Felicity Packard, screenwriter and lecturer, University of Canberra, 17 April 2015
FRANCES BALDWIN: Welcome to another Landmark Women talk, everyone. Thanks for coming out in the rain. For those of you who are new to the event, my name is Frances Baldwin and I am currently looking after the Museum Friends. Before we begin just the normal administration, if you could please turn your phones to silent and, as the session is going to be recorded and transcribed by Polly, if you could wait for the microphones at the end for questions.
I would also like to draw your attention to the Museum’s Defining moments project. You will find some cards down on the front, which I had actually put on your seats but the cleaner has thrown them out, unfortunately. Plus the reserve signs so I am sorry if you are not sitting where you need to sit. We would be very interested in your feedback of what you think your defining moments are in this commemorative year 2015. The Museum will have a plaque commemorating the 1915 moment Australian troops landed in Gallipoli in one of our series of 25 plaques to go on the floor in the hall. Please keep your eyes on the hall for changing elements of this exhibition. Also if you have the opportunity to go online or give us your feedback on the cards, we would really appreciate it as it would all go to inform this project.
There is also a series of lectures around the new exhibition The Home Front, with the first one being on 7 May at 12.30 pm with two of the curators that put The Home Front exhibition together. That is one of the reasons that I invited Felicity to speak today – and on to today. A very special welcome to Felicity Packard, one of the writers behind the six acclaimed Underbelly drama series and lead writer and producer on Anzac Girls, which screened on the ABC and is currently also on iView. It has recently been nominated for three Logies, including outstanding mini series, so congratulations to Felicity on that.
Felicity has also written other TV shows including Home and Away, and over the years has won many prizes for her screenwriting including the 2008 Queensland Premier’s literary award and five AWGIE awards, which are the Australian Writers Guild awards. A part-time lecturer at the facility of arts and design at the University of Canberra, Felicity teaches across a range of creative writing related subjects, including screenwriting, prose writing and literary studies. As well as having a family and a normal social life, she is currently developing Wolf Creek as a television series for Stan and undertaking a PhD in screenwriting. Plus she’s a TV-aholic like myself so that’s exciting. Please join me today for another very esteemed Landmark lecture with Felicity Packard. [applause]
FELICITY PACKARD: Hello and thank you very much for having me here and for turning up on this wet morning. It was really lovely to be asked as a Landmark Woman, as I never thought of myself like that. It is enormously humbling to see the other speakers who have been asked to speak at this event. But when it comes to landmark women, let me tell you that I have nothing on the people that I want to talk about today, which is the women we represented in Anzac Girls.
What I do want to talk about today is the kind of personal journey I had through Anzac Girls and why we decided to tell the story in the first place. When I say ‘we’ it is myself as the lead writer and creator, then the other producers and executive producers and of course Screentime, the production company, and the ABC. You need good reasons to spend the amount of money that the ABC spent on a show like Anzac Girls, particularly in what was going to be a saturated climate which is where I like to start.
I have called my talk ‘Great deeds in the Great War’ but really what I want to talk about is how so many of these great deeds done by these women are just unknown, because they were nurses and because they were women. What we tried to do in Anzac Girls is open that up. I want to talk about that a little.
First of all, I want to talk about where the idea came from and why we chose - back in 2012 when we started thinking about this. We were aware that the centenary of the Gallipoli landing and of the whole of World War I was approaching and all the networks were very keen, as you can see now from the amount of material on there, to do stories that commemorated that. We were looking for something that gave a point of difference because we knew there were lots of other Gallipoli projects out there. There has already been Gallipoli, which is on Channel 9; there is one called Deadline Gallipoli, which is on Foxtel, plus lots of documentaries and dramatised documentaries and things like that. So we were really keen to find something that was different, and stories of nurses was, of course, something that was different because nurses - if they appear at all – just minister to wounds and then disappear again. We were attracted to that.
Why I was also very attracted to the idea of looking at the Gallipoli story from a different point of view is that I am old enough to remember and to have admired and have imprinted on my mind’s eye Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, which is quite extraordinary. On Four Corners this week, in Chris Masters’ wonderful account of Gallipoli and comparing it to what the Afghanistan veterans are going through, they used footage from Peter Weir’s film a lot, the Battle of the Nek when men were going over the top endlessly. It was a very disturbing and very powerful image. I felt for me - not for others because I know there are many people much younger than me in Australia – but for me that story had been told. I didn’t need to see that story. I didn’t need to be that engaged creatively in that story again. Again, Anzac Girls or the story of nurses gave us a fresh approach, a fresh lens.
I was also very attracted kind of perversely to the idea of doing a war story that didn’t go to the war, that didn’t go to the front line. So much of war happens at the front line but an enormous amount happens behind that front line, and I was interested in pulling apart what that might look like. I came across this book called The Other Anzacs by Peter Rees, who is another Canberran. He is a former journalist and now an historian. This is the book on which we bought the rights - we obtained the rights to this book and used this as the basis of our research for Anzac Girls. It has been re-released, the same book, with Anzac Girls on the cover as a movie tie-in as it were.
