Guest post: A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton, WW1 nurse and diarist – by Dick Robinson

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….

EdieHead12 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 ( 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”.

sketch1 We are currently giving illustrated talks around the country about Edie and her amazing diaries; see 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.

Dick Robinson

My sincere thanks to Dick, and to find out more contact him at or follow the diaries on twitter at

Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead

Katie Hopkins

Katie Hopkins

I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.

But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alive was published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.

What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery.


Even one of my closest and loveliest friends has now made a joke about how she will be scared to get in a car with me….

I am furious that the newspaper headlines and people like Hopkins and Morgan can undo all the hard work that has been done, and undermine the work still needed, to reduce the stigma attached to mental ill-health. It is particularly shameful in light of the fact that men are far less likely to seek help for depression and three times more likely to commit suicide than women. There are men and women returning from conflict zones experiencing PTSD who deserve respect. We need people to seek attention – not feel ashamed for doing so. It is those who need help we should be listening to, not the media whores who would rather be hated than ignored.

I would give anything not to experience the desperate anxiety that has on occasions wrecked weeks of my life. No-one chooses to feel clinically depressed – it is HORRIBLE. And I work, and drive and do all those things people do to just get on with their lives. I am just me – trying hard not to be defined by my mental health issues, working hard and finding joy where and when I can.

And it is about time we took people like Katie Hopkins to task. She won’t care, she will just shout ‘freedom of speech’ and spit more worthless s**t about people whose lives she knows nothing of. I am not a violent woman, but by God if I met her I would be hard pressed to hold the slap back.

The battle to reduce the stigma associated with mental health is not lost of course. But perhaps we need to re-write a few rules….

Posted in Mental health, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Happiness is SO yesterday – On World Poetry Day, who else but John Keats?

keats19Today is World Poetry Day, following swiftly on the heels of the International Day of Happiness. I have to say that this is the day more likely to see me full of passion for life. I downloaded the Happiness Pack yesterday, out of interest, and the air was filled with the smell of pie in the sky. I am sure it is well-intentioned but happiness is not a switch that you can turn on and off at will. Life doesn’t read pretty .pdf documents, or care much whether you have smiled at a stranger this morning.

Please don’t get me wrong – I long for happiness and contentment but have come to accept that life is rather more complex than I would like. That is why I love poetry so much. Poetry, and the good poet, can distil an emotion into so few words that you can hear or read two or three lines and think ‘YES!!’, and know that however you are feeling, someone is or has been with you there.

I have written about my love for the life, letters and of course poetry, of John Keats on here many times. There is a whole page dedicated to links to posts about him, and how people interpret his work. His poetry and letters helped me through some tough times, and I continue to read him widely simply for the pure pleasure of it. So for World Poetry Day I have chosen a poem in which he offers us all (as a celebrity and appearance obsessed society) and anyone tempted to enter a TV talent competition, a proper wake up call. At the same time he writes with such sensuousness, and sexual reference, that much erotic fiction could learn a thing or three….

On Fame

You cannot eat your cake and have it too.”–Proverb.

How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

John Keats 1819

The comparative ugliness of the first lines, compared to the relative purity of the final six, shows us how far a drive for fame for fame’s sake can despoil a man’s life. It is a subject Keats wrote about more than once, also comparing fame to a ‘wayward’ girl, who teases the man who would chase after her and who reserves her affections for those more circumspect. We need to leave our roses on the briar, step back and enjoy that crystal space….

Happy World Poetry Day!!


Posted in Books, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sigur Rós – Ekki múkk


I had to re blog this post by my artist and writer pal Rivenrod, who has fallen in love with this film, backed by the music of the wonderful Sigur Ros. It is a 10 minute meditation on life, the Universe and everything. Just what I needed as I battle the aftermath of ‘flu…..

Originally posted on Rivenrod:

Absolutely thought provokingly beautiful.


Thank you so much Lalocabrujita for introducing this to us.

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‘What’s the use of worrying?’ – Letters from the First World War

Today I welcome another guest to No Wriggling – fellow Pen and Sword author Jacqueline Wadsworth, whose book ‘Letters From the Trenches – The First World War by Those Who Were There’ offers us the most moving personal stories from the pens of the ordinary people whose lives were so utterly transformed by the conflict. Having read it I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest not only in the Great War, but in humanity and in the triumph of the spirit in the most desolate of circumstances….

Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)

Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)

‘Had such a nice walk to some French village and had steak and onions. We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.’

You would be forgiven for thinking that this quote describes a peaceful day out in the countryside – although the word ‘march’ probably gives it away. In fact it comes from a letter written from the Western Front in May 1916, and illustrates something I learned very quickly while researching my new book ‘Letters from the Trenches’: most letters were not full of doom and gloom. Instead they were often light-hearted and humorous, written by men (and women) who tried to make the best of things despite the difficulties they faced. The quote above comes from a letter by Private Edward Kensit, a 37-year-old South African soldier who worked as a botanist during peacetime and fought with the British in France. Here’s another scene he described, while in a rest area away from the trenches – his company must have been very reassuring.

I was on guard at an old farm house the other day and I made myself a nice bean feed – I soaked the beans about 3 hours then the women [locals] put them on the stove for about 5 hours. I put in a 1lb of butter – cost me 3 franks (2s/6d) my chums all paid their share but it was a fine feed … We had milk too.’ He added: ‘There was a grand show of rhododendrons, oh such a grand sight. Here I first saw the forget-me-nots growing, also some rhubarb – but very abnormal.’

Even in the midst of the fighting there was ‘fun’ to be found, and young Frank Woodhouse, who worked in the mines of Nottinghamshire before enlisting, could barely contain his excitement in this letter home after a fire-fight in 1916:

I had my [twentieth] birthday in the trenches in rather an exciting time and you can bet I shall never forget the date. On the night of the 13that about 11.30 we were ordered to strafe the Germans who were known to be working on his parapets & barbed wire etc. All of a sudden we opened rapid fire with rifles & machine guns & rifle grenades & all kind of stuff. The noise was simply deafening. You ought to have seen our boys blazing away despite “Fritz’s” machine guns on our parapets. They carried on fully ¼ of an hour & then things quietened down a bit. I think our fire had good effect on them, since we “opened” so suddenly.

A soldier’s life obviously suited Frank, and the same was true of an officer called Charles Alderton, from Clerkenwell in London, whose middle-class home had been less than challenging:

My life here has been full of interest,’ he wrote to his family from France in 1917. ‘I am now sitting in a dugout about 6ft by 6ft where 5 of us feed and 3 sleep, my bed which is a stretcher is fixed up one end on the steps and one on the table and I can tell you we are really having a fine time and quite enjoying ourselves. There is a very deep dug out lower down leading out of ours which we were going to use only on exploring we (I and another fellow) found the remains of one or two Boche in a really fine decomposed state, so we had them removed and are giving it a chance to freshen up.

Tom Fake with his wife, Charlotte, and son (Courtesy of Jackie Carpenter)

Tom Fake with his wife, Charlotte, and son (Courtesy of Jackie Carpenter)

By contrast, Private Tom Fake was conscripted into the army and would certainly not have chosen to serve, but even he could be humorous in letters he sent to his wife Charlotte in Bristol, although it was sometimes at her expense! When she had her troublesome teeth taken out so that dentures could be fitted, Tom indulged some light-hearted teasing:

I am so glad you sent me a photo of yourself, for I think I should have had a job to recognise you, talk about shock, I think it would have been worse than shell shock, but now I know what to expect … I don’t mind seeing you without teeth. One thing, you will not be able to bite, but if you have lost your teeth, I suppose you haven’t lost anything else. Any rate I did not get mated up to you because you looked pretty, so that will not make any difference to us.

Tom and Frank survived the war, but Edward and Charles did not. Neither did an engaging teenager called Cecil Cadmore, 18, from Herefordshire, whose letter to his cousin Gwen from army camp in England was a real breath of fresh air, gently mocking the training he received:

Last Tuesday we were doing wood fighting. Before we started we were told not to pick blackberries while advancing. We went thro’ one wood in fine style & across & into another wood. We surprised about 60 of the enemy & captured them, & then got cussed for leaving the first wood. Then a Major came up & said he would lead us thro’ the next wood. He pulled out a compass & said we would march by that. Then we gave ourselves up for lost (we always do get lost when marching by compass.) Well! We did get lost & I picked a lot of nuts while we were halted, which we were every minute while the Major consulted his compass. When we did get out of the wood we found the rest of the Battalion had finished the attack & the grub as well. Never mind, I ate nuts all the way home.

Sadly, this was one of his last letters to Gwen, for Cecil was killed two months later in France. His attitude summed up that of many of the letter-writers you’ll find in my book – to quote the old WW1 marching song: ‘What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile.’


