Elsie and Mairi Go To War – Diane Atkinson

Listening to Isobel Graham’s determination to go out to France as an ambulance driver on  the BBC’s Home Front reminded me of this book about two other young women who decided to use their practical skills for the war effort during the Great War.

Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914. Born Elsie Shapter, she was orphaned very young & her siblings were separated, going to live with relatives. Elsie was adopted by Lewis & Emily Upcott. They were educated & artistic people & Elsie was well provided for by a legacy from her father. Elsie made a disastrous marriage, to Leslie Knocker, an accountant ten years her senior, who may have been influenced by Elsie’s inheritance. Leslie got a job with an insurance company & they travelled to Java where he took up a position. He turned out to be violent & cruel, subject to mood swings which may have been influenced by alcohol. Eventually, Elsie returned to England & they divorced after six years of marriage. This was a bold step for Elsie to take as divorced women were not considered respectable. Elsie was determined to be free of Leslie & she had a son, Kenneth, to think about as well. Her adoptive parents cared for Kenneth while Elsie looked for work. Eventually she decided to train as a midwife.

Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm was the daughter of a well-to-do Scottish family. Born in 1896, she had a traditional upper-class upbringing. She & her brother were to be seen & not heard. Her education was scrappy & not very thorough. Mairi wasn’t particularly close to her parents. They had an estate in Trinidad & often traveled there to attend to business. Mairi rarely accompanied them & when they settled there permanently, she didn’t visit them in over 30 years. Mairi’s passion was for motorcycling & this is where she met Mrs Knocker, who was a dashing figure in this new circle of friends she met through her membership of the Gypsy Motor Cycle Club. Both women could not only ride but were also excellent mechanics, skills they would find useful during the war.

Elsie & Mairi joined Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps almost as soon as war was declared. They had gone to London to join the Women’s Emergency Corps & were hired as dispatch riders. Hector Munro recruited them for the ambulance corps he was setting up to go to Belgium along with a varied group of women including the novelist May Sinclair, drivers, cooks & orderlies. Their role would be to get as close to the front line as possible & transport the wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations & hospitals further back. Elsie & Mairi were excited to be given the opportunity to do such worthwhile work & their experiences in those first weeks gave them the idea that would make them famous, the most photographed women of the war.

Elsie was horrified at the number of men who died from shock & exposure as they were being driven to hospital. She felt that if they could be given immediate first aid & somewhere to rest before making the dangerous, uncomfortable journey to hospital, more lives could be saved. This was the genesis of her idea to set up an outpost virtually on the front line at Pervyse. Pervyse was on the Yser Front, the northern section of the Western Front, midway between Nieuport-Bains on the coast to Ypres in the south. Although the English authorities did not approve, the Belgians welcomed Elsie & Mairi & they set up a soup kitchen & first aid post within sight of the trenches. For nearly the next four years, the two women went into No Man’s Land to retrieve the wounded (the Germans said that if they wore woolly hats they wouldn’t be fired on but if they wore tin hats, they could be mistaken for troops), received official visits from dignitaries including King Albert of Belgium, made a lot of friends on both sides of the conflict & saved many lives.

When the women wanted to retrieve bodies from no-man’s-land they sent Shot, their little black-and-white dog, over to the Germans with a note telling them what they wanted to do. Mairi had fond memories of how well the Germans behaved when they were in no-man’s-land: ‘they looked upon us, I suppose, as being thoroughly daft … but they were always nice to us’.

There were also personality conflicts with Hector Munro & the other Ambulance Corps members, clashes with officialdom, petty squabbles, the occasional jaunt to a nearby town & romance when Elsie met a dashing airman, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes, whom she later married.

One of the amazing things about the women’s work at Pervyse was just how precarious their position was. Not only did they have to keep the work going but they had no official funding. They often had to dash off to England & raise funds by going on speaking tours & courting any publicity they could get. There were so many worthy causes & charities that they had to use every contact they had to raise the money to buy food & supplies. Elsie was an inspiring speaker & she would give lectures illustrated with photographs of the outpost & showing the dreadful conditions they lived in. On one visit Mairi went to Bournemouth to meet her mother & sister, Lucy.

The sight of her in grubby breeches, dusty boots and coat, carrying that lance (a German souvenir) , brought the place to a standstill: ‘all the porters flocked round and I had difficulty moving about with it as a crowd followed everywhere’. The sight of a young girl, dusty from the battlefield, like Joan of Arc, brought the war to the heart of London in the same way as the sight of hundreds of soldiers. Her fellow passengers on the train to Bournemouth were fascinated by her stories of the war. When she told them that blankets and pillows were urgently needed at Furnes Hospital they gave her fifteen shillings and wished her well.

The end of the first aid post came when they were gassed in March 1918 & barely escaped with their lives. They returned to England to recuperate & that was the end of their war service. After four years of constant companionship, Elsie & Mairi went their separate ways & never saw each other again. Like many men & women who served during the war, they found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Elsie’s marriage to the Baron didn’t survive. She had told him that she was a widow & when his very Catholic aristocratic Belgian family discovered that she was a divorcée, the marriage was doomed. Elsie eventually found her niche as a housekeeper & ran hotels, work that used her gifts as an organiser. She was also active in many volunteer organisations. Mairi became a poultry farmer & was secretary of the Clan Chisholm Society. Elsie gave an interview in 1964 about her war work which is played in this BBC Radio 4 clip from Woman’s Hour. I love the photo of the two women in their ambulance – Elsie driving & Mairi beside her. There’s also an interview with Diane Atkinson about the book here. This is a terrific book about two brave & determined women who made a great difference to so many wounded men under the most difficult circumstances.

