Every year, when we come to Anzac and Remembrance Days, I am torn between competing beliefs.

I want to stand as part of my local community to remember the many people who lost their lives in the most horrific war we’ve ever been involved in, while knowing – as a child of the generation that first marched against war – that war itself is just as wrongheaded as can be.

This 11 November at 11 am, I’ll be stopping for a minute’s silence, and I’ll be thinking of women. Not misogyny, sexism and the PM, but women and war.

I’ll be thinking of a small group of Scottish and English women, who, in December 1914, travelled to France to set up a hospital in the old abbey of Royaumont north of Paris. When they arrived, in the dead of winter, there was no electricity, no heating and no furniture.

Yet, in less than a month, surgeon chief Miss Frances Ivens and her 15 women doctors, orderlies and nurses opened a working hospital that grew to 600 beds with a large staff including several Australians, served France so ably that many staff were awarded the Croix du guerre, and Miss Ivens received the Légion d’honneur.

I’ll be thinking of my French great grandmother too, Andrée MacColl (née Zabé), who moved from Paris to Scotland to marry, and then watched as her firstborn, 17-year-old son, my grandfather, André Dugald (pictured right), went to war in France as a boy, came home years later a man, forever changed by what he saw, unknowable to the mother who adored him, unknowable to anyone as it turned out.

War doesn’t end with an armistice. It continues to affect not only those involved but their children and their children and theirs, so that the harm pollutes the great river of life in every country and community war touches.

Not just my great grandmother and her son, but my grandmother, who married him, and made the best life she could given what the war did to him, and their son, my father, his four children, and our children.

When you read about what happened to soldiers in World War I — and everyone should — it’s impossible to believe we could ever have gone to war again, and yet we did, again and again.

In The Thin Red Line, filmmaker Terrence Malick takes a long shot of what looks like a strangler fig fighting a dying tree while the voiceover of the AWOL poet reflects on war in the heart of nature. Is conflict innate, or did we invent it as a way of filling up our gas tanks? I don’t know.

I only know that it’s not simple, this matter of war. It’s not simple.

Many of the women who served at Royaumont were suffragists before the war who rejoined the cause afterwards. Some were pacifists and part of the budding Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom started in Geneva, which is still fighting for peace today, saying no to war, not at any price.

The women of Royaumont put these beliefs aside to focus on healing wounded men, French, Allied and German soldiers, soldiers like my grandfather. They fed them, mended their clothes, tried harder than other hospitals to save their limbs, and gave them a safe place for as long as they could. When they sent them back to war, they even gave them toothbrushes.

No, it’s not simple, war. The other woman I’ll be thinking of come 11 November at 11am, who’s not actually a woman yet at all, she’s just a slip of a girl, is a victim of the seemingly endless war still waged against women in many parts of the world, a girl shot in the head for wanting to go to school. Malala Yousafzai (pictured right).

I don’t want that to happen again, and if war’s the way to stop it happening, then should we have war? I still don’t know.



Mary-Rose MacColl is the author of the newly released novel, In Falling Snow (Allen & Unwin), inspired by the real women who served at Royaumont hospital during WWI. The novel is set in wartime France and contemporary Brisbane where MacColl lives. She has written three other novels and the 2009 non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, about what is needed to help women get better maternity care. Her website is http://mary-rosemaccoll.com




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  • Reply November 9, 2012


    Thank you – it is all so very complex. The shooting of Malala Yousafzai also made me wonder if we should stay in Afghanistan if that is the best way to stop such things happening. I can’t be against war at any price because the price of not fighting can also be so horrendous.

  • Reply November 9, 2012


    A good article.

    I remember the women and girls who were raped and abused and killed in war – in all theatres and by all sides – from the deliberate rape of the female Bosnian population to the so called “comfort” women of Japan who were abused by the Americans.There were, and are still vast numbers of such women and girls. They are rarely ever remembered or even acknowledged.

  • Reply November 10, 2012


    Thany you for this story. It is so important to remember the many amazing roles filled by women in war. The nurses and doctors made significant sacrifices. I have been reading ‘Heroic Australian Women in War’ by Susanna de vries and am so touched by the strength these women, such as Sister Alice Kitchen, Dr Agnes Bennet and the many other nursing and medical women who worked across the world – often in terrible circumstances and with little support, many made to pay their own way to get to theatre and to buy uniforms and supplies. We will remember.