I was really attracted to it because it’s about real people and nurses rather than soldiers. It draws heavily on the nurses’ diaries and letters and things like that. It is a very unknown story. I know we have the nurses memorial which I want to talk about later on, and there was a wonderful travelling exhibition about nurses at the Australian War Memorial a few years ago, but really it’s a very unknown story. The whole Australian Army Nursing Service story is under-told, under-explored.
Peter’s book was really good at capturing the people as well as the events. He actually looks at about 30 nurses from both Australia and New Zealand in his book. Of course, we had to whittle that down. We can’t look at all those people. He really captured a sense of their personal journeys as well as the dates and he slotted those really nicely into the dates, battles and things like that.
Having come off the back of six series of Underbelly, I am very attracted to the appeal of real events and the dramatic possibilities in real events. Real life is so crazy. Real life so disorganised and it does not fit neatly into a three act structure because, generally for drama, we like a beginning, a middle and an end in that order. Real life just isn’t like that. I have really enjoyed and tried to rise to the challenge of taking real events and, without betraying the history of them, turning them into something that is an accessible piece of drama. I kind of like that.
Other reasons why Anzac Girls or telling the stories of Anzac nurses appealed to me personally - my whole family are New Zealanders. I was the only one in my family actually born in Australia so I have a strong New Zealand heritage. I have always been terribly conscious that this word here – Anzac - or acronym actually has New Zealand in it as well as Australia. Living in Australia, we completely forget that New Zealand were there, and I have to say it’s exactly the same in New Zealand. When you go to New Zealand Anzac ceremonies and Gallipoli ceremonies, it’s like Australia wasn’t there. So both countries have sort of isolated each other out. Maybe it’s to do with the All Blacks, I don’t know, but for some reason they don’t really engage with the fact that it was the Australia New Zealand Army Corps. It wasn’t the Australian Army Corps or the New Zealand Army Corps; it was something that was bundled together. If there are stories from that time, from that period, both countries share them equally, and I was very happy to remind audiences of that.
Another reason was that I am a very proud Australian. I went to school and in the lead-up to Anzac Day we would sing the songs. I have been to the dawn services and things like that. I think it’s a really remarkable social thing that happens in Australia and New Zealand around Anzac Day, and there is absolutely no place for a woman in it. There is just not a woman in it. That’s because women didn’t land at Gallipoli on 25 April - I can understand that. But the fact is there was a whole lot of women doing things behind the scenes which made that whole experience and on into the rest of the First World War possible. I was very keen to see ways in which we could enlarge that story to let the female element come out.
I have a lot of nursing connections. I have a daughter who is a midwife, I have three sisters-in-laws who are nurses, so nurses figure very heavily in my family. I am always happy to be pro-nurse - not anti-doctor but pro-nurse. In general it’s a way of celebrating nursing work. I think nursing work needs to be celebrated, honoured and dramatised as often as possible.
I also have a lot of World War I medical connections. They are all New Zealanders, of course. My grandfather served as a doctor in both the Middle East and on the Western Front. My aunt, actually a Kiwi like Hilda Steele, one of our characters, served with the Australians even though she was a Kiwi nurse. I have a great-uncle who was killed on the Western Front. From both sides of my family, we have lots and lots of medical connections and wartime connections into the First World War. It has always been a story that has rolled around our family.
Then there’s a whole lot of gender politics that come into it, which I will return to when I stand on my soap box towards the end of this little chat.
Another thing with Anzac Girls that I was really attracted to doing is unpacking and re-experiencing and rethinking this whole idea of Gallipoli and Anzac and what they mean. As we have seen just in the last few days with the controversy about commercialisation of the word ‘Anzac’ and whole ‘Lest we forget’, ‘Fresh in our memories’ and very tacky things like that, it’s a vexed issue for both countries. That has risen later but when I was thinking about Anzac Girls, I was thinking about how, when we say word ‘Anzac’, it’s such a positive in Australia and New Zealand. The connotations are universally positive. They evoke these qualities of mateship, humour in the face of adversity, courage, loyalty, the whole crucible of national identity and all of that. That’s fine, and it’s true.
But again, what might we see if those genuinely valorised concepts were seen through a female lens? Mateship has such male connotations because when we think of mateship we see a bronzed Aussie going over the top. What might that mean if we enlarged that legend a little? Wanting to see what it might mean if we opened them up.
In Anzac Girls we did things like explore friendship. It is not exactly the same word as mateship but it’s the same thing. If we think of mateship as loving support, loyalty and having a friend’s back, I think we explore that in Anzac Girls in a different way. Because as soon as you apply it to women, it becomes slightly different but this is one of the things I wanted to look at.