Anglophilebooks.comA copy of this book is available from Anglophile Books.

Dorothea’s War – edited by Richard Crewdson

Dorothea Crewdson & her best friend, Christie, were newly trained Red Cross nurses when they joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1915 & volunteered for active service overseas. They were posted to northern France & so began four years of hard work, dedication but also fun & adventure, all of which Dorothea recorded in her diaries.

Many diaries have been published by participants of WWI. I always find them moving & I’m always in awe of the dedication of the medical staff who endured extremes of heat & cold, often with inadequate supplies & sometimes practically at the front line & under shellfire. Their only consideration was their duty & the welfare of their patients. Dorothea is no exception to this. She was about 30 when the war began & she had grown up in a lively, affectionate family. Her younger brother, Alistair, (she called him Little A even though he was over six feet tall!) was in the Army & they are able to meet several times in France. Dorothea is often desperately homesick for her mother & sisters & agonizes about whether or not to sign on for another six months service. Her duty always wins out though & she served for nearly four years until after the end of the war.

The most important aspect of any diary is the writer’s voice. Do we feel that we get to know the writer? Would we like to have tea & a chat with them? Dorothea’s voice is warm, generous, compassionate & often amused. She was always interested & up for any expedition that was proposed. She was hard working & always ready to get along with her colleagues & superiors. From night duty to running the Mess, Dorothea found interest in any task & satisfaction in a job well done.

Her diaries are very detailed & filled with beautiful sketches (some of them are reproduced on the cover). These are the endpapers & you can see the actual diaries with the drawings.

I just want to quote a couple of passages to give the flavour of Dorothea’s voice. When reviewing a diary or journal, I think that can be more interesting than describing where she served & how bad the conditions were. I’ve read a lot of WWI & WWII memoirs & diaries & I want something more than a recital of battles & places. Dorothea really made me feel that I was there with her, or at least, looking on from a warm, safe distance. The Parrot House mentioned in this entry was the name given to the tent where the nurses on night duty slept. There’s an illustration of it above.

Well a day. here I am back on day duty again. Such startling changes have occurred since I was last writing my diary. Heard only yesterday morning after breakfast that we were to come off immediately and do no more night duty till perhaps February. It took us all very much by surprise. Parrot House was in great flutter… I didn’t like the suddenness of changing. I would almost rather have had another night before coming off but I was still prepared to enjoy a day off duty with the rest of the Parrot House party. Wednesday 20th October 1915

Just into bed and quite glad to be there after a strenuous day. I find bed very comforting, even though it is getting rather shaky on its legs and descending gradually nearer and nearer to terra firma. Don’t know what is to be done when it finally rests flat on the floor and I extend myself on a veritable stretcher. I have been next door in Malet’s room, eating strawberries. First ‘straws’ I have tasted this year and very delicious, so have been having little galavant on my own account. Before that i went to Compline service at church, which I always like because of the peace and quiet it brings after an active day. Friday 26th May 1916

Valentine’s Day! But not much Valentine to be got here. A military hospital of BEF is a very unromantic place and when a small affair does blaze out, it instantly becomes common property and discussed in and out till quite threadbare. Nothing can be done in camp that isn’t immediately discovered, but all hospitals are alike I suppose, as there is so little outside to talk and think about except the everlasting topics of the war, leave and home. Anything out of the ordinary is welcomed with delight, as food for gossip. The latest is that today Sister Blandy received her marching orders. She was given half an hour’s notice this afternoon. She had to come off duty, throw her things into boxes, and now she is gone from our ken. Perhaps I shall never see her again, but cannot say I am heartbroken. Such an odd world of rapid change this hospital is! Monday 14th February 1916

Dorothea’s story had a sad ending. After serving until the end of the war, she stayed on nursing in France & was taken on a tour of the battlefields with other medical staff. She was looking forward to ending her service & returning home when she was suddenly taken ill & died of peritonitis after surgery in March 1919. The letter written by Matron McCord to Dorothea’s mother is very moving. Shocked at the suddenness of Dorothea’s illness & death, Matron writes eloquently of Dorothea’s service & her valued contribution to the work of her colleagues all through the war.

The diaries have been edited by Dorothea’s nephew, Richard, Little A’s son. He knew nothing about them until after his father died when he came across them along with instructions that they should be donated to the Imperial War Museum. Richard Crewdson has written an informative & affectionate Introduction about the aunt he never knew & the privilege he feels it has been to get to know her now through her own words after so many years. I’m glad that he has published Dorothea’s diaries so we can all get to know this remarkable woman.

The Ashgrove – Diney Costeloe

‘Who do you belong to, I wonder?’ she asked aloud. There was nothing to indicate whom each tree commemorated… or that the place was a memorial at all. She moved from tree to tree until she had rested her hand on each trunk, and thought of all the young, fresh-faced men who had gone so jauntily to war, never to return to their homes here in Charlton Ambrose. Such high hopes they must have had. The adventure of fighting in a war, seeing a bit of the world, before settling down to their humdrum lives here in the country. Rachel thought of the pictures she had seen of the trenches in Flanders, the mud and the squalor, the cold and the rats. She shuddered, and drawing her coat more closely around her, walked out on the far side of the grove where the allotment hedge barred her way.

