The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purina

Article | Issue: May 2022

VICTORIA PURMAN is an award-nominated bestselling author. Her books include, The Last of the Bonegilla, The Land Girls and The Women’s PagesThe Nurses’ War is her latest book and is an extraordinary story of love and loss which is based on the real experiences of Australian nurses in World War I.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Nurses' WarThere is more than one way to fight a war… A story of grit, love and loss, based on the true history and real experiences of Australian nurses in World War I.

In 1915, as World War I rages in Europe and the numbers of dead and injured continue to grow, Australian nurse, Sister Cora Barker, leaves her home in Australia for England, determined to use her skills for King and country. When she arrives at Harefield House – donated to the Australian Army by its expatriate Australian owners – she helps transform it into a hospital that is also a little piece of home for recuperating Australian soldiers.

As the months pass, her mission to save diggers lives becomes more urgent as the darkest months of the war see injured soldiers from the battlefields of France and Belgium flood into Harefield in the thousands. When the hospital sends out a desperate call for help, a quiet young seamstress from the village, Jessie Chester, steps up as a volunteer. At the hospital she meets Private Bert Mott, a recovering Australian soldier, but the looming threat of his return to the Front hangs over them. Could her first love be her first heartbreak?

Cora’s and Jessie’s futures, their hearts and their lives hang in the balance as the never-ending wave of injured and dying soldiers threatens to overwhelm the hospital and the hopes of a nation rest on a knife edge. The nurses war is a war against despair and death, fought with science and love rather than mustard gas and fear – but can they possibly win it? And what will be the cost?

EXTRACT

12 May 1915

It was the trilling song of an English woodlark perched high in the gnarled and outstretched limbs of an ancient oak that reminded Staff Nurse Cora Barker that she was ten thousand miles from home.
For six long weeks on the RMS Osterley, she had watched birds she’d only ever read about in the encyclopedia soar and swoop and dive around the ship, an ornithological escort for the Australians on board. Enormous seagulls had hovered and screeched and called to her as the ship coursed its way across the Indian Ocean to England. Wandering albatrosses had floated overhead, so low that she had almost been able to see each individual feather in their silvery underwings.

Trussed up in a stiff life jacket during a drill on deck, straining to hear the captain shouting above the wind and the roaring sea-splash on the hull, Cora had lifted two fingers to the sky to estimate the span of the impressive bird’s wings. It must have been 10 feet at least – bigger than any bird she’d ever seen in South Australia, bigger even than a pelican. The petrels, as broad as the albatrosses but with short stubby beaks instead of elongated ones, had speared into the water at sunset with such velocity that Cora imagined they might reach the sea floor with the power and propulsion of their dives. And the gliding shearwaters, brilliant white and shimmering silver, had skimmed across the waves whenever she tossed a bread crust or an apple core into the air for the pure pleasure of enticing the creatures closer.

The incessant roaring of the ocean and the pounding of the waves against the hull had created a soporific song that still sung in Cora’s ears, even though her feet had already been firmly planted on English soil for two days.

How, she wondered, was it possible to already be pining for a kookaburra’s belly laugh or the ear-splitting screech of a galah when she had only walked up the gangplank in Australia six weeks earlier? It wouldn’t be long until those familiar sounds of home would once again be the soundtrack to her days and evenings, she was sure of it. The war was certain to be over by Christmas, according to the newspapers she was in the habit of devouring, and her adventure – and her duty – on the other side of the world would be complete. Her aim was to serve her country, and its soldiers, with pride and distinction.

And when her role was complete, she would sail back home across the vast oceans and return to the little cottage on the lane in Adelaide’s inner west in which she’d been born and had lived all her life. She loved the place where the boobooks hooted at night and dark swarms of spindly bats emerged from the tall palms in the front yard of the old house across the street, swooping the street and stealing fruit while they navigated with their metallic squeaks.

Yes, she would be home for Christmas. Surely her sacrifice would earn her the good fortune of discovering the sixpence in her mother’s Christmas pudding that year.

As the Osterley had sailed out of Port Adelaide at the end of March, Cora had waved an excited goodbye to her tearful parents, Arthur and Minnie, and her two envious younger sisters, Eve and Grace. She had promised them once again that she would stay safe and they had reiterated over and over how proud they were of her. When her dear family had shrunk into distant specks on the faded silvery wharf at the end of St Vincent Street, she had turned her eyes to the sky, breathing in the salty South Australian autumn air and memorising the broad sweep of the blue that her mother always told her was the same colour as her eyes. She had spread her arms wide and turned her palms up to the warmth of that March day. She was leaving behind the summer scent of jasmine, the antiseptic smell of freshly picked and crushed eucalypt leaves and the early fall of leaves from the plane trees.

