Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally


This book, about the experiences of a group of Australian nurses during the First World War, is superb.  It’s not for the squeamish, because it doesn’t pull any punches in getting across the horrors of working in military hospitals in wartime – first in Egypt and on the Greek islands, during the Dardanelles campaign, and then in France -, nor of the Spanish flu with which the book ends, but it doesn’t half get the message across.

Today is, of course, Gallipoli Day, Anzac Day.  The usual commemorations in Australia and New Zealand will not be taking place this year, and the march through the centre of Bury, headquarters of the Lancashire Fusiliers who were so heavily involved in the campaign, will not be taking place either.  I know that it’s a very, very important day for our friends in Australia and New Zealand, and that alternative ways are being made to mark it during this strange time.

The book sees two sisters, daughters of a “cow cocky” (small dairy farmer) in a rural part of New South Wales, leave their jobs in Australian hospitals to become Army nurses.  We follow them and their friends/comrades as they work in different places.  We also see them narrowly escape with their lives after their ship is torpedoed –  based on the real life sinking of the SS Marquette, in which 10 nurses, from New Zealand, were amongst the 167 people who lost their lives – and again when the field hospitals come under fire.

There are also several sub-plots involving religious and ethical issues – possibly reflecting the fact that the author was at one time intending to become a Catholic priest.  Is it OK to use excess morphine to ease the passing of someone who’s not going to survive anyway?  Should the Quaker fiancé of one of the sisters, who volunteered for the Medical Corps, be obliged to move into a combatant role when ordered to do so?

And, whilst the descriptions of wounds and treatment are in many ways specific to war, and in particular to the Great War, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of washing hands and of wearing clean scrubs, and of whether or not wearing face masks can help to prevent infection.  There are also bizarre rumours that the Spanish flu was created in a German laboratory.  Does this sound familiar?

The style of writing takes some getting used to – there’s an awful lot of speech with no speech marks, which I found quite annoying – but it really is an excellent read.

The two sisters, Naomi and Sally, have recently lost their mother.  Sally had a stash of morphine, and thought that Naomi used it to help their mother, who was terminally ill, to die.  It later turns out that she didn’t, but Sally feels guilty that the issue arose.  They both answer the call for nurses to join up, and sail initially to Egypt, working first in Cairo and then in Alexandria.  In Alexandria, they’re based for most of the time on board hospital ships, moving between there and the Greek island of Lemnos.  Initially, they’re mainly treating syphilis cases, but then the Dardanelles campaign starts … and the descriptions of the war wounds and the desperate attempts to treat them are harrowing but fascinating, and very well-written.  Later, they work on the Western Front.

It’s not all blood and gore.  They’re able to do plenty of sightseeing in Egypt, in Lemnos, and at the ports where they stop en route to and from (Naomi at one point returns to Australia, accompanying soldiers who’ve been invalided out), and later in Britain and France.  The Pyramids, Rouen Cathedral and Table Mountain are amongst the trips described.  There’s also a lot of flirtation and romance – all the nurses seem to get umpteen marriage proposals!   Sadly, not all the men are romantic: there’s one very distressing sub-plot in which one of the sisters’ friends is raped by a hospital orderly.

Another friend becomes engaged to a soldier, but he’s then killed in action.  Another suffers serious injuries when the ship sinks, then contracts TB, and is then killed in a road traffic accident.  And … well, the book ends with the devastating effects of the Spanish flu.

There’s a lot to take in.  A considerable amount of emphasis is put on the rivalry between the different Australian states, reminding us that this was still very soon after federation and that people were still getting used to it.  There’s also a lot about religion – I’m not sure why, but we’re told what religion practically every character is.  Maybe it’s just to emphasise that those who served came from many different backgrounds.  Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans and Quakers all feature.

In particular, there’s quite a lot about the dilemmas faced by Quakers in relation to active service, as already mentioned.  Another of the Quaker characters is a woman from Manchester (hooray!!) who’s married to a viscount and is using his money to fund a private nursing initiative – many of which existed during the Great War, playing an important role.  Naomi joins this voluntary hospital, whilst Sally remains in base hospitals, so we see things from both angles.

It’s also supposed to be about the relationship between the two sisters, but I’m not sure that that came across as well as it was meant to.  That’s my only criticism, though.  This is a superb book.  Highly recommended.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.



2 thoughts on “Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

  1. I read this a few years ago and thought it was really interesting. I found the lack of punctuation distracting, so I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I would have liked to, but I did love learning about the work of the Australian nurses.

    Liked by 1 person

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