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Anne Donnell: Gallipoli Nurse’s Story on New Guided-Reading Technology

Posted by Peter Barnes on June 17, 2019 at 6:50 PM

A 100 year old set of diaries written by a World War 1 Australian nurse, Anne Donnell has become the basis of 19 lessons using e-Book technology designed to help young readers improve their reading fluency and comprehension.

First, Anne's diaries became a children's book, Anne Threw a Streamer, written by Jan Leader and Mitch Mitchell. Anne Threw a Streamer: Jan Leader & Mitch Mitchell

Then the book was specially adapted to the e-Book format on Reading Assistant Plus, which features voice recognition technology that can provide a class of students with non-judgemental real-time corrective feedback as they read aloud. 

Authors, Jan and Mitch spoke to The Learning Capacity Podcast about their family connection to Anne Donnell and how their book includes themes of Australian and World history, feminism, racism and compassion and sacrifice amid terrible suffering.

It was fascinating to hear that on her return from the War, Anne became a single mum adopting and raising an aboriginal half-caste girl.

Besides presenting the Gallipoli story from a nurse’s perspective, the story also connects with students through the survival of a dog. Anne had observed the soldiers looked after a small Pomeranian dog after its owner was killed. They cared for it and smuggled the dog back home to the soldier's mother in Australia.

Listen to the interview

Topics covered

  1. Nursing in World War 1
  2. A young Australian woman’s experience of war
  3. Compassion, self-sacrifice
  4. Taking care of a dead soldier’s dog
  5. Racism in Australia
  6. Australian aboriginal culture
  7. Voice recognition reading technology

People & organisations mentioned

  1. New South Wales State Library
  2. World War 1
  3. ANZAC
  4. 60 Minutes
  5. Angus and Robinson
  6. Weary Dunlop
  7. John Simpson Kirkpatrick

Resources/books/articles/places mentioned

  1. Anne Threw a Streamer
  2. http://www.annedonnell.com.au
  3. Reading Assistant Plus
  4. Diaries of Anne Donnell
  5. Vietnam War
  6. Gallipoli
  7. Dardanelles & Lemnos

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 100 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Anne Donnell: Gallipoli Nurse"s Story on New Guided Reading Technology

David Stanley:           Hello Jan, Graeme. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today. Awesome story, Anne Threw a Streamer connecting an Australian nurse to World War I, the Gallipoli campaign, her contribution and her life post-war adopting a child and raising it as a single parent. Lots and lots of issues in here.Anne Threw a Streamer book cover

So I guess first of is, big question, who can write a book? What's your thoughts on that? Jan.

Jan Leader:       Okay. Anyone can write a book. Anyone that can read and write or has access to voice recognition software. It's about motivation, patience and being passionate about the subject you want to write about.

Graeme Mitchell (Mitch):            It's also about keeping the integrity of the work. The real meaning as you see it. Sometimes someone else just a little bit removed can see something that a person writing passionately about it doesn't. So sometimes I think it's also important to share the work in order to make it better.

David:              Fantastic. What's your connection with Anne Donnell? That's the main character in here. The story came from, I believe Anne Donnell's diaries.? How are you guys connected there?

Aboriginal Ancestry

Mitch:              The connection with Anne is a long one. When mum told us the story about her childhood, her father was Aboriginal. In 1938 that was not okay. As a result, her family shunned us and mum never got home and she never got over it. She was the last of nine children and she wasn't welcome.

So this changed her life, mine and my brothers. But it seemed that Anne had no bias of any description other than a love for humanity. So she took mum in and adopted her. And I think some parts of society are maturing faster than others and therefore now most are more accepting of race. It wasn’t OK in 1938, it’s OK now in 2019.

David:              Yeah, that's awesome. And so how did you discover Anne's story?

Anne Donnell’s Diaries

Mitch:              When Anne wrote the diaries, they ended up going to mum and no one knew they existed. When mum passed away. They sat in a ... basically in an airtight makeup case. And then one day my brother accidentally found them, opened them up, pulled the diaries out, rang me up pretty much immediately and told me what he had, because I'm the reader, I suppose.