‘Do us proud, lass,’ Arthur had whispered into her ear as he’d hugged her on the wharf, his cloth cap brushing against her cheek.

‘With everything in my power, Dad,’ she’d replied, brushing the drizzling tears from his face. Her parents hadn’t ever ventured further than Victor Harbor – three hours south of Adelaide on the train – and the thought that their daughter would be travelling for six whole weeks to London was unfathomable to them.

How was it that she was already missing Adelaide’s warmth? On the day after Valentine’s Day (on which she had yet again failed to receive any token of affection from any young man – or old man for that matter), the daytime temperature had reached 107 degrees in the shade and it seemed that all of Adelaide had wilted, from backyard fruit trees laden with nectarines and peaches to the ostrich feathers on the black velvet hats of society matrons at the Adelaide Town Hall. How had they ever survived it?

‘It will be a short war.’ Cora cleared her throat and continued when all eyes turned to her. ‘All the newspapers are saying so. The King’s men will be victorious and there will be peace in a few months.’

After her shift at the Adelaide Hospital that hot and exhausting day, Cora had covered her uniform with the long black cape that fully disguised her nurses’ dress and tied the white ribbons of the matching cap tightly under her chin. In the cloying heat, she felt as confined as an Egyptian mummy. She hadn’t always understood the rationale behind the rules of nursing etiquette, but had learnt with a quick kick to the shin from one of her fellow students that it was not her place to question them, no matter how infuriating they were. Once properly and respectfully attired, she’d wandered into the fecund oasis of the Adelaide Botanic Garden just over the hospital’s stone boundary wall, and found a quiet spot under a Moreton Bay fig. Its roots – huge, tangled tentacles resembling those of a creature from the depths of the ocean—created a shelter from the prying eyes of passers-by and she had tucked herself among them, leaning against the trunk, sucking in the chilled, oxygen- rich air in the tree’s shade, and imagined she was floating in the ocean. When she was rested and cool, she’d retrieved from the pocket of her uniform little crumbs of shortbread biscuit that had been left on a drowsy patient’s plate and scattered them into the hot wind. In an instant, the noisy miners flew in and fought a losing battle for the tidbits with the New Holland honeyeaters that were fine and delicate creatures but as bossy as old male patients. Later, she’d walked back through the gardens toward Palm House and watched the glint of the afternoon sun on the glass windows as the building shone back at her like a million stars had been captured inside.

How odd it was to look back and realise that the glasshouse that had been imported piece by delicate piece all the way from Bremen in Germany was most likely made by the very people the forces of the British Empire were now killing—and who were killing them.

‘Sister Barker?’

Cora startled, her thoughts of home fleeing like a starling in flight. ‘Yes, Matron Gray?’

‘I wonder if you’re paying attention to me or is your mind somewhere else altogether?’

Cora shivered. Was it from nerves at the thought that the matron already believed her to be scatterbrained? Or was it the biting cold that seeped up from the gravel of the driveway through the leather soles of her boots? It had settled right in the arches of her feet that frigid and dull Middlesex morning and yet it was supposed to be spring in the northern hemisphere.

‘I apologise, Matron. I was only thinking how cold it is for May.’

Cora quickly glanced sideways at her three colleagues, Gertie North, Leonora Grady and Fiona Patterson. They stood like birds on a wire, their white veils waving in the wind, their attention completely focussed on the matron. The sudden need to redeem herself overtook every rational thought of staying silent.

‘I was wondering if there will be sufficient heating in the wards for our patients,’ she offered.

‘A pertinent question,’ Matron Gray replied. Appointed by the Australian Army Nursing Service to help establish a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, the matron came with a fine reputation. Tall and as lean as a greyhound, she had a beak nose and hint of grey in the hair that peeked out from behind her white linen veil. She looked at each of the nurses in turn and shared a warm smile. ‘I’ve been in the country six weeks and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this topsy-turvy weather.’ She shivered dramatically. ‘When I made my first visit here in March for an inspection of the house and grounds, there was snow on the ground. I must admit I was almost speechless.’

Cora took Matron Gray’s smile and manner as a welcome signal that the rules and norms of hospital hierarchy ingrained in the nurses during their training might be somewhat more relaxed here, half a world away, during a war.

‘Truly?’ Leonora laughed gaily. ‘I’ve never seen snow. How exciting.’

Cora watched her as she spoke. Everything about Sister Grady was elegant. Had she been a ballet dancer in her youth? Her high cheekbones created shadows that would never need rouging with powder, and her long neck and fine features wouldn’t have been out of place on the stage. She didn’t walk so much as glide as elegantly as a swan on a lake. ‘I wouldn’t get your hopes up of seeing a white Christmas,’ the matron replied, shaking her head. ‘I fully expect that our work here will be done by December.’

