Agnes Hodgson was born in Melbourne on 5th August, 1906. Her father, William Hodgson, a commercial traveller, had been killed at Gallipoli and when her mother died in 1920, she was sent to Scotland to live with relatives.
At the age of 15 Agnes returned to Australia and became a boarder at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne. She was determined to become a nurse and in 1925 she began her training at Alfred Hospital. In 1928 she graduated as a Registered Nurse with a specialty in pediatrics.
Agnes decided to find work as a nurse abroad. After nursing in Budapest she took up an appointment at the Anglo-American Hospital in Rome. In the summer of 1932 she made a long trip through Spain and North Africa. According to her biographer, Judith Keene: "In mid 1933 Agnes returned to Australia an experienced and cultivated woman, speaking fluent Italian, with a passion for travel, and a great yen for worthwhile and interesting work."
For the next couple of years Agnes Hodgson worked on her brother's farm in Tasmania and nursing private patients in Melbourne. However, she still had a great desire for travel and adventure and contemplated volunteering to nurse in Abyssinia during the invasion order by Benito Mussolini.
In August 1936 the Australian Spanish Relief Committee decided to send a medical aid unit caring for Republican wounded during the Spanish Civil War. This included sending four nurses from Australia. Hodgson applied and was accepted and in October 1936 she travelled from Sydney to Barcelona on the Oransay with Mary Lowson, May Macfarlane and Una Wilson. Wilson told reporters shortly before sailing: "If we get captured or shot that's that. It's only a few years off your life and its better than spending all your days in a private hospital. Danger is the spice of life, that and the feeling that we'll be doing something with real meaning."
Agnes Hodgson, unlike the other three nurses, who were all members of the Communist Party of Australia, she was not a left-wing political activist. Mary Lowson was especially critical of Hodgson's liberal views. Judith Keene has argued: "Although Agnes had little time for Mussolini and fascism, she had been seduced by Italian culture, the warmth of Italian people, and the joys of an Italian lifestyle while living in Italy. Mary, on the other hand, was a dedicated communist committed to the long haul to the proletarian revolution."
The Oransay arrived at Toulon at the end of November. They were met by the Toulon Movement Against the War. A public meeting was held by supporters of the Popular Front government in Spain and as the four women were announced and walked towards the stage the crowded hall sang the Internationale.
The women arrived in Barcelona on 1st December 1936. Mary Lowson immediately informed Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit and Hugh O'Donnell, administrators for British Medical Aid Unit, that Agnes Hodgson was a fascist who she considered was spying on behalf of the Nationalists. She was immediately called in for questioning by the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC). May Macfarlane and Una Wilson complained to Lowson about how their colleague was being treated. They claimed they would return to Australia if anything happened to Hodgson. Writing later to the Australian Spanish Relief Committee about Lowson's behaviour, she admitted that she feared "they would be bumped off."
Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, who was also a non-communist, protected Agnes Hodgson from harm. On 2nd December 1936 she wrote in her diary: "I had lunch with Mr Loutit from BMAU. He took me to a Catalan restaurant where we ate well - but much garlic flavoured food. He drank wine, pouring it into his mouth out of a special Spanish vessel - very skilful proceeding. We talked a bit then went for coffee up on a hill, his chauffeur coming with us. Lovely view of hills and harbour. Sun setting - looked at destroyers and foreign sloops outside port - saw a seaplane arriving on the water. Returned to the British Medical Aid Unit's flat to await other colleagues. Had tea and met other members of BMAU down on leave - one played the piano and tuned his violin. Danced a little with Mr Loutit dancing in gum-boots."
While in Barcelona she met Anna Louise Strong and Hodgson attended the funeral of Hans Beimler. She wrote in her diary: "Marched in the funeral procession of Hans Beimler, an ex-German Communist deputy who was killed fighting at the front here. A man very able and evidently much loved, it was a great loss to the party. An English party was joining the procession so Lowson offered us to join in. We assembled outside the Karl Marx building, and waited there until all were ready. Lowson carried flowers, and we all joined in with the women's brigade - international women, English, German and Swiss."
