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Women's Gallipoli stories shared

Last updated 09:10 08/07/2014
Beren Allen

SISTER ACT: From left: Anthea Hill, Alex Ellis, Donogh Rees and Gina Timberlake play nurses in Sister Anzac.

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Nurses at Gallipoli fought a battle for respect.

Auckland playwright Geoff Allen's new play Sister Anzac tells the story of 14 women sent to the peninsula during World War I to tend the wounded.

They were sent on the New Zealand dispatched a hospital ship, SS Maheno.

"This is a very different World War I story, women are hungry for stories about themselves," the director of Maurice Shadbolt's Once on Chunuk Bair says.

"There were actually women at Gallipoli, and the audience will find out they were the last women from home many soldiers saw before dying," he says.

The Maheno dropped anchor just 800m from the Anzac Cove beachhead.

Soldiers occupying precarious clifftop positions waved at the nurses, Allen says.

The Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, which helped Allen research the play, will also stage it.

The navy even took him out to the frigate Te Kaha moored a similar distance off North Head to demonstrate how dangerous the Maheno's Anzac Cove anchorage was, Allen says.

Bullets and shrapnel often struck the Maheno, terrifying the wounded it carried.

Former Shortland Street cast member Donogh Rees gets to reprise her television role playing a nursing matron in Sister Anzac.

And Allen's wife Gina Timberlake plays Hilda Steele, the only nurse in the play based on a real-life nurse.

Allen took some poetic licence with Steele's personal quirks.

Steele, an avid collector, brought back a drawer-full of spoons from the war, Allen says.

"During the dramatic moments in the play, Hilda grabs her teaspoons."

The battle began early for the 13 highly trained nurses and matron - they almost mutinied on the voyage out to Gallipoli because the army reneged on giving them their promised officer ranks.

The hardened frontline soldiers would have been compelled to treat officer nurses with respect, Allen says.

Eventually the army relented and commissioned the nurses with ranks from second lieutenant to captain.

Sister Anzac opens July 23. Email  for tickets.

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- North Shore Times

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