The idea of sacrifice - oh my goodness, sacrifice for a soldier is very clear. Thousands of them tragically paid with their lives or paid with terrible wounds that they carried forever, both emotional and physical. But that’s also why women have been excluded because they didn’t pay that sort of obvious price. If you watched Anzac Girls and read through all the material, you realise that they had enormous sacrifices. They sacrificed health and happiness. They sacrificed their futures. Only 30 per cent of nurses who returned from the war actually married when they came back. They had given up something to do this. Lots of them went against their parents’ approval. There is a scene in episode 2 and 3 where Olive Haynes suffered enormous pressure from her parents not to go to war - we didn’t make that up. That was her experience. It is in her letters. It’s a different sort of sacrifice but I think it is still one that was worth exploring and dramatising.
Humour - our girls are so great, especially Olive, but they were all so funny. They said wonderful things, lots of lines which got cut, not because they weren’t good lines but that’s how things end up on the cutting room floor. Olive used to go around saying, ‘I’ll do my best for you. You’re going to have to look a bit more cheerful.’ They had asked for a glass of water - ‘You’ll be wanting flowers on your grave next year. I haven’t got time for that’. Very funny. It is that same sort of black humour that obviously men in the trenches need or people under any sort of pressure. There is a lot of gallows humour in medicine generally, because otherwise you just can’t cope; it is just too disturbing. So the nurses had that, too, but that’s not a story that we get told.
We tend to think of nurses - I’ll come to this in a minute too – as those ministering angels who hover in and just glide around and do angelic things and glide off again. But actually they were full-blooded, humorous women - people – and that was worth exploring, and how that might be a bit different to the way we understood that quality.
Courage - oh my goodness, this is almost the biggest one. I was really concerned to explore the different sorts of courage that were required by the women in the AANS. They didn’t have to go over the top. They weren’t being asked to put their lives on the line in that same really direct way that men were, but they had the courage to keep going. All the women – the five women that we looked at - served virtually the entire war and for a lot of that they’re working 16-hour days for 14 days straight, and they are having between one and 20 men die in a shift. The courage to keep going and do that I think is something that is worth celebrating, but it is not something that we are allowed to do in the particular version of Anzac Day that the media tends to generally deliver us.
It is also the courage to sit with people who are dying. It takes an enormous amount of courage. Most of us just turn tail and flee. It’s too hard. These nurses had to do it time after time. In one episode we dramatised an absolutely true event or sequence of events where the nurses wrote letters to the loved ones of the soldiers who had died. The army would send home a telegram ‘We regret to inform you that…’ which didn’t tell you very much and was little comfort to a mother, and the nurses would write to them. The emotional toll that must have taken, the courage - I have to pick up my pen and do it again – and still they did it I think is worth honouring and celebrating. Sorry, I am already on my soap box, as you can see.
The other thing I wanted to explore was this idea that Anzac and Gallipoli as the birthplace of Australia - and New Zealand make the same claim. Actually Paul Keating, the former Prime Minister, is very interesting on this and he is very anti that idea. He thinks that it’s a false notion, but I will leave him to make that argument. I did want to look at that though and what that might have been like. What did they think at the time? Did they have that sense of it at the time? Were they thinking in those large nationalistic terms?
You read the diaries and the letters and you actually come up with some remarkable things that the Anzac nurses experienced. What they had to say about Gallipoli was, almost from the word go, that ‘it was stupid’, ‘it was a disaster’, ‘it was a waste of time’ and ‘it was poorly managed’. Not only the women we look at, but one wonderful nurse, whose story we didn’t dramatise because there is too much material, was writing angrily in her diary that ‘those imbeciles in British high command should be sacked’. She would have been sent home for writing that if that had got past the censors. They were feeling that sense that Australians and New Zealanders were being used as cannon fodder. I know many British and French and of course the Turks died in enormous numbers in that campaign, but I am thinking about from the Anzac nurses’ point of view.
The other thing that was clear very swiftly - and it’s a theme that riffs right through all the nurses diaries and letters throughout the whole war - was first of all their disbelief and then their dismay and then their severe displeasure at how they were treated by the colonial authorities and by their British counterparts - not all of them, of course. They also say very nice things about a lovely British nurse here and a charming British doctor there. But the general feeling is these Australians and New Zealanders went over there saying, ‘Look, here we are, a little part of Britain,’ and the British didn’t want to know. They were happy to use them but did not see them as equal.
There is a line in episode 4 where Alice says - this is actually in the Western Front – she’s cross and she turns to somebody and says, ‘Honestly, the way we’re being treated here, you’d think we were England’s enemies instead of belonging to her.’ That is straight from her diary. That sentiment is something that gets repeated or gets explored in so many of their diaries and letters home. They were stunned. It was like a slap in the face. They had no idea that Britain didn’t see them - didn’t see the colonies - in the same kind of affectionate and equal way that the colonies saw Britain. Not very far into the war – it was in the Western Front - Olive was saying things like, ‘I have been to London. It’s a gilded fog bowl. There’s no place like Australia.’ That is partly homesickness, of course. But before that at the beginning of the war she’s saying, ‘I can’t wait to get there, see home - she was born in Adelaide - I can’t wait to go home’ - that whole idea of home. It has nothing to do with her as far as she was concerned. I was really interested in exploring that as well.
