A new series marking the centenary of WWI looks at the role of Anzac nurses. Lydia Jenkin talked to its cast and creators on the frontline.

Arriving at the Adelaide Studios Glenside set is like being dropped into a war zone. Wounded soldiers are walking about, some bloodied and battered, others bandaged to the eyeballs. Among them are uniformed officers and harried orderlies, and the nurses - looking like Christmas decorations against the khaki in their white caps, red capes and grey dresses.

The air is full of smoke and shouting.

If you could blur out the cameras, crew, and set construction, you would get the sense of being surrounded by the chaos of World War I. This is all for six-episode miniseries Anzac Girls, which TimeOut has come to witness in the flesh.

But it's not just another battle-based war epic.


Inspired by The Other Anzacs book by Peter Rees, it tells the tale of New Zealand and Australia's involvement in World War I from the perspective of the nurses. These women volunteered their expertise and lives to fight alongside the troops in the only way they were allowed - by trying to save thousands of wounded soldiers - and their stories, as laid out in diaries and letters that have been preserved and gathered, are as compelling as those of the men on the frontline.

Surviving the brutality of war, while giving expert medical treatment with extremely limited resources, and keeping spirits up through friendship and care, was all in a day's work for these women, and when Australian production companies Screentime and ABC TV began looking for material to help mark the 100th anniversary of Anzac involvement in the war, this idea struck a chord with writer and producer Felicity Packard.

"The point of difference here that appealed to us was obviously the women's point of view, but also the New Zealand element, combining the story of both countries' involvement, helping to dramatise what Anzac actually stood for, and also the fact that their experiences span the whole war, not just Gallipoli.

"I was also very attracted to the idea that we could base this on real people - it's not a documentary, but we're telling the stories of real nurses, based on their own words."

The series spans four-and-a-half years, and stretches between a hospital in Cairo, another in Alexandria, a hospital ship anchored off Anzac Cove, a temporary tent base on a Greek Island and at several spots in France, along the Western Front.

Among those real people who form the heart of the series are Australians Alice Ross King, Olive Haynes, Elsie Cook, Grace Wilson, and New Zealander Hilda Steele, who's played by Antonia Prebble.

Prebble is dressed in her austere nurse's uniform when we sit down to talk between scenes, but she's as lively and colourful as ever. It's the final day of filming, and after 10 weeks of learning to tie bandages and make hospital corners, and slogging through heavy mud and rain, it's going to be bittersweet for Prebble when Anzac Girls is finished.

"I won't miss being relentlessly hassled about my accent by about 70 people every day," she laughs, "but really, it's been such a wonderful experience, one of the best times I've ever had on a set, so it will be sad".

The five girls have formed a strong bond, with all of them coming from out of town to film in Adelaide, and all living together throughout the filming.

Indeed when everyone sits down to lunch in the mess hall, you get the sense that a similar camaraderie has been cultivated between the cast, as it would have been between the real Anzacs.

"I now feel like if Antonia doesn't come to my wedding I'll be offended," laughs Georgia Flood, who plays Alice Ross King. "No, I'm kidding, but we have gotten so close, all of us girls, reaching that level of understanding, with no pretence, it's lovely. There's no ego, because the reason we're here and we're doing this is much bigger than any of us."

And they're all thrilled to be involved with a show that seems a little groundbreaking in bringing to light the work of the nurses.

"I sort of didn't even realise, before I started working on this, that the nurses' perspective isn't something we've seen before, which shows just how not in my consciousness it is," Prebble explains. "And you go 'Wow, these are extraordinary stories, and compelling on so many levels, and important on so many levels, so why haven't we?' And I don't know the answer to that, but I'm glad we're rectifying it."

"They really are inspiring," says Anna McGahan, who plays Olive Haynes. "Even when we're having tough days, you can remind yourself, well, we're not at war. I think we relished all those cold, muddy long days, because it brought us a little bit closer to what those women might have gone through. It felt legitimate, we could bond over it. And you can think, okay, maybe this is a hundredth of what they went through, in the extremes of heat and cold, the bombing and gassing, people around them dying, getting incredibly sick."

"The logistics of it all were mind-boggling to me, too," Prebble adds. "I don't know how they did it all with no internet, no cellphone, it's incredible. Like, 'Quick, the Germans are coming, you have to move that hospital that you've just set up, 10 miles over that way, overnight'. It makes my head hurt, thinking about it."

But it's not all tragedy and hardship, there is light, friendship, and romance in their stories, too.

"Oh yes, they had dances, and celebrated Christmas, and they really did something amazing in keeping their spirits up throughout it all. That's a key part of their story," McGahan smiles.

Alice Ross King seems to have at least three men chasing her at any one time, and though Olive Haynes is initially oblivious to his attention, there is at least one private quite smitten with her. No romantic entanglements for Hilda Steele sadly, but Prebble didn't feel left out.

