Women, War-time and Freedom: Some Powerful ANZAC Day Reads

April 24, 2013 by  
Filed under current, Reading Space


War stories are often told through the eyes of the men who fought in them. Today, I wish to draw your attention to some tremendously powerful and moving books that show war through the eyes of women. These stories point to another side of war. They are stories that have inspired me, and made me weep, sometimes all in the same moment. These are stories – fiction and non-fiction – about war nurses, women on the Western Front, and even the story of Australian women in Japanese World War II Prisoner of War camps.

White Coolies

Betty Jeffrey


white_cooliesIn 1942, after surviving both the fall of Singapore and the bombing of the Vyner Brooke, Australian Army nurse Betty Jeffery was captured by the Japanese. She spent the next three and a half years in Japanese Prisoner of War camps in and around Sumatra. Finding an old exercise book and a stub of a pencil, Betty kept a secret diary of her experiences. Secret, because if the diaries were discovered by the Japanese, she would have been harshly punished. These diaries later formed the basis of White Coolies (originally published in 1954, reprinted constantly ever since).

You might have seen the movie Paradise Road, which was partially based on White Coolies. The movie focussed on one part of Betty’s amazing tale – an orchestral choir that the women formed to keep their spirits high.

What I have always loved about this book is how the women held on their sense of compassion and how they cared for each other, despite the brutalities they endured at the hands of their captors.

In the 1950s, White Coolies was broadcast as a radio serial. You can now find the complete serial online, and it is available to download here.

The Daughters of Mars

Thomas Keneally


daughter_of_marsThe Durance sisters, Naomi and Sally, leave behind their lives in rural New South Wales and volunteer to work as nurses in the Great War. They are trying to escape a secret that both binds and divides them. They hope to dissipate a sense of guilt they carry for this secret by caring for soldiers wounded on the battlefields.

But this war is different to all the others. This is a new type of warfare: mechanised, unrelenting and brutal. Bombings, the effects of gas, shell-shock – these are the horrors of World War I. And as nurses, Sally and Naomi witness the outfalls of conflict on the Western Front. This is a story of war told from the point of view of the wounded and those that care for them.

A Rose For the Anzac Boys

Jackie French


rose_for_the_anzac_boysIt is 1915. Fifteen-year-old Midge, stuck in her boarding school in England, is frustrated with the seemingly irrelevant subjects she has to study. Household management and deportment lessons – puh-lease (not that Midge would have put it quite like that). She constantly worries about the welfare of her two brothers who are fighting in the war in France. Then, one day, Midge receives a telegram informing her that her twin brother went missing in action at Gallipoli…

Midge and her friends, Anne and Ethel, decide living a passive life in England is no longer an option. They want to do their bit for the war effort, so they head across the Channel to France. The three girls open up a canteen, serving hot food and drinks to soldiers on the way to the Western Front. Then Midge is recruited for the ambulance service, giving her, and us, first-hand experience of war in all of its muddy, bloody and deadly horror.

Although A Rose for the Anzac Boys is marketed as a book for younger readers, it is a powerful and meticulously researched novel. It looks at the carnage of the Western Front through the eyes of three young women, which makes this a war novel with a very fresh perspective. Midge, Anne and Ethel may be young – but so were so many of those soldiers marching towards the trenches, the beaches and the bloody battle fields of World War I.

What books about war have touched your heart? Please share your recommendations in the comments section below!

Top Image Credit


Carolyn Leslie Feb 13Carolyn Leslie is an IPEd-accredited editor, a writer, an award-winning book reviewer and a business chick, as well as Mama to two little boys. Carolyn loves books, blogs, op shops, gardening, mucking around in the kitchen and dancing crazily with her kids (and sometimes even with her husband). She dreams of someday having a quiet and (totally) uninterrupted read…

You can follow her on twitter @carolynleslie. Or if email is your thing, drop her a line sometime at carolyn@carolynleslie.com.au.


