The Age, 23 April 2004

Tears for War Tales

Wartime abounds with untold stories. In the past 50 years no book combining the special contributions of Australian women to the war effort has been written.

Moreover, recent research has revealed that C. W. Bean was ordered to edit out of his official history of World War I the remarkable exploits of women doctors, ambulance drivers and nurses and instead “increase the larrikinism”.

Despite this, tales of female bravery, from Gallipoli to Kokoda, abound. Almost 3000 Australian nurses served in World War 1, and during WWII, 3477 were posted to countries such as Britain, Egypt, Libya, Greece and Eritrea.

In her new book, Heroic Australian Women in War, the writer and historian Susanna de Vries profiles the lives of 11 extraordinary Australian women. All of them, she says, defied the prevailing stereotype that women were “weak, feeble creatures” to reveal themselves as heroic, compassionate, selfless and brave.

Among the 11 women are Olive King, a volunteer ambulance driver who saved countless lives in the war-ravaged Balkans; Gallipoli nurse Alice Kitchen, who also served in France; and Vivian Bullwinkel, who survived the Bangka Island massacre, only to face more than three years as a Japanese POW, watching her fellow inmates die around her.

All of the 11 women are now dead. But the Brisbane-based de Vries pieced together their stories from interviews, letters and journals. “These are women who have fallen through the cracks of history,” de Vries says. “I feel it’s terribly important to get their stories down now and not let more time pass.”

De Vries was incredibly moved by the stories she spent years researching. “These women’s lives say a great deal about the nature of female heroism and the fact that heroism is not gender specific,” she says. “When I finished writing the book, the editor cried, the proof reader cried — everyone cried who had been connected with it.”

Their names deserve to be known and remembered, along with those of our Anzac heroes.

That women were allowed to go to war at all, as de Vries points out, was at odds with the prevailing male opinion of the time that women were too illogical or hysterical to serve as army medical officers and surgeons.

Indeed, William Balls-Headley, a professor of obstetrics at the University of Melbourne, even went so far as to comment in 1894: “1f young women were allowed to undertake tertiary education, the energy needed by the uterus would be diverted to the brain, rendering them infertile.”

De Vries scoffs at such nonsense. “Nobody bothered to think whether the testosterone-driven young men were going to be infertile, too.”

These kinds of theories, though, “dogged women, in everything,” de Vries says. “It was related to the old Greek idea of the wandering womb and Freud didn’t help, either, with his theories on hysteria in women.”

However, de Vries feels vindicated by a time‑and‑motion study that showed that in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during WW1, five unpaid female voluntary aid detachment workers got through the same amount of work as eight paid male orderlies.

In her book, de Vries pays tribute to Alice Kitchen and Joice NanKivell Loch, who de Vries notes did not even rate a mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

So she set about redressing the balance. Her book tells the amazing stories of the Paradise Road nurses, including Sister Sylvia Muir and Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, who returned from horrific experiences as POWs to pick up where they left off, without any fanfare.

“They just blended back into the community, and they didn’t want to talk about their experiences,” de Vries says. “They did a lot of voluntary work, and they raised the money for a memorial for their dead comrades, and they bonded tightly together, and the ones that were well enough went back into nursing. They never sought publicity.

“Had that happened today, they would be on the plane back to Australia, contacting Harry M. Miller to sell the story; they’d be getting a bit of Botox to look good; they’d be out on the front of women’s magazines and they’d probably do speaking tours and endorse products.”

De Vries is dismayed that Melbourne does not have a public memorial that commemorates the Victorian women who went to war.

“Their names deserve to be known and remembered, along with those of our Anzac heroes.”

Heroic Australian Women in War by Susanna de Vries (HarperCollins, $29.95)