Eventually, Mary Lowson, May Macfarlane and Una Wilson travelled to the International Brigade hospital near Albacete. Hodgson was left behind in Barcelona. Lowson, after a few weeks working at the hospital returned to the city where she was attached to the English Section of the Republican Information Service which produced propaganda for the Popular Front government in Spain.
Hodgson was given work in a small clinic in Barcelona. After a full investigation into the spying charges she was allowed to work with the British Medical Aid Unit established by Kenneth Sinclair Loutit at Grañén near Huesca on the Aragon front. At first things were quiet but after four months the major Aragon offensive began.
On 20th April 1937 she wrote in her diary: "Another busy day. A German's leg amputated during the night... the German had been seven days without food, and his leg was alive with maggots as he had been lying among the fascist wounded. We have had about a dozen fascist wounded prisoners here, treated exactly as other patients, to their astonishment. Also officials who interviewed them questioned them politely. Later in the day a fair number of wounded were brought in from the Carlos Marx battalion. A lung case and one with 11 perforations in the abdomen were admitted to the ward. A very busy day. The Political Commissar, on the eighth day after his perforated stomach, began vomiting and hemorrhaging. A very bad patient, possibly his own fault, as he drank water from the ice bag. He has been given blood transfusions and all manner of things but he will probably die."
In October 1937 Hodgson returned to Barcelona where she had a meeting with Leah Manning and Peter Spencer. "Met Leah Manning and Peter Spencer Churchill and they suggested my going to a new hospital near Madrid. I was almost decided for it then heard from Esther about various intrigues that go on there, etc. so decided to stick to my plan of going to England. Leah Manning said if I decided later to come back to let her know."
In January 1938 Hodgson arrived back in Australia. She told a reporter: "Never have I seen such dreadful wounds and suffering as those that result from warfare. What I have seen in Spain has made me a militant pacifist for ever."
Over the next few months she travelled into the northern Australian outback. After a short spell as house mistress at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School she found employment working as a journalist for the Australian Daily Telegraph.
During the Second World War Hodgson became the head of the Tasmanian division of the Australian Women's Land Army. In January 1944 she married Ralph Tonkin, an officer in the Australian Army. The couple had two children, Rachel and Ian.
Agnes Hodgson Tonkin died in June 1984. Her Spanish diary, edited by Judith Keene, was published as a book, The Last Mile to Huesca: An Australian Nurse in the Spanish Civil War in 1988.
(1) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (17th November, 1936)
Arrived at Aden. All went ashore and walked round the town - Macfarlane and self photographing the rest in turn. Lowson changed Indian money donated at Colombo. We were pestered by amusing small imps for baksheesh, while walking round the shops. An army officer drove us to the post office in his car, then we walked back to the Crescent Hotel to drink beer. Aden attracts me always with its grim rocks clear cut against the sky. It's a brave place and the inhabitants please me more than the Cingalese of Colombo. They laugh more.
Left Aden - fancy dress ball at night. All four dressed up: Lowson as Chinese Flower girl, Wilson as Shakespeare's Miranda, Macfarlane as Peter Pan and myself as the Gay Caballero - more colourful than accurate. Wilson was very much admired and we all enjoyed the dance and appreciated the company's effort to entertain us.
(2) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (27th November, 1936)
Arrived at Toulon - weather cold and grey - rained later. four men came aboard and inquired for us. They were the Acting Deputy and Secretary of the Communist Party and two others members of other Popular Front organizations. None of them spoke English but we trustingly went ashore with them, rather disconcerted that no one was really certain of our arrival. One of them spoke Italian and asked me to explain to the others who he was. He then demanded to know our plans. Our luggage was deposited in various parts of the Douane. We all ran hither and thither and nobody would listen to me. Lowson searched for someone speaking English. The Orient agent obliged but for a long time it didn't get us any further. Our bags were passed and then it all had to be explained again - which contained equipment - they had to go in bond to Marseille. Our anxious enquiries about Egon Kisch elicited no information - unknown to these people. Finally the luggage departed for the station, and we were taken by taxi to a communist restaurant.
