Book Review: Women to the Front, by Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee

Undeterred by the military hierarchy’s refusal to recognise their skills, these brave women served as doctors amidst the horrors of WWI.

If you are interested in rediscovered women’s history then this book will delight.

Authors Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee have written a fascinating and painstakingly researched account of the work of a handful of female doctors in WWI. Sheard is a former teacher and assistant principal, and Lee is an academic at Deakin University with a particular interest in women’s history.

The contributions of women in WWI have long been overlooked by male historians who so often write the ‘great man’ style of history – especially when writing military history. The authors have rescued these incredible women from the shadows and presented readers with a compelling account of their struggles to be accepted as professionals by the military establishment and their fellow doctors. The rich details combined with a fluent writing style make this a compelling read.

The book is narrated in time to the war itself. The Introduction admirably sets the scene by describing the position of women in general and in particular, these medical practitioners at the start of the war. Sheard and Lee have brilliantly interwoven the stories and official histories of different battlefronts, ranging from Malta, to Cairo to the bloody Western Front with accounts from letters and personal papers, such as diaries and journals, written by the woman doctors themselves.

When the Great War began in 1914 there were only 129 registered female doctors in Australia and many of these had been forced to train overseas. Just as men flocked to enlist to do their bit for ‘King and Country’ these women felt the call to use their hard-won training and skills to help in the war, only to find ‘[t]he War Office regrets it cannot use the services of woman doctors’ (page 13). Undeterred, the women took their skills where they were needed.

The independent Lara Foster, daughter of a NSW Premier, qualified at the University of Bern and signed up with the British Field Hospital for Belgium (BFH), established under the auspices of the British Red Cross, as did Ethel Baker from Queensland who had studied in Belgium. By the time the volunteer force arrived in Antwerp, German troops were only twenty kilometres away and the staff quickly found themselves in the midst of the action – at times driving out to collect wounded soldiers.

If you are interested in rediscovered women’s history then this book will delight. It has an extensive index and bibliography for those readers who want to know more about these incredible women who are virtually invisible in official histories of WWI.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: April 2019
RRP: $34.99

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