Women to the Front: The Extraordinary Women Doctors of the Great War by Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee

women to the frontTitle: Women to the Front: The Extraordinary Women Doctors of the Great War

Author: Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee

Genre: History, Non-Fiction

Publisher: Ebury Press/Penguin Random House

Published: 2nd April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $34.99

Synopsis:At the outbreak of World War I, 129 women were registered as medical practitioners in Australia, and many of them were eager to contribute their skills and expertise to the war effort. For the military establishment, however, the notion of women doctors serving on the battlefield was unthinkable. Undaunted, at least twenty-four Australian women doctors ignored official military policy and headed to the frontlines.
This book explores the stories of the Australian women who served as surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists and medical officers between 1914 and 1919. Despite saving hundreds of lives, their experiences are almost totally absent from official military records, both in Australia and Great Britain, and many of their achievements have remained invisible for over a century. Until now.
Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee have compiled a fascinating and meticulously researched account of the Great War, seen through the eyes of these women and their essential work. From the Eastern to the Western Fronts, to Malta, and to London, we bear witness to the terrible conditions, the horrific injuries, the constant danger, and above all, the skill and courage displayed by this group of remarkable Australians. Women to the Front is a war story unlike any other.

~*~

I spent many years in high school and university studying history – modern and ancient, and across Australia, Europe and the Middle East, Rome and Greece when it came to Ancient History – at least when it came to courses. Beyond that, I have tried to read diversely, to fill in the gaps of a predominantly male driven historical record where women and other groups were not always present, or at least, not acknowledged. The one course I studied that was perhaps the most diverse – yet still concise due to the twelve week semester – was women’s history, where each lesson covered a different aspect and practice across the world, and where our further reading, text books and assignments gave a broader view of practices such as foot binding, sati, or widow burning, and many others that informed and built on my knowledge.

2019 Badge

Yet when it came to Australian history, I heard about the suffragettes but I learnt about them in depth in Society and Culture, and learned much more about World War One and Two in history – from the Australian, British and German perspectives across years ten, eleven and twelve. I learned about the causes, the battles, and the key figures. I learned that women were part of the war effort on the home front and as nurses – but not much else.

So when I came across Women to the Front, I was overjoyed because here was the book that would have made some of what I studied more interesting. Here, I discovered one hundred and twenty-nine women doctors went to the various theatres of war as surgeons and anaesthetists, pathologists and medical officers – not just nurses. These one hundred and twenty-nine women did not let the patriarchal system wear them down or chase them from the medical profession – they pushed forward, became doctors in the decades leading up to the war and volunteered to go.

At first, of course, they were often denied. They were called ‘lady doctors’, the assumption being they couldn’t handle the battlefield reality the men heading over would face. Of course, these 129 women went on to prove the society wrong. These women were serving their country and doing their jo, a job they loved doing and that at the time, was probably not as common as it is today, due to societal expectations from parents, and all those around them, often based on class. Books like this – fiction and non-fiction, driven by women and what they can do, not just romance, are amongst my favourite because they fly in the face of what is expected or assumed women will do and like. Allowing girls and women to read and access stories like this is important because it allows them to see what they can do and be beyond what popular culture often shows.

Their stories are collected here in five parts, each divided into a year of the war, and from there, into chapters that are then divided by theatre and location for each woman or several women who worked together. From Gallipoli to Ypres and Passchendaele, the battlefields of France and Belgium, and the many men they helped and treated after battles, this book tells the stories that I wish we had learned about in history, or at least been given a side box on in text books to investigate on our own for assignments – which I tried to do for one on war memorials in Sydney – but found that for the one I wanted to do, I could not access enough information to write a decent report.

These days, we are getting more diverse historical accounts, and whilst many of these women were white and had British heritage, it is still important to read and know these stories – it shows that the war was experienced by more than just men at the front or doctors. So these stories about women doctors from Ruth Lee and Heather Sheard are an important addition to the historical record, and could be used as a text book, or even placed on a reading list for a history course that touches on or focuses on World War One.

