Ford Street Publishing, 2013
pbk., 243pp., RRP $A18.95
Flora’s war begins in late 1914 in Cairo where the somewhat indulged daughter of an Australian archaeologist whose only interest is discovering the antiquities of Ancient Egypt meets up with her American friend Gwen, quite determined to be ‘modern young ladies’ of the time now that they are 16 and having ‘come out’, are afforded much more freedom. Flora’s war ends a year later in Cairo where two much more mature young ladies contemplate their future having seen and done much more than ‘modern young ladies’ should have – in fact having seen and done much more than modern young ladies (or gents) of any generation should have.
Cairo in 1914 is not the place Gwen and Flora have known from their annual visits for the excavation season since childhood. Instead of the close-knit expatriate society they know, the riches and richness of the privileged life of hotels where steps are swept as soon as they are stepped upon, and the endless desert stretching to the beckoning pyramids, it is becoming more and more crowded with troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and tent cities are springing up. There is an air of expectation that something is going to happen, strengthened by the military’s acquisition of their hotels for hospitals and the girls being commandeered to volunteer as helpers in Lady Bellamy’s rest and recreation centre – a pavilion in the Ezbekieh Gardens where soldiers on leave will be tempted with tea and table tennis to distract them from the salacious attractions of “The Wozzer”. The war is acknowledged but it is far away from Egypt, yet still the troop build-up and training continues and the arrival of contingents of Australian nurses is an ominous sign.
But, undeterred, Flora and Gwen push on to being modern young women, learning to dance in new ways, smoking cigarettes, hosting spectacular parties, and most importantly for their freedom, learning to drive a car. And it is this skill which takes them to sights, sounds, smells and experiences that no one should ever endure, let alone 16 year-old girls. For, as what we now know as the Gallipoli Campaign begins and intensifies, the war comes to Cairo as tens of thousands of wounded soldiers are evacuated and Flora and Gwen are enmeshed in their care.
There have been so many books written about the events of 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula, events that have shaped the Australian and New Zealand psyche and spawned the enduring ANZAC spirit of collaboration and rivalry. But Flora’s War is different – it’s written from the perspective of ‘what happened next”. We know the facts and figures and stories of the soldiers in the trenches and the bravery, courage and losses, but what happened to those who were injured, those who were evacuated to the hospital ships sitting just offshore? So often the stories stop on the beach. In the notes, the author, Pamela Rushby tells of her journey from reading a story about Australian nurses in 1915 to writing a story of a young civilian volunteer in Egypt, and it is this aspect that makes this novel stand out. Even though Flora Wentworth is fictional, it is nevertheless the story of real people, inspirational people whose story has seldom been told.
Flora’s War is an engaging read, written by a hand that knows how to weave light and dark together so that the reader is entertained but also educated. Flora loves her social life and we learn how the social conventions of the time remain paramount – as unmarried young women their duties are arranged so they cannot see men without their pyjama tops, yet emptying bedpans is acceptable – contrasted against the pathos of young men knowing they may never return from this ‘adventure’ they signed on for. It paints a picture of a time in history that we all know, that has been rarely seen. Like Boy Soldiers by Cliff Green, this is a story that stands above others on this topic for me. My copy remained on my shelves until my granddaughters were old enough to read it and perhaps understand what their great great grandfather endured.
There are teachers’ notes written by the author which offer a range of ideas to take this story beyond the realm of a girls’ own adventure to a work that has a real place in supporting our students understanding of this critical piece of Australian history. If you are looking to boost your collection on this topic for older independent readers, this should be at the top of your list.
First published August 9 2013
Updated April 7 2023