Anzac Girls book and documentary :: We speak to author Peter Rees

2 Posted by - 8 August 2014 - Feature stories

Based in Canberra, Rees counts himself lucky to be so close to the Australian War Memorial (AWM), the National Library of Australia, and the National Archives. He began researching Anzac Girls around ten years ago as he explains: “I started calling up files at the AWM on the nurses I’d done some preliminary research on to get the names of a few and it went on from there. The more I read their letters and diaries and memoirs, the more I was fascinated. I transcribed all of this material. That is one of the important ways I work. I think it’s so crucial that you do actually soak up the feelings that are being expressed and to do that I find it’s absolutely essential to transcribe material because you can then go back and look at it and pick up deeper, wider meanings. I spent four years going through diaries and letters and along the way, I was fortunate enough to talk to family members and I really believe in firsthand primary research as far as possible. Of course by that stage none of the nurses were alive so I was dealing with family members.

“One of the fortunate experiences I had was to meet the daughter of Alice Ross-King [Alice being one of the women who features in the book and in the TV series] and I got to know her quite well. She showed me a letter Lieutenant Harry Moffitt had written to Alice professing his love for her from the trenches of Fromelles. For 100 years Harry Moffitt has not even been a footnote in Australian history but through this series I believe he may well become the face of Fromelles through this relationship and the letter he wrote to Alice.”

Rees was heavily involved in the TV series adaptation of his book acting as a consultant and providing diary transcripts, letters, and other background material. He also spoke to the cast before production about his interpretation of the characters, the real people, they were playing.

Click on the image to watch the ABC TV trailer

Click on the image to watch the ABC TV trailer

Studio portrait of five sisters of the AANS stationed at No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital and wearing the 1914 working dress. Seated in the front row on the left is Matron Ethel Gray, whose rank is shown by her thick brown cuffs and stand collar.

Studio portrait of five sisters of the AANS stationed at No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital and wearing the 1914 working dress. Seated in the front row on the left is Matron Ethel Gray, whose rank is shown by her thick brown cuffs and stand collar.

Rees says the adaptation does not shy away from portraying the reality of the war. “They’ve done that graphically,” he says. “The series has captured the horror that these women had to deal with. You get the sense of these nurses, young women who’ve grown up in Edwardian Australia, going off on an adventure to an exotic part of the world. And after a couple of months or so, suddenly, this adventure takes a completely new turn and overnight they’re confronted with the sight of horrific wounds on a mass scale and their menfolk dying before them. So, as a social personal experience, it’s captured quite graphically I think in the series.

“It is important to see the story of Anzac through the eyes of these women,” Rees says. “Just as the men were thrust into an experience they effectively knew nothing about, so were the women who went there to nurse them. I don’t think it’s really been understood how dangerous it was for these women and the more I researched the story the clearer that became.”

“The first night that they were at Gallipoli on the hospital ships, shells were lobbing in the water alongside them; bullets were landing on deck and then at the Western Front they were bombed. It was an incredibly dangerous experience. I think it’s great to have the opportunity to tell the stories of these women — to give them their due place.”

Anzac Girls premieres this Sunday, 10 August, on ABC TV, 8:30pm.

The Anzac Girls by Peter Rees

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3 Comments

  • avatar
    Graeme Mitchell 22 March 2015 - 7:03 am Reply

    Interesting article, I have the complete diaries of Anne Donnell a nurse stationed on Lemnos, France England Egypt. 60 Minutes have just done a story on Anne and we were taken to Gallipoli and Lemnos. The conclusion to the story was filmed on Thursday and will be seen at the end of 60 minutes next week. My mother was given to Anne to raise as her own and when Anne passed on the diaries came to mum, when mum passed on they lay in a cupboard for years until I got them. Now we have transcribed them accurately and written the first in a series of children’s books being illustrated now.

    • avatar
      Sarah Trevor 30 June 2015 - 12:24 pm Reply

      Hi Graeme, thanks for getting in touch – sounds fascinating. You must be very proud of Anne. We’ll keep an eye out for the children’s books series, all the best with those! (PS. just so you know, we edited the last sentence of your comment so that your mobile number wasn’t published.)

  • avatar
    Pat Law 15 April 2015 - 11:06 am Reply

    I am so glad that I found Peter Rees’ book in our little library in Lightning Ridge. This morning I have finished reading this heartrending account of the ANZAC nurses, with tears in my eyes & a lump in my throat. I did see the TV series & frankly, was disappointed in it as it left me with a ‘soapie’ impression – which made me extra glad to have read the book. Those stories are there & I admire Peter Rees for his research in bringing the horror of this terrible war to light, through the eyes of these dedicated women. Thank goodness some of the letters & diaries have been kept. I can almost hear the voices of those women talking to me over the intervening 100 years. I have 5 granddaughters who are of a similar age to those who went to war with such high hopes & think they would do the same again but thank goodness, it’s a different world today. Thank you Peter Rees.

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