Australia

Nurse’s uncensored diaries celebrate the unsung courage of women in World War I

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"A lot of the soldiers were actually very scared … and knew they were going back to carnage."

Australian nurse Anne Donnell writes vividly of the fear felt by Australian troops in her diary in November, 1917 from the 48th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), near Amiens, France on the Western front.

"The expressions on those dear boys' faces as they come pouring in with their frightened anxious hunted look combined with the suffering of pain, fear and shock," she writes in her wartime diary.

"Boys who could see would be the leaders of queues of blind, bandaged boys each placing their hands on the other's shoulders and so feeling their way."

A black and white photo of a woman wearing a World War I nurse's uniform.

The "Fritz" (Germans) had broken through in their counterattack and were "three miles away".

She describes the "full fury" of the noise and the "tremendous and continuous humming" of scores of aeroplanes overhead.

"The wounded boys and the gassed boys are making their way in streams towards the CCS. I shall never forget it."

" … every available space under cover is packed, and not only inside but outside as well. I leave my wounded men and go over to the gas side … there we go on hour after hour putting cocaine in those poor smarting eyes then soda bicarb pads and a bandage."

For nearly a century, the diaries of World War 1 Australian nurse Anne Donnell were packed away and forgotten.

The 'myths of war'

Although they were published in 1920 under the title "Letters from an Australian Army Nurse," the diaries were edited and censored.

Now, the original letters and diaries of the nurse — who hailed from Cherry Gardens, south of Adelaide — are set to be published in full, and will shed new light on the Anzacs and the work of Australian nurses.

"In many cases, the censors have removed critical sentences or phrases or entire paragraphs," Professor of History at Victoria University, Robert Pascoe said.

In the 1920s book the men returning to Gallipoli from the Australian hospital on Lemnos island are described as "brave and apparently cheerful".

But in her original letters, Anne Donnell writes it was "terribly sad" to see the men returning to Gallipoli and they "hated the thought of going back …"

Anne Donnell pictured (centre) with Australians troops in Lemons, just under 100 km from the Gallipoli peninsula.

"We now know from Anne that a lot of the soldiers she was looking after in Gallipoli were actually very scared," Professor Pascoe said.

"So, unlike the myth we've been given that they were brave men who actually stared death in the face, she actually saw their fear and described it in the original diary. The men knew they were going back to carnage.

"We've gone back to the original diaries and we're able now to hear Anne Donnell's voice, loud and clear," he said.

Long-lost diaries

Anne Donnell's original 80,000 words have been meticulously transcribed by her grandson, Graeme Mitchell, and his wife, Jan Leader.

Mr Mitchell discovered the works in a garage after his mother died.

"We had no idea they existed. When Anne passed, they went to Mum, and when Mum passed they were in a makeup box which was basically airtight and no-one knew anything about them," Mr Mitchell said.

"My brother found them and rang me up and that's when we realised there was a story to be told about women's history in Australia."

An open notebook showing a hand-written diary.

"It took years to do. We worked with lights, magnifying glasses, torches, outside.

"We got to know Anne quite well. She was an intelligent woman, witty, charming, funny, didn't much like being told what to do."

Professor Pascoe has compared Anne Donnell's original letters to the first published version.

He says they explode long-standing myths about the Great War, including the belief the Anzac's were not scared, and that the nurses did not have intimate relations with the men.

Her account of New Year's Eve 1915 on Lemnos was removed from the original book.

"We clasped hands and heartily sang 'Should Auld Acquaintances'. I had hold of Captain Lloyd's, he was then convalescing from his severe illness, and Captain Strachan's," she wrote.

A man and two women examine historical documents.

Camaraderie of women

Professor Pascoe said; "We can see in the diaries a kind of intimacy we haven't seen before.

"In the same way historians are looking back through the trench diaries of homosexual and homoerotic feelings of the men in the trenches, now we are seeing the emotional side of what it was like to be a woman serving either at the battlefront of near the battlefront.

"What was left out of that story was the women, the nurses like Anne.

"There were 3,000 women who went off to the war, they were just pushed to one side because they weren't part of this legend."

Professor Pascoe says the diaries also show that there was the same camaraderie among the women as the men.

"For a long time we've thought only men could have camaraderie.

"It was about the warriors together, the men together, fighting together.

"She talks about we've been through something together and that's something we've gone through together on the island of Lemnos, will never go away, that we've actually endured a hardship together, we've come out the other end and we're different people for it."

Anne Donnell also writes about how the nurses protected the Australian soldiers and stood-up to authority.

'Courageous, brave, tiny little pocket rocket'

In September 1918 she writes that the nurses smuggle a Private back into the Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield, England, after he has stayed out all night drinking.

"I have never reported a Digger yet for being AWL (Absent Without Leave) And I never shall … just think for a moment what these boys have done for us and the trivial things vanish immediately. "

In another incident at the Kitchener Hospital in Brighton, England, in October 1916, the nurses rebel after being told they could only fraternise with officers.

Black and white image of five nurses and and two orderlies.

Anne Donnell writes that the matron tells them; "You are not to go out with or speak to Privates or NCO's, and if you do so you will be sent into British Hospitals.

"We were silent with surprise for a while then one sister said, 'can we dress in mufti and go out with them?' 'No certainly not.'

"Then Sister Simpson got up and said 'Matron I have a little brother fighting in France that I haven't seen for six years. Does it mean that if he gets furlough and comes over to see me that I mustn't go out or speak to him?' The reply is 'that is the order, Sister.'"

Anne Donnell writes that the nurses then took things further.

They approached the Agent Generals for Tasmania and South Australia, wrote to the Australian newspapers and sought permission to approach the King.

Jan Leader said Anne Donnell has been forgotten and she wants her included in Australia's history books.

"She was a courageous, brave, tiny little pocket rocket, a beautiful soul, a gentle woman who was kind and her whole being was to look after these soldiers," Ms Leader said.

"She loved the boys and all she wanted to do was to make sure they were cared for."

"We all know about our Anzacs and our soldiers but not everyone knows about the great work our nurses did."

Graeme Mitchell wants Anne Donnell's story to be widely known.

"She worked, she was cold, she was lonely. She was belted up, she was afraid, she was far from home. She managed to put on a brave face when she was working with people who were wounded but nobody ever took care of the carers. It must have been terrifying, and she managed it every day."

"I think history has a way of passing people by, accidentally forgetting them," Mr Mitchell said.

"We've got John Kirkpatrick Simpson, and his donkey, and we've got Weary Dunlop and now we have Anne Donnell and she's earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder, with the best this country has ever had."

Anne Donnell pictured with Australian troops in National Library of Australia photo

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