflect upon this week as we commemorate Anzac Day on April 25th. Below, Sarah (who has recently completed her PhD at UWA, on ethically justified space in seventeenth-century poetry) writes to us of her experience in reading this book, while providing an introduction to the stories of frontline heroines told by de Vries.

The first Anzac Day parade in Brisbane1_1987051_tcm11-18526
The first Anzac Day parade in Brisbane, 1916, Photograph, National Archives of Australia. Reference: J2879, QTH173.

Reading Susanna de Vries’s latest and final book, Australian Heroines of World War One: Gallipoli, Lemnos, and the Western Front, is a profoundly moving experience. Women who nursed at the front line, or reported on the war for people at home, are rarely part of the rhetoric of bravery which surrounds the Anzacs and World War One. De Vries challenges this absence as she traces the course of the First World War through the accounts of eight Australian women at the European front.
Divided by region (Antwerp, Gallipoli, Lemnos, and France) and arranged chronologically, de Vries conflates her own comprehensive research with frank and emotional diary entries written by her subjects. The author also gives an intimate and visual sense of their characters through the use of photographs, sometimes taken by the very women of de Vries’s work. For instance, nurses tended to wounded Australian soldiers on Lemnos Island in some of the worst conditions of the war; yet, it is touching to see a photograph of one of the tented wards freshly scrubbed, ordered, and lovingly decorated with flowers by nurses who beam with pride at their work. Such juxtapositions of the literary and visual frequently gave me cause to weep as I read. The hard work and resilience of these nurses in the face of their almost complete abandonment by British commanding officers is made even more poignant through the arrangement of information by de Vries.
The opening chapter of Australian Heroines details the plight of the first female war journalist, Louise Mack, who felt unable to leave the besieged city of Antwerp until she had witnessed all the stories of subjugation, flight, and invasion surrounding its fall. The rest of the book examines the hardships endured by Australian nurses at the front as they cared for soldiers with gruesome wounds, endured the perpetual threat of bombardment from the enemy, and wrote sympathetic letters to mothers of the dead. Many of their colleagues suffered complete nervous breakdowns amidst the extreme emotional and physical demands of war nursing. However, de Vries resists casting any of these women as ‘angels of mercy’. Instead, she pronounces these Australian women to be possessed of both human frailties and iron resolution.
Attention to detail and a thorough consideration of character provides these Australian women with a well-deserved place in Australian history. Though de Vries reveals that many of these women were divorced from Australia’s sense of cultural identity, dying in poverty, Australian Heroines of World War One redresses this omission. De Vries looks on the nature of death and life in war with clear eyes, and asserts the place of these women in our national consciousness. Her literary and visual bricolage imbues this evocative view of Australian history with the seriousness it deserves.

Posted by Sarah Dempster

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