Book Review: Jennifer Horsfield, Rainbow: The Story of Rania Macphillamy (ACT:  Ginninderra Press, 2007)

Jennifer Horsfield’s Rainbow: The Story of Rania Macphillamy is a well researched and well written account of an under-sung heroine. During the First World War Rania whose full name was Verania, gave some of the best years of her life to running canteens with Mrs Chisholm in Kantara in Egypt and later in Jerusalem.  In their own way, these two women were pioneers along with nurses and female doctors who worked in the hospitals in Cairo during the Palestine Campaign. 


Coming from a well-to-do and well connected family near Forbes, Rania was well educated and had done well at Ascham, a leading girls’ boarding school in Sydney.  Family expectations and the demands of an alcoholic mother made for a limited and difficult early life.  Perhaps it would have saved a misunderstanding if she had met her sweetheart Ronnie MacDonald in sufficient time for them to marry before he enlisted and embarked on active service. 


Rania was one of those women who as Jennifer Coombes explained ‘are wondering whether they might not be doing something more helpful than knitting and making flannel garments.’  Much to the protective Ronnie’s disapproval as he didn’t want her ‘dressing some of those wounds one sees’ Rania began training as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. She took up a position as a nurse in November 1915 at No 2 Australian General Hospital just outside Cairo.


The second and most profound tragedy and watershed in Rania’s story was that Ronnie was killed in action on 9 August 1916 near Bir el Abd before the young couple had been able to resolve a tiff.  Ronnie had admitted to an earlier affair, something which the sheltered Rania found hard to forgive. 


It isn’t hard to imagine why Rania didn’t want to return to her family in Australia following Ronnie’s death.  Having met and formed a friendship with Alice Chisholm, Rania also would have perceived a need to provide canteens called Empire Soldiers’ Clubs, a place where soldiers could buy the essentials and find some comfort and respite from military operations.  It was claimed that ‘no man was ever refused a meal and wastage was minimal’.


As the superintendent of canteens Rania’s stoic courage and organisational abilities soon came to the fore.  Her warm-hearted and vivacious spirit cheered many a Light Horseman but also disappointed some.  It was too soon for a young woman who had lost the love of her life to commit herself in a relationship.


Rania met medical practitioner Lieutenant Colonel Clive Single onboard ship when they were both returning home after the First World War.  He had enlisted in December 1914 and had served on Gallipoli and in Palestine as a member of the Light Horse Field Ambulance.  Clive Single had shared and understood the wartime life Rania had led and perhaps gave some of the understanding she needed.  All the same, it is hard not to think that a light went out in her life with the death of Ronnie MacDonald.  Eventual marriage to Clive and family brought the able Rania new responsibilities but it didn’t entirely absolve her of responsibilities to her childhood family. 


In today’s world, Rania might have been headhunted for her own abilities and so she was comparatively speaking within the constraints of the post First World War world and she worked in various voluntary capacities including the Ascham School Council. Only the Light Horsemen who knew Rania and Mrs Chisholm’s (known to Light Horsemen as ‘Mother Chisholm’) work could really tell us how important their work was to the Army they served.  According to the National Dictionary of Biography General Allenby remarked that their work had been ‘heroic’.


Possibly my grandfather Chauvel who also knew and supported Rania and Mrs Chisholm’s work could have told me their story, but he died before I was born.  As a child I didn’t know the right questions to ask before my grandmother passed away.  Thankfully Jennifer Horsfield’s Rainbow: The Story of Rania MacPhillamy sensitively and informatively fills a breach for me.  If those who served in the Desert Mounted Corps could say ‘In the desert we have written our names’, so too could Rania MacPhillamy and Alice Chisholm. 


For those interested in the increasing involvement of women in times of conflict, they might consider Diane Atkinson’s Elsie & Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front (London: Arrow Books 2010) and Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee’s Women to the Front: The Extraordinary Australian Women Doctors of the Great War (Sydney:  Random House, Ebury Press, 2019).





Honor Auchinleck