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.