Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

ANZAC Girls (Video Review)

Acorn Media, 2014
James Patton, Reviewer

The Cast of ANZAC Girls As New Recruits

For those of you who subscribe to ACORN TV, the mini-series ANZAC Girls became available on 3 February. The DVD is available at and other sources. This six-part production was shown on Australian Broadcasting's Channel 1 in the fall of 2014. It features an all-Australian cast and was filmed entirely in South Australia, which is surprising, considering the variety of landscapes depicted.

The series is taken from the historical record, as related in the letters, diaries, memoirs, and recollections of five remarkable nurses: Grace Wilson, Alice Ross-King, Hilda Steele, Elsie Shepherd-Cook, and Olive Haynes. All of these women volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in August 1914. Hilda Steele was from New Zealand but served with the Aussies throughout the war. All of them went on to have distinguished careers—some even served with the Royal AANS in World War II.

This is the first important aspect of this series: historical accuracy. No battles, other military events or locations are fictitious. All of the hospitals and casualty clearing stations where these nurses served were real.

Second, ANZAC Girls is based on real people. In addition to the five principals, several other main characters are also based on real persons. Although written and directed for dramatic effect, many of the scenes are based on the nurses' accounts.

Real ANZAC Girls Grace Wilson & Alice Ross-King

Third, the human interest story lines are not told or conducted in a modern way. Since the writers didn't live a hundred years ago, the dialogues and actions may not be historically perfect, but the romantic relationships are stilted and dignified, and the stoic approach to circumstances seems believable as well. National loyalty and dedication to duty are stressed throughout, as they were in the day, unlike modern times where these values are questioned routinely.

A small but enjoyable detail: there is an emphasis on singing. In this time parlor or porch singing was the main source of entertainment in middle class homes, particularly in small towns. That these characters can all sing, and do so on many occasions, is very believable.

Finally, this series depicts the big picture as seen from the bottom. Except for a brief speech given by Gen. Birdwood at an awards ceremony, the highest ranking officers featured are doctors at the general hospitals. All of what the nurses know is from rumor, uncensored letters or out-of-date newspapers. Mail service is erratic and it takes a long time to see casualty lists; in fact, all of the logistics are a terrible muddle and no one higher up seems to care.

Policy does occasionally rear up. At one point during the Somme the triage nurses are told to prioritize men with the highest likelihood of returning to the front, rather than the seriously wounded. On another occasion the nurses discover that medical care has been withheld from German POWs. The nurses are stymied by other restrictive dicta as well.

Two big picture undertones do subtly emerge: unequal and unfair treatment of women and the growing Australian disdain for the British high command. Both of these would manifest themselves in the postwar period.

As an insignia wonk I thoroughly enjoyed tracing all of the Australian Imperial Force shoulder flashes. I kept a book at my side the whole time.

The main characters' timeline is compressed at the end. The story skips from the aftermath of Bullecourt in May 1917 to the March 1918 offensives. Although there is nothing wrong with leaving out a stretch of time, this one included the controversial Third Ypres (Passchendaele) Offensive, where the ANZACs were heavily involved. Moreover, in the segue to Episode 6 the written narrative incorrectly states that the Germans were attacking in late 1917!

You will quickly notice that all of the five main characters have the same "BBC English" accent. I suppose that we can't know the Australian or New Zealand accents of a hundred years ago, but even today they are distinctly different.

Although I enjoyed watching the similar BBC One series about British nurses and VADs called The Crimson Field, which debuted in April 2014, ANZAC Girls is hands-down better. It's much more historically accurate, there are no fictitious units or sites, and there is no attempt to include 21st-century opinions, issues, or values.

James Patton

1 comment:

  1. I also thought the series was compelling and thoughtfully executed -- thanks for your informative review.