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Don't believe everything you read ...
on 25 September 2013
As a researcher of nurses who served during the Great War, and also a great reader of fiction, I was looking forward to this book. However, it proved a real disappointment. It rushes through the war hell-bent on including every possible catastrophe and clichéd situation; hospital ship sinkings, battles notable only for the inclusion of Australians, incompetent generals, trench-foot, the influenza pandemic, conscientious objectors, shell-shock, facial wounds and reconstruction, soldiers blinded by gas - nothing is missed out, and it all happens within the tiny world of two nurses. A review in The Times, mentions that the book is 'wonderfully researched.' The problem is, it's not. The research is pitifully lacking in respect of the lives and work of the central characters, the Durance sisters. Although there might be some correctness in the broad view, there is barely a detail that is accurate for the time. There are so many errors that it's impossible to list them in a review, but the author, or his researchers, have entirely failed to show any real knowledge of the living and working conditions of military nurses during the Great War. There is misinformation about medical techniques and equipment; nurses' leave and travel; their relationships with their seniors, both nursing and medical; their relationships with men; their treatment by orderlies; their treatment when sick - it's impossible to read more than a few pages without noting an error. Hospitals such as Thomas Keneally's 'Australian Voluntary Hospital' were never staffed by members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, and by the time the author opened his AVH, the real thing had been handed over to the War Office to be run as a British Stationary Hospital. In his author's note at the end he asks if we can forgive him this liberty. Actually, no. It would have been much better to make up one of his own. In this case fiction would have proved more realistic than fact.
Throughout, there is a rather demeaning attitude to some of the women portrayed, especially if they are British. Why the need to suggest that the yellow-skinned munition girls in London were waiting for soldiers in order to earn extra money from prostitution - women who worked so hard, received so little recognition and suffered such dreadful casualties? And why constantly refer to the assistant nurses in France as 'English Roses'? Why never, ever, afford them their correct title? These were members of Voluntary Aid Detachments, 'VADs,' hard-working, determined, patriotic women from every strata of society. Why the need to avoid letting the world know who they actually were?
The war, according to Keneally, meant that there was `amazement' when the first nurses were sent to Casualty Clearing Stations in late 1916 - how amazed he would be to realise that by late 1916, nurses had been staffing Casualty Clearing Stations for two years. I was equally amazed when Naomi Durance got a hotel porter in Amiens to hail her a cab to go the five miles north to see Ian Kiernan in prison around the time of the German Spring Offensive in 1918. And totally amazed to read that sick nurses were herded together in tents at CCSs to suffer or to die - and there was me thinking that they had their own Sick Sisters' hospitals, with every comfort provided, and to which they were sent within twenty-four hours of being taken ill. It was said to be `beyond belief' in the confusion and melée during the 1918 retreat that somehow `Charlie Condon appeared'. Beyond belief, like so many other things.
Towards the end, the error that confirmed my feelings that the author was blind to research was not of the medical or nursing kind. We learnt that Ian Kiernan was incarcerated in Millbank Prison, London, on the edge of the `dank' Thames. Millbank Prison was closed in 1890, and demolished in 1903. Such a simple, well-known fact, but the failure to get it right highlights the inadequacies of the whole book.
Of course (I hear you saying) this is fiction. What does it matter if the facts aren't right? Why should anyone care about that, if at the end of the day it's a great tale? This is historical fiction, and if the author is to retain any credibility he has a duty to get at least most of the detail right. With the approach of the Centenary of the Great War this book will be read by many and taken at face value by its readers. And what they will drink in from it will be sour. At the end they will have gained a little more knowledge about the lives of nurses during the Great War than they had at the beginning, but what they learn will, in the main, be wrong. Unfortunately they will believe it. They will believe The War according to Thomas Keneally, and in so many ways his nurses' war is just plain wrong.