At the end of the book, there is a biography of each woman. Some are shorter than others, so much like anyone in history, sometimes more is known about one than another, yet each has their own unique story. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I’m continuously seeking the untold histories that were either ignored or erased by those who wrote the history books.

Her by Garry Disher

Title: Her

her.jpg

Author: Garry Disher

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 8th August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 210

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Beautifully and powerfully written, this is a look at the darker side of Australia’s past – and particularly

the status of girls and women in our society – that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by . . .

HER name is scarcely known or remembered. All in all, she is worth less than the nine shillings and sixpence counted into her father’s hand.

She bides her time. She does her work.

Way back in the corner of her mind is a thought she is almost too frightened to shine a light on: one day she will run away.

A dark and unsettling tale from the turn of the twentieth century by a master of Australian literature.

~*~

A recurring theme across literature and various stories is the idea of names, and the power that they can have. In Rumplestiltskin, the Queen must guess Rumplestiltskin’s name to save her child, an act she achieves through deception and spying. By announcing his name, he loses, tears himself in half, and as the sanitised versions say, they all lived happily ever after. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is one to be feared, and even years after his initial defeat, even those of Harry’s generation, including Hermione, a Muggle-born, are afraid of speaking it – a fear that Voldemort exploits in the final book to track down those who are trying to fight him. And in Her by Garry Disher, names are taken away as an act of power, a way to control women and girls, and a way to make them feel desolate and alone. The scrap man buys his women and girls, and denies them names and identities beyond Wife, Big Girl, You and Sister. Moving around, selling scrap and goods made from scrap, the scrap man is abusive towards his women, and spends all the money on pub visits throughout the course of the novel, blaming You, Wife and Big Girl.

Eventually, You is questioned by authorities about her name, and why she isn’t in school. She soon desires a name, and eventually, at the age of about six or seven, names herself Lily. From here on in, Lily forges her own identity, and plans to escape with Sister, who becomes known as Hazel. Set during the turbulent first twenty years of the twentieth century, the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the scrap man and his hastily thrown together family, whose main purpose is to help him deceive, and allow him to do what he wants to them, are unaware of the lingering effects of the war, knowing only that rabbit skins are in high demand for boots and hats for soldiers, and only seeing it as a way to make a living that he soon fritters away at the pub, and blames ‘his women’ for losing.

In a world so consumed by the war, the Kaiser and the trenches, the Australia, the country Victoria that Lily and Hazel know is ignorant of this war that has affected millions. They are sneered at for not knowing how the war has broken people, and broken families. It is, at its heart, a story about broken people, bought by a man who comes across as having no humanity, no feelings, and who uses and abuses people.

Lily’s time spent going around to places and gathering food and sometimes pilfering things leads to her growing sense of identity, something that was denied her for so long, and gives her the strength to keep planning her escape, and plans to take Hazel with her.

It is a novel where every word used pays off, and where the simplest of lines, such as Lily’s desire to hit the Kaiser, even though she doesn’t have an inkling of who it is or the significance of the war years to the country, illustrates how Lily responds to her world, and how an act of hitting a man unknown to her can give her a feeling of power.

I read it in two nights, and it is a well paced novel, that reveals a side to Australian history and humanity often ignored and unacknowledged, contrasting the wider horrors of war to the insular world of people who are out for themselves in more ways than one, and who are willing to manipulate and take advantage of people.

A historical fiction novel about World War One that uses it more as a pin point in time, and an event that simply gives the novel context, I felt this showed the grim reality of how women and girls could be treated – as property that in this story, didn’t even deserve names or identities, and the harsh reality of what it meant to be poor in those times. It highlights what having a name and identity means to us as humans. It is a novel that I might revisit one day, and is definitely one that stays with you for awhile.