Another nice little example, which we again dramatised because it was too good to miss, was the fuss about the red capes, the lovely scarlet capes that they wore, because the British had suggested – they had made a rule; I don’t know where it came from – that only the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service nurses should wear the scarlet cape. Then in came the Australians and New Zealanders cheerfully wearing their scarlet capes. They had incredible pressure not to wear them though they went on and did. It is those sorts of things that the people from the Antipodes found really surprising, yet they boldly went on.
Another element of the whole kind of World War I story, but particularly Gallipoli, that I think Anzac Girls allows us to explore is this idea of the Australian Army. We don’t spend much time with the New Zealand Army so I can’t speak for that. The AIF, the Australian Imperial Force, which is what the army was called for the First World War, tends to come out very clean and shiny in the public mind. We just think, ‘Oh those brave men who are being mistreated by the British.’ Well, that’s not how the nurses experienced it. The nurses experienced almost equal hostility and downright misogyny from the Australian Army as they did from anywhere else. Being able to have a chance to pull that apart and just remind people that these are lived experiences and that the whole Gallipoli legend thing - there’s a whole reality to it that we don’t generally look at, and dramatising Anzac Girls allowed us to do that.
An example of the way in which they were treated was through Colonel Fiaschi who was played by John Waters in episode 2 and 3. He is the commander on Lemnos, which is where this photograph is from [image shown] – Grace Wilson on Lemnos. She was the matron in charge of no. 3 AGH there. He made their life miserable. He went out of his way to make the nurses’ lives unpleasant. He undervalued their contribution - even though Grace Wilson was such an extraordinary nurse and was so good with how she ran the wards, and the mortality rate was lower than any other hospital. That is why she ended up winning the Royal Red Cross First Class for her management there. This is a quote from an historian called Kirsty Harris who has written a wonderful book called More than bombs and bandages about the World War I nurses. Listen to what she says:
Medical men of the day were loath to attribute reduced death rates to nursing and imply that it was because of the doctors’ involvement rather than constant nursing work that patients survived.
To dramatise that was a really important thing and a way of reclaiming that aspect of the story. Other ways to demonstrate the truly appalling way they were treated is that, while the nurses were ranked as officers, the untrained orderlies who are privates wouldn’t take orders from them. By the time they got to the Western Front things had improved, but certainly to begin with they wouldn’t take orders from a woman.
To join the Australian Army Nursing Service - and it was the same for New Zealand more or less - they had to be qualified nurses. They had to have already qualified, which meant they had done three years training plus a year at a hospital; they had to be between 21 and 40 and be unmarried and all those sorts of things. But they were fully qualified experienced people who got paid less than half what an untrained orderly did. The baker joins up and says, ‘I will be an orderly.’ Good on him - he got paid twice what Grace Wilson got.
When that scene got cut - I couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted to fit in but I am telling you guys so you can know that. That sort of thing is also one of the reasons why this is a story that is worth telling. It’s not the story that you hear about the AIF. Generally we think of the AIF as this institution of egalitarian, bronzed diggers with a universal sense of natural justice. It certainly wasn’t how the nurses experienced it.
One of the most significant things for me - it’s kind of emerging as we approach the centenary of Anzac Day even more strongly – is that because of our attachment to and interest in the Gallipoli story, particularly the April 25 landing but the whole of that campaign, it tends to completely overshadow the fact there were three more years of war. Yes, it was a rotten eight months but it was eight months. Then the AIF and the New Zealanders and everybody else went off to the Western Front and fought for three more years where there were much more military significant battles.
In terms of military significance Gallipoli is a blip; it was of no military significance - that’s the tragedy of it. But in terms of battles which actually impacted the outcome of the war, you’ve got to go to the Western Front. I think Gallipoli has overshadowed that, and the fact that nurses also went on to the Western Front is really important too.
There were vastly greater losses suffered by Australia and New Zealand on the Western Front than at Gallipoli. In the eight months at Gallipoli about 8,000 Australians died, which is too horrific to even imagine. At the battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916, over 5,000 men died in one night. I am not saying that Fromelles is a more significant battle - it kind of is - but it’s not talked about because Gallipoli has co-opted our whole capacity to commemorate World War I. In Anzac Girls, I am proud to say, we spent as much time on the Western Front as we did at Gallipoli. I think we were right in doing it. Given how significant Gallipoli is in Australia and New Zealand, we have to tell that story. But we were absolutely as concerned to tell the Western Front part of the war as well - we were able to do that.
I am going to read you a little poem - it’s actually a song – that says:
I’ve seen some beautiful flowers Grow in life’s garden fair, I’ve spent some wonderful hours, lost in their fragrance rare; but I have found another, wondrous beyond compare.There’s a rose that grows on ‘No-man’s land’ And it’s wonderful to see, Tho’ it’s sprayed with tears it will live for years, In my garden of memory.It’s the one red rose the soldier knows, it’s the work of the Master’s hand; Mid the war’s great curse, stands the Red Cross nurse; She’s the rose of ‘No-man’s land’.