We drank coffee, rather the others did, I drank a vermouth - feeling the need of some stimulant amid such utter confusion and babble of tongues. There we told our story as best we could, Lowson and Macfarlane were welcomed as Communists. I agreed to a statement written by M saying that I was not a communist, having as yet no precise politics, that I am against war, and sympathize with the Spanish government in their struggle. From there we were taken to the Communist headquarters on rue Jean Jaures and met several of their comrades who were all very nice. We were photographed leaving the restaurant. They telephoned then to Marseille to an M. Cristofol to find out what we should do and when we should leave for Marseille. It was decided we should stay the night at Toulon and then go to Marseille in the morning.
We were then taken for an aperitif by the Anti-War and Fascism Secretary, and back to the restaurant to lunch. We ate a very excellent lunch. We took rooms at the Mirabeau Hotel (Grand) and went to meet the Secretary of the Movement Against War and Fascism at home in his cafe. There we met other enthusiasts and the women's representative of Contre la Guerre et Fascisme. She asked us would we convey a packet of woollies to Spain for her. Again we went walking in the rain, this time round the front by the sea to Worms & Co. Orient Agent. We left our political friends below while we were received by the agent, who wanted to know where we were going.
(3) Judith Keene, The Last Mile to Huesca: An Australian Nurse in the Spanish Civil War (1988)
Mary Lowson led the unit. At 41 years of age she was the oldest of the group and had been a trained teacher before taking up nursing. Small in stature, Mary was blessed with immense energy and determination. She was one of the foundation members of the Sydney Spanish Relief Committee and had been active in the Communist Party for several years....
Aboard the Oronsay on the trip to Europe the four women did as had many young Australians before them. They made half-hearted attempts to study Spanish from the language books they had brought, and wholeheartedly threw themselves into the festivities of ship board life, dressing for dinner, and playing deck games. At ports of call the nurses toured the sights, shopped for souvenirs, and took snapshots of each other to send home.
Agnes's spirits grew higher as Europe drew closer. The pleasures of the trip were only marred by a growing antagonism between Agnes and Mary Lowson. Agnes was very gay, and enjoyed the sociability of the ship. She was also an old hand at travel, spoke Italian, and could reminisce and make comparisons with her previous trips. All in all she may have struck Mary Lowson as a frivolous companion with whom to be heading off to war. Agnes's politics - liberal, anti-fascist and chary of communism - undoubtedly also irked Mary. Although Agues had little time for Mussolini and fascism, she had been seduced by Italian culture, the warmth of Italian people, and the joys of an Italian lifestyle while living in Italy. Mary, on the other hand, was a dedicated communist committed to the long haul to the proletarian revolution. From her
involvement in the Australian anti-fascist movement during the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Mary knew that Italy was a fascist state with a bully-boy leader. In her eyes it was probably inconceivable that anyone could extol the virtues of Italian opera and the wonders of Italian food when these were no more than the superficial facade of a fascist regime. A final irritant was that Agnes insisted on attending shipboard church services and frequently took Una Wilson along with her.
These personal differences blossomed into a confrontation in Naples where Agnes intended to spend the day visiting an Italian friend. Mary was fearful that four Australian nurses on their way to Republican Spain would attract hostile Italian demonstrations, and even perhaps, that Agnes's friend might be an Italian fascist. Agnes considered it highly unlikely that Mussolini would have heard about four Australian nurses, or would have been bothered about them. In any event, Agnes's friend did not materialize and there were no demonstrations in Naples, but the incident rankled. With no experience of the Left in the early 1930s, Agnes found Mary's obsession with Italian fascism premature and inappropriate and the latter probably found Agnes politically naive and frivolous.