Rachel Elliot is a reporter working for the local Belcaster Chronicle. She has been sent to cover a meeting in the Charlton Ambrose village hall to discuss a proposed housing development. She expects it to be a routine assignment but it’s the beginning of a quest that will lead her into the past & to discoveries about her own family history. The developers are brought up short when an elderly woman stands up & accuses them of planning to demolish the Ashgrove, a group of trees planted in 1921 as a memorial to the local men killed in WWI. Cecily Strong’s brother, Will, was one of the men commemorated &, even though the metal plates have long since gone, there are still local people who know what the trees mean. Rachel is intrigued by this new angle on the story & visits Cecily to find out more.

Cecily’s long term memory proves very helpful & a trawl through parish records & the newspaper archive fills in more of the gaps. Eight local men, including the Squire’s son, Freddie, were killed. Squire Hurst paid for the trees & the metal plates but he died the same year & so the stones that were meant to replace the plates as a permanent memorial were never erected. There’s also a mystery because there are nine trees, not eight, in the Ashgrove. The ninth tree was secretly planted soon after the dedication & the Rector, Henry Smalley, who had served at the Front, convinced the Squire to let it stand as a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Rachel also discovers that the Squire’s daughter, Sarah, went to France as a nurse & was killed when her hospital was shelled. She decides to try to trace the descendants of the other soldiers to see if they can convince the developers to find some other way to build the access road they need & plans a series of articles for the newspaper on the Ashgrove & the men who died.

Rachel is surprised to discover a personal link with Charlton Ambrose when she visits her grandmother, Rosemary, & hears that she lived in the village when she was a child. She was born illegitimate & her mother had been unwillingly forced to return to her parents.When Rosemary’s mother died soon after, she lived with her grandparents for some years. Rosemary’s mother’s diary & a sealed packet of letters that she has never opened, take Rachel back to 1915.

Rosemary’s mother, Molly, is a housemaid at the Manor. Sarah Hurst is determined to nurse in France & is desperate to overcome her father’s disapproval. Sarah’s aunt is a nun in a French convent hospital & reluctantly agrees that Sarah’s help would be useful if she can get her father’s approval. Sarah asks Molly to go with her &, because Molly is frightened of her abusive father who has insisted she leave service & work for higher wages in a munitions factory, she agrees. Molly’s diary tells of their journey to France, their work at the hospital & her meeting with Tom Carter, a soldier who has been brought in with his best mate, Harry, who is Molly’s cousin. Molly & Tom’s friendship turns to love although their relationship must be kept secret from the disapproving nuns. Tom returns to the Front just before the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 &, although he survives the battle, the confusion afterwards & his desire to get back to St Croix to marry Molly, who has become pregnant, leads to tragedy & an injustice that has only been rectified in recent years.

The Ashgrove is such an involving story. I read it in two long evenings as I was totally caught up in both stories. Rachel’s researches were fascinating (I can’t resist a bit of digging in the archives) & her personal connection to the Ashgrove is very poignant. Sarah & Molly’s story was also totally involving as they become friends rather than mistress & servant. Molly discovers her abilities as a nurse & Sarah is drawn more to the spiritual side of life at the convent which leads to tensions between the girls as Molly’s relationship with Tom grows. I’ve read many WWI diaries & memoirs & I can see how much research has gone into creating this picture of a hospital under enormous pressure. Having recently read Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, this novel was the perfect companion read as Diney Costeloe has brought the factual accounts to life in a very moving way.

I should declare a personal interest here as Diney is a friend & fellow member of my online reading group. She asked me if I would like to review The Ashgrove as she is hoping to give it a bit of a relaunch with Remembrance Day coming up. She kindly sent me e-copies of The Ashgrove & the sequel, Death’s Dark Vale, which continues Sarah’s story & takes us up to WWII. I’m looking forward to read it very much. Both books are available as paperbacks & Kindle editions.

Wounded : from Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 – Emily Mayhew

There will be hundreds of books published over the next few years to coincide with the centenary of WWI but I doubt there will be many more moving than Wounded by Emily Mayhew. Instead of descriptions of battles & politics, this is a book about the consequences of battle. It’s about the wounded men of France & Flanders & of the men & women who cared for them. The nurses, doctors, orderlies, stretcher bearers & chaplains.

There are so many poignant, moving stories in this book but I’m just going to highlight a few. The overwhelming impression of reading these stories is of ordinary people thrown into unimaginable horror & doing the best they could. In the Introduction, Mayhew describes the book as a “continuous narrative” like a novel, rather than a conventional work of non-fiction.  The thoughts of the participants are presented in this way but every word is based on an interview or a written testimony from a library or an archive or another published source. I think this works well in integrating the voices & experiences of many people on a journey from the battlefield to England, where the lucky ones with Blighty wounds were sent. There’s an extensive bibliographic essay at the end of the book incorporating background reading & the sources for each story as well as footnotes.

The story begins with Mickey Chater, wounded at Neuve Chapelle in 1915.  He is bumping around in the back of an ambulance on his way to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) after being hit in the face & shoulder. The ambulance driver doesn’t know whether to drive fast (when he hits bumps in the road, the wounded are jolted so hard they hit the roof of the ambulance) or slowly (when they feel every little bump & the ambulance might get bogged). When they reach the CCS, Mickey is expected to die. His wounds are so severe that survival seems unlikely. However, he was lucky to be operated on by a pioneer of facial surgery, Charles Valadier, who put his face back together. Valadier even wrote an article on Mickey’s case & a copy of this was found in Mickey’s papers when he died in 1974. After the war, when Mickey Chater talked about his memories of the War, it was the kindness & dedication of the medical staff who saved his life that he always wanted to emphasize.