[The Rose of No Man’s Land by James Alexander Brennan and Jack Caddigan]
That’s a very lovely song. But to my mind it kind of diminishes rather than honours the work of nurses. It is deeply sentimental, which I know is part of the period, but it actually doesn’t talk anything about what nurses do. It means in general that over time, throughout history, the work that women do has tended generally to be trivialised or overlooked or patronised. I think this [song] for all of its intense sincerity is deeply trivialising of what World War I nurses actually did. I think that popular image of the ministering angel has blocked our capacity to actually understand not only what nurses do but what these individual women did. It makes it harder to celebrate them, because they are bound up in this ministering angels thing. I have some ministering angels images for you [image shown] – things like this. Who had time to do such elaborate hair? And this [image shown] - I did find in my research that the rose of no-man’s land was a very popular tattoo. This image is on skin all over the world. That’s a rose of no-man’s land. And that’s the image that The Rose of No Man’s Land song conjures up. I think that is the image that, in the very few dramas that have included nursing, when looking at the soldiers this is what we tend to get, this sort of idea.
I really wanted to resist that image and offer an alternative to how military nursing is seen. The Rose of No Man’s Land is a derivation of the ‘angel in the house’ idea from the nineteenth century about where women should be. The mother/wife was the angel in the house who somehow glided around and never fought with the children and always had meals on the table. It is kind of insidious. The fact that that has been attached to nursing is a problem.
I am not suggesting for a minute that the poor men suffering didn’t have that sense of ‘Oh my goodness, you feel like an angel to me; that somebody cares for me; that somebody is holding my hand and asking my name and will write to my mother’. I have no doubt that they did have that experience for the men. But I am telling the story from the point of view of the women. That’s partly why I wanted to challenge it.
The other thing is, as I have said when I was talking about the pay, that the nurses are actually not angels, they are professionals. Back as far as Florence Nightingale she talks about it [nursing] as a profession. To suggest that they are angels and it is somehow a calling is a real problem because it diminishes what they do at some level. This is what they did [image shown]. That is assisting at a surgery. They don’t look like angels here because they have gas masks on and they are helping a man who is injured put a gas mask on. This is what they did [image shown] – we dramatised this in episode 6 this remarkable method of treating septic wounds. They are engaged, intelligent, mature, experienced professionals - not angels.
The other problem with nursing in general and military nursing is that it has tended to be depicted as a calling. And to some level it is: not everybody can do it. Some people have an organic commitment to other people and are able to do that – and that’s great. Often those people do become nurses. Not everybody can do it because it’s so hard. But the trouble with a calling and with an angel is that you don’t have to pay them; they just glide in and do it because they think it’s the right thing to do. No, they should be paid. That is another reason why the sentiment and love in The Rose of No Man’s Land idea actually stops them being treated as fully rounded human beings. I really wanted to do something about that.
Where are we up to? I wanted to honour the nurses. On Anzac Parade here in Canberra there is the nurses’ memorial. It was opened in 1999, which is quite a long time after the First World War, you might think, or after the Boer War because there were actually Australian nurses at the Boer War. New Zealand by comparison in 1927 opened a nurses’ chapel attached to Christchurch Hospital that honours military nursing. So we all think, ‘Good on New Zealand for doing that. Look at them and their female emancipation.’ It was paid for by public subscription not by the government. Basically the families of the New Zealand nurses raised the money to put up that chapel, but at least it has been there since 1927. As I said, Australia didn’t get a dedicated memorial until 1999, despite nurses having served in every war that Australia has been involved in.
The military medal - seven Anzac nurses received the military medal. We talk about this in episode 6 when we see Alice Ross King go through what she went through to be awarded hers. The military medal was devised by the king, King George, because he realised that other ranks besides officers were doing pretty marvellous stuff which deserved to be honoured. So they created this award and it gets given out. However, it was created for other ranks, and nurses are officers.
I do not want to diminish the fact that seven nurses won an award, because it’s an award for valour - for courage under fire effectively. If you have seen episode 6, you will have seen what Alice did during that bombing raid. It is much better to have an award and have that recognised than not, but it was made for other ranks. I just have this [gesture made] that they couldn’t quite come at treating nurses as equals, as officers. Really they should have been able to qualify for George Crosses, VCs and whatever else. But they didn’t. I know it’s not the same as actually facing enemy fire; I know that what they were doing is not the same; but at the same time there is a double standard there which slightly sticks in my throat.
Two hundred and ten were awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross - that’s great, that’s fantastic, and 56 were awarded the full Royal Red Cross, and Grace Wilson was one of those. The stats on how many nurses served are really hard to get, because unsurprisingly very poor records were kept about their service. The historians have never been able to arrive at a firm figure but certainly well over 3,000 women from Australia and New Zealand served. But a lot of them didn’t only serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service or the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, they went and served, as Elsie does in episodes five and six, with the Red Cross or they served with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperials or they served with the Canadians. So many of these extraordinary women were just desperately keen to get over there and nurse injured people. They paid their own passage. The army wasn’t going to pay for their passage. They really were extraordinarily committed. But it does mean it’s why firm records are hard to come by.