Booktopia

The Girl from Snowy River by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #2)

the girl from snowy river.png

Title: The Girl From Snowy River (Matilda Saga #2)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 1 December 2012

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The year is 1919. Thirty years have passed since the man from Snowy River made his famous ride. But World War I still casts its shadow across a valley in the heart of Australia, particularly for orphaned sixteen-year-old Flinty McAlpine, who lost a brother when the Snowy River men marched away to war. Why has the man Flinty loves returned from the war so changed and distant? Why has her brother Andy ‘gone with cattle’, leaving Flinty in charge of their younger brother and sister and with the threat of eviction from the farm she loves so dearly? A brumby muster held under the watchful eye of the legendary Clancy of the Overflow offers hope. Now Flinty must ride to save her farm, her family and the valley she loves. Set among the landscapes of the great poems of Australia, this book is a love song to the Snowy Mountains and a tribute to Australia’s poets who immortalised so much of our land. the Girl from Snowy River combines passion, heartbreak, history and an enduring love and rich understanding of our land. It continues the grand saga that began with A Waltz for Matilda.

~*~

aww2017-badge

The second book in the Matilda Saga, which currently stands at six books, Jackie French again tells the stories of the forgotten women of Australian history through fiction. Set against the backdrop of a post-war Australia, near Snowy River, Felicity “Flinty” McAlpine is at home, taking care of her younger brother and sister whilst their only remaining brother, Andy, is away droving, and without parents to help. The rock above their farm is Flinty’s safe haven, where she encounter a “ghost” living fifty years into the future, a ghost who gives her cryptic messages about what she is to experience.

When Flinty joins the brumby muster, the young colt chooses her – and she takes him home. Soon, tragedy strikes, and Flinty finds herself struggling with to come to terms with the possibility of never walking again, until nature threatens the valley and everything they hold dear. She rides to save her family, and those she cares for, at great risk to her life, at a time when women were expected to stay in the home, and raise the family.

Jackie French has again taken classic Australian bush poetry written by legendary Banjo Paterson – in this case, The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and put her own twist on them: a twist that sees women, white and Indigenous, and Indigenous men, in positions that aren’t type cast or stereotypes. She utilises the attitudes towards a woman running a farm on her own, towards children and what is expected of women and men, and how Indigenous people are viewed to tell her story. Jackie French also sets the scene effectively, setting up the society and what is expected, so characters like Flinty, Clancy and Clancy’s wife, Mrs. Clancy, can flout the expectations and assumptions society assigns to them, yet still within the confines of what was possible in the early twentieth century.

Jackie French’s end notes mention that just as many women as men in the early settlers were farmers, and mentions the roles women were soon relegated to – assistants, teachers, and other jobs that men deemed suitable for them – until they became wives and eventually, mothers. The Matilda Saga does a good job of highlighting these attitudes, and creating characters willing to go that little bit further to prove society wrong, remain themselves yet at the same time, find their place within society so that they can take action to make the changes that came throughout history that many take for granted today. Of course, this would not have always been the case, but many of the bush poems are about men – if women and Indigenous people took part in musters and farming, they are not evoked in poetry, but more likely recorded in personal diaries that may not be widely available. Imaging a character like Flinty gives these women a voice, and allows the reader to reimagine these classic poems with women – still the same story, but a change in name, in gender, and a new story, a new legend can be formed alongside the male one.

I am looking forward to seeing if Flinty’s ghost from the future returns, and if the tables are flipped, and he encounters her in his time – 1969 – as she was in The Girl From Snowy River. These stories, though fiction, are based on history, a history that has tried to silence, or maybe just ignore, the voices of those without power, despite the letters and diaries and evidence to suggest women were anything but meek, silent stay at home and take care of the family types everywhere. With women like Flinty McAlpine and Matilda O’Halloran from A Waltz for Matilda, the voices of these women can be heard, even through fiction. Voices that should be heard in many ways, to give the history a new voice, a new way of understanding that may have previously been lost or ignored.