A Nurse at the Front, by Sister Edith Appleton

The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton.

This is a book I’ve been reading over a long period – not quite for as many years as it took for the original diaries to be written, but I’ve been dipping into it since I bought it, back in April 2015 and I finally finished it last weekend

I don’t find diaries the easiest things to read, but those written from within big historical events are worth it to get the “raw” impressions of those going through the experience, especially from the point of view of “every day people”.

The surprising thing about Edith Appleton’s account is the mix of experience described. There are the obvious times of extreme stress, when increased activity at the front results in waves of countless casualties needing hospital care. But there are also the quieter times: of country walks, afternoon teas, swimming in the sea. Those quieter times are the things so often missed out of the histories. The contrast is shown below.

 

July 4, 1916

Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – all covered from head to foot in well-caked mud. The rush and buzz of ambulances and motor-buses is the only thing I can remember of yesterday outside my wards. Inside it took us longer than the whole day to anything like cope with the work of changing, feeding and dressing the wounds of our share of them. We had horribly bad wounds in numbers – some crawling with maggots, some stinking and tense with gangrene, One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes.

 

September 17, 1916

Had the day off yesterday. Indeed, I think about half the staff did too as we had so few patients in. I went for a walk with Wood and Maxy over the cliffs and lunched with Madame – crab, roast mutton, grilled potatoes and salad, then a delicious sort of cheese that is traditionally eaten with sugar then cider, and all followed by coffee. At 1 o’clock Matron, Maxy and I started off for Caudebec en Caux… The journey was a joy of beauty, bathed in sunshine. The Seine was most picturesque, with all the trees and hills along its banks just beginning to turn to autumn.

There is an Edith Appleton website where the diaries are accessible online, along with a lot of other information about her.
http://anurseatthefront.org.uk/

Sister Appleton received the Royal Red Cross, a medal awarded for exceptional services in military nursing. It’s the kind of medal I’d love to add to my collection of Medical Militaria, but I would never expect to find one for sale.

Then by accident today I found this one being sold, but for some reason Gloria won’t let me buy it. Maybe she thinks the $1,200 AUD could be put to better use for things we actually need 🙂 .

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These Wonderful Rumours, by May Smith

15727458In my previous post I mentioned how Trevor Shearston’s Game was set in familiar territory, with many of the book’s events taking place near to my current home.

May Smith’s These Wonderful Rumours is also set on well-known ground, however this time it took me back to my childhood. The book is the war time diary of a teacher from the English Midlands. She lived and taught in the area where I grew up until my family migrated to Australia in 1971. Therefore many of the places are familiar to me, and I know a little about some of the war time events that are the background of the book.

My favourite parts were those that evoked a sense of what it was like to hear air-raid sirens, and German planes flying overhead, and the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire coming from nearby cities. My parents were children at the time, living in the same town, and would have heard the same sounds.

My dad has told me stories of seeing searchlights illuminating the skies, seeking out enemy aircraft’ and how he and his sister were made to sleep under the stairs, where it was assumed there would be a degree of safety should the worst happen. May Smith’s account tells of spending nights at her grandparent’s house nearby, where there was a cellar for shelter – and how things became so familiar that the sirens were later ignored, and she’d stay in bed rather than make the trek downstairs, listening to bombing in nearby Derby, about 12 miles away.

The title’s significance is a reference to the stories and gossip that filled in the gaps of official news, some of which had an element of truth, but mostly had no substance.

While the time covered by the diary spans the period of World War Two, the heart of her book is everyday life, which despite some inconveniences caused by the war, continues with as much normality as possible. She tells of frequent shopping trips for clothes; of her evenings of tennis, and of the men who continued vie for her affection despite her attempt to keep them at a distance.

The diary makes it clear she had a difficult time as a teacher, a job she seems to have disliked immensely. One incident in her class affected me quite a lot when I read it. She revealed how she tore up one boy’s cigarette cards* after he (presumably) had been causing trouble. I could feel his dismay. I could imagine myself experiencing something similar and how I’d feel afterwards; and despite her contrition, I didn’t get the impression she understood how devastated a young boy of that age would be, owning very little of value, and having something important to him destroyed by an adult in authority.

 

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* Collectable cards given away inside packets of cigarettes featuring photos related to a variety of popular topics. During my childhood similar card were enclosed in packets of tea. Also, for a time, empty cigarette packets could be exchanged for larger collectable cards. I remember getting packets from my grandad and uncles to exchange for cards featuring football players.

