Researching "The Invisible War" - a bit of process

We spend hours reading the books we have, trawling the internet for more articles, writing to librarians and archivists, reading out moments of gold, explaining the new information we've found. We're working everywhere, out in the garden, over lunch dinner, over coffee, in the car on the way to the next battlefield.

We gather round the table to map out timelines and sometimes find it difficult to hear each other, the scientist to the artist to the writer. We are absorbed, frustrated, irritated, astonished, overwhelmed. We curl up after dinner to watch ANZAC Girls and All Quiet On the Western Front and comment on locations, gas masks, medical equipment, make verbal notes of what we need to look up tomorrow. 

I take the war poets to bed and read Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Gurney blinking to sleep over the pages. 

   Briony emailing museum archives in the 'jardin'


Briony emailing museum archives in the 'jardin'

   Gregory demonstrating the movement of phages through mucus, with the assistance of three chopsticks and a prawn cracker, over dinner at Fuji Yama


Gregory demonstrating the movement of phages through mucus, with the assistance of three chopsticks and a prawn cracker, over dinner at Fuji Yama

   Books I'm reading, notes I'm taking...

Chasing Sister Williams

Since I found the reference to Sister F E Williams in the Official History of the Australian Medical Services, I’ve been looking for traces of her, wondering if she could be the hero of the story, if she can have ever met D’Herelle, how a woman came to be a bacteriologist at that time anyway.

The folks at the State Library of Victoria sent me this article by Dr Kirsty Harris, University of Melbourne.

It turns out Fannie Eleanor Williams was a noted bacteriologist who specialised in dysentery – starting as a technician working under a bacteriologist in Gallipoli, moving on to Cairo and then the Western Front. Here she is, in the laboratory on Lemos(Australian War Memorial Collection item ID H13944)

After the war Fannie Williams was one of the first three staff members of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia’s oldest research institute - the first female scientist employed there. She worked there until she retired, and ran her own lab. They have their own little bio for her - where I found this picture.

Her early published articles were co-authored with Charles Martin, from Army hospitals during the war. I looked them up in the British Journal of Medicine and they look a bit like this:



She says great things like:

Attempts to isolate dysentery bacilli from 217 cases in which the stools contained muco-pus with or without blood were made. In many cases the amount of mucus in the stool was very small…The method employed was to wash the mucus, break it up in sterile broth and plate out some drops on the surface of a MaConkey plate.

Her dates don’t line up for Pozieres, and I think we want our main character to actually suffer dysentery, So it looks like she can’t be the hero of our story. But I’m enjoying seeking the aesthetic of the laboratory between the science-paper lines. I’m wondering what her relationship would have been like with the normal nursing staff, how she obtained her samples (!) (me - not getting over the whole thing about poo samples). There's something about having the specificity of what scientists knew about dysentery at the very moment our story is set. And there's something important for me about connecting this understanding to an Australian woman. Someone who lived in the same city as me. 

Researching "The Invisible War" - Meeting the computational biologist

Cycled down through a blustery Melbourne afternoon (no gloves, cold fingers) to meet Kathryn Holt at the Bio 21 Institute. She found us a spot on Flemington Road to have coffee and Gregory asked, “So, do you know why we asked to meet you?”

She shook her head, smiling quietly and I wondered if she thought we were a bit crazy. Gregory pulled out copies of Squid Vibrio and Zobi and launched into a description of Mission Symbiosis Storytelling.

Kathryn explained to me that she’s a computational biologist – which I had never heard of. There’s something kind of amazing and on the edge of humiliating about being the absolute novice thrown into these conversations. Kathryn talked me through it.

She’s working with samples of the Shigella bacteria, which causes dysentery (some of which are over a 100 years old, from WW1. Think of them sampling soldiers’ stools and keeping those samples intact for so long). Kathryn does genetic analysis and uses that information to trace where Shigella bacteria have travelled in the world. She told us about a guy from the Pasteur institute, who’s obsessively using genetic data to exactly track the movement of Shigella bacteria from trench to trench during the war. I love the stories I get to hear of humans dedicated to drilling down such specific details.

Kathryn talked about the Shigella bacteria’s “type three secretion system”. The they have 40 or 50 genes which can form the shape of a needle used to puncture a human gut wall. Then they manipulate our cells so they can live inside them. Her descriptions were so graphic. I was already seeing scenes of our story forming.

She talked about the microbiome, the thousands of species of bacteria in our gut, some of which would compete with Shigella, helping us to beat the dysentery.

I sat there, cold hands gripping my coffee, listening with a kind of gleeful astonishment.

The last thing I wrote in my notebook for that meeting was, “macrophages patrolling your gut”.

Researching "The Invisible War": The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services Vol II

It’s a great, fat blue tome, which is exactly as you’d imagine from the title. I am drawn into the disease prevention chapter: diagrams of different shit-pits used in different locations. Statistics on the various illnesses suffered at any one time (trench fever, typhoid, mumps, VD.) The view of sanitation as a core army discipline. Procedures from diagnosis to reporting to quarantine. Information that I find hard to retain – but which it will be necessary to get right.

