Nursing Fox by Jim Ditchfield: Nurses on the Western Front

Are you going to see the movie ‘1917’, a visual immersion in the hell of the Great War? ‘Nursing Fox’ is a novel that immerses you in the mud, the chaos, the killing machinery, and the air fights of that 1914-1918 war. It is mainly told from the point of view of the nurses, in this case from Australia, who served so close to the trenches.

Jim Ditchfield’s novel is a homage to the women who served as nurses on the Western Front. He says, ‘Although they performed a crucial role, the nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service are rarely mentioned in accounts of that conflict’. I feel well read about that war but until now I simply did not know about the conditions these nurses had to endure. The sandbagged tents of the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) had to be close to the trenches to give the wounded the best chances of survival, and that meant the doctors, nurses and patients got regularly shelled and bombed.

We follow the fortunes of Lucy Paignton-Fox who has been raised on a cattle station in the Northern Territory. She has studied hard for what was an extraordinary chance for a women in 1914 to train as a doctor. But when Australia follows Britain into the war in Europe, Lucy volunteers to be a nurse in the army.

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The nurses work endlessly to save the lives of the wounded flowing in from ‘stunts’ (battles) the names of which are are engraved on the war memorials of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain: The Somme, Fromelles, Pozieres, Ypres, Messines, the Menin Road, Passchendaele. Each such name represents astonishing numbers of mangled humans.

‘There were only 41 men still fighting fit, four walking wounded, one who needed a stretcher. Just 41. The company had been 250 strong when the stunt started’. P.120 John Mitchell reviews his shattered company.

We are also introduced to John Mitchell of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and to Adam Haywood (Royal Flying Corps), and through their eyes are taken into the fighting on the ground and in the air. We are taken through the frentic disorganisation of matters as simple as getting fed, getting the hospitals set up, and moving about on the shattered ‘roads’ (planks laid over mud). As readers we know as little of the ruthless decisions being made by the base-wallahs (staff officers) as do the troops and nurses, but we see the results in the plethora of grim details. It was deemed more important, for instance, to get ammunition to the trenches than boots and coats.  (When nurse Fox asks a soldier who is losing his leg to frostbite and infection about Gallipoli he says, ‘ A bloody fiasco. .. We’d no decent clothes and the rain and blizzards were killers. Some poor buggers froze to death and others drowned when their trenches flooded.‘ ) The author speaks movingly too of the horses and mules killed by artillery or simply worked to exhaustion as they transported the tonnes of supplies.

As the story moves back and forth from the hospitals to the trenches to the air fights, we also learn something of the infantry tactics, the new aeroplanes, and the improvised surgery and medical care. None of this slows the story but instead immerses the reader in it. As for the characters Lucy, Adam and John, who I grew to care about and admire, remember that with the casualty rate of this war the person whose thoughts and hopes you are following could at any time ‘buy it’. There is no blaze of glory anywhere, just the endless endurance of the unbearable by men and women at a time when the best anyone could hope for was a ‘ticket to blighty’ (a wound so bad they’ll be sent across to England.)

For a gripping account of the service of the nurses in France, and for a carefully researched and engrossing picture of how awful ‘The War To End All Wars’ was for everyone, I highly recommend Nursing Fox.

Where to find Nursing Fox: From publisher Odyssey Books , from BookDepository (with free shipping worldwide) and from Amazon in softcover and Kindle, Barnes and Noble in soft cover Nook, Chapters Indigo, Booktopia, and Waterstones. Or, ask your friendly local bookstore to order it in for you.
Personal Note: One battle name in particular gave me an irrational start: The Menin Road. As a child in New Zealand I lived on a quiet suburban street called Menin Road. The streets all around bore names which I later learnt to be battles of that terrible war. It’s curious to think that as I played games on the neat lawns I had no idea across the other side of the world so many thousands had died by the original Menin Road that their number will never be known.

Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.

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