All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The War Nurses by Anthea Hodgson

on April 13, 2023

The War Nurses
Anthea Hodgson
Penguin Books Australia
2023, 382p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:In 1942, country girls Minnie Hodgson and Margot McNee set sail from Perth, Australia for Singapore in search of adventure, full of excitement and keen to do their part working as nurses to the fallen soldiers in a time of war. What they encounter is an army of new friends and the terrors of a city under siege.

When the Japanese attack and Singapore falls, they are forced to flee aboard the Vyner Brooke. The ship is bombed, resulting in utter devastation. Separated in the mayhem, one group of nurses find themselves in prisoner-of-war camps for the duration of the war, surviving on their wits, with humour, dignity, loyalty and determination. But another group of young Australian nurses – the girls on the beach – are washed ashore on Bangka Island, where they will meet a fate that must never be forgotten.

Inspired by the author’s own family story, this is an unforgettable novel of enduring friendship and boundless courage, based on the shocking true events of the Bangka Island Massacre. It is both a riveting tale and an important tribute to our brave nurses who sacrificed so much during WWII.

Oh my Goodness, what a story. Make sure you have tissues when reading this one.

I say this all the time, but I have poor historical knowledge. I think schooling in Australia is really inadequate at teaching history and most of what I’ve learned (that wasn’t James Cook “discovering” Australia) I’ve taught myself as an adult, through reading books based on real events and researching after that. And this is not an exception – I hadn’t even heard of the Bangka Island Massacre before hearing about this book and that’s a travesty because everyone should know about this. There was a lot of secrecy and people being forbidden to tell their story (some of which was by the Australian Government) which I found sad and insulting to the people that lived through it and their families.

The War Nurses takes place in the thick of World War II – Australian nurses Minnie, Margot, Beth, Lola and others are sent to Singapore to nurse the troops fighting in the Pacific. Although the conditions are at times, a bit challenging – the approaching Japanese, the oppressive heat, the struggle for medical supplies, the long shifts – the women build a camaraderie and make the best of their situation, caring for the men that get brought into them. At first it’s mostly minor injuries before it escalates. They are able to socialise and enjoy themselves. They are moved several times and then retreat back to Singapore before being finally given the order to evacuate, back to Australia in various boats. However those who draw the straw of being aboard the Vyner Brooke are relentlessly bombed by Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea. The people on board were a mix of injured soldiers, the nurses who had been caring for them and civilians from Singapore who were being forced to leave. The boat is sunk and the survivors are forced to paddle, swim and float for their lives towards the small island of Bangka. A Dutch colony, it has also been taken by the Japanese who need resources to fuel their war. The group of survivors wash up in various locations, some of them band back together, others are separated by greater distance.

What happens next is heartbreaking in various different ways. A portion of the survivors endure an internment camp for years along with Dutch residents of the island, who have also been rounded up, and the conditions make Singapore seem like the height of indulgent luxury. The nurses, who we focus on, are fighting a constantly losing battle of trying to nurse sick people with nothing in the way of medical supplies at all and very little food. They are basically starving, existing on the most absolute meagre portion of rations that would keep a person alive (and for some, not even that). Disease is rife – it is difficult to be able to maintain the proper hygiene practices and illnesses like dysentery and beriberi tear through the camps. Despite begging to be seen as legitimate prisoners of war, which would afford them certain conditions, the Japanese refuse and see them only as internees and no one seems at all concerned about the Geneva Convention and its requirements.

Every so often they are forced to move camps, which means packing everything they have (not much) and travelling either by boat of by foot, often for significant distances. Some people literally just die along the way, so malnourished that they cannot make it. There are things in the latter half of the book that are really distressing to read but at the same time, the strong friendship and the resilience of the women shine through, even as they are facing the absolute worst happening around them. They have lost some of their friends, they are watching more and more die as time goes by, there is such helplessness as they cannot do their jobs but they still manage to keep strong and keep going. It was sometimes as heartwarming, reading about the strength of their connections, as it was heartbreaking reading about the horrific conditions and the dehumanising of the nurses and civilians who had been taken into the internment camps. And it isn’t at all limited to this particular area in this particular time either. Dehumanising is a constant in war, ‘othering’ in a way that allows self-justification of heinous acts.

I would encourage anyone who doesn’t know much (or anything!) about this to definitely read up on it, particularly the survival account of Vivian Bullwinkel, an Australian nurse who does appear briefly in this book. More research and investigation has been done in recent times to shine more of a light on this incident, to make sure that some of these stories have been told. The Authors Note included here also asserts that almost everything that happened in this book is true – Anthea Hodgson’s great-aunt, Minnie Hodgson, lost her life during this war on Bangka Island and she is commemorated here as a main character in fictionalised form.

A brilliant book, written to showcase friendship and spirit and you can see how much love, care and respect was poured into it.


Book #81 of 2023

This book counts towards my participation in the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It’s the 6th book completed so far.

4 responses to “Review: The War Nurses by Anthea Hodgson

  1. Malvina Y says:

    Definitely on my TBR. To get an idea of the conditions of imprisonment you could watch Paradise Road, a film about a group of women imprisoned by the Japanese on the island of Sumatra during WWII. Cate Blanchett has a lead role. Not something you forget easily.

  2. Sounds like a must read for me!

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