Visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra again to do a little more research but mainly to see the exhibition Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan, highlighting the amazing contribution the nurses have made to Australia’s war efforts over the years and, of course, I was most excited to see what World War One nursing gems they pulled out of the relic archives to display and I wasn’t disappointed.
There is a gorgeous little doll that Sister Nellie Morrice sewed a beautifully detailed replica grey and scarlet uniform for to send to her niece Peggie MacInnes. The little girl must have been so proud of her Auntie Nellie that there’s even a photo of her dressed in her own replica uniform. (You have to go to the exhibition to see the doll as my husband took the photos - I was intent on reading and savouring all I saw - and he forgot to take a pic of the doll.)
Another great recent AWM acquisition (donated just last year apparently) is the traveling trunk of Sister (later Matron) Bessie Pocock. When you realise they had to lug two or more of these large trunks around with them plus their carry-alls and any other hand luggage you understand what a logistical nightmare it would have been to get a nurse from place to place under the stress and dangers of war. Their whole life was in these trunks and after searching high and low for a similar item to use in the play - and failing, we had to make a special super-sized one that could be used as a bed and costume/prop store - it was exciting to see the buckles and details up close. Bit of a trainspotting moment, I know, but each to their own. I have trunk and hurricane lantern envy whenever I see a big budget WWI film…
Probably, for me anyway, the most moving piece was Matron Grace Wilson’s uniform. I drew a breath when I saw it and made my way around the WWI section of the exhibition leaving it ‘til last. I find Matron Wilson to be the most inspirational character and it was an honour to see her uniform and to get a sense of her at life size not just as a benevolent calming presence in tiny old photos. I had goose bumps and I actually cried when I stood there. I can’t explain it, but that’s what happened. These nurses stories have gotten under my skin in a way I never expected and I know they will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Of course the exhibition covers Zululand, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and onwards to our current conflicts in Afghanistan and the stories are fascinating and worthy of our attention. My focus just happens to be WWI.
Oh and I definitely have cape envy… Robyn Siers, the curator of the exhibition and apparent dab hand at a sewing machine, made a replica uniform which greets the visitor upon entering the exhibition. Red cape, grey zephyr uniform and white starched apron… so detailed and well made! I want three of those capes stat!
I’m not a very romantic person but reading the diary of Vera Brittain and her relationship with Roland Leighton influenced my play a great deal. So I had a little pilgrimage to see Roland’s grave (like hundreds of others do every year) because I was touched by his poetry and their story.
Violets from Plug Street Wood -
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue when his soaked blood was red;
For they grew around his head.
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood -
Think what they have meant to me!
Life and Hope and Love and You.
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day.
Sweetest, it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land:
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.
At Tyne Cot with the exceptionally knowledgeable Freddy Declerck from Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. (Even the donkey and chickens in the field beside Polygon Wood cemetery knew him by sight.) He was especially glad that we were visiting a friend’s great uncle’s grave at Tyne Cot. Freddy is a Belgian that has never forgotten. His forebears went through something that we can barely contemplate. It was an honour to visit the Passchendaele area with him.
Meeting up with the rather FABULOUS Steve Reynaert from Messines, where he showed us around the area. Our surprise first up was going to the wall where my WONDERFUL new friend photographer Di Mackey took a photo of a painted red cross which I used as the poster for Through These Lines. We saw craters, bunkers, memorials, jumping off lines, ditches, aid posts and an 11th century crypt that has all the makings of a performance space… but all we saw is summed up in one photo of two smiling faces and a small red cross.
Definition of a brilliant day.
Outside Dieppe we visited the house where nurse Elsie Tranter was billeted.
We are all living now at the Villa Marguerite and in consequence we are feeling quite civilised. The Villa stands in a lovely garden, plenty of trees, shrubs with a winding path leading down to a nice lawn. At each side of one of these paths are pear trees cut low so as to form a hedge about two feet high. The Villa is very nice – kitchen in the basement, dining room and two sitting rooms on the ground floor, bedrooms all upstairs. Matron found some of the pictures rather ‘too-too’, so has turned them face to the wall. Of course, we haven’t looked!! Daisy and I share a room. I sleep in a great big wooden bed, it is very comfy but everything has such a musty smell…
Sister Elsie Tranter
There was a golf course nearby and I was able to play quite often, there was also a tennis court built us by a French Baron who owned a house close to ours and if we brought visitors to the house … Miss Mills-Walker who was Matron welcomed them and made the atmosphere quite that of a home.
