As promised, the two books by Thomas Keneally that I didn’t cover last time, plus another book which is peripheral to World War One, but like the assassination of Crown Prince Frederick bookended that great cataclysm The Great Influenza, more commonly known as Spanish Flu.
To start then, with the War. The Daughters of Mars tells in great and lurid detail of the adventures, loves and lives of two Australian sisters, both nurses, the elder sister, Naomi, has escaped the “boondocks” and works in a hospital in Melbourne. Sally still lives at home, with an ailing mother and an aged father and works in the local hospital. The mother is slowly dying from cancer, but it is not until Naomi comes to stay that she suddenly, and mercifully dies. Sally suspects that her sister has taken the lead in a mercy killing, which she herself has prepared for but her courage has failed, and she has merely stored the extra morphine. The matricide hangs over their relationship.
At the outbreak of the War, there is an urgent appeal for nurses, both girls apply and both are selected. As usual, Thomas Keneally has based this novel on real events: a nursing ship was sunk on its way to the military hospital at Lemnos; Australian nurses went out in their masses to assist in the nursing stations and what happened is recorded in memoirs, diaries and medical records all available to the avid researcher. Thomas Keneally has written extensively and eloquently about war, its horrors, its atrocities, its confusion and its brotherhood of soldiery, in this book he has also presented us with the sisterhood of the nursing profession. It is lovely and horrible. Too little has been written, I think, about the stress and trauma which these young women experienced. Here it is in all its bloody awfulness and every once in a while – beauty.
We then spring to the final days. Gossip from the Forest, also by Thomas Keneally covers the strange and mismanaged journey of the German peace negotiators to the forest of Compiegne. November 1918, the German plenipotentiaries, Matthias Erzberger and Count Maiberling travel by car and train to an unknown destination in search of peace. Their opposite numbers, secure in the dictats of their governments and backed by The United States wait. With the most subtle of French humour, the German contingent is housed in the sumptuous railway carriages of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, on another track in a now famous railway carriage (later appropriated by Adolf Hitler) the table is set for the showdown.
Written largely as dialogue, this little book gives us an idea of the immense preoccupations of the people involved in this negotiation, which in every sense was not a negotiation but an ultimatum; though on the journey there the Germans were not aware of this fact and thought there was still room for manoeuvre. The Armistice signed, the German plenipotentiaries return to a new Germany, the Kaiser exiled and a different complexion of government and defeat. One cannot quite call this a novel, but it is a very good read.
So finally to John M Barry‘s book about the Spanish flu, The Great Influenza. Named thus, not because it began in Spain, but because the War Offices of the countries first affected kept the newspapers firmly under control on the basis that an epidemic of such gigantic proportions would further demoralise nations still at war. Spain, not being involved in the conflict but suffering the huge, frightening and sudden deaths from the haemorrhagic influenza reported it in all the national papers – and suffered the nomenclature as a consequence. Mr Barry proves fairly conclusively that in fact the flu began as a fairly “normal” influenza virus in Midwest America, was comprehensively spread during call up and troop training, imported to the Western Front, mutated and eventually killed five percent of the world population, of which a large proportion were young, healthy individuals.
This may not sound the best way to spend Saturday afternoon, even a very wet afternoon. But let me assure you, the route from outbreak to diagnosis and from there to the pathology laboratory is fascinating, astonishing, ghastly and gripping.