Sunday 8 July 2007

A 'V.A.D.' at the Base

This is another extract from 'Reminiscent Sketches,' and as it's quite long I've divided it into two parts - reading long accounts right through on the screen might result in the loss of the will to live! It's actually written not by a VAD, but by a trained member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, so perhaps not quite a 'horse's mouth' memoir, but interesting for its small detail not found elsewhere.

K. M. Barrow

“Keep the large things large and the small things small,” is a fine American motto which the V.A.D. abroad might well have adopted as her own. No matter what type of home she had left behind, every girl in the great military hospitals or elsewhere was living under strange, and at first, bewildering conditions. She was up against new problems and experiencing new sensations; she was confronted with new barriers and restrictions; but she was enlarging her horizon and expanding her outlook. Like Alice, it was as though she had stepped through the looking-glass into a new world. In spite of the pictures which it breaks the heart to remember; in spite of the little jars and frets and anxieties which seemed Gargantuan at the time; every V.A.D. all the world over could honestly write against the record of those days the words “very happy." Life in a military hospital is a school within a school. Inside the big school of experience there is a type of school life which is not unlike that life which we lived in our “teens” with its friendships, its “shop,” its frenzied activities, and its recreations.

On the long white road which stretches from the slippery quay-side at Boulogne to the little distant villages clustered around tiny churches; fringed on one side of the road with ugly grey hospital huts or tents set in pleasant gardens, and on the other side with the chalk cliffs and great sparkling blue roadway to “Blighty,” we all lived much the same life. We all knew what it was to wait with beating hearts to hear our fate in the prim hotel sitting-room, with its faint smell of dust and roasted coffee-bean; then to be carried by the great lumbering ambulance – in the silver summer dusk or the bitter winter cold – into the unknown. We knew what it was to struggle with our flimsy camp furniture in the little wooden hut for two, or the narrow confines of a dark tent; and to wake to our first hurried breakfast surrounded by strange faces, with very much the sensation of a swimmer who has forgotten his stroke. The old mess hut or tent has very pleasant recollections for most of us. Breakfast was too hurried a meal to permit of much conversation except for the early arrivals, who toasted or burnt their bread at the stove, according to the position which they secured. So it was with nine o’clock “tea and biscuits” breathlessly snatched perhaps when convoys were rolling in; but at lunch all the plans for afternoon or evening “times off” were discussed, and arrangements made for eagerly anticipated “half-days.” The most pleasant meal of all was, perhaps, the “first dinner” when those who were free for the evening might wear out-door uniform and hats, instead of the regulation caps and aprons.

Sunday was marked by two domestic features, namely, boiled eggs for breakfast, and afternoon tea in the sitting-room when we all ate French patisserie and home-made cakes like hungry school boys; and when even those on night duty sometimes made a belated appearance. It was by no means an infrequent occurrence up on the cliff, when a mess tent was used in place of a hut, for the whole to collapse when the wind blew “unco’rudely,” and to be found in the morning in a crumpled ruin like a collapsed pack of cards. On summer “half-days” we scoured the countryside for flowers for the wards, drank coffee and ate omelets in the old farm houses, or enjoyed tea and ices at the Club or in the cheerful French shops with their tempting confectionery, unless food restrictions happened to be acute at the time. Thousands of tired or convalescent V.A.D.’s will think more than gratefully of peaceful days in the lovely woods at Hardelot or in the Villa at Cannes; when expeditions were planned and everything that was possible done to give mind and body a real rest and a chance of recuperation.

In France, when convoy after convoy poured in, and when one piteous wreck after another, whose bandages were stiff with mud and blood, had been deposited on a clean white bed; the extent of a V.A.D.’s work was bound to be decided far more by the measure of her capacity than by rule of seniority, or red tape. Matron and sisters soon discovered those whose skill, quickness and level-headedness, justified trust. In every new venture there are few who have not to walk for a space some time or other in the Valley of Humiliation, the military hospitals in France were a magnificent school, not only for actual nursing, but for self-control and nerve. Naturally, there were some sisters more trusting, more patient, and more ready to teach than others. Though there could not fail to be occasional jealousies and occasional bitterness among the V.A.D.'s, a strong esprit de corps, and a strong sense of discipline prevailed. In all hospitals everyone was quite ready to undertake the smallest task as well as tasks of a more responsible nature. Let no one imagine that even the humble care of lockers is a task in the nature of “sitting in the sun.” To satisfy the Sister-in-Charge, and at the same time to deal faithfully with the daily dole of cigarettes and matches – cherished like gold-dust – the photographs, the little brown pay-book, the melting toffee, the mouth organ, the presents from home, and above all, the cause of the fractured limb or the bandaged head, which was wrapped in a fold of newspaper to be dispatched to mother or wife, is no light task. “Did you see a little bit of shrapnel, nurse, when you were tidying out my locker?” asked a worried gunner to a newly-arrived V.A.D., and she realized, with a pang of remorse, that the tiny morsel of lead which she had swept away with broken ends of matches and cigarette stumps, was the most sacred item among “Jock’s” possessions.

Of the patients’ kindness and keen sense of gratitude, of their readiness to help in the wards, their goodness and unselfishness to each other, of their pluck and grit, and their cheerful assurance that they were “in the pink,” “not too bad,” or “fine,” even when the Angel of Death was standing close at hand, one need not speak. Had one had time to think, or the right to indulge one’s own feelings, the pathos of some of those scenes might have been unbearable. Pictures of a pale lad, singing “Annie Laurie” right through in a quavering voice, in his efforts to distract his mind from his sufferings during an agonizing dressing; of a “jaw-case” on the D.I. list with his poor mouth smeared with the crumbs of a home-made plum cake sent by his wife, which he had tried unavailingly or surreptitiously to eat; of a dying gardener with his face irradiated with joy when Sister handed him a flower, pass before one to be succeeded by another and again another, each unforgettable in its turn.