Thursday 16 August 2007

On the Horizon

Over the last three or four years I've spent a lot of time transcribing original, unpublished documents relating to the nursing services during the Great War, which are held at The National Archives, Kew. Most of these documents were originally stored at the War Office, and transferred to TNA over the past twenty years; since then the majority have never been looked at [except by me]. A year ago I decided to undertake a massive project by transcribing the official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force during the war, Maud McCarthy, which runs to well over three thousand pages, and almost a million words. It took over my life for twelve months, and knowing what a treasure house it is, I intended to edit and publish as much of the content as I could fit between two covers. I really wanted to show what the basics of life were like for the women who served in France and Flanders - not the blood and bandages bits necessarily - but the ordinary comings and goings, and minutiae of their day to day existence. However, as I started to edit, and cut large chunks out, I realised that because of the size of the complete work, too much would end up on the cutting room floor, and I wouldn't achieve what I set out to do.

So I've recently taken the decision to publish many of these documents, including the diary, on the web, and am just in the process of trying to work out what form they will take, and how to get them into readable shape. Because they are Crown Copyright documents, I'm free to do with them what I wish [more or less], as long as I don't use any actual images of them, and I acknowledge their source in full. Besides the diary, there are many accounts of the various nursing services during the Great War, including all the overseas nursing services who worked alongside the British. In addition, I've recently acquired copies of many WW2 personal accounts, written by members of QAIMNS and the Territorial Army Nursing Service, and one document giving the locations of all British General Hospitals at home and abroad between 1939-46. I'm not sure how long it will be before the first bit appears online, but hopefully not too long - in view of both the length and depth of the work, it will be a long, ongoing process, but I feel very excited at the thought that the documents will be available for all to read, learn from, and enjoy.

Sunday 12 August 2007

A 'V.A.D.' at the Base (Part Two)

A long gap since Part One, caused by seeing too much of the inside of hospitals [on behalf of my aged mother], but here are the remaining paragraphs at last.

A 'V.A.D.' at the Base
by K. M. Barrow

On the other hand, in spite of all the pain and heartbreaking tragedy, the humorous side of life is never far away in hospital. One recalls the dummy – carefully charted and hideously masked – which was tucked into bed for the benefit of the V.A.D. and orderly when they came on night duty, and the stifled laughter under the bedclothes in adjoining beds. One recalls, too, the great occasions when some Royal or notable person came to visit the wards. Then we spent ourselves in table decorations, emptied the market of flowers, or ransacked the woods and meadows for willow or catkins, ox-eyed daisies or giant kingcups. Incidentally, we made the boys’ lives a burden to them by our meticulous care in smoothing out sheets, tucking in corners, and repairing the slightest disorder occasioned by every movement on their part, till the occasion was over. Sometimes the expected visitor did not turn up, and when another rumour of a projected visit was brought into the ward by a V.A.D., she was hardly surprised to find that her announcement was greeted on all sides by the somewhat blasphemous chorus of “Tell me the old, old story.” It was a curious coincidence, too, that on one occasion when the Queen was going the round of one of the wards in France – which was crowded with men fresh from the trenches – Her Majesty should have happened upon a patient standing stiffly to attention, and when sympathetically inquiring how he received his wound, was doubtless slightly surprised at the brisk reply, “Kicked by an ‘orse, mum.” On another occasion, when a visit from Sir Douglas Haig was momentarily expected, an intrepid Australian, concluding that there was time to spare, and greatly pleased to find that there was no competition, had placed a tin plate containing an egg to fry on the newly polished stove, which shone with inky radiance – the combined effort of orderly and patients. The decoration caught the eagle eye of sister, who demanded its instant removal, and while the discomfited cook seized his plate, the announcement, “Duggie’s here” was whispered; in his agitation the Australian turned the contents on to the polished surface. As the gallant Commander-in-Chief entered the ward he was confronted with a strong smell of cooking “gang agley,” and a stifling thick blue smoke rising like incense from the top of the stove. These Royal visits were much enjoyed by the men, and in the case of an Irish lad were the cause of much boastful comment as to the ease of manner with which he intended to greet the Royal visitor. These usually began with, “Sister, I shall just say to her” – and so on; but when the gracious and kindly lady did in fact stop to greet the boy, he was frozen stiff with shyness and terror; the flow of conversation with which he had intended to greet Her Majesty was conspicuous by its absence.