The Other Anzacs, by Peter Rees

Other AnzacsThe Other Anzacs is the story of some of the ANZAC heroes of World War 1, who weren’t given the official recognition they deserved.

They are the nurses who travelled across half the world to do what they could for the “British” war effort. Unable to take up arms, they dedicated themselves to saving the lives of the victims of battle and disease, and were confronted daily by countless deaths and unspeakable battle wounds.

The book draws heavily on the personal accounts of the nurses, using their diaries and letters to find a way into their experiences and their emotions.

The book was adapted into a recent TV series Anzac Girls, and a paperback edition of the book was released under that new title. I bought the paperback edition and then watched the series before reading the book. Before I was able to get around to the book I found a hardcover edition, signed by the author, in an antiques and collectables shop. I bought it and gave the unread paperback to my mum.
anzac girls
The series chose to concentrate on only five of the nurses from the book, but they gave a good representation of the general nursing experience throughout the war. Watching the series didn’t detract at all from the later reading experience.

One aspect of the book that interested me was finding out the many local references. I found several of the nurses had links to nearby places I know. That gives me some interesting possibilities for further study. I even found that one of them lived nearby after the war and is now buried in the cemetery less than half a kilometre from my home.

While the men they nursed recognised the worth of their work, from the beginning the nurses had to contend with a bureaucracy that didn’t want women involved in that kind of war work. And yet the women soon had an effect, at times having to literally build up hospital facilities from scratch with very limited supplies.

Grace Wilson's medals

Grace Wilson’s medals

Matron Grace Wilson (see photo on book cover) found patients having to lie out in the open on the Island of Lemnos when she and her nurses were transferred there to establish the closest hospital to the Gallipoli battle front. The nurses even had to resort to tearing up clothing to provide bandages.

Peter Rees writes that on Lemnos “The conditions were probably the worst experienced by any nurses during the war.” But despite that Wilson and her nurses were able to create a hospital that was able to keep death rates to a minimum.

Despite their essential work the sacrifices they made and the dangers they faced, the nurses (considered officers in rank) were only paid a fraction of what the orderlies working for them received. Likewise, after the war they were denied any of the entitlements that were offered to returned servicemen which included financial help with housing loans. Rees writes ” Authorities in Australia saw the nurses’ role as secondary to that of the soldier.” He later adds “Australia was slow to acknowledge the nurses who served in the war. This was belatedly rectified in October 1999 when a memorial to Australian nurses who served in all wars was unveiled on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

nurses memorial, Canberra

nurses memorial, Canberra

A Chaplain at Gallipoli

BestJohn Masefield, mentioned in an earlier post could have been describing a different war to the one witnessed by Kenneth Best.
Best clearly writes from personal experience, while to me, Masefield’s account of Gallipoli seems to lack the authenticity that experience alone provides.

As an Australian my main interest is the Australian involvement at Gallipoli and why it has become such a focal point of our national identity.

Masefield described the Anzacs as if they were semi-divine in appearance, true Olympians and nothing like the scrawny troops from his own country but Best’s view was less complimentary describing the Aussies as reckless and undisciplined.

He has this to say about the Australian troops in Egypt prior to their departure for Gallipoli:

“No discipline. They obey commands, turn up on parade only if it suits them. They go for a route march, take towels and go swimming whatever the objective of the route march may have been”..

“General Maxwell desires not to be left alone with Aussie troops. Source of anxiety to medics, despair to officers and menace to Egypt and yet papers are full of their loyalty and efficiency. Why not put them in the front line, as David did to Uriah?” *

Masefield and Best also portray the battleground very differently from each other.
Best doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing the conditions and the overwhelming presence of the dead:

“Blood flies and smell – I shall never forget it. As one crawled along the trench, hands and legs of the dead hanging over the edge would strike one’s face. Here and there a familiar face, cold in death. Heartbreaking work”

Masefield’s battleground seemed to remain well-swept and spick and span (except of those dirty Turks who intentionally bred flies in their trenches to inconvenience the invaders).

It’s been helpful to read different perspectives of the Gallipoli campaign, but while I’ve found contemporary reports very interesting, I see the benefit of viewing events from a distance: the later historian can weigh up evidence from various sources away from the fervour, prejudices and limited viewpoint of those caught up in the actual events.

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* a biblical reference to this:

2 Samuel 11:14-15 “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die.’ ”

Full context can be read here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2 Samuel+11&version=NIVUK