William Kelsey Fry was a Regimental Medical Officer with the 7th Division Royal Welsh Fusiliers. As well as medical duties, the RMO was responsible for keeping the men of his battalion healthy & the CCS supplied with fresh water, latrines & supplies. These duties could take up days of his time when there were no wounded to care for. The CCS was the first place that casualties were brought after a battle. Once the men were patched up, they were either sent back to the Front or behind the lines for further treatment & hopefully a trip home for the lucky ones. So, the work would come in waves. The CCS was also liable to be moved at a moment’s notice as the battlelines moved. Then, the tasks of finding fresh water, digging latrines & training the stretcher bearer teams would begin all over again. Kelsey Fry & his bearers, Frank Pearce & George Sheasby, were regarded as one of the best teams at the Front. They could be so close to the fighting that they were within hearing of shellfire. Sometimes they worked so hard they didn’t hear the shellfire any more. In August 1916, Kelsey Fry & his team found themselves at Guillemont Wood, working in an improvised CCS consisting of a hole hastily dug in the ground with a tarpaulin on top. A shell exploded near the post & both bearers & all the wounded men inside were killed. Kelsey Fry survived but never returned to the Front.

Winifred Kenyon wanted to nurse at the Front. She wanted to really work not just be a glorified housemaid, mopping floors. Her first posting was to the are behind Verdun in the summer of 1915. The CCS was in the middle of nowhere, rows of tents with nurses & orderlies running between them under the open sky. Winifred soon learned that the weather dominated life in the CCS. It was the first thing the nurses thought about when they woke in the morning. Wind, rain, heat, would it be a good day to get the patients’ laundry done? Running between tents in the rain meant the possibility of falling in the mud & ruining a clean uniform. Winifred learnt quickly, surprised at how many wards were run by experienced nurses without doctors. She quickly discovered what the acronyms on a patient’s ticket meant. The tickets were vital as they stayed with the patient all through his journey from the battlefield to England & allowed medical staff at each stage to quickly treat him without wasting precious time. SI (severely ill) & DI (dangerously ill) meant that the men had little hope of survival. ICT (I can’t tell) meant a man was so badly injured that the MO couldn’t work out what to treat first. the nurse was meant to clean him up & stabilise him until a surgeon with more time could come back & assess his condition.

Winifred learnt about all the non-nursing duties that were just as important to the patients – a friendly smile & a word of reassurance; being there when a patient came out of an anesthetic; making coffee & sandwiches for overworked colleagues because you happened to be free at that moment. Winifred and the other nurses found themselves acting as social workers to their patients as they recovered if they were distressed by news from home (or no news from home) & they kept themselves sane by walking in the nearby woods in their off-duty hours.

The most poignant stories for me were of the chaplains & padres. These men were not soldiers or medical staff &, on the face of it, they had little reason to be at the Front. However, they could make an extraordinary contribution to the physical as well as spiritual welfare of everyone they came into contact with. Some of the chaplains had quite extraordinary skills which they put to good use. Charles Doudney had worked as a missionary in the Australian outback & he was fascinated by radio technology. He had been constantly tinkering with a radio set in the outback, his only means of communication. Back in England, he soon decided to volunteer for frontline service when the War broke out. His skills in radiology soon made him chief repair man at the base hospital in Rouen & his soldering iron was soon employed in repairing X Ray machines. Soon he was receiving basic medical instruction, administering anesthetics & treating simple wounds without supervision when he was posted to a CCS near Poperinghe. He wrote home to his parishioners telling them of his experiences & asking them to send comforts for the patients like a gramophone. Only when the rush of work stopped could Doudeney resume his duties as a chaplain, although he always felt that he hadn’t gone to the Front to preach sermons & hold the hands of dying men. On his way to conduct a burial service in October 1915, the truck he was in was hit by a shell, & Doudeney died on the operating table from his wounds.

There are stories of the courage of stretcher bearers crossing No Man’s Land searching for the wounded & nurses on swaying ambulance trains heading for the coast. Too many stories to tell here. Wounded is a beautifully written account of a side of war that is often forgotten in accounts of the movements of armies & the machinations of politics.

I read Wounded courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday Poetry – Eva Dobell

I’ve been reading Emily Mayhew’s Wounded & WWI nurse Dorothea Crewdson’s Diary, Dorothea’s War, so this poem, Night Duty, by Eva Dobell struck a chord. Eva was the niece of the poet, Sydney Dobell. She volunteered as a nurse during WWI & died in her 90s in 1963.

The pain and laughter of the day are done,
So strangely hushed and still the long ward seems,
Only the Sister’s candle softly beams.
Clear from the church near by the clock strikes ‘one’;
And all are wrapt away in secret sleep and dreams.

They bandied talk and jest from bed to bed;
Now sleep has touched them with a subtle change.
They lie here deep withdrawn, remote and strange;
A dimly outlined shape, a tumbled head.
Through what far lands do now their wand’ring spirits range?

Here one cries sudden on a sobbing breath,
Gripped in the clutch of some incarnate fear:
What terror through the darkness draweth near?
What memory of carnage and of death?
What vanished scenes of dread to his closed eyes appear?

And one laughs out with an exultant joy.
An athlete he – Maybe his young limbs strain
In some remembered game, and not in vain
To win his side the goal – Poor crippled boy,
Who in the waking world will never run again.

One murmurs soft and low a woman’s name;
And here a vet’ran soldier, calm and still
As sculptured marble sleeps, and roams at will
Through eastern lands where sunbeams scorch like flame,
By rich bazaar and town, and wood-wrapt snow-crowned hill.