It doesn’t seem like the kind of chaos war stories often depict. It seems efficient. I’m astonished that in “that mad world of blood, death and fire” they managed to keep such detailed records. There is a great sense of achievement in the text. It tells a success story – a pride that the rolling war bureaucracies across several nations’ armies kept illness to a minimum. I’m struck by the paradoxical efficiency of keeping men healthy so they can continue to kill. I wonder if the nurses were? I find this paragraph:

It will be carried out as follows: Diagnosed cases of the above diseases will be notified by telegram to this office immediately a diagnosis has been arrive at. The notification will be sent by the officer commanding Casualty Clearing Station…Suspected cases of Dysentery will also be notified…the ADMS of the Division who will at once take steps in direct communication with the Officer in charge of the Mobile Laboratory concerned for the investigation of the carrier condition of the contacts in order that those found free from infection may be returned to duty without unnecessary delays and that the carrier contacts may be suitably dealt with.

Order dated 14th June 1916, quoted in The Official History.

I read it over and over again. The Mobile Laboratory! What did it look like?

I search the index for dysentery. There is one page here, two pages there. I start to find references to the bacteriology. They know how many cases were caused by the Shigella bacteria and how many by the Flexner. Which means, I assume, that someone was looking at soldiers shit under a microscope? Or would the bacteria be present in a mouth swab? I’ll have to check with Gregory. The bacteriology sections reference the notes of an Australian, Leiut. JC Martin and I wonder where he was working and what his days looked like?

And then, surprisingly, it references the notes of a woman: Miss F. E. Williams. She seems to have worked alongside Martin. Many of the references are to notes shared between them. A woman. I’m suddenly excited. Can I make her my central character? Who was she? Where was she from? (Fingers crossed she was from Victoria, because our main character needs to be.) What was her relationship to Martin? Did they ever meet D’herelle? I’m going to spend some time trying to track her down.

Researching "The Invisible War": Conscription and Objection

I’m reading What’s Wrong with Anzac? Part of what they are saying seems to be that Australians promote an idea that our nation was shaped by that conflict, by those months in Gallipoli, but that actually this country was also shaped by the peace movement. That this is an important part of our history to keep telling. I remember reading about the Australian conscription referendums when I was in high school. I remember my little modern history class and the sense of pride we all had that our country had voted no. That every soldier in Australia who went, had the choice. That the soldiers at the front voted no. I remember reading the classic “Blood Vote” poem and analysing it to learn about propaganda and emotive language.

One of the nurse’s journals I’m reading – Olive Haynes, makes a note when the results of the referendum comes in. She is furious and heartbroken. Our brave boys fighting in such awful conditions while the shirkers sit at home. They should be forced to come. She’s tending these broken men every day and sending letters home to the mothers of those who died. She thinks they deserve all the support their countrymen can give. “Our boys say they only voted no because they didn’t want to ask for help.”

My great grandfather, Herbert Dobbing

My great grandfather, Herbert Dobbing

My great-grandfather was a conscientious objector in the UK. He was imprisoned as a traitor with all kinds of other criminals for the duration of the war. The story I heard as a child was that the conscientious objector “traitors” were actually on their way to the front on a train, to be sent over the top first without weapons. Someone on that train wrote a note and threw it out the window and it made it to the newspapers. There was an uproar. So the objectors were brought back and imprisoned instead. Whether this story is true I don’t know, but it’s a powerful one for a seven year old to form an identity around. That my great grandfather was not prepared to kill for his beliefs, but he would have died for them.

I’ve been reading Regeneration by Pat Barker. Siegfried Sassoon in his internal moral battle. An officer whose men loved him, who fought bravely and was tactically hugely successful. Who didn’t believe that war was wrong, but who came to believe that this war was wrong. My favourite story about Sassoon is that he singlehandedly took a German trench, scattering 60 German soldiers, and then instead of letting command know that he’d done it, he sat down and read poetry for two hours. The British gained no tactical advantage from his skills and bravery that day.

I don’t imagine there will be room in this book we're writing for a debate about conscientious objection, the peace movement and the political reasons for war, or Australia’s involvement. But perhaps it would work for the story to have conversations about the conscription debate – which was so divisive in this country and people had such strong opinions about. I also have a vision of one soldier patient with his bandaged foot in the air being in the corner of every page. Saying nothing, but one day reading Sassoon’s “Declaration of a Soldier” and the next Bertrand Russell etc etc. So the ideas are pointed to, but don’t make part of the main text.

Researching "The Invisible War": Dear Mrs. Roadknight

I think to tell this story I need to be connected to it. To know about people and what their lives were. So, as a way in, I’ve been looking up my own family history. Walter and James Roadknight were my Nana’s uncles. James was injured trying to invade at Gallipoli and then killed in Belgium. Walter died in France of gunshot wounds to the chest almost a year later. They grew up around the Gippsland lakes. I know that country, from gazing out the car window at the old white weatherboard house on the edge of Johnsonville where my great-great grandmother lived.

Read More