Today I am really pleased to welcome Dick Robinson to No wriggling out of writing. Many people have asked me about how the nurses who tended the wounded soldiers, and those men suffering from’shell shock’ coped with the trauma they experienced. I was contacted by Dick after I gave a talk on Shell Shocked Britain and I was fascinated by his story. Here he uses the diary written by his great aunt Edith Appleton (published as A Nurse at the Front) to offer a vivid description of a woman at war….
12 September 1916: “I sent 17 of my shell shocks off to Havre yesterday where they are to receive special treatment. Should have liked to keep them here – treating them will be very interesting. I got very sick of hospital rules yesterday and took Matron’s dog for a walk over the cliffs. I was quite alone there and enjoyed it immensely; bathed, sat with not much on and my hair loose and read.”
Sister Edith Appleton served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France throughout the First World War, often close to the front line. Somehow, amongst the carnage, she wrote a daily journal which has been transcribed to produce first a website (www.anurseatthefront.org.uk) and more recently a book (A Nurse at the Front) published by Simon & Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum.
As a child in the 1940s and 50s, I remember Edie as a rather strict elderly lady running a somewhat spartan post-WW2 house. It has been a rewarding experience for me, a century after that terrible war, to rediscover the young woman in her thirties with a sense of humour, a strong sense of duty and a seemingly endless capacity for providing professional, but clearly loving, care.
In the Spring of 1915 Edie was located at No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station near Ypres.
April 28. We were so much under fire since Saturday that on Monday night we were ordered to clear out in half an hour. We had operations on at the time and tried to become used to the explosions of a big shell close to us every 5 minutes, but it was difficult and my knees did shake.
So to-day, just for one day, after the fortnight of working night and day, we are having a picnic in a beautiful wood just outside Hazebrouck. It is very restful not to hear the roar of the guns so loud and near.
As a child I knew nothing of Edie’s experiences in the Great War. She never spoke of it and certainly not to us children. In 2013 I spent some time in the Isle of Wight. Not a single soul in the village of Brighstone, where Edie spent the last 35 years of her life, knew about her Great War experience.
Here’s another extract from the period when Edie was stationed in No. 1 Stationary Hospital at Etretat on the Normandy coast.
11 September 1916: “We had a convoy of 399 in yesterday. Most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them; they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin-faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers and sometimes, going through the trenches, he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded anywhere and they would yell at him: “Don’t touch me,” but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down and see it was a dying or dead man – half covered in mud.
Edie names over 200 individuals – colleagues and patients – in her diaries and one of the best rewards of publishing the diaries has been contacts from descendants of some of those named. There have been 16 to date and some are linked from this page on Edie’s website.
30 May 1916. One gruesome thing my patient Sam Maddox told me was that when they were marching into Ypres they saw another Company of the Warwicks resting by the roadside, some sitting on the kerbstones, some lying about. They took not the least notice of the passing officer – no salute – nothing. Then the officer went up to them and touched one man’s cheek – white powder fell off. He was stone dead. They had all been killed by gas as they sat or lay. It was a horrible sight, some of them were smiling and some looked as if they were asleep.
In October 2013 I was with the BBC in Etretat where Edie spent a year of the war. A programme was shown in November 2014 on BBC2, ‘The Great War – an Elegy’, in which the poet Simon Armitage looked at seven WW1 artefacts and wrote a poem about each. One of these is Edie’s diary and the programme, described in The Times Culture Awards as “The Best First World War TV Programme of the Year”, can be viewed here.
The diaries include many sketches. Here are a couple – in Etretat. The words next to the three figures are “going for an early dip – ME not one of them”.
We are currently giving illustrated talks around the country about Edie and her amazing diaries; see http://anurseatthefront.org.uk/talks/. I tell Edie’s story and my wife, Lisa, reads extracts from the diaries. We are happy to receive invitations.
To end, here’s another diary extract:
“In one of my huts, among the many severe cases, there was one especially sad one: a sweet boy not much over 18. A grenade had torn his left arm cleanly off. His little face was always screwed up with pain and no sound came from his lips. When the surgeon examined him only I handled him; as he said “with Sister it does not hurt so much”.
That wasn’t actually Edie writing. German Krankenschwester – Sister – Hanna served on the other side of the front line, caring for German wounded. Last summer Lisa and I gave our Edie presentation – in French – to German, French and Italian diary archivists in Strasbourg. They, like us, were keen to acknowledge the horrors which all went through in that terrible war.
My sincere thanks to Dick, and to find out more contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the diaries on twitter at https://twitter.com/ediesdiaries