Through the wide open window one great star,
Swinging her lamp above the pear-tree high,
Looks in upon these dreaming forms that lie
So near in body, yet in soul so far
As those bright worlds thick strewn on that vast depth of sky.

Millions Like Us – Virginia Nicholson

The subtitle of this book is Women’s Lives in War and Peace & that’s exactly what it encompasses. Millions Like Us tells the stories of many women & how they lived through WWII & the years afterwards. Nicholson focuses on about a dozen women who we get to know well during the course of the book, including writer Naomi Mitchison, housewife & diarist Nella Last, 17 year old junior housemaid Jean McFadyen & debutante Patience Chadwyck-Healey. Their lives are revealed through interviews, letters & diaries as well as memoirs they wrote in later life.

The women worked in all the armed forces as ambulance drivers, nurses, clerks, telegraph operators & code breakers at Bletchley Park, at home & in all the theatres of war. There are women trying to run a home during the Blitz, helping others bombed out of their homes, working in the Land Army or Timber Corps or looking after evacuees. It would be impossible to tell even a fraction of the stories told so well in Millions Like Us & the voices of the women in the book are so important that I think it’s better to let the women speak for themselves. These are just a few of the passages I marked as I read.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly column in the New Yorker about the experiences of Britain at War. The imposition of the blackout & the closure of theatres was one of the first effects,

With, on the whole, astounding good humor and an obedience remarkable in an effete democracy, they have accepted a new troglodyte existence in which there are few places of entertainment, no good radio programs, little war news and little to do after dark except stay in the cave…’So we’ll go no more a-roving so late into the night’ has taken on a significance that Byron never intended.

Young women like 17 year old Cora Styles became quite matter of fact about the horrors of the Blitz,

When I went to work in the mornings you’d see piles of brick rubble, perhaps with an arm sticking out or a leg – I got so that blood, guts and what have you didn’t have much effect on me. I knew a man who would go round with a  basket collecting the bits, trying to put them together. He picked up somebody’s head and the eyes were open; it nearly landed him in the loony bin.

Not all the stories are as horrific. For many women, the war was an opportunity to get out of the rut that habit or class or their families had thrust them into. They were able to get an education, learn new skills & experience the excitement that responsibility & doing a worthwhile job can bring. For all the stories about young women being bullied in factories or forced to put up with the dirtiest jobs an irate farmer could devise, there are other stories about friendships & romances that changed their lives.

Isa Barker was a Land Girl in Scotland & found the social life & staging charity concerts more stimulating than the work,

We found out that we had a couple of beautiful singers; and there was one girl who was very adept with poetry recitations, and could make people laugh. And I had been in a tap dancing troupe for five or six years when I was younger… We didn’t go to bed till about two in the morning because of people enjoying themselves. And on Saturday mornings you’d get up and think ‘Och, we’ve got to lift manure.’ Well, we could hardly lift the fork, never mind the fork with the manure on it!

The end of the war brought joy & relief. Marguerite Patten had been a domestic science demonstrator during the war & went on to become a well-known cookery writer. She remembers her joy when the war ended.

Victory! We couldn’t, couldn’t believe it  really had come. It was wonderful… The sheer joyousness of that day! I kissed more people that day than I kissed in my entire life. We danced and we sang… and of course we all got as near to Buckingham Palace as we possibly could. You can’t exaggerate the joy of that day. And we could go home in the dark and not worry about an air raid! And people could leave their curtains undrawn!~No, the feeling of joy on that day was something to remember the whole of your life.

The end of the war didn’t bring joy to everyone. It was hard to celebrate when your husband or son wasn’t coming home. When the troops were demobilised & the prisoners of war were released, the men who came home had changed & the women they came back to had changed as well. Many marriages foundered & divorce rates increased. Many young women had become engaged to American GIs & set off to a whole new life in another country. Others had to leave jobs that they had enjoyed because the work was no longer there or the job was reserved for a returned serviceman.

The stress of adjustment to peace was severe. Especially as life didn’t automatically change for the better. Rationing didn’t end with the war & shortages of food, clothing, housing all made life difficult without the feeling of necessary sacrifice that came with the war effort. The final chapters of Millions Like Us are quite sober. News of the concentration camps & the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan shocked everyone. The new post-war world would take some getting used to. Millions Like Us is an absorbing book. Virginia Nicholson has done an excellent job of describing the war experiences of so many different women yet by the end of the book, the reader feels that we know them all intimately. The personal interviews are especially important as the generation who lived through WWII begins to disappear. It’s all the more crucial that their experiences are not forgotten.

A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton

I usually read something connected with WWI around November & this year, it’s been the diaries of WWI nurse, Edith Appleton. Her diaries have been transcribed by her great-niece & nephews & were originally available on this fascinating website. As well as the diaries, the family have included a brief biography of Edie, letters from & about her & a complete index of everyone mentioned in the diaries. More information about Edie, her colleagues & the men she nursed is being unearthed thanks to the website & the wonders of the internet. An edition of the diaries has now been published by the Imperial War Museum, edited by Ruth Cowan.

Edie was born in Kent in 1877 & by the time war broke out in 1914 had been nursing for over 10 years. She volunteered for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service & spent the next five years nursing in France & Flanders. She kept a diary throughout her war service but, unfortunately, not all of it has survived. Hopefully they may still turn up somewhere. The diaries we do have begin in April 1915 & there’s another long gap between November 1916 & June 1918. However, what we do have gives a fascinating picture of wartime nursing on the Western Front & a portrait of the dedication & courage of Edie & all the other medical staff who witnessed the horrors of war.

