Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.
You can also find me on my blog.
The second week of this free FutureLearn class featured the stories of women involved in the war effort. Not able to enlist with their fathers, sweethearts, and sons, women found creative ways to do their part as nurses, Red Cross workers, or those at home sending packages of hand knitted socks to the front. Again, snippets of individual women's stories were taken from the book that guides this course.
The women's stories felt more personal than the stories from the first week. I think this is because we were told about the women directly, whereas in the first week we learned about the families of men who had gone to war. Women are the unsung heroes of war, often enduring many of the same hardships as the men but without the recognition. In no stories was this more clear than in those of the brave volunteer nurses.
Again focusing on Australian individuals, the stories demonstrated the strain on WWI nurses, an emotional toil that some would never recover from. Leaving their homeland for the fighting thousands of miles away, women believed, much like their male counterparts, that they were not only doing their duty but would find adventure and explore the world. Some, like Tev Davies, were able to focus on the beauty they witnessed alongside the disease, injuries, and violence.
'Life is tiring but full of interest and we get plenty of air, and the glorious sunsets would alone compensate for everything, mum.'
Davies emitted from her letter that air was easy to get in her ramshackle 'hospital' made up of tents scattered on a stony beach at Lemnos. Lack of supplies left the nurses tearing at their own clothes to make bandages, and wounded men were left lying in the sun swarmed by insects. Even the nurses suffered from dysentery from bad food and lice infestations. Yet Davies maintained her optimism until the end of the war when she wrote:
'So many beautiful lives being lost and so little to show for it.'
Another nurse, Rachel Pratt, worked tirelessly throughout the war, serving in Turkey, Egypt, England, and France after claiming to be younger than her 40+ years in order to sign up. When German bombing devastated the casualty clearing station she was working in, Pratt continued working. She was seriously wounded, yet only quit serving her patients when she collapsed. The shrapnel lodged in her lung would cause chronic bronchitis for the rest of her life, but that was not her most serious injury.
Pratt was unable to adjust to life after war. At a time before PTSD was recognized, she was shuffled between mental hospitals and treated for depression with drugs that caused seizures and narcosis. She died in 1954, still institutionalized.
'The war is awful and I simply cannot discuss it. There is no prospect of it ending.'
Several other stories revealed the thoughts and emotions of women who worked for the Red Cross sending supplies to POWs, provided care to soldiers ravaged by STDs that the ANZAC officials wished to deny were a problem, and sacrificed themselves to treat men sent home with the Spanish flu. Their names are not found on soldiers' monuments, but some of these women truly gave all.