"There's no love story for her, though in the last scene a New Zealand soldier does ask her for a dance. But her focus really is on her work and her friends, and I kind of like that there's no man in her story because there's so much more to these women than the men they're with, and she really represents that."

Caroline Craig, who plays Matron Grace Wilson, points out that the series takes place during a time when women were only just becoming independent as individuals.

"I think it's a real proto-feminist kind of story in some ways, I mean the suffragettes were happening, and women were just getting the vote, and it was all really early days for respect and equality for women. Women's roles were changing, and that's why we like watching Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife or even Mad Men - we get to see what women were going through, and think, 'Wow, that really wasn't that long ago that women weren't allowed to talk that way, or have those jobs, or get paid'. And they deal with that really well in this series, because these girls really were the next feminists."

Above all, the five actresses hope that this series will highlight the bravery and commitment of the nurses, and feel some pride and inspiration at their efforts as Anzac commemorations draw near.

"I'd love our generation to have an understanding of what it was like for the nurses there, and for people to appreciate how integral they were.

"Because I didn't know anything about these nurses at all before this, and now I feel much more enriched, and somewhat indebted to them," Flood explains.

"I feel like we're giving back, in some small way, to the people who fought for our freedom, and hoping to show some appreciation. Lest we forget."

Flock of Nightingales: Who's who in Anzac Girls

Laura Brent, Anna Mc Gahan, Georgia Flood, Antonia Prebble and Caoline Craig star in Anzac Girls.

Sister Hilda Steele - Antonia Prebble

"Hilda comes from a relatively affluent middle-class family, grew up in Remuera, and was really community minded, but, at least in the miniseries, is very shy, very unsure of herself, and constantly doubts her ability in most things, but in particular in nursing. She goes to war because she wants to help, she feels it's her duty, and also, in real life, her brother was killed in the war early on, which isn't actually mentioned in the series, but in my mind that's part of her reasoning for going over. But she's really scared about it, and doesn't feel like she's up to the task, and she's just going to do her best because they're all chucked in the deep end. And then as a result of being constantly stretched because of what she's faced with, she grows exponentially, and by the end of the war, she's this relatively confident assertive leader really. She goes through a huge process of change, which was wonderful to play."

Sister Alice Ross King - Georgia Flood
"Alice is fearless. In the beginning she has this insatiable appetite for love, adventure, life, and discovery. She's young, she's just finding her way in the world at the beginning, but she's got drive, she wants to save people, but also to save herself, find love, explore.
It's really interesting, she has this double-pronged attitude to the war, she's very aware, very smart, and is very focused on her nursing, and meticulous, but then she'll be thinking, 'great I can go and flirt with these boys now'. She knows what she wants. She's coquettish and impetuous and insecure, but she's loving and vivacious too. She's forced to grow up very fast through the war. She has horrific experiences, personally and professionally, and by the end of it all, she's become totally altruistic."

Sister Olive Haynes - Anna McGahan
"There's this essence to her, this larrikin nature I suppose, this joyful curiosity that was remarkable, particularly during war time. You notice it in her diary, and in the scripts. Her defiance and loyalty I really admire too.

She's the ratbag of the group. She's a bit naughty, but she really does bring the cheer, particularly on Lemnos Island where they go through really dire circumstances and are really tested, she prioritises their morale, and really focuses on being uplifting and helping the girls persevere through a very difficult time. And helping the boys through that, too. She really saw herself as a soldier, and she wanted to win the war. She wasn't there to meet boys or have an adventure, she was there to fight with them."

Sister Elsie Cook - Laura Brent
Elsie is somewhat different from the rest of the group because she's married, and not just to anyone, but to the son of former Australian Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Cook. She can't bear the thought of staying in Australia while Syd is off fighting, and she's a trained nurse, so she decides to hide her marriage in order to join the AANS. It's when the army authorities find out that she's married, and she's facing dismissal, that you see the kind, conventional, polite, middle-class girl show her true colours, and stand her ground, which leads her to become the only openly married nurse in the AANS. Elsie is determined and passionate under the surface, and though her husband's fate has her permanently preoccupied and on edge, she's still a favourite with the other girls.

Matron Grace Wilson - Caroline Craig
"Grace was a career nurse, who had trained in London. She was very smart, came from a big family, and I think they were quite religious, and were all very stand-up citizens in Brisbane. Her brothers went off to war, and as soon as they signed up, she decided she had to go as well. She wanted to be where she was needed, where the action was. She was very intrepid, took everything in her stride, and she was very adaptable. And she was tough but fair. I sort of play good cop to Rhondda Findleton's bad cop Matron Nellie Gould, who is a tougher, older matron. It's funny when you tell people you're playing a matron, they're like, 'Oh you're a tough bitch then', but actually Grace really sticks up for the nurses and treats them like her sisters or daughters. She didn't actually get married and have her own sort of private life or anything until she was 74, which is astounding. She really was committed to the job."

What: New TV series Anzac Girls
Where and when: On Prime TV, from Tuesday December 9, 8.30pm

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