    • Reply November 11, 2012


      It is good to think about all the good done by women in these circumstances created by war. I agree with Kirsten about the wonderful work of the nurses and medical doctors. I have heard much about the marvellous Weary Dunlop so I would enjoy reading about the women in the book mentioned and become as familiar with them.

  • Reply November 11, 2012

    Tony W

    “I remember the women and girls who were raped and abused and killed in war – in all theatres and by all sides…the so called “comfort” women of Japan who were abused by the Americans.”

    Tracy, do you have a reference to the abuse of comfort women by Americans? I’ve been reading military history for over 40 years and I’ve never encountered ANY reference to the abuse of women by ANY Allied forces in ANY theatre EVER. However I’ve never read anything on the specific subject so I’d be interested to know if there has been.

    • Reply November 11, 2012


      I have been reading and studying history for many years & hold various degrees so I am not making an off hand remark – not that you said that I was.

      The “comfort” women were used in a sysytem established by the Japanese, but it was then ignored / allowed to continue and used by the US. So yes, the primary responsibility rests with the Japanese, but the US was complicit.



      Since the winning side gets to write most of the history there is little general knowledge known about the abuses suffered by women at the hands of the winners themselves – it would be niave to assume that it never happened! High rape statistics are pretty uniform across the planet – except in war torn/ troubled areas where it is even higher.It may be difficult to find or access official military doccumentation, but evidence continues to emerge – just have to read widely.

      For example – What happened at the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam? What did the Americans do to the female population before during and after their murder?
      What happened in Berlin to the German women, particularly at the hands of the Russians?
      How do the people of Okinawa feel about that US base?
      Many instances to be studied.

      I recommend this book-
      “A Woman in Berlin Eight weeks in the conquered City”
      The Russinas were Allies at the time.

  • Reply November 11, 2012


    And let’s also remember the 13 indigneous missionary sisters who were interned at Vunapope on the island of New Britain during WW2.
    The ‘white coolies’, Australian Army Nursing Sisters who were in Malaya with the 8th Division A.I.F. in 1941 and early in 1942, and were later taken prisoner by the Japanese.

    So many others.

    Interesting but women were interned in POW camps all over Europe during WW2 and the Germans would not give them POW status. This was because the Germans believed they were not equal to men. This meant that though men were under the care of the International Red Cross, the women weren’t.

  • Reply November 11, 2012

    Tony W

    “It may be difficult to find or access official military documentation”

    Actually Tracy I’ve always been amazed at the amount of incriminating information readily available to the public! When you start delving into unit level daily operations records and personnel occurrence reports you find a lot of stuff that people today would be very uncomfortable to read about! What stands out though is the strict discipline enforced throughout the Allied forces in relation to civil offences. Even minor infringements like public drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, or even incorrect uniform off base were quite severely punished. By that I mean custodial sentences, heavy fines, and even loss of rank in some cases. Offences involving theft or damage to civilian property were very severely punished by unit commanders, and offenders causing injury to civilians were generally courtmartialled.

    We know of course that prostitution is rife wherever military personnel are based, whether it be in peacetime or war. As far as I can establish there were few general restrictions placed on brothel attendance during WW2, although there are many cases of servicemen receiving punishment upon contracting STDs while on active duty. Naturally these endangered the fighting strength of the unit.

    However I draw a strong distinction between prostitution and “comfort women”, who were unpaid domestic sex slaves. I don’t believe it has ever been suggested that US occupation forces in Japan used “comfort women” – they established brothels which were subsequently, and very unwisely, closed down by MacArthur.

    On the question of rape – as you say it would be naive in the extreme to assume it never occurred. We know of course about the systematic rape of German women and girls by conquering Russian forces. I had in mind the Western Allies in my earlier post, and I confess that most of my research relates to British and Commonwealth forces. In these I’ve not encountered any cases of courtmartial for rape, although obviously it’s a very limited sample and I haven’t investigated the general subject in any great depth. I am aware however that somewhere in the order of 100 US servicemen were executed for the crime of rape during WW2.

    The point being that unlike the systematic rape and murder of women and girls committed by Axis forces in every theatre during the entirety of WW2, and the high incidence of rape committed by Russian forces during the final weeks of the war in eastern Germany, rape committed by Western Allied forces was in the nature of isolated incidents, predominantly by US forces in western Germany in the final months of the war, which were heavily punished if caught. In other words – no different to rape in peacetime. Therefore I reject the assertion that “women and girls were raped and abused and killed in war – in all theatres and by all sides”, as a gross distortion of the truth.