(4) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (1st December, 1936)
Arrival in Barcelona. First impression at the frontier was of khaki balaclavas and coats. Unshaven men carrying guns and wearing dirty white and black rope-soled sandals. Black of eye, dark skinned and bearded. Everything scrutinized - we realized that we were in a country at war. Luggage in the omnibus was taken to the Hotel Colon which was full of people, red banners and photos of Lenin and Stalin on the facade of the building. Hotel Colon was no place to leave our luggage, guards about and sandbags at the windows which were all smashed and marked with bullet holes. Drove to unit's flat, Loutit and O'Donnell were there. Had tea. Una, May and self left to hang over the balcony and view Barcelona while Mary told her tale - reported me as a fascist. Then to the Strangers' Department of the Socorro Rojo - an interminable wait - told to call again. Finally interviewed by Felice, a French Communist and head of the SR who questioned me about my travels - how had I been able to afford to travel - what had I seen of fascism in Italy etc. At the Ramblas Cafe, where one met everyone, one was warned that this or that foreigner was unreliable.
(5) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (2nd December, 1936)
Much waiting here in Spain because they are all so busy. I had lunch with Mr Loutit from BMAU. He took me to a Catalan restaurant where we ate well - but much garlic flavoured food. He drank wine, pouring it into his mouth out of a special Spanish vessel - very skilful proceeding. We talked a bit then went for coffee up on a hill, his chauffeur coming with us. Lovely view of hills and harbour. Sun setting - looked at destroyers and foreign sloops outside port - saw a seaplane arriving on the water. Returned to the British Medical Aid Unit's flat to await other colleagues. Had tea and met other members of BMAU down on leave - one played the piano and tuned his violin. Danced a little with Mr Loutit dancing in gum-boots. I was very tired. John Fisher, an Australian journalist, arrived to find out our whereabouts and Lowson arrived shortly afterwards. We went to the Hotel Espana where the Government have billeted us. Had a glorious bath. Mr O'Donnell introduced three British engineers of the party who are working here.
The others did not want to eat again but as I did John Fisher asked me to dine with him at his Hotel Nouvel. Went for coffee to the Ramblas Cafe and met several journalists and interpreters. Stayed talking and waiting while John Fisher made enquiries, and so to bed.
(6) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (6th December, 1936)
Marched in the funeral procession of Hans Beimler, an ex-German Communist deputy who was killed fighting at the front here. A man very able and evidently much loved, it was a great loss to the party. An English party was joining the procession so Lowson offered us to join in. We assembled outside the Karl Marx building, and waited there until all were ready. Lowson carried flowers, and we all joined in with the women's brigade - international women, English, German and Swiss. We followed after the officials and behind a banner declaring "Vengeance for the Death of Hans Beimler" - we gave the salute continuously as we moved slowly down the street. Passing round in front of the Hotel Colon, by means of amplifiers the corpse of Hans Beimler was addressed commovente. We passed on round the square of Catalonia and down the Ramblas - saluting and being saluted as we passed by various committee rooms - Latin American students, Anarchists, young communists and others - until we reached the end of the Ramblas where we international women were called to stand on one side.
We then stood while thousands of people of every party, police and militias, children and women passed by with their myriad banners and bands. The "Internationale" hymn was played with minute intervals, the Anarchists followed playing their hymn, and the "Internationale", till at last came the carriages bearing the magnificent wreaths. Mac not feeling well so we left a little before the others and returned to the hotel for a while before lunch.
All we four have dispensed with hats as hats are considered bourgeois here. Mac developed a bad cold and went to bed early. I went to the Ramblas Cafe - no one there - came back to the hotel and went to dine at Lowson's low restaurant where the waiter speaks English. Company included one English technician and an English ex-soldier - food a little better. Felt very depressed - went to the Ramblas Cafe, Barry joined us and several others. Wilson and I stayed on talking of our lives. John Fisher joined us and accompanied us to our hotel.
(7) Judith Keene, The Last Mile to Huesca: An Australian Nurse in the Spanish Civil War (1988)
After the others had left Barcelona, Agnes had difficulty in finding accommodation and work. Eventually she was placed in a small clinic in the suburbs of Barcelona. Run by a Hungarian doctor, it was attached to a military barracks in a converted Jesuit school where among the woods and fruit trees batches of raw recruits drilled and marched back to meals singing the "Internationale." Agnes gave injections, changed dressings and made beds. The pace was leisurely. Surrounded by Spaniards, her familiarity with the language improved but she felt useless and very isolated, "alone in a strange atmosphere with the mental strain of endeavouring to understand them and do [her] work creditably". She felt that she "was getting a raw deal" and that her "services had been politely shelved". Having come to Spain to nurse the war-wounded, she was unhappy to be left to cool her heels in the Barcelona suburbs. After a couple of weeks at the clinic, and feeling particularly desperate, Agnes confronted Hugh O'Donnell, threatening either to leave Spain or to approach the Catalan authorities herself and volunteer for the Spanish army. Consequently, it was arranged hastily that she should join a group of English nurses in a hospital at Grañén on the western Araqon front.