‘It will be a short war.’ Cora cleared her throat and continued when all eyes turned to her. ‘All the newspapers are saying so. The King’s men will be victorious and there will be peace in a few months.’

‘We do rule the waves, after all,’ Gertie added with a grin.

Next to her, Fiona harrumphed. ‘What a blessing that will be.’ Her shoulders heaved and dropped with palpable relief. Was it wrong for Cora to think of Fiona as a crow? Her jet-black hair only looked darker under her snow-white veil and her deep-set brown eyes seemed to be perpetually narrowed in suspicion. Her unruly eyebrows resembled two caterpillars almost shaking hands with each other just above her nose.

When no one replied, she explained, ‘It will be a blessing for the war to be over so quickly, I mean. I don’t know if I’d survive a winter. I shall have to knit some warmer gloves to ward off the frostbite, not to mention the chilblains.’

‘I’ll take a pair if you’re in the mood for knitting,’ Gertie said. ‘I never did master the art of it, or many other home- making skills, I’m afraid. Much to the disappointment of my mother.’ She pushed her wire-rimmed glasses up her button nose and Cora tried not to laugh at her complete lack of embarrassment at such a revelation. Since they’d met on the Osterley, Gertie had become the voice of reason in Cora’s head. Watchful. Wise. Steady. Cora couldn’t help but think of her as an owl.

Matron Gray cleared her throat and the nurses took it as a sign that the chatter should come to an end. She looked over her shoulder to take in the imposing house behind them. ‘We have a very important job to do here at Harefield Park, sisters. Our first and immediate task is to transform this manor house into a hospital.’

Matron Gray turned, clasped her hands behind her back and began to stride along the narrow gravel drive, which ran along the front of the building and was only wide enough for one vehicle before its edge met freshly cut grass. Her nurses obediently followed her.

‘The Billyard-Leake family has graciously given up Harefield Park and all its buildings for our soldiers. Officially, it’s to be known as the Number One Australian Auxiliary Hospital, AIF, but I believe Harefield hospital will be easier to remember, don’t you? We’re only twenty miles from the centre of London, and in between the Denham and Northwood railway stations – very convenient for patient transport but far enough away from London’s temptations, which can only be a good thing.’

Cora had read all about those temptations and longed to see them for herself. The West End’s theatres. St Paul’s. Selfridge’s. Buckingham Palace. Chinatown. The museums of South Kensington and the Underground railway. To think that those delights and many more undiscovered ones were a mere twenty miles away. Although she wasn’t in London to be a tourist, if she were to have a day off she might take the omnibus and see the sites for herself.

London was close. But the war was close, too. Only thirty-one miles separated Dover from Calais. The war was on their doorstep.

Just over the Channel, fighting had been raging for almost six months. Belgium had fallen first—as easily as a house of cards – and refugees had flooded into England with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a suitcase. There had been bloody battles in Ypres, and in France and Germany trenches were filled with troops shooting at each other over their parapets. When the nurses had arrived at Portsmouth, they’d caught up with the news of the sinking just a week before of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania, which had been struck by German torpedoes in the waters off Ireland. More than one thousand people had been killed, including women and children. The horror of it was still evident in the eyes of every English person she’d met since arriving. Women and children.

Cora’s father, Arthur, had rightly predicted Australian Prime Minister Joseph Cook’s pledge to wholeheartedly support Britain in the war but had been in furious disagreement with it. When Cook had sent Australian troops to Egypt in preparation for defending the Suez Canal, her father had taken himself off to the pub to drown his sorrows.

‘Nothing good will ever come of it, Cora,’ he’d said when he’d returned in his cups. ‘Nothing.’

Now, there were boys from Adelaide and Sydney and Orange and Murray Bridge and Tibooburra and Perth and Brisbane and Dubbo and Bendigo and Longreach— and a thousand other places—fighting in Europe. All had volunteered to don a khaki uniform and take up arms for the King.

Cora was not naive. She believed herself to be practical and prepared and every bit up to the challenge of war nursing. She breathed deep, filling her lungs and exhaling in a whoosh to drown out the memory of Neville Pendlebury’s hectoring about her enlistment. The further away from Adelaide she was, the more miles distant from his declarations about how she should live her life, the quieter his voice became, but it was still there, nagging at her.

‘Why you? You’re not young any more, Cora. Who knows what will happen to your prospects of marriage if you go off to the war? In all likelihood you’ll come back coarse and unladylike after spending so much time with all those men.’

