John Mccutcheon

A nurse’s stories from the front lines

WHEN his mother died while his father and brother were serving with Australian forces in World War One, Reginald from Mount Lawley in Western Australia stowed away on the troop carrier Mooltan intent on joining them.

The 12-year-old was discovered and put ashore at Colombo and returned to Australia.

That is just one of the fascinating stories former youth street support worker Graeme Mitchell of Palmwoods has uncovered in a remarkable set of diaries kept by his grandmother when she served as a nurse in the Great War.

They give an insight in to the life and death of Australian troops. Graeme and his partner Jan have thrown themselves fulltime into transcribing the diaries.

Graeme has also started writing both a fictionalized novel based on the transcripts and two children's books, one about Reggie and the other - also a true story from the diaries - about a Pomeranian hidden in the kitbag of a soldier when he left Australia for the battlefront.

DUTY CALLS: Anne Donnell.
DUTY CALLS: Anne Donnell.

That they did, carting the dog from battlefield to battlefield in their kitbags and eventually to the ship to transport them home.

There things did not go so well with a Non-Commissioned Officer determining the dog should be put down. The soldiers thought otherwise and guarded it constantly in shifts all the way home.

Sister Anne Donnell was so incensed that she fronted the captain's table to plead for the dog's life. The official line was that it was dead. But she went on to record sighting on the wharves at journey's end.

Anne Donnell volunteered for service as an A.I.F. staff nurse when she was 39 years and seven months old. Her war took her to Greece, Egypt, France and London. She saw and recorded horrific suffering .

"During those fearful days our thoughts were constantly with the boys on the peninsula and wondering how they were faring, but little did we realise their sufferings until the wind abated & they began to arrive down with their poor feet and hands frostbitten,'' she wrote.

"Thousands have been taken to Alexandria, hundreds the boys say were drowned because their feet were so paralysed & they couldn't crawl away to safety in time. Some of the boys are losing both feet, some both hands, it's all too sad for words, hopelessly sad.''

Graeme Mitchell wants to honour the woman who adopted his mother Yvonne Annear at an early age. He feels strongly that the diaries have found him and he now has an obligation to see her story told.

"She did so much humbly and gracefully and with an even manner,'' he said this week.

"That grace is extraordinary under the battle conditions they faced. It is heroism. I'm moved by this woman.''

STARK LANDSCAPE: The horrors of war.
STARK LANDSCAPE: The horrors of war.

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