10 Questions with Anna Rogers


1. How does it feel now that With Them Through Hell has gone to print?

A mixture of relief and slight anxiety that I’ve done a good job, but more of the former. I have been in such good hands at MUP and the publishing process has been a pleasure.


2. The whole process of researching and writing the book: exhausting or exhilarating?

It’s sometimes been tiring, both because of the number of hours and also because a lot of the material was so sad and moving, but mostly it has been fascinating and fulfilling. It’s been a privilege to write about such a significant subject.


3. What impact do you hope it will have on its readers?

The medical services in the First World War have sometimes been rather overlooked among the accounts of battles and campaigns. Above all, I would like readers to see how brave these remarkable people were and to understand that they were right at the heart of events, either on or near the front line as well as in hospitals further away. I would also love people to see how skilled these people were, from the pioneering maxillo-facial surgery of Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill, right through to the amazing work of the doctors, nurses, orderlies and other personnel.


4. Before you began your research, had it occurred to you that an army also needs dentists and chiropodists?

It had not. It makes complete sense, of course, when you consider it. Soldiers won’t have the energy to fight if they can’t chew their food properly — particularly rock-hard army-issue biscuits — and they can’t march if their feet are sore and their boots don’t fit, or if they are suffering from such awful afflictions as trench feet. The state of the nation’s teeth at the outbreak of war was appalling, and many hoping to enlist were turned down because their mouths were such a mess. My favourite fact, I think, is that you could get a pair of dentures made on Gallipoli.


5. What’s another thing you learnt while writing this book?

I learnt such a lot. The first thing would be how incredibly courageous the stretcher-bearers were. Hero is an overused term, but a deserved one in this case.

Because I was also writing about veterinarians, I discovered a great deal about horses and other animals at war, and the vital part they played. The role of pharmacists, too, was a new area for me, and I was interested to see the huge significance of massage — what we would call physiotherapy.


6. The situations in which the frontline doctors and stretcher bearers worked are almost inconceivable. It really was hell, wasn’t it?

You can run out of words so quickly when trying to encompass what those medical men saw and had to deal with. The new and sophisticated weaponry of this war caused shocking, often multiple wounds never encountered before ­— compound fractures, missing limbs, shattered bones, mutilated faces. Then there were the appalling effects of gas. And on top of those horrors were the constant danger and the din and the mud.


7. Is there a particular individual story that still stands out for you?

Oh, it’s so hard to pick just one, but I’m very fond of a young man called Fred Crum, who was a bricklayer in Auckland before he joined up and became a member of the New Zealand Medical Corps. He was a hard case, with a few misdemeanours on his conduct sheet, but he wrote home faithfully to his mother and family and made his way through the war in good Kiwi style. In the Middle East he was hit on the arm when a bomb exploded and then wounded fatally in the abdomen. It’s the letter his mate wrote home to the family that always touches me: ‘Poets & others may rave about the glorious side of War, but when a chap is alongside his pal who has been so severely wounded that there is practically no hope for him, then there does not seem much glory about that.’


8. You usually work as an editor. How was it being an author this time round and having to be self-critical as you wrote?

Well, I have written a number of books now so I have had this experience before, but it is always an excellent reminder that the writing and the editing/criticising parts of the brain are entirely separate — which is why every author needs an editor! I think I’m reasonably good at the self-critical thing, and I tried hard to keep my editing eyes open as I wrote, but that still isn’t enough.


9. What are your strategies for when the going gets tough and deadlines are looming?

I’ve been a freelancer for a long time, so deadlines are second nature to me, but for a major project like this it was the support, interest and encouragement of friends and family that really helped. I think it’s important, too, to concentrate on one section at a time and try not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the whole book.


10. What are reading at the moment?

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright. I’m a big fan of her writing and this is an earlier novel that I chanced upon in the library. It centres on a beautiful and notorious nineteenth-century Irishwoman, a real person, who became the mistress of the heir to the wealth of Paraguay. Enright’s use of language is dazzling and exciting.