Ambulances, eating off the floor, and keeping cheerful and courageous.

In the century since World War I, New Zealanders have heard countless stories of “our boys” and their acts of courage on the battlefield. But little is known about the role New Zealand women played during those four years – apart from the common perception that a few were nurses, and most stayed home and knitted socks for the men.

Wellington-based author and historian Jane Tolerton planned to put that myth to rest, when she wrote Make Her Praises Heard Afar – a collection of stories on the “forgotten women” who served overseas during the Great War, published late last year by Booklovers Books in Wellington.

Among these unsung heroines are not only nurses, but military hospital directors, authors, sexual health campaigners, founders of hostels and clubs for soldiers, and even survivors of POW camps.

Also featured in this hall of fame are two women with Wairarapa connections – Featherston-born hospital worker Lorna Monckton, and ambulance driver Agnes Pearce – who swapped their knitting needles for calloused hands, 12-hour shifts on empty bellies, heavy, unwieldy motor vehicles, and retrieving wounded civilians from explosive-ravaged streets.

“It was strange to me that we as New Zealanders made so much of the fact our women were the first to get the vote, but ignored the contribution women made during the war,” author Jane says.

“We were given the impression the women just stayed home. But, doing the research for the book, I found the women back then had choices and chances, and they made the most of them.

“It’s quite inspiring, really – these are role models for today’s young women.”

The first Wairarapa role model to appear in the book is Agnes “Pickle” Peace (the origin of her nickname is unknown), who settled in the region following the war.

Pickle arrived in Britain in July 1915, after sailing on the RMS Remuera. She settled in London, and found work at the New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames, set up by New Zealand civilians.

At the time, the German strategic bombing campaign against England, otherwise known as “the Zeppelin raids”, was in full force – during which London was hounded by airship bombers, and hundreds of civilians killed. As their services were needed on the streets, Pickle and other nurses were trained as ambulance drivers.

No mean feat, Jane says, as “women didn’t drive back then, full stop” – and the role would have required substantial physical strength. “Those early ambulances were started up using a hand crank, which would have taken a lot of exertion. They had no power steering. The women had to be mechanics as well – they’d be the ones having to fix them if they broke down, and they had to change their own tyres. And those tyres were huge.” Plus, the drivers had to navigate streets made treacherous by the German weaponry – and, naturally, would have faced some grim scenes while collecting patients.

“They were picking up people who were badly wounded. They would have seen some terrible things. But, as you did back then, you kept your emotions to yourself, and got on with it.”

Pickle was later rewarded for her service with both a promotion, to leader of the ambulance drivers at the The No. 1 New Zealand Hospital at Brockenhurst, and entry into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. While in London, she became engaged to fellow New Zealander Dr Duncan Stout, and had four children on returning home.

The second of the Wairarapa protagonists is Lorna Monckton who, after originally travelling to England to look after a sick friend, worked as a “scullery-ite” at the Walton-on-Thames hospital. Not dissimilar to the medical staff, the scullery-ites worked their fingers to the bone, laying tables, doing laundry, and washing dishes for their superiors.

“They did long days – from about 5.30am to 8 at night. Once all the dishes were done, they ate their dinner from newspaper on the floor,” Jane says.

“It would have been freezing at times, and they wouldn’t have been eating much – because there wasn’t much to eat.”

The scullery-ites did get the odd day off, and would “live it to the full”,as Lorna wrote in her diaries, by going to eat in“little restaurants in Soho”, where they were waited on “by French boys with crew cuts”.

“The one thing we did not do,” she wrote, “was think. As long as one worked and played violently, the war could be borne.”

“The New Zealand women took on the British attitude of ‘cheerfulness and courage’,” Jane adds.

“They didn’t moan about how hard things were – they had tokeep their spirits up for the men on the battlefield. Even their letters home were quite jolly – they spoke of ‘rising to the occasion’ and doing their bit.”

Lorna, who later did record keeping with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, wrote a memoir of her experiences in the war, called The Colonial One, once she returned to New Zealand. But, she struggled to find a publisher who would accept it.

“She was quite a character. She was quite restless after the war, so she went and worked on a cattle ranch in Canada for a few years.

“I found her book in the Alexander Turnbull Library; it’s a great read.

“We have some active and gutsy women in our history, so we need to celebrate their achievements.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall