The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War 1914-1918

By Peter Rees (Allen & Unwin, RRP $60)

Last updated 05:00 11/04/2009
The Other Anzacs

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General non-fiction

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New Zealand military history during the past 150 years has with some hesitation and reluctance recorded the place of New Zealand women at war.

Only three pioneer women were recipients of the New Zealand War Medal in recognition of their bravery and participation during the New Zealand Land Wars of the 19th century. One was a youngster, a minder of children barely 16 years of age. This book is current and contemporary with the debate going on persistently in New Zealand and other nations' military services today on just how much women should participate in war, and ought they be front-line soldiers.

This is a far cry from the use of nurses in World War I when women from the Anzac nations volunteered to serve in a medical capacity either as nurses or nurse aids. They were stationed at field hospitals close to the battle lines and in the rear and reserve areas where the wounded were eventually transported.

It was the numbers of women who volunteered that is as remarkable as was their readiness to sacrifice their lives.

Peter Rees is a Canberra-based journalist and he might be forgiven if he were of the ilk of those Australian military historians who refrain from reminding their readers that the NZ in the title of Anzac refers to New Zealand.

Ask the average Australian today what the word means and they will happily and without any hesitation tell you the word means Australian.

They have to be reminded that it is a joint word coined at a time of joint sacrifice and equal participation in war. When the war ended in 1918, 45 Australian and New Zealand nurses had died on active service, 200 had been decorated and dozens suffered from the effects of the war for the remainder of their nursing careers.

The unique aspect of this title is its content. Diaries and sources are used for the first time and it is not simply a rehash of older material that has been published and written into previous histories. It is a carefully crafted history with a deliberate goal of fleshing out the true encounters these women experienced.

It is a record of their feelings, their experiences and their frustrations, damaged hopes and eventual return to New Zealand. Of local interest is the record of Riverton enlisted staff nurse Marion Sinclair Brown whose hospital ship was torpedoed in October 1915. The sinking of the hospital ship Marguette took the lives of several nurses and many Anzacs. This story is retold in the context of many others and as one incident in the life and death of New Zealand nurses of WWI bears recalling as history moves on.

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Recent military histories that have emanated from Australia, especially those titles that claim the inclusive description as Anzac, have been anything but full blooded Anzac records of the period. One such title claiming to a record of Anzac has two sentences in 66,000 words on New Zealand soldiers and one single photo of a New Zealander.

This is not the case in this history. Full weight is given to the deeds and the record of those New Zealand women who sacrificed their career and their health as military nurses.

It is a book that ought to be a good companion to the two or three hard-to-obtain titles that specifically deal with New Zealand nurses during WWI. The illustrations are fulsome and well balanced between both contributing nations, some of which are published for the first time.

Rees has written with new and original insight, compassion and understanding that emerge from the role Anzac nurses played from Gallipoli to the occupation of Germany and the cessation of hostilities in November 1918.


- The Southland Times

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