Sally and Naomi Durance were sisters, the daughters of a New South Wales dairy farmer. They were both nurses but although Sally worked in the local hospital while continuing to live at home helping her father look after her sick mother, Naomi had escaped to work in a Sydney hospital. Then came World War I and both the girls enlisted to serve overseas. This novel by Thomas Keneally traces the relationships of the two sisters as they encounter the horrors wrought by war on the bodies of the young soldiers fighting at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front. The many aspects of the wrath of Mars are described through the experiences of the nurses first on a hospital ship, the Archimedes, on an evacuation station on the island of Lemnos and at clearing stations and at an Australian Voluntary Hospital in France. The story however is told through the lives of the two sisters and their friends as they struggle to survive and help those wounded in battle. Based on war diaries written by First World War nurses the book provides an insight into the effects of war both physically and mentally on those who become involved. Although euthanasia forms a sub-plot in the story a major theme is the development of the relationship and understanding between the two sisters forged largely by their war-time experiences.
During the next few years with the centenary of the First World War approaching this book is a valuable contribution to the material written about events occurring between 1914 and 1918.