I’ve often wondered how nurses managed to keep going day after day as they saw endless convoys of wounded & dying men & struggled to help them. In Edie’s case, I believe it was her love of nature & her determination to take advantage of any opportunity of getting away from the hospital in her precious time off. Wherever Edie is stationed, she swims, walks or goes for long drives alone or with her colleagues. she’s interested in everything & everyone she meets.

Maxey, Truslove & I had a half day, so we walked to Bénouville in the rain and picked primroses that were hanging from the banks in yellow tufts. At Bénouville, we peeped into the church and found service in progress – so went to the café for tea of bloaters, boiled eggs, toast and tea. After tea the old woman showed us her old china and pewter. Such a nice little woman – her husband is away at the war and she was busy making herself a coat out of an old one of his. She turned the stuff and piped it with black velvet and made a strap for the waits and sleeves – very smart. March 20, 1916.

Much of Edie’s work consisted of organization, routine & hard graft. She worked in Casualty Clearing Stations, mobile units that operated close to the Front & ministered to men who were brought by ambulance direct from the battlefield. Many were dead or dying by the time they arrived. They were all dirty, in pain & often in shock. Conditions & equipment were basic & often the men were on stretchers on the floor. The work could be dangerous too as troop movements were often sudden & the CCS could be ordered to move very quickly, taking wounded men with them. At other times, they were shelled by the enemy but kept working through the bombardment. Several times, staff were injured by shells & shrapnel. Once the emergency treatment was given, the men were put on convoys & sent by train and boat back to England.

Edie never knew from one day to the next how many convoys might arrive. Sometimes they were prepared for a great influx of wounded & nobody came. Other times, the wards were overflowing & the staff worked 20 hour shifts to tend to them all. If any nurses were off sick, everyone else just worked harder & longer. Sometimes it’s not the demands of the war but of politics & PR that determined the workload.

We should have been taking in today, but after getting only a few ambulance-loads we were stopped – instead No 2 was taking in. This afternoon I heard why – the King is coming on Wednesday and will be taken to No 2 as it is the senior casualty clearance station here and they want to have plenty of patients in when he comes. October 25, 1915

Apart from Royal visits, the work went on. In 1918, Edie was transferred to no 3 General Hospital at Le Tréport. The hospital was in a large hotel on the coast so no more tents but the work was just as dispiriting at times.

My ward is rather a sad place just now – so full of extremely badly wounded. There is plenty of gas-gangrene and two fractured spines dying in a room which is difficult to ventilate. One feels the horrible smell in one’s throat and nose all the time. Poor old things! One died yesterday – an Australian. His leg was very gangrenous and had to be taken off high up, but it was too far gone. His constant cry was to get up and go out – that he was quite all right – then about half an hour before he died he settled down and said ‘I’m done. I’m dying fast.’ And he was quite right. August 16, 1918

After the war, Edie was demobbed in 1919. She returned to nursing in England for a time. She & her sister bought a house on the Isle of Wight where they kept chickens & grew vegetables. Several of their siblings made their home with them. Edie married when she was 49. Her husband, Jack, was her sister’s stepson & 10 years her junior. He died after only 10 years of marriage & Edie died at the age of 80 in 1958.

Edie’s diary is an invaluable record of nursing in WWI. Her good humour, efficiency & dedication must have made her a valuable part of the team at all her postings. I’ve just finished reading Virginia Nicholson’s book about women in WWII, Millions Like Us. Virginia Nicholson notes that almost all the women she interviewed, when asked why they had joined up or how they coped with the privations of war, said “We just got on with it.” I think Edie’s response would have been the same. She was trained to do an important job & she did it magnificently. How lucky we are to be able to read her diaries & honour her memory.

Fatal Decision – Terri Arthur

When I reviewed Diana Souhami’s biography of Edith Cavell last year, I commented that it was difficult to really know what Edith was like as a person. I enjoyed Souhami’s biography & she had obviously done extensive research but there are not many personal documents by Edith as she destroyed so much when she became aware that she was about to be arrested. Terri Arthur contacted me after reading my review & said that she was writing a novel about Edith Cavell to try & convey what she was really like. Recently,
Terri sent me a copy of her novel, Fatal Decision, so I’ve been able to decide whether she has been able to accomplish this.

I think Terri Arthur has definitely succeeded in presenting Edith Cavell as a woman rather than the saint of legend. Maybe only fiction would have allowed this as Arthur has been able to use her imagination to recreate the character of a woman whose terrible death has overshadowed everything else about her. The facts of her life are well-known. Edith Cavell was a nursing matron in charge of a training school for nurses in Brussels during WWI when Belgium was occupied by the German Army. She became involved in a resistance group that helped Allied soldiers who had become trapped in Belgium to escape to England, Holland or France. She was arrested, put on trial as a spy, convicted, sentenced to death & shot at dawn on October 12th 1915.

The novel begins with Edith applying to nurse at the London Hospital. Here she is influenced by Eva Luckes, the formidable matron & disciple of Florence Nightingale. Although Luckes is very hard on her students, Edith is determined to succeed. Edith makes friends although she is seen by some as stiff & humourless. She volunteers to help in a typhoid epidemic & in this episode she demonstrates her determination to overcome her weaknesses. Edith’s overwhelming concern for the care of her patients is paramount. All her work can’t impress Matron Luckes, however, who gives her a lacklustre assessment when she finishes her studies. Edith works in hospitals in a variety of roles until the opportunity to go to Brussels & start a school for nurses is offered to her by a former pupil from her time as a governess in Europe.