He sent them up to me and the moment I opened the package, I looked at them and I just thought, Oh wow, this is really important history, but probably more so really important women's history. So it became a bit of a mission from that moment on.

David:              Now it really has ...  you actually took the time to write this story so that younger kids could connect with some of the messages. What's the connection both of you have with youth issues? What's the motivation here for the kids story?

Jan:                  Well, for me, I think we need to pass on a better world than we inherited. I know a lot of people think the same, but a lot of people seem to forget that they were young once. If we look after humanity and we take care with our youth, we look after our future.

Mitch:              Yeah. There’s something else in there also, If we choose to look after ourselves above all, something else usually suffers. Quite often that is our young people. So it's a real skill to be able to engage with them or engage with at risk marginalized young people on the streets alone. It's not for everyone, but it was by far the most rewarding job I've ever attempted.

Writing Anne Threw a Streamer

David:              In terms of writing the book, Jan, first, what was the most interesting part of that experience for you?

Jan:                  I guess for me it was falling in love with Anne, while I learnt about our Australian history through the eyes of someone who was there. I didn't really know a lot about World War I until I read Anne's stories.

And when I came across a place that I hadn't heard of or wasn't sure how to spell it, I'd Google it and then I'd get lost for the next hour or so researching that. And of course going with the 60 Minutes team to retrace some of Anne’s steps, that was pretty amazing.

David:              That was a whole documentary on TV last year at the beginning of 2018?

Jan:                  No, it was on the beginning of the ANZAC centenary in 2015.

David:              I believe you guys fully transcribed her diaries, so that's going to come out later this year as a much more readable form of her diaries. But, in 1920, there was a collection of her letters that were published by Angus and Robertson, I believe.

Mitch:              Yes when Anne came back, the call went out through the New South Wales State Library  (Mitchell Library) to ask for written records of anything that people had kept from World War I and then being such a writer Anne did exactly that. But she went one step further. She actually wrote a book herself based on her diaries. A sort of sanitized or edited version and they published it, but we have the entire diaries in the raw form just straight as she wrote them.

Three and a half years of daily diary entries

David:              That's pretty amazing. So that's what, I think you said something like three and a half years of almost daily entries of what happened in Gallipoli and the western front.  Anne Donnells Diaries


Mitch:              Yeah, it was awesome. I think that she had such an elegant turn of phrase when she wrote, and there's a lot to be said for well educated and she obviously was. She had a real way with words, you could see that she very carefully thought through what she was going to say. And she was actually just a very elegant person.


David:              So Mitch, from your perspective in writing the book and connecting with I guess, who in  large part is your adoptive grandmother. What was the most interesting part of the experience writing this book, Anne Threw a Streamer, so that kids could connect with it?

Writing for Children

Mitch:              One of the really interesting parts was from me, going to Gallipoli and learning more about how clever and well read Anne was, how beautifully she could write. The connection that she had and created with those soldiers was extraordinary. And the ability for her as a nurse to make decisions on the spot. Nurses were given more and more leeway and more freedom to do so.

I think the Anne Donnell went to war was a very different woman to the Anne Donnell that came back to Australia. She was very clever and heroic- Very humble as well.

David:              What do you reckon is one of the more pertinent points that you've managed to weave into the actual story of Anne Threw a Streamer, that makes it easier for kids to connect with the World War I message and the participation of women and the role of our female ANZACS in World War I.

Little dog brought joy to soldiers

Jan:                  Well that war ... there's not, as you know, there's not a lot of history about the women. It's mostly about the ANZACS. But I think the thing that will interest the kids the most is the little dog because he not only brought joy to the soldiers.

He became a reason for them to stay alive so they could return him and themselves safely home to the country that they all loved. Because they are all, in their writings, said how much they loved Australia. And how much they missed it.

