I’ve started my November Remembrance reading with Olive Dent’s short memoir of the two years she spent as a V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing in France during WWI. Olive doesn’t tell the reader anything about her personal circumstances apart from the fact that she had no personal ties & could therefore volunteer to help the war effort. She becomes a St John’s Ambulance volunteer, takes some nursing classes & embarks for France with 100 other V.A.Ds in the late summer of 1915.
Olive & another girl are sent to a tent hospital set up on a racecourse outside a town. Although the Sister in charge is dismissive of them to begin with – no experience, totally untried etc – they soon show their worth. A camp hospital in France is nothing like a well-equipped civilian hospital in England,
The newcomer to a camp hospital finds matters very different to what she has been accustomed in England; no hot water, no taps, no sinks, no fires; no gas-stoves, a regular Hood’s “November” of negation. She probably finds the syringe has no suction, and all the cradles are in use, and there is none for the boy with bad trench feet, that there are only six wash-bowls for the washing of a hundred and forty patients, and that there is nothing but a testing stand, and a small syringe with which to help the medical officer through a dozen typhoid inoculations.
Improvisation becomes second nature. Scrimping & saving, borrowing a little of this & that from the next ward. All the staff have the same dedication to the soldiers they’re caring for. Olive’s hospital assessed wounded men to see if they needed to be sent back to England or could stay & be treated at the hospital for a quicker return to the front line. A coveted Blighty ticket would send a man home with a minor wound. Even though he would be given two tickets – one for the journey home & one to bring him back again – it was still a blessing to be away from the front even for a short time.
The coming of winter brings new challenges. Living & working in tents can be quite cosy but the differing problems of snow & frost are feelingly described. Olive remarks that the only good thing about frost is that they know the men on the front line prefer it to snow which just adds to the mud & discomfort of the trenches. The wards are kept warm & dry but the trek to the mess & sleeping tents needed careful preparation.
Going to bed is a prodigious rite and ceremony. After a bath in a camp bath, which against the feeble force of chilblained fingers has a maximum resistance, immovability and inertia, and yet seems to possess a centre of gravity more elusive than mercury, one dons pyjamas, cholera belt, pneumonia jacket, bed socks and bed stockings as long and woolly as a Father Christmas’s, and then piles on the bed travelling rug, dressing gown, and fur coat. Even in bed the trials of active service do not end, on occasion. We found one girl lying in bed the other night with her umbrella up. The snow had melted and was trickling through the tent, and she was too tired to trouble about having matters righted. “I’m imagining it is a garden parasol, and I’m in a hammock, and it’s June.” Gorgeous imagination!
The hard work & the exhaustion contrast with the pleasure Olive gets from her work. The men she nurses are grateful for their care & the respite from the trenches. They put on a fancy dress party & half the men dress up as women so they can dance as the nurses aren’t permitted to dance with their patients. At Christmas, the wards are decorated with anything they can find, scraps of material, holly & greenery from the woods around the hospital. The greatest pleasure for Olive is knowing that she’s doing her duty. Her patriotism shines through every page of this book. We may think that her attitude is naive but it comes through again & again in memoirs of the period. The British stiff upper lip, mustn’t let the side down, keep a cheerful face for our boys attitude is exemplified by Olive & her colleagues. The patients too realise that they have a job to do & don’t want to let their mates down. Even after the worst night, full of pain & suffering, Olive can still see the importance of her role & gives thanks that she can help.
One’s eyes smart and feel filled with salt as a man with life ebbing, – oh, so painfully quickly, – grasps one’s hand and says “Sister, God bless you.” The full meaning of the remark arrests one, its sanctity, its solemnity, the benedictory significance of the words spoken under such circumstances engulf one…. But the longest night ends and joy cometh with the morning. The restless tossings have ceased, the breathing is soft and regular. The dew-laden air accentuates the foetid smell of the wounds. I go to the door of the marquee to roll back the walls, and I lean for a moment against the bamboo pole, a surge of emotions overpowering me – aching pity, immeasurable sadness, a sense of human limitations – often indeed – human impotence. Then the joy of success, the transcendent happiness of helping to snatch back a life from the Gates of Death.
Olive Dent’s memoir isn’t great literature. Her prose is occasionally a little purple. Her judgements of men are often based on a class snobbery that was unconscious in a woman of her period. I could ignore all that because the book gives an immediate, enthusiastic, detailed account of active service nursing. This book can’t compare in literary quality to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. But, that’s not where the value of personal memoirs like this lies for me. A V.A.D in France was published in 1917 when the experiences were still raw & immediate. There was a great deal of poetry & prose published during the war but the public quickly grew tired of war memoirs once the war ended & it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the war weariness ended & readers & publishers wanted to read about it again. Testament of Youth benefited greatly from the 15 years of reflection that passed before Vera Brittain began writing it. I admired Olive’s courage, her unflappable initiative & her common sense, qualities that should never go out of fashion or be forgotten.