Cora pressed her angry fingers to the silver Rising Sun badge at her throat, which fastened the scarlet cotton cape draped around her shoulders. It was a reminder of why she had enlisted and the call to do her duty that had underpinned her decision. The war was closer now than it had ever been and she was ready for whatever challenges it might bring.

‘The Billyard-Leake property is two hundred and fifty acres. This house and all its outbuildings are at the beck and call of the Ministry of Defence for the period of the war and six months after. The family specifically requested it become a place of recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers.’

‘What a wonderful act of generosity and community spirit,’ Gertie declared patriotically as her boots crunched on the gravel path.

Fiona glanced up at the stonework and eyed the windows of the ivy-covered three-storey manor. ‘They must be very rich,’ she said to no one particular.

‘Their good deed is inspired by their own family circumstances,’ Matron Gray continued. ‘The Billyard- Leakes have two sons and two nephews serving.’

‘They have sons?’ Leonora asked with a laugh as she cupped the back of her head through her veil. ‘What a pity I’m already engaged. Do they have wives or are they still on the market? Cora? Gertie? Fiona? It sounds like there might be one of these rich men for each of you.’

‘You’ll be far too busy to entertain any such thoughts, Sister Grady.’ Cora couldn’t see the matron’s expression but there was humour in her tone.

Fiona scoffed at Leonora’s idea.

Gertie snorted, ‘I don’t think so,’ and Cora rolled her eyes. It was the last thing on her mind. Then she remembered. ‘Mrs Billyard-Leake is a South Australian by birth,’ she said. ‘Just as I am.’

Matron Gray stopped mid-stride and turned back to Cora. ‘She is?’

‘Her people are from the south-east, Glencoe, near Mount Gambier. I understand she’s an heiress.’

‘An Australian heiress?’

Cora found it hard to interpret the matron’s expression. Was it derision at the idea that Cora might be a gossipmonger or disbelief that any young Australian woman might have inherited wealth in such a way?

Cora found it necessary to explain herself and stepped forward. ‘I make a habit of keeping up to date with current events. I read the newspaper every day, actually.’

Was that a glimmer of acknowledgement in the matron’s hint of a smile?

‘Tell us then. How did she come to be so rich?’ Fiona asked.

All eyes turned to Cora. ‘The Leake family once had fifty thousand acres of prime grazing country with thirty thousand sheep on it. Catttle, too. When her father and uncle died, she inherited everything.’

‘Everything?’ Leonora asked, wide-eyed.

‘Everything,’ Cora nodded. ‘Which meant, naturally, she had her pick of suitors. She married a solicitor from Sydney and they joined their two family names together and became the Billyard-Leakes.’

‘Why wouldn’t she simply take her husband’s name?’ Fiona grimaced. ‘She isn’t a suffragette, is she?’

‘And what if she is?’ Gertie huffed on behalf of every woman in Australia who’d fought for the right to vote. ‘Perhaps she was proud of her own name, Fiona, and that of her family. And anyway, from what Cora says, she did bring much capital to the marriage.’

Before Fiona could reply, Matron Gray spoke. ‘However she got it, and perhaps it’s best if we’re not seen to be gossiping, she’s been exceedingly generous with it. The family have moved out of their residence for the duration into Black Jack’s Mill in the village, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t keen to be involved here. We expect to accommodate sixty soldiers under winter conditions and one hundred and fifty during the spring and summer. We’re to be a rest home for officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and the rank and file soldiers to recuperate after sickness or injury. And we’re to act as a depot for collecting invalided soldiers who’ll be heading home to Australia.

‘Mrs Billyard-Leake has suggested numerous ways for our soldiers to be entertained while they’re convalescing and Mr Billyard-Leake has taken a keen interest in the running of the hospital. He’s very insistent that all ranks be treated equally here. There’s to be no separation of officers and soldiers such as you’ll find in the British hospitals. So, you’ll be treating officers and soldiers side-by-side in our wards, sisters. When a patient’s time here is at an end, they’ll either be recovered and sent to rejoin their battalions or will be heading for Portsmouth to go home to Australia if they’re deemed medically unfit to resume service.’

It was only logical to assume there would be injured men but the thought jarred Cora anyway. She had imagined deaths on the battlefield – of course she had. It was no surprise that war was brutal and there would always be a deadly cost. How disappointed those men would be, having come this far, to be forced by injury or debility to leave their friends, their units, to be prevented from further serving King and country. That realisation had her recommitting herself to her task. If it was in her power to see that a man could return to his unit, she would exercise that power. Her resolution gave her strength and she felt her spine lengthening, her chin turning towards the sky, her heart beating faster in her chest.

She had come to England to do a job and it was about to begin.

Author: Victoria Purman

Category: Fiction & related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: HQ Fiction AU

ISBN: 9781867207764

RRP: $32.99

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