Mitch:              And I think one thing we forget is that the decision to save that dog was made after it’s owner was killed in battle. People were actually killing each other. And while that was going on, a group of soldiers decided that whatever happened and whoever was left alive, they'd take that dog home with them, to the young soldier’s mother.

I'll tell you what, if that's not heroism, I don't know what is.

Threat to throw the dog overboard

Jan:                  And on top of that, the dog was on board the ship. So the soldiers - about 12 to 14 of them - were hiding him all over the ship, standing guard over him, 24/7 until they got home. But when one of the officers found out about the dog, he threatened to throw the dog overboard and the soldiers then threatened if the dog went over, so would he.

Anne confronted the Captain to save the dog

Mitch:              And so here is where Anne coming home was different to the Anne that went out there because she actually approached the captain's table alone, uninvited in 1919 to pray for the dog's life. And that was unheard of really.

But by then, by that time the little dog had kind of reached a legendary status all over the ship to the degree that Anne ended her diary with a comment about the little dog. It's that sort of highlights the importance of it to her.

So that actually resonated with us too. I often wonder and think somewhere that, a mother somewhere, would have seen a couple of soldiers walking up the driveway with her son's dog. I don't know if I can imagine the effect that would have had on her and that they had smuggled a dog around the world.

I think that the effect that would have had on them would have been equally as profound and would've stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

And I think that's really passing it forward. That's what being Australian is really all about.

David:              It's a very different human side to the returned war vet story from what occurred just 50 years later. And what the Vietnam guys went through, isn't it?

Mitch:              Oh, massively different. That the Vietnam guys, we've got an ex-navy clearance diver who's a friend who lives just around the corner and his recollection of coming home was awful. It wasn't Australia at its best. And I think sometimes we forget that people have really gone above and beyond.

After the war, Anne adopted an Aboriginal child

David:              And one of the things that really struck me is after reading the book and then having a conversation with you about it. And then seeing what Anne did on her return really does change the concept of doing one's duty. She really personified that self sacrifice.

I mean, raising as a single parent is always a tough job. How would it have been? Are there any memories passed down through your mum of the challenges Anne had in raising an Aboriginal half cast child?

Mitch:              Mum was always very complimentary about Anne. She didn't speak much about her family because she was ostracized and so were we. We met them once and that was because of the 60 Minutes thing, but up until that they hadn't wanted to know. So I think again, it just shows the tenacity of Anne Donnell that she was prepared to just take in a child. Sort of out of the blue that wasn't wanted and dark and mum was fairly dark.

Jan:                  Anne just welcomed her with open arms said yes, I want this little baby, I'll raise her, I’ll care for her, I will make sure she has a happy life

Mitch:              And Anne then took her to England, took mum to England and she obviously had a very profound effect on mum. And obviously it affected mum's life. And as I said before, for myself and my brothers it had affected our lives also. She was a pretty incredible woman.

A hand-made aboriginal shield

David:              One of the interesting things that you happened to mention was that when Anne first took your mum in. The connection with the other side of your family heritage, that's the Aboriginal side, and it was really brought to Anne's attention quite strongly and unexpectedly. What was the gift that someone had left on her doorstep?

Mitch:              Yes. A couple of days after she took mum home somebody left a small shield. Like a war shield.

Jan:                  And aboriginal.                              

Mitch:              A hand-made aboriginal shield. We still have and it was left on the doorstep up against the door. And we can only assume because we never found out. We never found out who left it there.

But we can only assume that it was some sort of God protection. We know who you are. Use this to guard yourself against whatever potentiality because your life's not going to be easy. And it wasn't. Mum struggled, mum struggled forever. But it's a pretty profound gift with a lot of meaning attached to it

David:              That is fantastic. And, look I guess, if you fast forward to the last half a dozen years and as you said, 60 Minutes captured the story and profiled Anne, and I believe there was a young student who wrote a story in a competition for war veterans.

Jan:                  Yeah, that's correct. It was the young girl over in South Australia and she just emailed me and I referred her to Annes' website. I sent her a copy of Anne Threw a Streamer. I helped with some of her answers.