On screen - I hope people have seen Anzac Girls. If not, it’s available at the ABC Shop. If you haven’t all seen Anzac Girls, I would urge you to do it. It’s wonderful. I just want to explain how all of what I have talked about gets embodied into what actually ends up on screen.
The first thing is that the nurses’ point of view dominates. My intention in writing it and producing it is there would not be a single scene in which there wasn’t a nurse. As it turns out, there are two which they snuck in on me. They are very minor. We see Colonel Fiaschi waking up at one point and Elsie is in a phone conversation with her husband who is at the front and we have an intercut scene between those two. So really it’s still linked back to Elsie. But the intention was you don’t have point of view – what we call in the trade point of view - unless you have a nurse in the scene.
The second thing is that half of the series is set on the Western Front. We make no bones about that and we try to accord as much air time to the whole Western Front campaign as the one in the Middle East.
I don’t tend to read blogs and things about shows I’ve written on because I get too upset if people don’t like them, but I know that some of the criticisms about Anzac Girls quite quickly was, ‘Oh, they’re doing romances’; ‘Oh, there’s too much about them just brushing each other’s hair and being friends.’ I am proud of that and I think that’s absolutely part of it, because again it is saying that war is only about shooting at people and actually war for these people who were there and worked hard - and all the things that I have bent your ears about for the last half hour - they had personal lives. The whole point of this story was to say: How do you go on being alive, trying to connect with people, when you’ve been at war for so long?
The fact that they did have romances: we didn’t make up these romances. I didn’t make up Alice Ross-King falling in love with Harry Moffitt or Olive meeting Pat Dooley, him being shot in the chest and her saying, ‘Right. That’s it. I’m marrying you regardless.’ I didn’t make up Elsie Cook being married to the former Prime Minister’s son and enlisting under her maiden name so she could go with him. That’s all real; that’s all there. Yet to say, as some critics were suggesting, ‘As soon as you put romances in, it somehow trivialises what they do,’ I think it actually makes it more spectacular what they do.
Alice’s diary is so great. It’s an extraordinary document. I would urge you all to read it. It’s available at the War Memorial. She is saying, ‘We had 800 men admitted from Anzac Cove last night. I am so tired I can’t look at anybody without crying. I’m going to go into town and buy some new shoes.’ That’s so great and that’s so real. I know she wasn’t at Anzac Cove so she had the opportunity to go into town and buy new shoes. But to say that that somehow trivialises when it’s actually a way of dealing with it. The fact that she and Harry managed to have that heart-breakingly lovely connection so swiftly is part of the story of war which ought to be told, but it’s not told if you think that war is only about blokes shooting at each other.
As I alluded to at the beginning, Peter Rees’s book and the other records as well deals with many nurses than we focused on. There were so many great stories we couldn’t do because they didn’t belong to our people. There was a wonderful story about Pearl Corkhill, who was a great nurse. I think she was from Dalgetty, I think, not that far from here. During a bombing raid she stayed in the tent and went around and put tin basins – like those enamel basins that you wash in – on every one of the patient’s heads, and she had shrapnel in her back. That’s a great story. I would’ve loved to have told that story, but we can’t tell every story.
We did select our five main characters because they gave us a range of real stories to explore. Poor Grace’s brother who was killed at Gallipoli shot by a sniper; Olive falling in love with Pat and Pat being wounded; Alice falling in love with Harry – spoiler alert – he’s killed at Fromelles; and Hilda Steele, our Kiwi girl, a modest little girl who stood her ground and trained as an anaesthetist despite lots of pressure not to. We have been partial in that sense. There were lots more stories we could have told and lots of stories that I would loved to have told but you can’t do everything. You’ve only got six hours.
These are the actresses who played Anzac Girls [image shown]. This is Laura Brent, who was nominated for a Logie. She played Sister Elsie Cook. This is Caroline Craig who played Matron Grace Wilson.
Seriously, Matron Grace Wilson should be up there as one of our national heroes. ‘Weary’ Dunlop absolutely deserves the praise and the recognition he gets; Grace Wilson should seriously have similar recognition. She is from Brisbane. I know they have made a statue of her in Brisbane, which is great, but there should be one here at the War Memorial, frankly. She is just extraordinary. This is Georgia Flood who plays Sister Alice Ross-King; Anna McGahan who played the lovely Olive Haynes, who is from Adelaide; and Antonia Prebble who played Sister Hilda Steele, who is the Kiwi girl.
Before I go to my last image – and here is my soap box - the last reason why I really felt it was worth telling the story of Anzac Girls is young women today, honestly, you say the word ‘feminism’ to them and they make the sign of the devil at you and say, ‘What’s feminism ever done for me?’ Well, let me tell you: not that long ago trained women got paid half of what untrained men got. That is what feminism has done for you. People like Elsie Cook were forced to resign because they were married. Her marital status made her unable to nurse how? That is never made clear. All that sort of stuff.
