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Review: Petals and Bullets: Dorothy Morris

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Petals and Bullets, Sussex Academic Press (UK), 1 June 2015

192pp, £19.33, kindle edn £18.36

Reviewed by Murray Rowlands

This is an intriguing book which seeks to interpret the world-changing events of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two through the eyes of a nurse from Christchurch, New Zealand. Mark Derby opens by providing a portrait of Dorothy Morris growing up in Christchurch and being radicalised by the struggles of Labour to drag the country out of the depressed thirties. There is a description of the bitter tram strike of 1932 and her training at Christchurch Hospital where my father was employed on the maintenance staff.

This experience formed the intellectual baggage which Nurse Morris took with her to “the old country” aged twenty-eight. Like so many New Zealanders she was appalled by the inequality and class distinction she found in Britain. She was therefore receptive to the appeals from groups like the Quakers who were looking for volunteers to support the embattled Republicans in Spain. Derby’s book is invaluable in dispatching the myth of uncomplicated heroic endeavour surrounding the International Brigade and the assorted volunteers who found their way to Spain. What was happening between 1935 and 1939 was complex and many-faceted. I am sure I am not alone in regretting that the author did not provide maps and further information about Dorothy Morris’ location. The narrative is further inhibited by her letters only providing a sketchy commentary on the events taking place around her. Derby has to provide the background often relying on the letters of those she was in contact with.

Morris joined a medical team organised by an eccentric philanthropist, Sir George Young. From the beginning they had to cope with the inherent difficulties of providing modern medical care in a societal environment antagonistic to the role played by nurses. Most of the nursing in Spain had been provided by nuns. There was a desperate shortage of medical supplies and, following the German and Italian bombing raids, the need to cope with civilian as well as military causalities. Nevertheless pioneering work in methods of dealing with battlefield wounded were developed by another New Zealander Norman Bethune with a battlefield system of blood transfusion working in clearing stations close to the front line.

Her role became one to develop a hospital responding to the needs of hundreds of children when the war started to go badly for the republicans. It even included smuggling out papers for the Communist Party when she went on leave to Paris. She is scathing about Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and supports New Zealand’s lonely opposition to appeasement at The League of Nations. At the children’s hospital at Murcia where she worked for a year she had to cope with a growing crisis of food supplies and traumatised children as a result of continual bombing. In her letter back home to New Zealand she sums up her experience,  “I have lived through so much melodrama.” However she took delight in the experience of Spain: “This country and its people has for me so much fascination that it will be a hard day when I have to leave it.”

Inevitably that day came three weeks before the Republican surrender when she escaped to Southern France and worked with the refugees streaming across the border. There was the narrow escape from France in 1940 as the Germans closed in and arrival in London just as the blitz began. Here Morris’ experience in children’s medicine and care with bombed out children and in welfare supervision was invaluable. This was followed by work with The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency working with the millions of displaced people after the War. In the British Zone of Germany alone there were more than 470,000 displaced people in 1946.

It is likely Dorothy’s heart was still in Spain. She had a yearning to meet up with her Spanish lover who was a republican doctor and, despite being on Franco’s list of opponents, she smuggled herself back into Spain in 1947 to search for him, only to subsequently discover that he had been killed. He’d received a direct hit to his ambulance at the battle of Ebro River.