One of the things which struck one most was the eager championship of Tommy towards any patient of different nationality to himself. The black man was an especial pet and was treated by the boys as something between a spoilt baby and a pet dog. Sweets and cakes were showered upon him, and his simplest remarks were greeted with appreciative and indulgent laughter. Though “Darkie” was occasionally asked whether he had “been robbing the hen-roost lately,” or mildly ragged, he knew perfectly well that, had he got into trouble, the ward would have been solid in his defence. I have seen the men rush to get bread and jam for an immense, and I must own unattractive coloured man who would shout lustily for the latter, and would clear out a tin of “plum and apple” at a sitting – if he could get it. On one occasion, in Malta, when a valuable watch was lost, there was a regular chorus in defence of “Jose,” the little Maltese who scrubbed the verandah.
"It wouldn't be our old Jose, sister," they declared with conviction; although later this particular Jose proved, alas, far from being above suspicion. Even the foe came in for this kindly feeling in hospital when he was down and sick. I have heard a V.A.D. tell how she found a little group laying an unfamiliar game of cards with the quondam enemy.
"You see, sister," they explained, "we're playing it the German way, because of Fritz. Poor old Fritz".

Christmas is a delightful time in hospital, and though it was always specially gay in France for nurses, V.A.D.’s and patients alike, it was perhaps eastward on the other side of the Mediterranean, where gifts were not so numerous, and where Blighty was so far away, that the men looked forward to it most. It would be hard to forget the sound of the Christmas carols in the crystal beauty of the winter night in Malta, as a party of amateur performers, with swinging lanterns, went round from block to block of the great hospital buildings, while the patients hung over the verandahs or lay still and quiet listening in their beds. It would besides be difficult to forget how, as sisters and nurses went as quietly as possible from bed to bed during the night hanging the Christmas stockings over each, one head after another popped up like children, when they fancied no one was looking, to examine their little dole of presents – men who would, perhaps, never see another Christmas, and who had just been through the most awful experiences that man ever suffered.

It is, perhaps, the very simplicity and childishness of the British Tommy when he is sick and helpless, that has held so many V.A.D.’s to their posts in days gone by. Everyone who has been in hospital has noticed how even the middle-aged man seems to return to first principles in his last hours, and how the mother’s name was on his lips far more often than was either the wife or children’s name.
“Married, nurse?” said an Irishman, “Faith, and I’ve never met a woman yet who could be as much to me as my old mother!” And he was only one of countless others to whom “my old mother” represented Blighty, hope, and happiness all rolled into one. One saw this on night duty more especially, and it is of night duty in France, more than of any other time, that one thinks when one recalls old memories. Outside it was black as pitch, and the wind howled in the telegraph wires like the witches on Walpurgis Night, with perhaps the added sound of a bomb or the fall of shrapnel on the roof. Suddenly, through the war of sea and tempest, one caught the sharp piercing sound of a whistle, and after that the tramp of feet and the first soft thud of a stretcher being lowered to the ground gently for a moment. It was then that sisters, nurses and patients came into closer relation; it was then that the V.A.D. had wider scope in her work, and greater opportunities for learning and acting. Those on night duty were practically isolated from their fellows and thrown entirely on each other for companionship; and very pleasant was the morning walk and the morning bathe in summer, before bed claimed its sometimes unwilling victim, and the bright day was shut out and turned into night.

What we, perhaps, treasure most of all, now those times are over, are the autograph books which contain the signatures, artistic efforts, original or copied verses, which the patients supplied as souvenirs. These were more popular in the East than in France, and in one of the wards in Malta, an old volume of the Girl’s Own Paper, dating back to the “eighties,” provided the inspiration for many efforts. The picture of big men with a world of experience behind them, artlessly and laboriously copying pictures of apple-blossom and sparrows, or of an unattractive child with the legend, “Daddy’s blue-eyed boy” inscribed below it, represented a study in contrasts which was frankly touching. These were, however, real artists, and real poets who blossomed into eulogies of hospital and staff, or straightforward comments on their own experiences. Here is a sample which, as far as I know, is original:-

"There's a little place out East called Salonique,
Where they're sending British Tommies every week,
When you view it from the sea
It's a fine sight, all agree,
And you think you'll have a spree,
At Salonique!"

"When you're dumped upon the quay at Salonique,
And the smell that meets you there seems to speak,
You begin to feel quite glum,
And to wish you hadn't come,
For there's every kind of hum
At Salonique."

Another effor, which every V.A.D. will appreciate, began:
"The Red Cross Sister so demure,
On any chaps would work a cure,"
and ended up wittily and eminently satisfactorily from our point of view:
"To part from you will be a loss,
For you were never Red or Cross."