Young women today have this sense that the rights and equality that they have - they take it for granted. It’s been here forever. They are givens. They are not givens; they could be very much taken away if you don’t remain vigilant; and if you don’t celebrate, honour, recognise and pull apart how some of those extraordinary steps towards equality were achieved. I am certainly not the only person to point this out: the First World War did give women an opportunity to step out of those roles, as indeed did the Second World War because the men were all off being shot at. If Anzac Girls reminds or alerts one young woman to the kind of chauvinism that was just a given, then I will be really pleased with that.
Finally, in making Anzac Girls and in everything I have said today - I know I speak for my fellow producers, for the ABC and for Screentime when I say this - at no stage did we want to underplay or diminish what soldiers have done or underplay the service of men in the First World War. Really what we wanted to do was say: this is 100 years on from the war, surely we are big enough and grown up enough to let that very powerful legend just expand a little and think what it might be like for the other people who served there. All those things, what do they mean if you look at them through a nursing lens? That’s really where the impulse to tell the story came from.
These are the real women. [image shown] I am sorry about my terrible picture of Hilda. There are no pictures of Hilda available. That is Alice and this is a tiny little one of Hilda, which is actually from a group photograph. I had to get my son up this morning to help me do the Powerpoint. This is Elsie; this is Grace again on Lemnos; and this is Olive.
Back to where I began: it’s great to be considered a landmark woman but I tell you I am a pebble compared to these women. I think we should give them all a big round of applause, frankly. And thank you. [applause].
FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much. Has anybody got any questions?
QUESTION: We were discussing Anzac Girls when it first started, the first series. As an ex-nurse training in the 1950s under sisters who were about to retire and so many had not married at the old colonial Parramatta Hospital, [inaudible] our actual pianist, who is a director of jazz and many other things, bounced in and he said, ‘Have you seen the start of Anzac Girls? Olive was my grandmother.’
FELICITY PACKARD: Oh, my goodness.
QUESTION: He said, ‘It was wonderful for my brothers and I’ - this man is in his late 40s ‘to actually see how our grandparents met and how they fell in love. She really was a feisty grandmother.’
FELICITY PACKARD: Olive was very feisty. That’s a lovely story. I was in contact with lots of the relatives. Olive and Pat had seven children so there is a lot of relatives out there.
QUESTION: His name is Mike Dooley. He’s a very prominent jazz director and jazz pianist in Canberra.
FELICITY PACKARD: That’s great. I should buy him a beer.
QUESTION: That was just wonderful. I noticed that the photos that you have, only one of them seems to be a War Memorial photo. Does the War Memorial have photos all of these women or did you have to find them elsewhere?
FELICITY PACKARD: The one of Alice and the one of Hilda, which is a group photo, they come from a thing called ‘grey scale’ or something like that. They do have photos of some of them, but this is the only one that we accessed from the War Memorial [AWM]. We also went for ones that were the best photographs that we could of them. They [the War Memorial] have quite a lot of nursing images but of particular nurses, not nearly as many as they do of the men, although I have say the AWM were really helpful to us. They gave us enormous access to their maps. All those maps in the opening title sequence, they are not the real maps but they are based on maps that the War Memorial let us use. They were great.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, that was wonderful. I have learnt a lot of already. I was wondering whether these nurses - I guess they suffered from post-traumatic stress and whether there was ever anything available for them. I reckon there is a whole another series of what happened to them when they came home.
FELICITY PACKARD: Do you want to pitch that to the ABC? They did absolutely suffer post traumatic stress and not only these nurses – terribly. Like many of the men it wasn’t something that got discussed. Like all those stories we hear about – your grandfather who would never talk about the war, would have terrible nightmares and drank himself to death. Those sorts of stories happened for the nurses as well. There was a tragically high suicide rate. There were instances of alcoholism. All same sorts of symptoms that the returned servicemen were going through, the nurses tended to suffer as well but they suffered it even more in silence because didn’t have the RSL. They didn’t have those outlets and they weren’t celebrated in quite the same ways.
They re-ran Anzac Girls recently and in fact episode 6 finished last Tuesday. There was a scene which I wrote and got shot but it got cut. I wish it hadn’t because it came straight from Alice’s diary. It’s when she is serving at the casualty clearing station, she’s already gone through the bombing raid and she’s actually writing a letter at the time. Then a plane goes overhead, and she’s sharing a tent with Hilda and Hilda wakes up and says, ‘Do we have to go to the dugout?’ Alice says, ‘No, it’s heading on to the railway line.’ Hilda says, - it was a line not particularly from her but from some other nurse – ‘Every time I hear the planes now I get a band of tension here.’ Alice says in her diary, ‘Every time they fly over I wet my pants.’ Now if that’s not stress, I don’t know what is. That line got cut. I was thinking again on Tuesday, ‘Why did we cut that line?’ I wish we hadn’t cut that line because I think it’s really important. Absolutely they suffered it [post-traumatic stress] dreadfully at the time and for years afterwards. It’s not something that you get over.
