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  You are in: Home > Biography > Petals and Bullets  

‘Petals and Bullets’
Dorothy Morris – New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War

Mark Derby

Mark Derby is a New Zealand writer and historian. His books include Kiwi Compañeros – New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War (2009). A Spanish translation, Compañeros ‘Kiwis’ – Nueva Zealanda y la Guerra Civil Español, appeared in 2011.


“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.”

In these words New Zealand nurse Dorothy Morris described her journey to a Republican medical unit of the Spanish civil war in early 1937. This book is based on the vivid, detailed and evocative letters she sent from Spain and other European countries. They 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.

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies


1 The Morris family yacht

2 Good bombing light

3 Hospital Inglés de Niños

4 With horsebox and lie-low

5 Wearing the snood

6 The conscience of the world


From the Series Preface, by Angela Jackson

“Mark Derby has skilfully blended a variety of sources to contextualise the life of Dorothy Morris. To Dorothy’s own letters with their perceptive comments and descriptive delights he has added the views of her family, friends and colleagues. The collection of images helps to convey a sense of the rich history of the times in which she lived: a history which is explored in a clear and well-expressed style by the author, drawing on a wide range of archival material. Readers will find much of interest in his description of New Zealand society and the political atmosphere which influenced Dorothy’s early years. The poverty she saw there goaded her to action, just as similar injustices at the other side of the world in Britain spurred other mettlesome women to volunteer for Spain. The chapters concerning Dorothy’s experiences during the Spanish civil war give a highly personalised perspective on the work of the International Brigade medical services and make an important contribution to the record of the daunting tasks undertaken by the Society of Friends in Spain to help thousands of refugees, many of them children. Dorothy’s organisational skills developed through her role working alongside other stalwart women with close links to los cuáqueros and led her to refugee work on an unimaginable scale during the Second World War. This gives Mark Derby the opportunity to explore the role of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNNRA).”

Reviewed at

Reviewed in The Volunteer, at

From a composite review of Mark Derby, Petals and Bullets: Dorothy Morris New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War. And the trilogy by Linda Palfreeman, Salud!: British Volunteers in the Republican Medical Service During the Spanish Civil War; Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War; Spain Bleeds: The Development
of Battlefield Blood Transfusion During the Civil War
, published in conjunction with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, London School of Economics

“These books are both well-written, and Derby is a skilled stylist. The richness of the picture of wartime life that emerges provides a trove of detail on the bureaucracy and invention that comprised the life of a relief worker in modern war. These books ought not to be read for engagement with the historiography of humanitarian relief, for this the reader might turn to others in the Cañada Blanch/Sussex Academic Press stable, such as the trilogy on Spanish relief written by Linda Palfreeman. Rather, these are documentary histories, staying close to the source material of diaries and letters, and their value rests in their contribution to the social history of relief work. Nevertheless, in exposing some of these two women’s aspirations, they demonstrate Palfreeman’s conclusions on the need to be attentive to the spectrum of relief workers’ motivations and of the dangers of too arbitrary a separation of humanitarianism from politics. Gertrude and Dorothy’s accounts show the contingencies of daily practice—Gertrude and her Quaker colleagues felt drawn to provide a canteen for soldiers, which was not quite according to FWVRC custom—and demonstrate that the Red Cross model of neutrality was one only of a range of humanitarian positions. Dorothy’s aid work, for example, was an act of political solidarity with the Republican cause, and she was contemptuous of the British government’s policy of non-intervention for upholding an unjust status quo. Had she been aware of it, she may well have castigated the impartiality of the British Red Cross Society, which made a grant to the medical services of each side of the conflict but declined to intervene. These books can also be read for the light they shed on the growing specialisation of relief work in war, and for an insight into women’s adoption of such new professional roles, fashioned both in word and deed.”
Reviewed by Rebecca Gill, University of Huddersfield, in Quaker Studies



Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
195 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
June 2015
  Illustrated:   Yes
Paperback Price:
£19.95 / $29.95

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