The nursing school has to overcome many hurdles, including the objections of the Catholic Church, whose nuns had been the willing but unschooled nurses up to this time. Edith & Dr Eugene Depage work to overcome prejudice against an English Protestant teaching nursing to women who had always seen it as a demeaning occupation. By the time WWI breaks out, the school & Edith have a reputation for excellence. Edith & her nurses begin work under the Red Cross, helping wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Their hospital & nursing home is in Ixelles, south of Brussels, & in the direct path of the German invasion. When the Germans occupy Belgium, a military administration is set up to govern the civilian population.

The fatal decision that Edith makes is to help wounded Allied soldiers trying to escape occupied Belgium & rejoin the Allies in France. With her strong religious & moral convictions, Edith was unlikely to refuse a plea for help. The first two soldiers who arrive at the clinic lead to many more. Edith admitted to helping 200 soldiers escape at her trial but the true number is probably closer to 1000. Edith became part of an underground movement that brought the men in from the surrounding forests where they were hiding, sent them to Edith for medical aid, then sent them on with guides to take them to the border complete with disguises & false identity papers. Edith was aware of the danger of the work she was doing & only involved a few trusted members of her staff. However, she never considered stopping her work, even when she was aware that the clinis was being watched & the authorities were closing in. While one Allied soldier needed her help, she would not refuse it.

The most important person in Edith’s life was Elizabeth Wilkins, a nurse who became her best friend & deputy in everything. The portrait of their close friendship is especially moving. The novel is bookended with scenes of Elizabeth in London & Norwich at remembrance services for Edith. The scenes with Elizabeth are a very effective way of humanising Edith as are the scenes of Edith with her beloved dog, Jack. Jack was a stray that Edith took in despite all objections & he proved loyal to the end.

The underground movement was eventually infiltrated & betrayed. Edith’s interrogation & trial were a disgrace. She did make some crucial admissions that prejudiced her case but her commitment to truth may have led her to make some naive mistakes. She was forced to sign a confession written in German, which she didn’t understand. The defence counsel assigned to her wasn’t permitted to visit her or know the charges against her. All her fellow accused were treated similarly but the occupying forces were determined to make an example of this English nurse who dared to defy their rule & Edith, along with several others, were condemned to death.

Edith’s family had heard of her arrest & tried to discover more information through the Foreign Office. The American Legation was their only source of news as the US was neutral & still had a diplomatic presence in Brussels. The American ambassador, Brand Whitlock, did what he could but he was effectively blocked by the military government & stricken with illness at a crucial time. The judges were Prussian military officers & they were determined to make an example of Edith. It was the worst decision the Germans made during WWI. The execution of an Englishwoman, a nurse, brought condemnation from around the world.

Fatal Decision is an absorbing novel.  The large cast of characters, from the other nurses & staff at the clinic to the escaping soldiers to the German authorities, are all beautifully portrayed. The author is a nurse & the medical detail is obviously written with experience & knowledge. Arthur has a real empathy with Edith Cavell & she’s used what letters & documents survive to inform her portrait of a brave woman who lived & died for her convictions.

A V.A.D in France – Olive Dent

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.

Edith Cavell – Diana Souhami

Edith Cavell is one of those people in history who is known for how she died rather than how she lived. Edith Cavell was a nursing matron in charge of a training school for nurses in Brussels during WWI when Belgium was occupied by the German Army. She became involved in a resistance group that helped Allied soldiers who had become trapped in Belgium to escape to England, Holland or France. She was arrested, put on trial as a spy, convicted, sentenced to death & shot at dawn on October 12th 1915. Diana Souhami’s new biography of Cavell aims to present a fuller picture of this middle-aged Englishwoman than the saintly image of martyrdom that has been the dominant image since her death. 

Edith Cavell was born in a Norfolk village in 1865. Her childhood was happy, her education typical of her time. She originally worked as a governess but disliked the ambiguous position & lack of independence involved in working in other people’s houses. Edith’s sister, Florence, had become a nurse & Edith decided that she too would pursue a career in nursing. Nursing had only recently become a respectable choice for middle-class women who wanted or needed to work. Florence Nightingale’s work in the Crimea & her efforts to make nursing an honourable profession were starting to have an effect on the training of nurses. So, as Edith approached 30, she took the first steps that would start her on her new career.

She applied to the Metropolitan Asylums Board in London for any vacancy they might have for an Assistant Nurse in a London hospital. She began work at the Fountains Fever Hospital at Tooting which had been set up to care for patients with typhus & other infectious diseases. After several months here doing mostly menial work, Edith decided to undertake formal training as a nurse. She was accepted & trained at the London Hospital under the formidable matron, Eva Luckes. Eva Luckes was a friend of Florence Nightingale & followed her precepts in the training of her nurses. The London Hospital had an excellent reputation & Matron, although given to discouraging comments in her notes on her students, was intensely interested in all her nurses & was a source of help & encouragement throughout their careers. Matron Luckes’s comment on Edith Cavell was typical, “Edith Cavell had a self-sufficient manner which was very apt to prejudice people against her.” Edith’s career at the London was steady rather than spectacular & she was often unsuccessful when applying for senior posts. So, when she was asked to go to Brussels in 1907 to set up a nurses’ training school, she saw it as the challenge she had been looking for.