    However I wouldn’t seek to disagree with you in relation to Vietnam, except in respect of Australian and NZ forces, who conducted a very different style of war to US Forces. In the specific case of My Lai – from the reports I’ve read there was no rape involved, it was a frenzy of killing which was over relatively quickly.

    I do of course agree with your general point – we’re constantly commemorating war servicemen, but we rarely ever remember or even acknowledge the vast numbers of women and girls raped in war, who were expected to simply get on with their lives with no recognition of their suffering, even to the extent of having to conceal it from their future husbands for the rest of their lives.

  • Reply November 11, 2012

    sue Bell

    let us not forget Nancy Wake or Sister Bullwinkle

  • Reply November 11, 2012

    Tony W

    “Australian Army Nursing Sisters who were in Malaya with the 8th Division A.I.F. in 1941 and early in 1942, and were later taken prisoner by the Japanese.”

    Yes, including the 22 who were forced to wade out waist deep into the surf where they were machine gunned to death. Sole survivor Sister Vivian Bullwinkle who was washed up on the beach unconscious with a bullet in her stomach, then managed to evade recapture for 10 days. Spent the rest of the war as a POW but survived to give evidence of the massacre at the Tokyo war crimes trial. Truly amazing story.

    As you say Rhoda…so many others.

    Probably my favourite “Women in War” story is about the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary, who were tasked with ferrying aircraft from factories and assembly plants to active squadrons. It’s just a fabulous story on so many levels – first women in Britain to get equal pay, initially scoffed at by the RAF but ultimately played a critical role in the Battle of Britain, and won the admiration of veteran fighter pilots who wouldn’t dare go up in the appalling weather conditions these women often flew in. Plus they had no armament and often no navigational instruments.

    There’s a couple of books and a BBC documentary titled “Spitfire Women”, absolutely a must see if you haven’t already. Here’s a couple of excerpts:


  • Reply November 11, 2012

    Tony W

    “let us not forget Nancy Wake or Sister Bullwinkle”

    haha, you read my mind sue Bell!

  • Reply November 12, 2012


    We all know the Gallipoli story of the stretcher bearer Pvt Simpson and his donkey but who knows the story of nurse Alice Kitchen, also at Gallipoli, and who volunteered to be part of the rescue missions to rescue the wounded on the beaches.
    She left a war journal which makes a memorable read and poses some difficult questions.

    Ironic that in WW2 here in Australia, the Curtin government had to establish child care facilities to support all the women who had gone to work. The country would have come to a full stop otherwise. It had to deflect criticism of this measure and assure everyone that women would go back to the homes soon as the war ended. And they did!

  • Reply November 13, 2012

    Tony W

    “We all know the Gallipoli story of the stretcher bearer Pvt Simpson and his donkey”

    Yes, but only because of his donkey! He cut a more romantic figure than other men engaged in the more dangerous and arduous work of recovering the wounded from no man’s land on stretchers. That’s why he was the subject of wartime propaganda, which inflated his deeds beyond all possibilty. The fact is he was killed after only 3 weeks service.

    Most feats of bravery in war go unrecognized, only a few are singled out for praise and award. Nurses are no different in that regard, and I’m not sure they’re disproportionately unrecognized compared to men. What about doctors for example – do we know of any besides Weary Dunlop?

    Certainly there were many brave nurses during both World Wars, but the fact remains that for the most part they were largely unextraordinary in what they did. They worked in a traditional women’s role, generally well behind the lines, and were always the first to be evacuated in the face of enemy advance (invariably against their will of course). That’s true of the “White Coolies” as well, who would never have come to our attention had their evacuation ship not been sunk and resulted in their capture.

    What I like about the “Spitfire Women” is that they broke new ground and proved that women are just as capable as men, and probably more courageous given the chance to prove it. That’s very threatening to men – like the time Lettice Curtis appeared from the clouds and landed her plane in zero visiblity amongst a bunch of men who’d been waiting all day by their planes for the weather to clear! Not only that, but she’d just flown over 400 miles at low level in heavy rain and ten tenths cloud – further from where they were standing to the Ruhr!

    I’m sure if these women had been given the chance to fly in combat they would have proven to be outstanding fighter pilots – just as black Americans did when they finally got their chance late in the war.

    Unlike most working women at war’s end, Curtis did not return to the home. She pursued a career in aviation as a flight test engineer – a job for only the most skilled and technically oriented pilots, and she was still flying planes and helicopters at the age of 80.

    Anyway I’d like to see women like Curtis get more recognition – I would have thought they provide greater inspiration for modern women than nurses, no matter how brave they were.

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