ANZAC Girls (2014): Untold Stories of WWI

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When I reviewed The Crimson Field (2014), commenters mentioned ANZAC Girls (2014) for comparison. I’d heard of the show but despaired of this Australian production making it to PBS or a streaming service where I could easily watch it. And then, randomly, I found it on my local PBS channel, playing at a non-primetime slot — folks, this is why you set your TiVO or other DVR to search for you in the background!

Historical photo of World War I nurses arriving in Cairo, Egypt.

Historical photo of World War I nurses arriving in Cairo, Egypt.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Fresh off the train at Cairo.

Anyway, I’ve had a chance to watch the six-part miniseries, and in general, I liked it even better than Crimson Field. First, the story of Australia’s and New Zealand’s World War I nurses is entirely unknown in the U.S., so it’s fantastic that this historical drama was made and is available. This also gives viewers a look at World War I events that are infrequently covered by filmed drama, such as the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and its ramifications. I found that the social and personal costs of this war were more thoroughly explored in ANZAC Girls than in Crimson Field as well — maybe because Australia’s and New Zealand’s involvement in World War I had different motivations than that of Britain.

Historical photo of nurses in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1916.

Historical photo of nurses in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1916.

The series follows four nurses (titled “sister” in that nun-like way that nursing was done in the period) and their leader (titled “matron”). Several of the characters are based on real women, whose diaries and letters were used in the book The Other ANAZACs by Peter Rees, upon which this TV series is loosely based. Co-producer and writer of ANZAC Girls Felicity Packard told ABC News Australia: “We wanted a range of interesting stories for the series and the choice really was dictated by their diaries. These are real people and real events. These things really did happen.”

Historical photo of Matron Matron Grace Wilson on Lemnos, May 1915.

Historical photo of Matron Matron Grace Wilson on Lemnos, May 1915.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Matron Grace & Sister Olive on Lemnos. Note Grace’s parasol.

Historical photo of Sister Alice Ross-King & her fiance Lieutenant Harry Moffitt.

Historical photo of Sister Alice Ross-King & her fiance Lieutenant Harry Moffitt.

Of the main five female characters, three are specific historical women. Matron Grace Wilson (played by Caroline Craig) was a real nurse who achieved high rank through her exemplary service in both WWI and WWII. Sister Alice Ross-King (played by Georgia Flood) was indeed engaged to Lieutenant Harry Moffitt (played by Dustin Clare), and Ross-King later served in WWII, receiving the coveted Florence Nightingale Award. Sister Olive Haynes (played by Anna McGahan) did serve at the outpost hospital on the Greek island of  Lemnos, where she met Private Pat Dooley (played by Brandon McClelland). McGahan said it was “an incredible honour” to play Olive Haynes in the series, explaining in The Daily Telegraph: “It was a really powerful experience actually. We were all very emotionally affected by the stories and our characters.”

ANZAC Girls (2014)

The ‘hospital’ at Lemnos.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

The women deal with first dysentery, then freezing cold on Lemnos, plus limited supplies for treating the wounded.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Conditions on the hospital ship drive one woman to drink.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

It’s hard to avoid blood & guts in this series.

While usually I’d talk about the costumes in ANZAC Girls, being a war story on the front, costume variety is lacking. The nurses wear long grey dresses with white aprons and caps, plus scarlet capelets. The men are in military uniforms, plus a whole lot of bloody bandages. Oh yes, this series is far more explicit about the wounds and misery of war than Crimson Field. It’s less M*A*S*H the TV show and more like M*A*S*H the movie when it comes to the hospital scenes (which there are many more of than in Crimson Field; another thing that makes it less soapy overall). In addition to showing men screaming in agony on the battlefield as nurses try to help, we even see how sexually transmitted infections were treated in the period (ouchie). The only time we see some non-uniform, non-blood-spattered costumes is in the rare moments that the nurses have some downtime for sightseeing and flirting with the fellas. They’re shown in some quite lovely 1910s gowns in light colors, very appropriate for hot conditions in Egypt.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Typical outfit for the sisters, just add apron & cap.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Check out the leather pouch hanging from Alice’s belt. Very practical!

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Alice’s posh pink & green dress.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Utterly charming hat for Alice’s ‘sightseeing’ dress.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Alice out to tour the pyramids.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Sister Olive is the spunky one.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Sister Hilda is the innocent, religious one.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Three of the sisters on a day off in Cairo.

So no, this isn’t a lush period piece with gorgeous historical costumes. But it is a well-told, thoughtful, and entertaining miniseries about women in World War I, with the bonus of focusing on Australia’s and New Zealand’s efforts during WWI. With the emphasis on telling real, historical women’s stories, ANZAC Girls avoids becoming solely about romances and cliffhangers and mostly just tells about the complications of women serving at war.

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Alice & Harry are happy … for a while (hey, there’s a war on).

ANZAC Girls (2014)

Olive & Pat are reunited.

 

Have you seen ANZAC Girls? How do you think it compares to other World War I dramas?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

8 Responses

  1. Dani

    Hi! I’m a Kiwi, so first of all I just want to say thank you for saying “Australia and New Zealand” every time instead of just saying “Australia”, as many tend to do. :)
    Second, I loved this series!! I thought it was good because a lot of the focus was on the war rather than the war being a background for stupid drama, so it did feel less “soapy” than other things of this nature, even though I haven’t seen “The Crimson Field”. Even though it was hard to watch at times, I was glad they showed how awful the conditions were. It certainly was not “cleaned up” for the show! Sister Olive was such a great character! She was so brave and courageous, and had a fantastic sense of humour the whole time!
    As you pointed out, there’s not really a whole lot to say about the costumes, but I thought that even at the end their uniforms looked straight out of a museum display. They never really looked worn, except in the scenes where they were covered in mud and blood.
    That’s my little bit, I love your podcast and website, and all the daily costume film photographs that I see on Facebook. Thank you for being so great,
    from an aspiring costume designer. :)
    P.S. Sorry for any mistakes, I am typing this on my mobile!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yay for the Kiwi shoutout! I’ve seen more of NZ than Australia, so I’m a fan :) And the show does make a point of addressing who’s from Australia & who’s from New Zealand too, & I wanted to be accurate. Yes, Sister Olive was the best character, wonderful mix of spunky ‘can do’ attitude, pathos, & humor. I’d love to see more of Anna McGahan.

      Reply
  2. Bridget

    Have you ever read “The Daughters of Mars”? It is about two Australian sisters who become nurses during WWI, and is well written and very interesting.

    Just throwing it out there … :-)

    Reply

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