She did a presentation and she was so excited to let me know that she'd won first prize and a trip to Vietnam. And that's all because she saw some snippet about Anne and she was really interested and she made the effort to read up on her and find out about her.  

Mitch:              Just goes to show that one person can really make a difference even when no one's watching doing the right thing. Anne always did the right thing by all accounts. So a hundred years later, a small girl just having a look, finds that, finds a reference to it tracks us down. And teams up with a sense of the book and next thing she's gone to Vietnam and talked about Anne. So Anne's still alive. She's still here.

David:              That's, that's pretty awesome isn't it? I was just looking at the actual webpage from the veteran South Australia where the story is mentioned and just opening there, there is an obviously an extract out of Anne Donnell's diary:

                        “They hit the shore. You could hear the shots from the Dardanelles. They reached the hospital, a                                 patch of rocky ground with soldiers lying in the sun flies swarming, this is Lemnos island”.

Wounded Anzac Soldiers

What was Lemnos like when you visited there?

Jan:                  It was exactly how she described it. It was really cold. The wind just goes straight through your clothing. It was rough ground. There were rocks everywhere. And all that's left of the hospital is just sort of the foundations. Limestone footings of it. That is a brutal place that I really don't know how they survived it.

Mitch:              And because they weren't very well provisioned when they got there. They even struggled more. So they were on half rations for quite a long time.

Jan:                  Only the nurses?

Mitch:              Yeah. And the British out in the bay, they're eating five courses.

Anne Threw a Streamer on Reading Assistant Plus

David:              I have to thank you very much for making this story available to be used with some modern technology, the Reading Assistant Plus,, so that more and more kids can tap into this story.

With your first look and view around the technology, how do you feel that people not only can read the hardcover, but they'll be able to read a digital version? And have it as a “learn to read” theme where kids can actually connect with part of the ANZAC legend from a female point of view.

And understand what one person's contribution can be to make the world a bit better. How does it feel to actually have a look at it in electronic form now?

Mitch:              We were so lucky that smart motivated people created technology that helps readers and writers alike. For my understanding the written words, kind of like discovering treasure, the whole world just opens up.

Everything takes on a new place and that somebody was caring enough to create a series of resources which young people can look at, connect with and respond to and then be part of it, interact with. That's amazing.

Jan:                  I'm really excited that children in other countries now can learn just a little bit about what happened in Australian history.

Mitch:              I think one of the things that really resonates is we've got a series of heroes and most of them have been forgotten. A lot of them lie in faraway lands, cradled. We've got Simpson and his donkey, we've got Weary Dunlop and now we've got Anne Donnell.

I think Anne's earned the right to stand shoulder with the very best this country ever had to offer. And that's a bit cool.

David:              That is pretty amazing, isn't it? Final thoughts before we wrap this podcast. Jan, what are you hoping young kids will take away from reading Anne's story?

Jan:                  I hope they realize that just one person can make a huge difference, when no one else even knows that they're just going about their business doing their thing. .

David:              And Mitch for you, the connection of you, both to your mob and Anne Donnell's humanitarian graciousness.

Mitch:              Yes. This is not over yet. It's in some ways it's just beginning.

                        The next part about the story Anne as it unfolds… we're writing a book, a novel about the whole story to do with Anne based on the diaries and where she went and what she did.

Jan:                  So it's a love, action, adventure story.

David:              A second instalment book!

I really appreciate you both taking the time and energy to talk with us and share the history and the insights and the personal connection with Anne Donnell and her story. And of course, the fantastic little dog.

That's I guess the dog is one of the key characters in the book. I really look forward to seeing the way the book helps a whole new generation of children, not just in Australia and New Zealand, but around the world, connect with the legend of the ANZACs  and sadness of the Gallipoli story.

                        Thank you both very much, Jan, Mitch and look forward to seeing the next book.

READ:  Anne Threw a Streamer on Reading Assistant Plus

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