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.
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