My sincere thanks to Jacqueline for taking the time to write for my blog.

Letters from the Trenches is published by Pen and Sword Books, RRP£19.99. Jacqueline Wadsworth is a freelance writer and has written two books to coincide with the WW1 Centenary: ‘Bristol in the Great War’, ‘Letters from the Trenches’, both published by Pen and Sword Books. A third, ‘Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War’ is due out in November 2015. She lives near Bristol with her family and when not at her desk she is a keen cyclist, follower of Liverpool FC, fan of American roots music, and supporter of The Donkey Sanctuary. You can find out more about Jacqueline and read further extracts on her website

Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Poems You Didn’t Write: Since Feeling is First


Over the past few days I have been posting a series of pieces headlined ‘Love poems you wish you had written’, from an idea originally mooted by David J Beauman, AKA The Dad Poet. When David saw that I was returning to the series, after a break of two years, he reciprocated, reblogging a couple of my selections (or rather the poems requested by my mates on social media). So today I return the compliment, because he has posted an intriguing poem by E E Cummings, and compares the ‘syntax of things’ to cooking a meal for the man he loves. Creating something delicious needs a basic technique, but a whole lot more magic to make it special…..

Thanks for all the inspiration David. Here’s to a poetic 2015 :-)

Originally posted on The Dad Poet:

tumblr_mpsffcmQRE1styy8io1_500So I changed the title. Please feel free to submit a formal complaint to the management. You can consider this the fourth and final installment of the “Love Poems You Wish You Had Written” series for 2015. There is about a half hour left in the day of the man who died to marry people (or so the story of St. Valentine goes). My sweetheart is in a food coma on the couch and we haven’t even gotten to dessert yet. I guess I overdid it.

Having worked in the restaurant industry, at first by choice and then as a means of survival, the last place I wanted to be was out on the town tonight. So I cooked, oh boy did I cook. Brie with apricots, honey, pecans and golden raisins; Caesar salad with red onions and red romaine; and Brian’s favorite, chicken Parmesan with my own pasta sauce…

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On St Valentine’s Day – Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #4 – UA Fanthorpe

love_poem_400x400So we come to the ‘big day’ itself. The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day and apparently the most romantic day of the year. Of course, for many it is nothing like that, by circumstance or choice.  There is something rather uncomfortable (and occasionally nauseating) about seeing rows and rows of red cards of various design (and taste) in the shops as soon as Christmas cards are swept into the stock room once more.

However, the sentiment is a fine one and when I called for requests this year, asking my readers and friends on social media to suggest love poems for this short series, one stood out as distilling my feelings for my own Valentine – my lovely husband Peter. And it isn’t by John Keats (though I was sorely tempted of course!)

fanthorpe180U (Ursula) A Fanthorpe was a British poet who died in 2009 and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her poetry at all, until prompted by Jessamy Carlson  (‏@rjc_archives ) on twitter. Her obituaries describe her as ‘a great role model for all of us who could do with a bit of ‘late flowering’ ‘ and I am determined to read more of her work in the future. I think this poem sums up that kind of love that, whilst ‘everyday’, is vital for the maintenance of another’s happiness and which inspires devotion, understanding and acceptance. I have a very ‘suspect edifice’ at times, and regularly require a metaphorical re-wiring and re-pointing. This is quite different from Donne, Auden or Yeats, but utterly believable and real.


UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

What do you think? Do you still find it romantic, as I do, despite the imagery being more practical than poetic?

Sadly, I could not find a reading on YouTube and there is no recording of Fanthorpe reading Atlas on The Poetry Archive, although she reads three other poems, including ‘Earthed’.

So this week of love poetry has been fun for me, and asking for requests took the pressure off a little as I struggled to sift through the many, many poetry books that fill my shelves. There were other poems suggested, including Because I liked you, a sombre piece by A E Houseman, How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, La Vita Nuova by Dante and a number of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, two of which were included on a companion post by the lovely Dad Poet. My thanks to everyone who got in touch.

So on Valentine’s Day love and be loved, or take heart in the thought that somewhere out there is the person for whom, one day, you can find a just the right poem. I hope the past few days, and my previous posts on poetry (just search in the box above or find ‘poetry’ in the word count to the right) have given you a few ideas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Posted in Book, Books, Family, Literature, love the universe and everything, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments