‘A Rose for the Anzac Boys’ is an extraordinarily well researched book by Jackie French about the experience of World War I from the viewpoint of three young teenage girls. Midge Macpherson is a 16 year old New Zealander studying at an exclusive private school in England, when she becomes friends with two English girls, Ethel and Anne. They are mildly engaged in the war effort at the school, rolling bandages, but things become more urgent when Midge’s twin, Tim, is listed as “missing” from the Gallipoli campaign.
The three girls are desperate to give more practical help to the men fighting on the Western Front. They decide they can organise a canteen providing tea, soup and sandwiches for the soldiers returning from the front. This catapults the girls into the shocking experience of seeing the horrific war wounds, and even more difficult to deal with, the mental effects of war trauma, on the young soldiers. The girls often work almost 24 hour shifts, catching a few hours sleep here and there, as they try to bring a little warmth and humanity into the traumatised men’s lives.
Things become even more perilous for Midge, as she is co-opted into the ambulance service, transporting men directly from the front to the make-shift medical tents. She dodges shells as she struggles to manipulate the heavy gears of the ambulance truck. She is also called on to prep the men for surgery, and has to deal with sights, sounds and smells she finds it hard to comprehend. Here again, Midge and the other assistants and nurses bring hope and light into a very dark world.
Jackie French tells this story compellingly. The book never drags, and the characters are well realised. ‘A Rose for the Anzac Boys’ is bookended by more modern sections, which fill in the story of the generations to follow some of the protagonists. The final section, set in 2007 is a poignant reminder that the women who helped in World War I, the “roses”, will never be forgotten.
Jackie French’s thorough research is seen not only in the story telling of this book, but in all the historical notes at the end of ‘A Rose for the Anzac Boys’. It also would not be a genuine ‘Jackie French’ without the obligatory recipe, which in this case is one for “Soldier’s biscuits”.
This book has been written with passion, and it is clear it is a topic dear to the author’s heart. It is a helpful balance to all the books written from the perspective of the men involved in “the war to end all wars”. Highly recommended.