Book talk: Women to the Front


Jeff Popple reviews a timely book of forgotten wartime heroism for Anzac Day. More of Jeff’s reviews can be found on his blog:

Women to the Front by Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee
Ebury, $32.99

Phoebe Chapple was the first Australian woman doctor to win the Military Medal in World War I. One of the few women doctors in South Australia before the war, Phoebe was rejected by the Australian Army Medical Corps when she offered her services and instead travelled independently to London. She joined the British Army and worked as surgeon in England before being sent to France. Whilst there, her base was bombed and she was awarded the Military Medal for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty … in the field under fire’.

As Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee set out in their excellent book, Women to The Front, Phoebe’s experience was similar to other women doctors in Australia during World War I. At the outbreak of the war, 129 women were registered as medical practitioners in Australia. Many were keen to contribute their skills and expertise to the war effort, but the Australian military establishment could not contemplate the idea of women doctors and so they had to find their own way to the front.

Sheard and Lee chart the experiences of 24 Australian women doctors who ignored official military policy and ended up serving as surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists and medical officers during the war. Working in hospitals and medical centres, they experienced first-hand the horrors of war and sometimes came under fire themselves. Two of them spent time as Prisoners of War, and one, Laura Forster, tragically died from influenza while serving at a remote Ukrainian hospital, helping the many victims of the fighting between Russia and Germany.

This is a fascinating book which lucidly tells the stories of some remarkable women and provides an interesting new perspective on the Great War. On Anzac Day, and its traditional focus on Gallipoli, Kokoda and other famous battles, it is timely to also reflect on those Australians who served their country in a different way. Highly recommended.

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