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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While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

Knowing that I love to read, whenever I visited Gloria’s family, her dad would hand me one of his very few books.

He’d served in the RAAF in Borneo towards the end of WWII and as a result disliked the Japanese.

I always thought he wanted me to read the book so I’d know why the Japanese were so contemptible. The book was White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey.
As politely as possible I resisted his attempts to “indoctrinate” me, so after a brief flick through the book I handed it back unread.

220px-paradiseroad1997posterFast forward a couple of decades, and not long after his death, I realised the book was probably something worth reading. By that time I’d heard more about the events it described. Unfortunately no trace of it could be found among his possessions and I regretted the lack of interest I’d shown over many years. If only I’d foreseen the interest I now have in the lives of military nurses.

White Coolies is Jeffrey’s account of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese, captured after the sinking of the ship, SS Vyner Brooke that was taking her and other nurses away from Singapore and its imminent capture by the Japanese army.
The story was adapted into the 1997 film Paradise Road

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Jeffrey’s book. Maybe I need to get over the realisation that I could have obtained a hardcover copy, old but in good condition, that also had a few relevant, period news clippings slipped between its covers.history But I have come across other accounts of the same events such as On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw, a book I’ve had for a while but haven’t yet read and While History Passed by Jessie Elizabeth Simons, who was part of the same group of nurses held prisoner by the Japanese. I came across a second-hand, ex-library copy a few weeks ago. Until then hadn’t been aware of the book’s existence, so was willing to overlook its condition. (It seems a child decided a lot of the pages were too plain without their addition of colourful scribbles).

Simons tells her story of evacuation from Singapore as the Japanese were moving in, of the sinking of the ship taking her to safety and of her subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese after surviving some time afloat at sea.

Others weren’t so lucky. Many drowned and those reaching shore first were rounded up and murdered by the Japanese. Men were taken into the jungle and bayonetted. The nurses were forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Simons survived three and a half years of the malnutrition and disease that claimed the lives of many of those imprisoned with her. She wrote:

“…the death rate soared to a new record, daily broken.
We had to dig graves, construct rough coffins and bury our own dead, often at the rate of three a day in our own circle of acquaintance. For mothers who had sacrificed from their own rations for the past two and a half years to give their children a better chance of coming through, Muntok camp was a grim, never-to-be-forgotten last stand against their children’s starvation. Far too many of them fought a losing battle; one woman saw four of her five children die within a week from the accumulated effects of malnutrition. Total war!

Somehow there were always a few flowers for the funerals, pathetic little processions of a few friends paying respects to one who had “gone before” – a banal phrase that leapt to new life and meaning as the half-dead wondered whose turn would be next.”

This was posted on 12th February 2017. I had intended it to be on  the 75th anniversary of the Vyner Brooke’s sinking, but somehow along the way I mixed up the dates. The anniversary was the 14th.

One Woman’s War and Peace by Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d)

one womans warTHIS is a book I was very eager to get from the time I heard it was being published. I pre-ordered a copy months ahead of publication, and then had to wait longer, because Gloria insisted on paying for it to add to my Christmas presents

 

Sharon Bown was a vital part in my growing interest in military medical work, after I came across a quote from a speech she gave, providing a moving and poetic, but graphic description of her work as an RAAF nurse in Afghanistan.

 

“I have worn their blood
So many of us have worn their blood”

Bown enlisted in the RAAF three years after her graduation as a nurse. Her autobiography takes us through each stage of her military career, from officer training, through service in Australia, overseas deployments and her role as Aide-de-Camp to the Australian Defence Minister.
A defining moment came in East Timor, during a flight to an isolated village where a woman was going through a difficult child birth. The helicopter crashed and Bown was severely hurt, receiving spinal fractures and a broken jaw among other injuries.

It seemed like her career could be cut short, but with determination she pushed through to a remarkable recovery and was eventually able to be deployed overseas again: in Afghanistan.

During her time in Afghanistan, Australian troops were involved in significant confrontations with the Taliban, one of which resulted in SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson being the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross since 1969.

While she mentions Donaldson by name in relation to his award, she earlier tells the story of a tall red haired soldier who had been blown metres into the air from an armoured vehicle after it had triggered an explosive device. He fell almost uninjured still holding tightly to his gun. While she doesn’t name this soldier, a comparison with VC winner Mark Donaldson’s biography makes it clear that he was the tall red-haired soldier in her story.

Like so many who serve in war zones, Bown wasn’t untouched by PTSD. She continued to be haunted by memories of her helicopter crash, with recurring nightmares and flashbacks related to the crash.

Bown is now retired from the RAAF and serves as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.

Military Medicine. Three Conflicts

bad-medicine

Bad Medicine by Terry Ledgard.
Subtitled “a no holds barred account of life as an Australian SAS Medic during the war in Afghanistan”.

This would be the most disappointing book of the “military medic” books I’ve read. Firstly I thought it had too little about the author’s work “during the war in Afghanistan “ (as the title led me to believe). Secondly I found the “no-holds barred” description relates more to a style dependant on clumsy “blokey” crudities than on gritty uncompromising reporting of a medic’s work in a war zone. It seemed to me that he was trying too hard to come across as a “bad boy”

 

combat-medicCombat Medic by Terry Pickard.
Now THIS is the kind of book I expected when I bought the one mentioned above. Despite the slight similarity in author’s names, I thought this book presented a far more honest “no-holds barred” account of a medic faced with the horrors of a war zone. In this case the author recounts his experiences during the Kibeho Massacre in Rwanda in April 1995.

