Harsh truth of casualties of war

Defiant diary: Sister Hilda Samsing (centre, on left) risked court-martial with her record of events at Anzac Cove.
Defiant diary: Sister Hilda Samsing (centre, on left) risked court-martial with her record of events at Anzac Cove.

This is the 14th and not only the last of art historian Susanna de Vries' Great Australian Women series, but her last book ever. At 77, she is calling it quits.

''I want to end with a bang, not a whimper,'' is how she puts it.

The backdrop is compelling. In 2011, Trailblazers, her 21st book, was her finale, but the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, intrigued by a nurse's journal confirming the horror in Keith Murdoch's Gallipoli Letter, said, ''Why not write about the women there?'' and bankrolled the project.

Also, de Vries was inspired by the portrait of an Anzac soldier by Melbourne artist Hilda Rix Nicholas: ''I always want to know the story behind a picture, and it was the best, but she wasn't offered a paid job because she was a female.'' Which leads, she says, to the book's gist: that women were treated like second-rate citizens at war, and returning home given pitiful pensions and then forgotten.

It's against this background that de Vries weaves her eight stories. It is a harrowing read, but one she believes anyone interested in World War I will enjoy. ''Lemnos is as good as Gallipoli - chock-a-block with dead soldiers; they can see those places, and the maps show where to go.''

Count me out. Enjoyment is not the word I'd use to describe reading Nurse Hilda Samsing's whistle-blowing diary. Defying the censor who would have court-martialled her if she'd been caught, she wrote in anger at the slaughter around her: ''Every inch of Anzac Cove is dyed with Australian blood and the floor of the sea is strewn with our dead.''

Men were dying on the decks of the hospital ship Gascon; amputees were haemorrhaging, dysentery flourished, as did enteric fever, gangrene, frostbite, bashed faces and skulls: ''Those inhuman monsters who control the War Department must be sacked. Dreadful the want of consideration they show for sick and wounded men. Heart-rending to see them with feet and hands black with gangrene. The poor men cried like sick children, even in sleep.''

Extracts shown to Australian high commissioner Sir George Reid in London reached No.10 Downing Street, vindicating Keith Murdoch's report; heads rolled and eventually the British withdrew troops from Gallipoli. But before that, mindful of the censor, Nurse Elsie Tranter played down the danger of Doullen Hospital and, narrowly missing death by inches from shrapnel, noted drily: ''King George V and Field Marshall Douglas Haig visited us but there was so much stink of gas and gangrene in the air they did not stay long.''

And it wasn't long before sex reared its ugly head, as did class distinction. Nurses were forbidden to talk to NCOs or British naval officers, and not allowed to socialise with soldiers on-board ship. No Men Rules were dished out daily by ''Matron Bossy''. Soldiers were not allowed in the nurses' sitting-room, officers only after permission had been given and the door remained open. Make-up was not allowed and nurses exposed as prostitutes in civilian life were sacked, while prostitutes volunteering for duty were sent off with a flea in their ear. Inexplicably, nurses discovered their undies would only stay soft if they slept in them, otherwise they froze and disintegrated.

''Things are too awful for words. Only a bare piece of ground with wounded men in pain, still in filthy blood-stained clothes lying on stones and thistles,'' complained Matron Grace Wilson, in charge of ''The Hospital from Hell'' on Lemnos. ''Nothing here but blood, suffering and death,'' added Sister Minnie Procter from the collapsing Mudros tents, which left the dying to face ferocious blizzards with dwindling supplies of morphine and aspirin. ''Everything was sent to Alexandria and we got it two months too late.''

That's just a sample of the book's grim stories. So, no, it's not an easy read but, to lighten things up, de Vries includes a list of what the nurse must buy from her own pocket. Items such as a portable camp bed, £1.19; mattress seven shillings (s), six pence (d); two pairs forceps, 5s.6d.; two pairs surgical scissors, 5s.0d.; small paraffin stove and kettle 5s.8d.; lined sleeping bag £2.3s.6d.; canvas kit bag, 19s.6d.

And from Trailblazers she resurrects the romantic antics of Sydney journalist Louise Mack, the world's first woman war correspondent. Otherwise - and who can blame them? - no smiles in the whole 409 pages. The pictures are good though.

AUSTRALIAN HEROINES OF WORLD WAR ONE

Susanna de Vries

Pirgos Press, 409pp,

$34.95

This story Harsh truth of casualties of war first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.