Now that my main character has just stepped ashore in England (on the 28th November, 1917) I have switched my research to find out more about the last year of the war. Along the way I have met more heroic women. I am only a third of the way through Women on the Warpath by David Mitchell but within the pages of this book I have already met some wonderful, inspiring women:
The indefatigable Pankhursts who took on Womens Suffrage (of course), the Huns and the Bolsheviks, particularly Sylvia who worked tirelessly for poverty stricken women in the East End of London, among many other good works. Lady Muriel Paget who formed a hospital unit that was sent to Russia. Lady Leila Paget who organised a hospital unit in Serbia and liaissed with the Bulgarians to open an emergency clinic in Skopje.
Sarah Macnaughton who set up a soup kitchen at Furnes in Flanders and Mrs. St Clair Stobart who was the leader of a coloumn through the terrible Serbian Death March of late 1915.
One of my aims in writing The Grey Silk Purse is to highlight what it was like during WWI for women with a driving need to help others. It was a time when women really made a difference. Opportunities arose because of the war and the shortage of men, and these amazing woman and thousands more grabbed life with both hands and achieved startling results.
After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2010/photos_1440/items/image05.html I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.
In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Sandes I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.
Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.
At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I have been reading about the amazing Olive Kelso King and her experiences in Greece and Serbia. I am staggered by what she achieved during her war service. I’ve also been researching the two Australian doctors involved with the SWH – Dr Agnes Bennett and Dr Violet Cooper. Suddenly I am nervous at putting my character into the middle of the danger and terrible working conditions of the Eastern Front in 1918. Never mind that these women actually lived and worked there! I am worried about having to face it all just on the page!
I am, unfortunately in some respects, very thin-skinned and was crying in a cafe last week when I read again about Vivien Bullwinkel and the massacre at Bangka Island. I mean I know that Vivien was the only survivor of 21 nurses gunned down at Radji Beach and I was okay when I first read about what happened but then was done for when I came to Matron Drummond’s word:
“Girls, I love you all and I’m proud of you. Walk into the water with your chins up. Don’t be afraid.” You can’t get more heroic than that!
Yep, it’s not going to be easy putting my character into a similar sort of danger. It’s going to be challenging not just emotionally but in getting the historical context accurate. Now back to the past!