Sister Leila Brown
Right well where do we start … hang on, where did I finish? Lemnos, right. This a blog, not Kipling.
Landed Paris, drove straight out (with only minor domestic disputes over GPS, what ‘diesel’ is in French and the closeness of the right-hand kerb) to Rouen which was a suprise packet of beautiful old crooked buildings and gothic church spires… the racecourse (1 Australian General Hospital) was easily accessible and easy to imagine where the buildings might have been. The racecourse site must have been like a bustling town with 3 hospitals vying for space… But what a thrill for the antipodean nurses, having access to a classic ‘fairytale’ European town so close by.
Onwards to the coast and another ‘fairytale’ town awaits in the form of Etretat. Lovely and it must have been a real haven for nurses and troops alike to spend time in the relative peace of the coastal town with its stunning chalk cliff walks and fresh air. The American Hosiptal no longer exists but there is a bench (made of granite at least) that commemorates the former site as this was an important training hospital for the nurses - it is the place where over 200 nurses (who volunteered) learnt to administer anaesthetics to help expediate the treatment of the wounded (the ‘experiment’ didn’t last long - the higher powers were not happy with nurses giving anaesthetics). Anyway beautiful place to stay now as I am sure it was then.
Onwards up the coast we headed to other important hospital sites and places where both nurses and troops convalesced. The fields at Wimereux (2 Australian General Hospital) still had some original barb wire stakes that were used to delineate the hospital’s field during the war. Perhaps more upmarket during that era was Hardelot-Plage but little survives today but for a few sea-side chalets. At Le Treport are remnants of the steps of the great Trianon Hotel but any trace of the hospitals on the headland above the old town have been buried under modern housing.
Windy Lemnos. Spent four days wandering Turks Head peninsula, locating sites of World War 1 allied hospitals. Respect for the job they did grew daily as we walked the dusty thistle-covered peninsula in almost gale-force winds. Lemnos leaves an impression. Glad to have been there. Here are some pics, some rough then-and-now shots (more later).
Original WW1 Australian Nurses uniforms and arm bands.
These are just the first of many gems discovered at one of my most recent visits to the Australian War Memorial - who, with every passing day, add more items to their ever increasingly updated catalogue… so just when you think an avenue has been exhausted, up pop more previously unseen items that require future visits to be arranged… on my 4th and counting…
This time the wonderfully helpful and friendly Chris Goddard who is the assistant curator at the AWM’s MHT section (Military Heraldry and Technology) let me behind the scenes to see these original uniforms that they had easily at hand, there’s more too in storage and apparently in 8 months (these things take a while) I can view them. That’s Chris smiling for me in the Research Centre…
It’s all good for finessing the costume construction - the colours and fabrics used - as black and white photos can be somewhat, um well, colourless…
Matron (Margaret) Grace Wilson holding a parasol and notebook in Lemnos, Greece, 1915. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05332.
As there was such a strong response to the show from so many audience members and others who heard about it I have wanted to extend my research and do some rewrites with the hope of re-staging the show in the future.
I am diving headlong back into researching with the help of my husband and we are researching the locations I set the play in.
This has spurred on the idea of a journey to the actual locations. We head out in August - touching down in Athens before heading to Lemnos and then up to Paris and onwards to Antwerp, the Somme and further afield. We will be out researching for 7 weeks trying to get a sense of place to go with names.
Our first bit of research is trying to establish exactly where on Lemnos the hospitals were located and that has lead us to some great discoveries and the fact that the information is very mixed up. But progress has been good and we will soon be moving onto the Western Front and the hospital of Doullens, Etaples, Wimereux et al.
I have a little side trip organised to pay my respects at the grave of Roland Leighton in Louvencourt - he was the fiance of Vera Brittain (although British), they formed the backbone of the love story that played out in the show.
I still have so much to read, and books that I couldn’t get in my last round of research have turned up this time, so missing puzzle pieces are coming together.
This time around we hope to gather lots of photos to show a ‘then and now’ view of the scene and A.W. Savage’s photos (archived at the State Library) have been the real cornerstone in fixing the positions of the two Australian hospitals in West Mudros that we are interested in - next week we move to decipher East Mudros before heading to the Western Front.
Google Earth and other modern mapping sites have proved invaluable in pinpointing hospital location and help place the archive material within the landscape - or at least help us to narrow down the possible sites. We can’t wait to walk the landscape of Turk’s Head on Lemnos and see if our landscape detective work has been worth it.
Here we go again, the ride is about to start!
She was a beauty but didn’t like having her photo taken