5 Responses to “Women, War-time and Freedom: Some Powerful ANZAC Day Reads”
  1. Chris Owen says:

    Hmm Carolyn!
    I have a real aversion to war books especially WW2/Nazi stuff. It just distresses me too much.
    So I don’t think I could do Paradise Road! Ex-nurse or not I just don’t think I can face it.
    But interestingly with a trip to France (including astrong drive to see Normandy and the Western front) I would love to get a better sense of Aussies at war in France in WW1. So you’ve opened me up to the idea of approaching the trip with some fiction and maybe through women at war would be a softer way to access it!
    Thanks for getting me thinking!
    As always your contribution to Calm Space hits the spot!

    • Carolyn Leslie says:

      Hi Chris

      I know what you mean about books (and movies and TV series…) about war being distressing. There are some books/movies/series that I know I cannot touch, because of the reaction I know I will have…(for me, it’s war stories that involve children…)

      For me, though, there are some books and stories about war where people’s humanity, decency, courage and sacrifice somehow transcend the horrors of war. The three books I’ve listed above fall into this category.

      You may not know this – we are a military family. So, since my boys were tiny, my husband and I have looked for ways to explain what soldiers do and what war is. The best we can do is to frame the discussions in terms of ‘helping others’ and ‘bravery on behalf of others’. What breaks my heart is that sometime we will need to have discussions about the other side of the war equation…

      I have a bit of an obsession with Betty and the women – and children – who were held in the Japanese POW camps. In fact, in my home, some of these women (such as Betty and Vivian Bullwinkel) are referred to as my ‘beloved Aussie nurses’. Their courage and tenacity amaze and continually inspire me. I would love to write about them one day…

      Chris, are you going near Villers-Bretonneux when you visit the Western Front? Have you heard about L’ecole Victoria, a school built after the destruction of WW1 that was paid for with money collected by Victorian schoolchildren? The children sing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ every morning – still! Australians played a large part in recapturing the town for the French, and played a part in reconstructing the town after the war. You can read about the town here: http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/villers-bretonneux/town-of-villers-bretonneux.html. Derek Guille has recently written a kid’s book about his visit to the town – you can read about his book and visit here: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/songlines-of-the-somme-20130419-2i4ce.html.

      c xox

      • Chris Owen says:

        Definitely want to go to Villers Bretonneux and hopefully the school. I also saw the write up about Derek Guille’s book. Was both pleased to see what he’d been doing since leaving radio as well as the topic.

        Will be planning that part of our trip in more detail over the next few weeks.

        Fascinated by it all!

  2. Chris Owen says:

    Hi Carolyn
    I had forgotten about this article in the flurry or our pre-trip.
    Or maybe somewhere in the corners of my mind I hadn’t!
    Because while my ipad was stocked with ebooks when travelling you also need a hard copy book for when you’re uncharged or the airlines insist you turn it off! So I decided I would pick up a book at the airport.
    I picked up Daughters of Mars thinking that might do the trick. I like Kenneally, the Western front was something I was interested in etc etc
    I got to the point where I could not put it down!!!
    And I don’t normally read much on these kinds of holidays! There’s too much else happening and I am so ready for my bed each night a book is unnecessary!
    Reading’s for when you have a comfy chair, a sun lounge or whatever.
    But OMG was FANTASTIC. AGAIN with the synchronicity of our book loves!!

    • Carolyn Leslie says:

      Chris, what a great setting to read Daughters of Mars in!

      I know that it can be distressing to read stories set in war-time…but I also highly recommend Tom Keneally’s ‘Searching for Schindler’. It the story behind how he wrote ‘Shindler’s Ark’. It’s fascinating because it extends some of the stories from within ‘Ark’ – you find out what happens to some of the survivors in more detail. But it also explores what Keneally (and perhaps other writers) go through intellectually and emotionally as they bring these stories and lives to our attention.