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...

Researching "The Invisible War" - Battlefield tourists

French army surgical kit - Musee Hisorial de la Grand Guerre

French army surgical kit - Musee Hisorial de la Grand Guerre

Two days of Somme battlefields, memorials, museums. Displays made up of kooky soldier manikins who look like the Thunderbirds; sweeping monuments to war standing over a spread of sunny fields; an aeroplane propeller, crafted from rich, brown hardwood; Otto Dix; Wilfred Owen, cigarette packets and propaganda.

I’m the designated driver, gripping the steering wheel too hard as I go anti-clockwise round the roundabouts, windscreen wipers lurching into action every time I try to indicate.

We have been seeking out references to medicine, sanitation, nurses or Australians. References to dysentery seem like too much to ask.  

Musee Historial de la Grand Guerre

Musee Historial de la Grand Guerre

We visited Musee Somme 1916 built into a crypt turned air-raid-shelter under a church. It’s a long dank tunnel, limping through reconstructions of bunkers and dugouts and information displays. Villers Bretonneux where a kangaroo silhouette on the sign welcomes you into town and the school museum is full of photographs from the Australian War Memorial. Musee Historial de la Grande Guerre has a rich collection of artwork which touches me more deeply than the artefacts. Uniforms are laid out like corpses in indents in the floor.

There are moments I am stopped short. A photo of two small girls dressed as nurses, a display of artworks made from shell casings. Something about humans in awful circumstances, using their time and their hands to craft beautiful objects. 

Art-works made in the trenches from shell-casings at Musee Somme 1916

Art-works made in the trenches from shell-casings at Musee Somme 1916

None of it is quite what we’re looking for - so much of it male and soldier/battle focused - but giving us a broader sense of the human-scale story. We really looking for images of the kind of toilets they used, and what water purifiers looked like. I’m also looking everywhere for references to the mobile laboratory, because I read about it in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Corps. I’m starting to feel like we need to do some much deeper research and that maybe the internet would be more useful.

Every time Briony asks a museum attendant for references to dysentery in her fumbling French (wayyyy better than mine), we get blank looks and, “Non” “Non”.

But there's something which feels important anyway, about immersing ourselves in this landscape, where the human-scale section of the story is set. 

a field near Pozieres, looking over at the Thiepval memorial

a field near Pozieres, looking over at the Thiepval memorial


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.