Canberra Times 10 April 2004

Enduring images of a dozen brave and selfless women

HEROIC AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN WAR: Astonishing tales of bravery from Gallipoli to Kakoda. By Susanna de Vries. HarperCollins. 296pp. $29.95.

Excerpt from a review by Janet Butler, a post graduate student in history at La Trobe University.

There is no reason why sound historical scholarship should not also be a rollicking good read… De Vries is an engaging writer, and her retelling of the war service and postwar lives of her subjects make compelling reading.

Stifled by her life among the social elite of Sydney, Olive King found freedom, adventure and the fulfilment of a desire to serve driving her own ambulance, Ella the Elephant, for the Scottish Women’s Hospital, and later the Serb Army, in the Balkans in World War 1. King’s story, complete with her affair with a high-ranking Serbian officer, is the stuff of which movies are made. De Vries gives nail-biting accounts of King’s flight with an ambulance full of patients down the mountain from Guevgueli, just ahead of the advancing Bulgarian Army, and her rescue of the citizens of Salonika in 1917, as fire engulfed the city.

As the other stories unfold the reader is left with enduring images: of Great War nurse Sister Alice Kitchen, nursing hopeless “abdominals” in the oppressive atmosphere below decks on a hospital ship off Gaba Tepe; of Sylvia Muir, too weak even to cry when her best friend dies in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and 50 years later, in the café of the hospital where she was being treated for cancer, quietly confiding an aspect of their captivity the nurses had kept secret all those years. The story of the captive nurses’ endurance and loyalty to one another in the face of deprivation and cruelty is the most moving chapter of the book. Heroic Australian Women in War is both a readable volume and a useful resource for senior secondary students.