QUESTION: I have a comment and a question. The comment is that there has never been any mention of these wonderful nurses having to pay to be trained. My grandmother was a nurse and a suffragette. Her brother gallantly came forward - she begged him when she was a widow - to pay for her to be trained at the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney. My comment is there was no mention of what they had to go through before they even got to where they were. The question is: Do you see in 2039 that there will be another series like this about our nurses in the Pacific war?
FELICITY PACKARD: If I’m around and there’s still a typewriter, I’d be writing it - yes, I think so. The short answer is yes, I suspect there would be because that’s quite a long time away. I think there will be an appetite for exploring the centenary of World War II in the same way that people have got excited about exploring the centenary of World War I. I hope so. But I hope that we have to point out all the things that Anzac Girls has to point out - but we probably will.
QUESTION: I think they did. In Australia they came from the voluntary aides in the Red Cross to being a nursing service.
FELICITY PACKARD: That’s right. There wasn’t a nursing corps in the army until 1951. They were a voluntary reserve service.
QUESTION: Yes, I was one of the Red Cross. Thank you very much. We loved every bit. I then ran off and read the book. I am glad to see that Anzac Girls is running again on the ABC.
FELICITY PACKARD: Yes, so am I to give it that shelf life. We worked so hard on it. I want it to be out there as long as possible.
QUESTION: Thanks. To what extent when you were working on developing the series did you see yourself as part of a bigger dialogue about women’s involvement in Anzac? I know people like Alistair Thomson and Kirsty Harris have been writing about it a lot, but also more popular representations like The Crimson Field from the BBC or Tom Keneally’s Daughters of Mars. To what extent were you conscious of the wider field of work that you were contributing to?
FELICITY PACKARD: Quite conscious. One of the things that sets Anzac Girls apart from the Daughters of Mars and The Crimson Field is that it’s based on real people. I know Daughters of Mars is based to a very large extent on Peter Rees’s book, but he fictionalises it; whereas we sought not to fictionalise it. Anzac Girls is not a documentary - putting it out there – but the liberties we took with the historical fact were considered very carefully. Any change we made had to measure up against a whole ethical framework about how you represent the past and how you represent real people.
The relatives of the real people were - it’s a funny thing. I read Alice’s diary or Olive’s diary and they are young women, healthy, lively, middle class, away from parental restraint, of age - so they are having a pretty good time despite having a bad time, and they are engaging in the possibilities of all of that. They’re falling in love; they’re having flirtations; they’re going on dates; they’re having arguments with people - all of that. But for the relatives, they are their frail little old grannies so they have quite a different memory of these people that they want to preserve than the ones we wanted to explore.
We had to think very carefully about how we represented them, because also some of the relatives knew their stories pretty well but lots of them don’t. Like you were saying, they didn’t know the stories really well. When we showed Alice Ross-King in episode one having various men after her – there’s actually four more men that we didn’t mention. I am not suggesting that she did anything immoral with any of them, but she had a lot of flirtations and relationships. They were about to go off and be shot at the Dardanelles. I am not surprised they were keen to get out there. But I don’t think all her family were aware of that. We had to think very carefully to represent all of that - it’s in the historical record – but it would made her appear like such a flirt that it might have felt uneven, even though it was the case. So we made those sorts of changes. In answer to your larger question, I was very conscious that this was going to go out there. Because it was on the ABC it was going to be accorded possibly more respect or at least the opportunity to be taken more seriously than if it had been on a commercial network. Hopefully it will hang around and make a contribution.
QUESTION: Thank you. I think the title Anzac Girls is absolutely spot on. It’s correct. It captures the whole essence of what the series is all about. But ultimately did the title including ‘girls’ bother you? I am sure it must have done. How did you work around that? What were the issues and what led you to that final outcome?
FELICITY PACKARD: That is such an interesting question. We went backwards and forwards about that title, because several nurses I knew reacted negatively to the word ‘girls’. Why are we calling them girls? Why are we trivialising them? Why aren’t they women? ‘Anzac women’ is not a very good title, frankly. If any of you can come up with a better title, I would love to hear it. We went backwards and forwards about that title.
Ultimately I went with ‘girls’. We needed the word ‘Anzac’ in there because we wanted to embody that it was Australia and New Zealand. I couldn’t just call it the Australian Army Nursing Service because that sounds like a documentary. I felt justified in sticking with ‘girls’ because that’s how they refer to themselves. ‘The girls and I are going to do this’; ‘So and so and the other girls came over’; ‘We girls are so proud to be here on Lemnos’. Also they talked about the boys as the boys. I think those terms are now much more loaded. They have become more loaded. These women and men used those terms much more readily in those days. I’m not entirely sure that it’s the right title but I couldn’t think of a better one. Australia and New Zealand Nursing Service doesn’t have that ring.
FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much, Felicity. Not to take away from that, it’s a good juxtapose to remind you all that, with all of the stories that come from World War I, please visit our website, because there is the Remembering website with artefacts where you can talk about the emotions and choose the emotions that tie in. If you go to our website there’s an opportunity to extend on today’s conversation and put your thoughts into that as well. Please join me in thanking Felicity for a wonderful Landmark Women talk. [applause]
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Date published: 21 May 2015