(8) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (3rd January, 1937)
Dined with J. F. Edwards - stupidly let myself in for it, but a Frenchman and an American writer woman Anna Louise Strong joined us. She and Edwards are old friends. Edwards told me what a great woman she is, with what style she writes, etc. She appeared in a badly cut greenish suit and woollen cap, very bright eyes, rather crinkly, pointed small nose and a thin mouth. She and Edwards talked during the meal of airplanes sold by America to the fascists, sent via Italy; and rotten planes at that. 2000 American volunteers, ready to sail, were stopped by the American Government. I leant that certain planes could not be converted into good I fighting planes and only American pilots are of any use to fight with these planes. Many good civilian flyers proved too expensive, and they can't afford damaged planes. Anna Louise Strong had visited three fronts at Madrid or near by and is on her way to America to do propaganda work.
She is a very enthusiastic, ardent communist member, and lives I gather mainly in Russia, and I think is married to a Russian. Edwards has been a party member since a youth and knew Jack London and Upton Sinclair. He says Upton Sinclair is now too old and tired, a back number, and has been running a party which was a racket in Edward's room. Afterwards I went to the Cafe Ramblas with him, where he talked to me about the fallacy of the Anarchist theory put into practice.
(9) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (25th February, 1937)
The Non-intervention Committee has still not settled about which country patrols which part of the coastline. England means to put 10 000 sailors round the coast. Oviedo was taken by Republicans.
For that reason it is a really good thing we are leaving. Goodness knows when we will make the move to Polenino - there's a brand new ambulance waiting there, and the Australian X-ray plant is waiting in Barcelona to be sent there. The ambulance I think is going to be a mobile hospital. This new place is actually further away from the front than we are here.
One of our nurses is returning to England on Monday, so we are all changing over. There had been a lot of trouble here with the staff (English), before I came, chiefly because of the political and non-political business. It's caused by the political, who begin by rushing in, protesting that everyone is equal and the Spaniards mustn't do the dirty work, and then if there is any likelihood of their having to do the dirty work themselves they cry out again. Everything is more or less running smoothly now among the nurses except for one who is a nit-wit and a talker, who is happiest cleaning bed-pans. Nobody wants to work with her; she wants to go in the theatre, yet is scared, and actually I don't think capable. Our chief does not want her there. But we have decided that she does her turn of theatre at this change over, chiefly to keep her quiet.
(10) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (20th April, 1937)
Another busy day. A German's leg amputated during the night, and a number from the Battalion of Death (Anarchists) with minor wounds from Tardienta in the a.m. The German had been seven days without food, and his leg was alive with maggots as he had been lying among the fascist wounded. We have had about a dozen fascist wounded prisoners here, treated exactly as other patients, to their astonishment. Also officials who interviewed them questioned them politely.
Later in the day a fair number of wounded were brought in from the Carlos Marx battalion. A lung case and one with 11 perforations in the abdomen were admitted to the ward. A very busy day. The Political Commissar, on the eighth day after his perforated stomach, began vomiting and haemorrhaging. A very bad patient, possibly his own fault, as he drank water from the ice bag. He has been given blood transfusions and all manner of things but he will probably die. It is a hard job getting used to the ward in these conditions. Two hernia operations were done today as well.
(11) Agnes Hodgson, diary entry (12th October, 1937)
Met Leah Manning and Peter Spencer Churchill and they suggested my going to a new hospital near Madrid. I was almost decided for it then heard from Esther about various intrigues that go on there, etc. so decided to stick to my plan of going to England. Leah Manning said if I decided later to come back to let her know. And so to bed early. Air raid alarms and anti-aircraft gun firing.