The school on the Rue de la Culture was set up by M Depage, a surgeon who was keen to implement Nightingale-style training with the nurses in his hospital. He heard of Edith through a family she had worked for when she was a governess. She spoke French & had been trained at the London. That was recommendation enough. Edith worked hard, training the nurses, recreating the atmosphere & standards of Eva Luckes’s school at the London. She was starting from scratch & there were many hurdles to overcome, both bureaucratic & personal, but by the time war broke out in 1914, Edith & her school were a success.

The invasion & occupation of Belgium by the German Army was a shock but at first, Edith’s work went on. She worked under the banner of the Red Cross to nurse soldiers of both sides. But, as invasion turned to occupation, the fighting moved into France & Flanders & the focus of Edith’s work turned to helping Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Belgium to escape. There were many small groups of people doing what they could to obstruct the Germans. Prince Reginald de Croy & his sister, Marie, set up a Red Cross hospital at their chateau Bellignies at the beginning of the war. They also helped soldiers escape by setting up a network of safe houses & guides who would pass the men along until they could safely cross the border. Edith Cavell became involved with this network. The Germans took over the chateau but his didn’t stop the de Croys operating right under their noses. The de Croys had many willing helpers in the villages around them & in Brussels as well.

Edith would take in soldiers, hiding them in the nursing school until they could be supplied with false identity papers. She then led them to safe crossing places on the border. Hundreds of men were helped, not all of them made it to safety but several of them got to England & passed messages from Edith to her family. Her mother would then write to Edith letting her know of a visit from so-and-so & Edith would know that at least some of the men had got to safety. The authorities were determined to crack down on these networks of underground escape routes. There were many people involved but they were careful not to know too much. They only knew a few people in the group but inevitably they were infiltrated by spies or they were indiscreet. By June 1915, the role of the nursing school & its Matron in the escape networks was known to the authorities. The school was kept under surveillance & Edith knew that arrest could not be far away. She continued her work until the last moment although she did destroy her diaries, letters & any notes she had. The last letter Edith’s mother received was written in mid-June & leaves little doubt that Edith knew what lay ahead.

Do not forget if anything very serious should happen you could probably send me a message thro’ the American Ambassador in London (not a letter). All is quiet here as usual. We are only a small number so many being at the front nursing the Belgian soldiers – but also we have less work for no one can think about being ill at present.

“Anything very serious” meant news of her arrest. In early August, she was indeed arrested along with over 20 others in her circuit. The story of Edith’s trial is one of the German occupation authority determined to make an example of an English nurse accused of espionage. The fact that she was English meant she was at more risk than her so-accused. England was the enemy & the conditions of wartime meant that basic principles of law were ignored. Edith was interrogated by men who spoke no French & she spoke no German. The questions & answers were translated to her but the statements she was made to sign were in German so she couldn’t check their accuracy. She was kept in solitary confinement for two months before her trial. Her strong religious faith was her only comfort as she was only allowed brief visits from friends. She worried about her nurses & her dog, Jack, more than about her own fate.

The trial was appallingly run. Dozens of defendants were tried at once, their defence counsel unable to speak to them beforehand. Edith was accused of espionage (a capital offence) although there was no evidence that she had tried to pass information to the Allies or send the young men she helped to the front line. Five of the 35 defendants, including Edith Cavell, were sentenced to death. Most of the others received prison sentences with hard labour. Eight were acquitted. Edith’s family had heard of her arrest & tried to discover more information through the Foreign Office. The American Legation was their only source of news as the US was neutral & still had a diplomatic presence in Brussels. Souhami details the lack of urgency shown by the US Minister, Brand Whitlock, in investigating Edith’s case. When the death sentence was pronounced, it was too late for his futile efforts to do any good. Edith Cavell was shot at dawn on October 12th 1915.

Edith’s execution was one of the worst propaganda mistakes Germany made during WWI. The Allies were horrified that an Englishwoman, a nurse, had been treated so brutally. Her fate was the subject of newspaper editorials, sermons, propaganda cards like this one (from ww1-propaganda-cards.com). Her name became a symbol of all that was vicious & brutal about the enemy in wartime. Edith Cavell ceased to be a woman & became a symbol of innocence, virtue & saintliness.

I made a point of visiting this statue of Edith Cavell (picture from cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr) when I was in London years ago. It epitomises the legend. Her famous last words are inscribed on it, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.” These words were not on the statue when it was unveiled in 1920. They were regarded as too pacifist a statement in the immediate aftermath of the war. Fortunately, protests by prominent women’s groups ensured that they were added later as a contribution to world peace.

Previous biographies haven’t tried very hard to look behind the veil of the saint. For all Diana Souhami’s research, & it is phenomenal, I don’t know that she has succeeded in making Edith come alive to the reader. The last year of Edith’s life takes up more than half the book.  Edith was a good woman. She was religious, dutiful, committed to helping those less fortunate. The self-sufficiency or self-containment mentioned in Eva Luckes’s comment on her student nurse is what makes Edith Cavell so hard to know. I don’t feel I know her any more now than I did before reading the book although, of course, I know much more about her life. Edith’s letters to her mother & her concern for the welfare of Jack are the most intimate glimpses we get of her. Of course, she had to destroy all her personal papers before her arrest but the remembrances of those she worked with have all been coloured by her terrible death. She is still a symbol rather than a living, breathing woman. Having said that, I enjoyed this book for the picture of nursing in late Victorian times, the life of a vicar’s daughter who wanted to do something useful with her life & the inspiring actions of a woman who followed her conscience & made her own decisions about her duty to her fellow man.