ANZAC Girls Review

  • Title: ANZAC Girls (mini-series)
  • Episodes: 6
  • Discs: 2
  • Network: ABC (Austrailia Broadcasting Corp.)
  • Cast: Georgia Flood, Antonia Prebble, Laura Brent, Anna McGahan, Caroline Craig, Honey Debelle
  • Format: Color, Widescreen, NTSC, R1

ANZAC Girls is based on a historical book about real nurses from Australia and New Zealand in World War I. As the final episode tells you: these are real women, who made a difference in the most trying of circumstances. ANZAC refers to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps in the First World War, and the “girls” are the nurses, specifically of the Australia Army Nurses Corps. Some New Zealand women joined with the Australian nurses before the New Zealand nurses organization was formed. As Army nurses, they must have three years of prior experience – and be unmarried. This becomes quite the crux of the miniseries – because, for many of these very young women, they end up having to choose between love and duty and many choose love.

The first episode introduces the main characters: young women who want a little adventure, some who want to find love, and all who are very devoted to their duty as nurses. The nurses arrive in Cairo, and very quickly the disastrous Gallipoli campaign happens. Some of the nurses volunteer for duty on Lemnos, a Greek island that is home to the Australian hospital. But when they arrive with their matron, Grace Wilson, they find they have no quarters, and they must sleep on the open ground. There are no showers, no bathing facilities, and the latrines are disgusting. The women soldier on, despite an army colonel who believes “nurses have no bearing” on the survival of patients. Olive is a dedicated nurse who starts to fall for Pat Dooley, a medical orderly, but she chooses duty over love and is even cruel to him (because Olive, like the rest of the nurses, knows she will be forced to resign if she marries). Lemnos receives the worse cases from Gallipoli.

Meanwhile, back in Cairo, the nurses left behind think they face the worse cases, and the most pain and death. One nurse, Elsie, is mostly there to find her husband, who happens to be the son of the former Australian prime minister. She is discovered to be married, but the forward theater is so desperate for medical personnel she gets special consideration. Her husband is shot in the leg, and Elsie nurses him to health – he’s wounded again, and Elsie gets permission to transfer to the British hospital where he’s convalescing. He’s sent back to the war, and Elsie returns to Cairo and then goes with the rest of the nurses to France after the close of the Gallipoli campaign. When her husband is wounded again, she goes with him back to Australia and is forced to resign from the Australian Army Nursing Corps because: rules. She joins the Red Cross volunteer nurses and returns to France.

Olive and the rest return to Cairo briefly, then go on to France. For a few weeks, the nurses serve at a British hospital where they face the scorn of the British nurses. Matron Grace Wilson, to her credit, doesn’t let her nurses be mistreated, stands up for them, and gets them transferred to the Australian Hospital as soon as possible. The next three episodes take place in France, near the Somme. First Olive goes to the Casualty Clearing Station near the front lines. She returns and two of the other nurses go there. At the CCS, during an air raid, Alice comes into her own, helping wounded in one of the wards that are hit by German bombs. She’s awarded a military medal.

Another nurse, during extraordinary circumstances, has to administer anesthesia for a surgery when the anesthesiologist passes out from exhaustion. The surgeon talks her through it, and the patient recovers. She and two other Australian nurses are put forth for a nurse-anesthesiologist training program. She makes it with flying colors and a perfect score. Day by day she works in surgery, administering local and general anesthetic. That is until the Australian Army gets wind of the program and decides it’s not a suitable job for a woman. After receiving the news (which comes on the same day that Alice finds out her finance’s been killed), she returns to the wards and gets into a conversation with a New Zealand soldier. The two talk about being from New Zealand – and the lightbulb goes off: she’s a New Zealander! She goes to talk to the matron in charge, discovers her matron, Grace Wilson has just returned, and says that as a New Zealander she’s not subject to the new rule. She returns to life as a surgical nurse.

ANZAC Girls is a good program, but it could have been a great program! I felt that the program was a little cold – we didn’t really know what motivated these women, as they dealt with an awful lot: blood, death, horrific injuries, being bombed, disease (including typhoid and dysentery), long hours, mud, and unsanitary conditions, especially for nursing. Instead, the miniseries focuses more on their loves, the losses of those loves, and finding new love. The final episode, which features the Armistice, did make me cry, as it told of the remainder of these extraordinary women’s lives (many also served in World War II). But somehow, although I thought this series was good, I expected more. I wanted to see less of women falling in love and more about how they came to and served in a difficult profession in extraordinary circumstances.

Still, ANZAC Girls is definitely worth watching and recommended.