Listen: Children's author and podcaster Kate Simpson chats to Katrina Roe
The story of Australian war nurse Alice Ross-King has all the ingredients of a Hollywood film: a young heart stolen by a dashing soldier; love lost on the battle field; courage in the face of bullets and bombs; and a deep faith in God that’s severely tested.
As Australia’s most-decorated female Anzac, serving in both World Wars, Alice has become the stuff of legend in documentaries and history books. But in the hands of her great-granddaughter, children’s author Kate Simpson, Alice’s story is now accessible to children, too – in her new book, Anzac Girl: The War Diaries of Alice Ross-King.
Speaking to Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe, Kate said she grew up hearing tales of her great grandma, but never really understand the gravity of her achievements until she was an adult.
“I was told I had a war hero in the family and that she had stayed in a hospital with patients while the hospital was being bombed,” Kate said, “but I always imagined a hospital like I knew a hospital: a several-storey building with lino on the floor.
“I didn’t really understand until a miniseries came out on the ABC featuring my great grandmother around the centenary of Gallipoli… Suddenly you see these tents in the mud, and [the] bombs falling.”
Once Alice’s story came to life for Kate, she was compelled to share it with others, dipping into her great grandmother’s very personal wartime diaries to form the basis of the picture book.
The Adventure and the Horror
Alice’s diaries begin in 1914, when she sets sail for Cairo with a sense of adventure and patriotism – a sentiment shared by many young Australians at the start of World War I. At first there is the wonder of exploring a new land, and fun and laughter as the nurses socialise with the soldiers waiting to be deployed.
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But a few days after the disaster at Gallipoli, when wounded soldiers begin arriving in Cairo for treatment, the reality and horror begins to sink in for Alice.
“There was a real turn in the tone of everything at that point,” Kate said. “They had hundreds of people coming in, they didn’t have beds for them, they had to turn an ice-skating rink at the local amusement park into this makeshift hospital, and they were just completely overwhelmed. And that’s the first real moment of shock in her diaries.”
Love and Heartache
Although Alice had some light-hearted flirtations with soldiers in Cairo, it was when she met Harry that she really fell in love and her diary entries take on “a completely different tone” – with entires like, “I know that this is the great big love at last”.
Kate’s diary entry of March 15, 1916, is wistful:
Harry and I tried to meet before the first Australian General Hospital moved to France. We sat on the balcony at Shepherd’s Hotel and talked about the future. There was a wonderful sunset. A beautiful apricot glow. Harry said: ‘When we are married, I’ll give you a dress that colour.’ He caught the 8pm train to the canal and I have not seen him since.
And on April 23, 1916:
One big thing shines out of the day’s events. A letter from Harry. Four of them. My love is deep and intense – his is evidently the same for me. Oh love of my heart, it seems impossible to live away from you.
On July 17, Alice distracts herself with hard, thankless work:
More very heavy work. Spinal and head cases and a lot of fractures. Large evacuations. Only left the ward for half hour all day. One of the patients struck me today. I was doing a dressing, he was very nervous. When I pulled off some wool that was stuck to the hairs of his leg he screamed and turned on me like a rat, and with his hard knuckles gave me a terrific punch.
Sadly, two days later Harry – despite surviving Gallipoli – dies in the battle of Fromelles in France. Alice is shattered:
July 29: I have kept on duty but God only knows how I have done so. Everyone has been most kind to me. Oh my dear, dear love. What am I to do?
August 4: I expect I must pick up my life again and go on. I do not know how to face the lifeless future though. I feel Harry’s presence constantly with me and my love is growing stronger and deeper even since his death.
For Kate, learning and writing about the place Harry held in her great grandmother’s heart has brought up mixed feelings:
“It’s an interesting feeling as her great granddaughter, because in fact she went on and married another man who’s my great grandfather – so I have kind of conflicting emotions with this whole thing,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful love story and so tragic that it was cut short, and it was strange for me to read it with another man in the picture… it’s a very intimate insight that you often don’t get into your family life.”
A Faith That’s Tested
Kate says Alice had a deep Christian faith, and in fact during the war she experienced a renewal of that faith—but struggled to reconcile the horrors of war with her beliefs.
“Towards the back end of the war you can see from her diaries how deeply shaken she was,” said Kate. “The Germans on their belt buckle had in German, ‘Gott mit uns’, which means ‘God is with us’. And seeing them come in with that, when her Padre, the chaplain, was telling her that God was on their side, and that right was going to prevail, she just found that so difficult to deal with.”
For her dedication and service Alice received many decorations, including the Military Medal for courage under fire, and the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Red Cross.
Anzac Girl is out now, and is published by Allen and Unwin.