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A Nurse at War

Petals and Bullets: Dorothy Morris, New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War
by Mark Derby (Potton & Burton, $39.99)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

Petals-&-Bullets_coverI’m sorry this is trite, but I couldn’t help think, while reading Mark Derby’s book about the wartime New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris, that if only she’d played rugby she’d be so much better known.

There are scores of them – those exceptional yet neglected New Zealanders who, despite books like this one, will likely remain so, and for reasons too many to count (and not just because of their absence from the rugby field).

In Morris’s case, as Derby explains in the introduction to this short biography Petals and Bullets: Dorothy Morris, New Zealand nurse in the Spanish Civil War, those reasons include her forbidding publication of a biography while she was still alive, the wartime censorship and turmoil that prevented many of her letters from the warzone reaching their destination and, sadly, a decision by her sister to destroy a good chunk of those that did make it home apparently because she ran out of space to keep them.

Those are some big gaps in source material for any biographer to overcome, and if the introduction is anything to go by, Derby took some convincing to take the project on. In the end, though, it was the quality of the correspondence he did have access to that made the case: “vividly descriptive, fiercely polemic and historically fascinating…with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail”. Still, it took a lot of research both here and in archives overseas – for which Derby enlisted local help – to tell the story of this extraordinarily brave, terribly competent and possibly rather disagreeable woman.

Born in Cromwell in 1904, Dorothy Aroha Morris chose nursing when, as Derby puts it, it was “regarded as a questionable occupation for a well-educated girl from an upwardly mobile family”, quitting her studies at

Dorothy, a newly trained nurse, at home in Lyttleton, c. 1930.

Dorothy, a newly trained nurse, at home in Lyttleton, c. 1930.

what was then “Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand” to attend nursing school at Christchurch Hospital. After finishing her training and working for several years, Dorothy set out for England in 1935.

Excerpts from her letters at that time reveal a politically knowledgeable and engaged young woman of a leftist persuasion who looked positively on the election of New Zealand’s first Labour government while fearing and condemning what she rightly saw as the advance of fascism in Europe. The following year, she was closely following the election of – and attempted right-wing coup against – a popular front coalition in Spain. Like so many on the left in Europe at that time, Dorothy was appalled at the lack of support from Britain and France for Spain’s elected government. But where governments failed to act, the people did not, and Dorothy soon found herself caught up in the unofficial mobilisation to support Republican Spain.

Her first assignment was with an ambulance unit organised and funded by Sir George Young, described by Derby as “an eccentric of a type regrettably rare among Britain’s minor aristocracy”. It set out for to Almería in southern Spain where Dorothy and her team encountered survivors of “one of the most notorious barbarities of the civil war” – the massacre of refugees fleeing the embattled city of Malaga, which fell to the nationalists in February 1937: “At least 5000 died on the journey,” Derby writes, “an average of one corpse for every 50 metres of the route.” Dorothy then headed toward the battlefront to help set up a field hospital for combatants – the first of a series of transfers “from one newly established medical service to another, forced on the team by the rapidly shifting lines of battle”.

It’s at points like this in the narrative that the paucity of first-hand material takes a toll on Derby’s ability to really flesh out Dorothy’s story. He makes good use of material from and about other actors – including where he can, fellow New Zealanders, like military surgeon Doug Jolly (also born in Cromwell) – but the reader feels the absence of Dorothy’s voice telling us what it was like for her, moving from village to village on the front end of combat medicine, of the horrors, the joys, the sounds, the feelings, the people.

Derby is something of an expert on the Spanish Civil War, having edited the 2009 collection Kiwi Compañeros – New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, so as he follows Dorothy through the duration of the conflict he tells a story of the war itself. From combat nurse at the height of battle, to running a children’s hospital, Dorothy eventually became an organiser of relief efforts as the Republican defeat drew closer. (Oh, and briefly a spy of sorts: worn down by combat work, she took a short furlough in Paris: “She was asked, and agreed, to carry highly secret documents to the French Communist Party headquarters, and concealed them in her vagina.”)

As the Spanish refugee crisis on the border with France grew – by October 1939, 180,000 Spaniards had crossed the frontier – so too the portents of wider war in Europe, and the arrival of civilians fleeing from Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the French speaking region of Germany. Dorothy, who was running refugee efforts on the southern border, was evacuated to Britain on the “last boat from Bordeaux”, following the German invasion of France in mid-1940.

Dorothy Morris, right, Mary Elmes and their driver, Juan, in Perpignan in 1939. (Elmes was an Irish relief worker and colleague of Morris's who was honoured by honoured in 2013 as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Dorothy Morris, right, Mary Elmes and their driver, Juan, in Perpignan in 1939. (Elmes was an Irish relief worker and colleague of Morris’s who was honoured in 2013 as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.)

The last third of the book covers Dorothy’s time in Britain during World War II, including factory work, running a hostel for refugees and acting as matron of a residential nursery. This was followed, at the end of the war, by her return to relief work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) at a refugee camp in El Shatt, Egypt, and then in Germany itself. She quit that work early in 1946 after 18 months and returned home to New Zealand to recuperate later that same year.

The rest of her quite long life – she died in 1998 at the age of 93 – takes up the book’s final 10 pages and incorporates her nursing work in England (she returned in 1947 and stayed for another 33 years), a risky but ultimately futile trip into Franco’s Spain to try to find the doctor who had been her lover during the war years (he had died during the fighting, and his identity remains unknown), and finally her return to New Zealand in 1980.

Here, again, that missing source material means the portrait is a little thin, though this phase of her life was not the intended focus of the book. What anecdotes and stories Derby did gather from friends and family suggest Dorothy could be a rather impossible woman, particularly in her later years. Or, as he politely explains it, “As she grew steadily more frail, the legacy of a lifetime spent issuing orders to teams of medical staff, combined with a naturally domineering personality, produced traits that strained the patience of her family and caregivers.”

It’s sad that relatively little is known about Dorothy Morris. I wonder if perhaps there’s a law according to which if you’re the kind of person more likely to undertake something truly brave and important, you’re also the kind of person less likely to write a memoir about it. (According to that law, the reverse also applies.) Derby himself seems a little dispirited by our apparent preference for the trivial over the important, writing at the outset that “making Dorothy Morris’s life appear interesting and even significant in a cynical and self-interested era poses more than the usual challenges to a biographer.”

True, Dorothy will never be good Internet ‘click-bait’, but there’s no doubt her life was interesting and significant in spades.

Links to other reviews and articles:
• Philip Matthews writes in the Press about Dorothy Morris in ‘When Aunt Dorothy Went to War
• A review by Barry Pateman (pdf) in the Labour History Project newsletter
• An article on Dorothy, and Mark’s book, in the Taranaki Daily News