Engaged in a UN peace keeping mission, Pickard and his colleagues found themselves caught up in a devastating killing spree carried out against refugees by the Rwandese Patriotic Army where more than 4,000 men women and children were murdered. The exact number of dead far exceeded the confirmed number, but further counting of the casualties was prevented by the RPA after UN officials had reached the 4,000 mark. Also it was clear that many bodies had been disposed of prior to the count starting.

Pickard’s return to Australia after his deployment in Africa saw him suffer severely from PTSD, resulting in his discharge from the Army just short of the 20 years’ service that would have entitled him to a military pension.

 

tearsTears on My Pillow by Narelle Biedermann.
Here is a slightly different side to the military medical story, concentrating on Australian nurses serving in Vietnam.
The first part of the book gives a brief background history of the war, an overview of the successive Australian field hospitals and a brief introduction to the nurses’ role.

The second part gives individual stories of several of the nurses who served throughout Australia’s involvement in the conflict. Heartbreaking stories could never be avoided when young men, just entering manhood were regularly being killed or maimed in horrific ways, but there are also lighter moments of all too short breaks from the heavy workloads of understaffed operating theatres and recovery wards.
Stories from several different nurses show how differently each of them coped (or not) with what they were facing, but two things remains constant, firstly how little preparation they were given to get them ready for the extremely demanding and stressful work and conditions they were sent to face. And secondly how little support they were given to help them return to lives back in Australia.

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher.

Edith Cavell was an English nurse who helped establish a nursing school in Brussels, at a time when nursing practice in Belgium had low standards and little community respect. Cavell sought to change all of that by training young women to the same kind of standard she had learned during her own training in London and through her experience as a practising nurse in Britain. In 1907 she accepted the role of matron at the new training school in Brussels.

edith-cavellIn 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, thereby drawing Britain, allies of Belgium, into the First World War. Cavell chose to stay in Brussels with her trainee nurses and helped to look after wounded troops from both sides.

When wounded French, British and Belgian soldiers were in danger of being killed by the German invaders, she started to help the Belgian resistance to get them to safety across the Dutch border.
In August 1915 she was arrested and two months later was tried, sentenced to death and shot by firing squad.

This book tries to piece together a part of Cavell’s life that has probably been omitted from many other biographies: the way her Christian faith prepared her to face premature death.

The author looks at the religious routine Cavell followed throughout her life, first as the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and later as a continuing part of her daily devotions, following the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and readings from other devotional books known to be used by Cavell.

Apart from Cavell’s own story, the book touches on the role of religious practice across general society, particularly within a hospital environment, where it is said that prayer and bible reading were the essential starting point of each day in the wards.
How things have changed!

Cavell was shot at dawn on the 12th October 1915.

“Her last glimpse of life on earth would be the gloomy mists of an autumn dawn in Belgium. Her expectation was that in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ she would be in the presence of Jesus.”

“I have worn their blood”

The words of a military nurse inspired my year and a half interest in the wars of the past century. I saw them at the Australian War memorial when I visited for the first time since the 1980s

They were printed on the wall near to a large painting by Ben Quilty  in the Afghanistan exhibition. I’d gone to the memorial primarily to see that painting. I’ve now been back many times, and those words haven’t lost anything despite becoming so familiar.

They come from a predawn service address given by Wing Commander Sharon Bown on Anzac Day 2104 at the War Memorial.  The full quote from her speech is:

I have awaited their return and tended their wounds, never able to fully comprehend the darkness of man that they encountered upon their journey.  I have witnessed their adrenaline fuelled highs of survival and their immense depths of despair at the loss of a mate.  I have laughed reservedly at the often black-humoured stories of soldiers who photograph their legs before a patrol, just in case they never saw them again; and faced the reality of their need to loosely wear a tourniquet on each limb, ready to stem the almost inevitable haemorrhage that could end their life.  I have been privileged to hear of unimaginable acts of bravery and self-preservation; and I have stood by silently to attempt to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.

I have worn their blood.

So many of us have worn their blood.

Those last two sentences still give me goose-bumps in their graphic, yet poetic simplicity in summarising the personal cost and horror of military conflict. The cost to the combatants, but also to those tasked with (literally) putting the human pieces back together again.

My experience described above happened in the lead up to the Anzac centenary. It initiated my curiosity about the meaning of the commemoration and set me on the path to satisfy that curiosity. My journey through the Anzac story has regularly taken me back to that starting point and the experiences of those who “wore” the blood of others. (see  https://outshadows.wordpress.com/category/nurses/)

I’m now impatiently awaiting release of Sharon Bown’s book One Woman’s War and Peace : A Nurse’s Journey Through the Royal Australian Air Force due for release towards the end of the year.

http://www.exislepublishing.com.au/9781925335316.html

one womans war

The full speech by Wing Commander Bown can be read here:

https://www.awm.gov.au/talks-speeches/sharon-bown-anzac-day-2014/

 

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