Wednesday, 30 January 2013

If you think you're cold ...

... Just spare a thought for nurses in France during the winter of 1915.  Olive Dent worked as a VAD at No.9 General Hospital, on the race-course at Rouen, and her descriptions life 'on active service' are vivid, with lots of insights into living and working conditions that can't be found elsewhere. The book, no longer in copyright, if freely available for download from the web. Illustrations by R.M. Savage 'and others.'



SNOW has fallen persistently for a fortnight. Its coming was presaged by leaden skies and dull grey shadow clouds, which delighted the Australian and New Zealand nurses who were unaccustomed to half-lights, and some of whom had never seen snow. Then one morning we awoke to find the camp mantled in whiteness, the tents roofed and the tent ropes powdered with fairy-poised flakes, while a flaming, early sun shot red shafts of light through a silhouetted fringe of tall poplars, whose high branches dangled clumps of mistletoe like so many deserted rooks' nests.  The New Zealanders especially were charmed, but, nous autres, we all shivered into our warmest woollies, packed them tight on us like the leaves of a head of lettuce.

" Positively I shall have to peel myself tonight," vowed one girl. And, indeed, it takes a good many woollen garments to replace the furs and fur coats to which we have accustomed ourselves within the past few years. Finally, one gets into one's clothes, laces up one's service boots how long they are ! with clumsy chilblained
fingers, or thrusts and stamps one's feet into gumboots, having first donned two pairs of stockings, one pair of woolly "slip-ons," or a pair of fleecy soles, and probably padded cotton, or cyanide, wool round the toes. Then with a jersey, a mackintosh, and a sou'wester over one's uniform, out into the snow to the mess-room, with no path yet made. It is one of the few times one pauses to remember that one is "on active service."
Of course, almost everyone has a cold, almost everyone has a cough, and everyone has chilblains. Some unfortunate creatures have all three. Our chilblains, true to their inconvenient and inconsiderate kind, have
cracked, and the disinfectants among which we dabble in the wards, while keeping them aseptic, give them never a chance to heal.

So each day, like Henry V's veterans, we count our wounds and scars and say well, we say many things. Cures ? We dutifully rub on, and in, liniments while lacking faith in their efficacy. One brave soul the other night, driven to drastic measure by continuous irritation, walked boldly out into the snow in her bare feet. Some critics deplored her foolhardiness, some deplored her grandmotherly superstition and quackery, while we others stood round the door and applauded the courage of her action, though shivering at the sight of its stoic execution. Unfortunately for the complete success of the cure, she trod on a sharp stone.

Round the tent door stand the up-patients, eager to seize any chance surreptitiously to snowball orderlies and the French newspaper boy, and then to take mean advantage by an instantaneous retreat into the " dug-out."
We hurry on with the morning work and its attendant duties and dressings, and as the afternoon and evening come, so, too, does the snow, faster than it can be raked from the tent roof and path. The stoves are filled with coal and coke, the tents are laced closely, blankets are hung purdah-wise over the lacings, the gramophone is kept busy, cards, draughts, and puzzles are brought out, and everything is " tres bon, sister," as the boys say, "quite merry and bright." Only occasionally the minor tone is introduced :
"There's a few boys in the trenches would like to be here to-night.'

The snow has ceased to fall when we leave at eight o'clock to go to the quarters, and the whiteness of the snow gives considerable light. We meet the night nurses coming on duty dressed cap-a-pie in wool and mackintosh, and looking like so many Lucy Grays coming with their lanterns through the snow. Lacking the decorum of Lucy, they shy some painfully well-placed snowballs at us, so we dip for a handful of snow. " Oh! hit me, but don't hit my hurricane '!" sounds like a mean advantage, so we, stony-heartedly, cry, " Put your 'hurricane' at the leeward side of you Fore!”

Going to bed is a prodigious rite and ceremony. After a bath in a camp bath, which against the feeble force of chilblained fingers has a maximum resistance, immovability and inertia, and yet seems to possess a centre of gravity more elusive than mercury, one dons pyjamas, cholera belt, pneumonia jacket, bed socks, and bed stockings as long and woolly as a Father Christmas's, and then piles on the bed travelling rug, dressing gown, and fur coat. Even in bed the trials of active service do not end on occasion. We found one girl lying in bed the other night with her umbrella up. The snow had melted and was trickling through the tent, and she was too tired to trouble about having matters righted, " I'm imagining it is a garden parasol, and I'm in a hammock, and it's June." Gorgeous imagination !

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