OCTOBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Petals and Bullets’ by Mark Derby

It was bright moonlight – good bombing light – and once we had to stop and put out our lights as a Fascist aeroplane flew over. They usually come swooping down with guns firing at cars, especially ambulances. Finally we arrived at a town among the hills about 12.30 p.m. Here there is a hospital of about 100 beds in a former convent . . . They expect an attack tonight. – New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris’s description of her journey to a Republican medical unit of the Spanish Civil War in early 1937

Petals and Bullets is based on the vivid, detailed and evocative letters written by Dorothy Morris to her family in Christchurch, while she was serving in often dangerous circumstances in Spain and other European countries. The letters have been supplemented by wide-ranging research to record a life of outstanding professional dedication, resourcefulness and courage.

Dorothy Aroha Morris (1904–1998) volunteered to serve with Sir George Young’s University Ambulance Unit, and worked at an International Brigades base hospital and as head nurse to a renowned Catalan surgeon. She then headed a Quaker-funded children’s hospital in Murcia, southern Spain. As Franco’s forces advanced, she fled to France and directed Quaker relief services for tens of thousands of Spanish refugees. Nurse Morris spent the Second World War in London munitions factories, as welfare supervisor to their all-female workforces. She then joined the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working in the Middle East and Germany with those who had been displaced and made homeless and destitute as a result of the war.

Dorothy Morris’s remarkable and pioneering work in the fields of military medicine for civilian casualties, and large-scale humanitarian relief projects is told in this book for the first time.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Spain veined with blood and metals, blue and victorious, proletariat of petals and bullets, alone, alive somnolent, resounding.

The quote from Pablo Neruda starts the book of the life of a woman no one knows, but made a huge difference to the lives of those struggling during the Spanish Civil War. Dorothy Morris was born in Cromwell, New Zealand in 1904, by the mid-thirties was working as a nurse. The book charts her early life in New Zealand, a life filled with change, war and strikes which would have moulded Morris’ plan to live a life of helping others. Gtowing up in Christchurch, Morris left New Zealand for London in 1935, with ideas considered ‘radical’, ready to take on Europe.

Morris spent 1936 in London, helping those who were preparing to leave for Spain as civil war broke out, and helped to raise funds for those in need. But by early 1937, she could stand aside no longer. She applied to go to Spain with Sir George Young, to send ambulances to Málaga in Spain’s south. As they set out for Spain, Franco’s forces destroyed Málaga and the killing reached catastrophic levels. Morris and a small group drove through Europe, managed to get over the border from France, and headed for Valencia. By February 1936, they were all sent to Almería to try save the few refugees that hadn’t been murdered on the roads out of Málaga.

Letters from Morris to her family tell of the horror and desperation in Almería, a small city now filled with traumatised refugees and the threat of Franco’s forces ever-present. Morris was charged with aiding the International Brigades, who were suffering from health problems, horrific injuries and starvation.

Morris was moved to Brunete as the huge battle broke out just a few months after her arrival in Spain. She survived to be moved on to Murcia, to aid starving refugees from Málaga, Cadíz and Seville. She called the place an abyss of misery, a city of just 60,000 which had another 60,000 refugees.

Letters and photos of Morris’ time in Spain are beautifully woven into a story through this book, before detailing how, by February 1939, long after International Brigades had left, Morris had to flee. Sadly, Morris had fallen in love with a Republican doctor, a lover whose name was never revealed. He was sent to the front lines along the Ebro in late 1938, and he disappeared. Morris would never hear from him again.

Morris left Spain via Alicante in February 1939, just before the mass killing of refugees, and went to France, where she would then help the 100,000 men in a refugee camp in Perpignan, and worked to send thousands of Spaniards to Latin America in June 1939.

Morris couldn’t bear to leave the area, and moved to the Pyrenees where she worked helping children in a village name La Coume. Morris served as a nurse throughout the entire WWII, enduring her brothers’ imprisonment in Europe, and was chosen to work for the United Nations from 1944. Morris’ letters tell the story of a strong woman, who truly cared about the plight of the working class, of equality and peace. Dorothy Morris is a woman to inspire everyone after 50 years of caring for the suffering of Europe.

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