Friday, 6 April 2007

Who has the truth?

I’ve got used to reading a fair amount of inaccuracy about nursing during the Great War. Well, that’s not quite true – I almost expect it now, although I’ve never got USED to it – and when I come across bits that are blatant rubbish, they really rankle, especially if they’re written by academics, as these are the accounts that may well be digested and then repeated as the absolute truth.

As a member of the Royal College of Nursing, the newsletter of the associated History of Nursing Society dropped through my letter box last week. Inside was a short article written by a prominent member of the nursing profession, titled ‘Who has the truth?’ In it she expresses regret that the health care professions are failing to keep much of their paperwork and written archive material, and also of the transient nature of electronic sources which are too easily deleted, a process that she describes as ‘throwing our “truth" away’. She makes a comparison with the diaries and letters retained by Vera Brittain, which allowed her, nearly two decades later, to ‘write an accurate testimony’ of her life as a VAD during the Great War.

How accurate those original diaries were, and whether we are throwing out history away now, any more than we did a hundred years ago, are both subjects which could be long debated, but I was interested in one paragraph, in which she writes:

A Testament of Youth kept us fixed to our TV screens in the 1970s as we followed this amazing woman through her Voluntary Aided Detachment (VAD) experiences in the First World War. Through her memory, supported by diaries, letters and “artefacts”, she gives subsequent generations insight into the experience of living through those times. She lost her fiancé, her brother, their friends and many, many patients. She nursed on the Western Front, in Malta and everywhere in between in field ambulances and hospital trains.

That last sentence made me sit up and take notice, and, very concerned that my memory might be failing me in advancing years, it had me running to grab my copies of “Testament of Youth” and “Chronicle of Youth.” Vera Brittain certainly served on the Western Front and in Malta, but where was this ‘everywhere in between’ that is mentioned. No VAD member working under the auspices of the War Office [as Brittain was] ever served in a casualty clearing station, let alone a field ambulance, their service being restricted to military hospitals only, and military ambulance trains carried a staff of three trained nurses, not VADs. So did VB make any claims in her writing to working in field ambulances or on ambulance trains? Did the filmed version of “Testament of Youth” use artistic licence to include scenes that could not be substantiated by original sources? Or has the writer included that sentence to make more interesting reading without having intimate knowledge of her subject? I’d be glad for any further insights into this.

‘Who has the truth?’

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