Saturday, 31 October 2009

The missing eighty thousand

After more than a century, the phrase 'Lies, damned lies and statistics' still rings true on many occasions today. I frequently browse search engines to see if I can find anything about military nurses that's new to the web and of interest to me, and have known for some time that there's a fundamental error on a prominent nursing website, quoting 100,000 thousand for the number of nurses who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Reserve during the Great War. However, a recent search shows that this error has now been replicated on numerous other sites - those which blindly copy what they find elsewhere without any effort to verify that the information is accurate, although they probably wouldn't have the first idea where to start in getting it right.
So I would like to shout out that there were never 100,000 members of QAIMNS and Reserve during the Great War, or in WW2, or for both of them added together for that matter. The National Archives holds service records for 9,349 members of QAIMNS/Reserve who served during the Great War, and another 6,640 for members of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. This run of files is not complete, as they were weeded during the 1930s and a percentage removed if the women were not able to serve again due to a variety of reasons, or if they went on to serve during the Second World War, in which case their files will still be held by the Ministry of Defence. The full number is unknown, but it's estimated that probably 20-30% more women actually served with the British military nursing services during the First World War than the run of files suggests.
Even a generous estimate pushes that number up to perhaps 13,000 members of QAIMNS/Reserve and 9,000 members of the TFNS, giving a total of about 22,000 women who served. So if you ever read that 100,000 nurses were members of QAIMNS during the war, please ignore it, and if you're really bold, drop a line to the webmaster pointing out the error.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Edith Appleton re-visited

Some time ago I wrote about Sister Edith Appleton, who kept a diary throughout her time in France as a member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, and which is now online:

Edith Appleton's diary

Wisely, in the face of such an interesting, compassionate and humorous work, BBC radio have decided to broadcast some extracts from the diary on three days during Remembrance week. The online diary is a family collaboration, and Dick Robinson, collaborator-in-chief, travelled down to Brighton for the recording of the programme, and an account of the day, and details of the programme are on his website here:

Edie makes it on to the radio

Very well done to all concerned - certainly something to look forward to.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Diary of a Zepp. Night

This account, written by a VAD, is taken from the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital (TF) Wandsworth, and published in the June 1916 edition. The Gazette was probably the best of all hospital magazines, due mainly to the foresight of the Commanding Officer, Colonel Bruce Porter, in employing a group of men who were all members of the Chelsea Arts Club and too old, or unfit for normal military service. In addition to their work as orderlies at the hospital, they wrote, illustrated and published a monthly magazine which resulted in one of the finest insights into life in a large military hospital during the Great War.

9.15 - Night Sister blows in rather hurriedly. "All lights out, and just run round to the other wards." Start off on my travels, beginning by badly barking my shins on radiator. Make a frantic dive for the door and land with a resounding crash into a screen. Start once more, and eventually arrive - falling over every possible object en route. Dash upstairs and drop metal matchbox down well of staircase with a noise like several bombs. Await result in palpitating silence. Nothing happens, so "carry on."
9.45 - Suffering from shock and ready for anything. See figure silhouetted against window. Ask what it's doing out of bed, and find it's the statue that adorns the ward. Retire crushed.
10pm - Frenzied search for respirators and solution by matchlight. Wake most of the patients with the striking and singe hair and eyebrows, but success attends my efforts. All is prepared. Do your worst, O Hun!
10.15 - Obtain electric torch, and, shrouding it in kit handkerchiefs, go forth in search of adventure and, incidentally, of Night Sister. Am asked by a gentleman if I can direct him to L ward. Offer him the services of my glow-worm, and put him on the broad road that leadeth to L. The same old tale again, I suppose: cherchez la femme.
10.30 - Fire in side ward insists on blazing. Damp its ardour, but it bursts forth afresh every few minutes. On ordinary occasions to look at it is to put it out. Tonight it needs a pint of water or so every half-hour (more or less) illustrating the cussedness of things as they are.
11pm - Toast feet on radiator and search the heavens for the foe. Nothing doing.
11.30 - Still nothing doing.
12 midnight - Suspense is wearying. Decide to have supper. Cook something - bacon - by the smell thereof - make coffee, and pour three parts down the sink in the endeavour to strain it. Eat and drink in solid darkness; but all is tasteless, dust and ashes as it were. Queer what a difference sight makes to flavour.
12.15 - A tiny light comes down the ward, swaying and dancing through the blackness. Is it a fallen star or a Will o' the Wisp on his nightly travels? 'S neither, but our "Lady of the Lamp" on her midnight round. And the news she brings: "Raid in the ___ district, nothing definite." Cheering. Will they blow usup en masse or a ward at a time? Take a gloomy survey of my past, and speculate on the chances of arriving 'there' whole or in portions.
12.45 - Patrol the ward, pitying the unsuspecting patients slumbering regardless of peril!
1.30 - A not very lucid interval.
3.15 - Another visit from the Lady of the Lamp. No tidings either way. Why, oh why, did I leave my happy home and come on night duty?
4am - Dawn begins to lighten our darkness and the order "Lights out" coincides with the running of the first train to be released. It dashes through with a whoop of triumph and defiance, and I pull myself together and decide that it's not such a bad life after all.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Not All Angels

Why do I get increasingly irritated by hearing women who nursed during the Great War described as 'angels'? I realise that it's been used for decades as a catch-all compliment, but surely there are far better ways of describing this group of women.

Angel - a divine or semi-divine being; a spiritual helper for humankind; a personification of the concept of holiness; a person whose actions and thoughts are consistently virtuous.

But angels don't actually exist, do they? Perhaps that depends on an individual's religous beliefs, but to me, no, they are definitely 'pretend.' But nothing 'pretend' about the women who served as nurses during the Great War. I've done a fair bit of research and looked at the life and work of hundreds of individual women who worked as military nurses and VADs, and can come up with many more suitable ways of describing them than by use of the word 'angel.'
They were hard-working, professional, responsible, strong, fit, frail, delicate, robust, nervous, lazy, sympathetic, workaholic, caring, gentle, indifferent, kindly, polite, thoughtful, hard, highly-trained, compassionate, tactless, altruistic, uncaring, intelligent, artistic, literate, rude, middle-class, working-class, loyal, trustworthy, untrustworthy, popular, unpopular, selfless, selfish, honourable .... a group of normal women.

And definitely not all angels!