Thursday 30 September 2010

British Nurses in German East Africa

British Journal of Nursing, June 2nd 1917
A Roll of Honour

The story of the imprisonment of the European Missionaries working in German East Africa on the outbreak of war is one which remains to be fully told, but now that the prisoners of Tabora have been rescued, the long silence has been broken. In the Annual Report of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa just issued we learn something of their experiences. The Archdeacon of Rovurna writes:-

'Unfortunately it was our ladies who had a very much harder time than the men. In one prison to which they were sent, and on one of their journeys, they were subjected to treatment which it is almost incredible any civilized nation could inflict. But from first to last they bore it with magnificent patience, and their cheeriness never forsook them."
Not least may we be proud of the members of the nursing profession amongst them. We read:

"The nurses who were interned in German East Africa when war broke out had a laborious time. In November, 1914, Miss Wallace and Miss Burn went to Korogwe by request of the German Government, to nurse the wounded English and Indian soldiers who were taken prisoners at the battle of Tanga, and a very busy time they had. Miss Burn stayed at Korogwe looking after relays of English wounded until the British arrived last June. Miss Wallace left in June, 1915, and was sent with Miss Gunn to Tabora where they were officially recognized by the Germans as the nurses in charge of the camp hospital."

There was a great deal of fever among the prisoners, and also a large number of blackwater fever cases, many very dangerously ill; these all recovered, though without good nursing recovery in several cases would have been impossible. Miss Davey for ten months looked after the Italian women interned at Kilimatinde, three babies being born there. Afterwards she and Miss Horne had charge of the Hospital there during an outbreak of typhoid fever among the English prisoners, some of the cases being very severe, but happily all recovered. Miss Packham went to Mrogoro to nurse the German women and children, and when the town fell stayed on in charge of the British Military Hospital. One of the British doctors wrote to the Bishop of Zanzibar later:

"We found her installed in charge of the German Hospital at Mrogoro when our Hospital - the 52nd Casualty Clearing Hospital - entered the town with the first Division at the end of August 1916. One would have thought that two years in a German prison would have been enough to rob anyone of strength and will to work. But with her it was far different. She was alwaysup and in the wards in the early morning before we were about; always the last to go to bed. Up most of the nights; for the worst cases were nursed in the verandah outside her bedroom door."

Other names in this Roll of Honour are those of Miss Kemsley, who worked first among the German women at Liwali and later among the enteric patients at Dar-es-Salaam, and, when it was taken, helped to organise the English Military Hospital; Sister Mabel and Sister Elizabeth who looked after native prisoners, many extremely ill, at Kiboriani and Bugari, and Miss Dunn, who nursed in the former place, and Miss Plant, with Miss Gunn, nursed Belgian wounded soldiers when Tabora was taken. The British Military authorities have reason to be grateful to the trained nurses of the Universities' Mission whose services were of the utmost value, and the nursing profession to be proud of their record.

Saturday 11 September 2010

One Pair of Feet

During a visit to the local Oxfam bookshop last week, I picked up a very old, tatty copy of Monica Dickens' book 'One Pair of Feet,' which was published in 1942 and is an account of her time as a probationer nurse during the early part of WW2. I last read it in the 1960s, long before I started nursing (at a time when I thought there was still some element of mystery and glamour to the job) so decided it might be worth re-visiting. It's autobiographical fiction, and could be regarded as a bit lightweight, but I found much of it surprisingly perceptive, and still relevant to my own training nearly thirty years later.

The book's Matron and ward sisters were acid-tongued petty tyrants, humourless, lacking in any vestige of sympathy or understanding, and hell-bent on keeping both staff and patients in a strait-jacket of rules, regulations and discipline. But it did seem likely that these women had something in common with the military nurses I've come to hold in such high regard. It's rather easy to view them through rose-coloured spectacles, but several Great War VADs, such as Vera Brittain and Enid Bagnold thought quite differently. Brittain, in 'Testament of Youth,' and Bagnold, in 'A Diary Without Dates,' both comment on how insular the professional nurse was, lacking any experience of life outside the hospital and devoid of interest in literature, art or politics. Monica Dickens certainly agrees with this when she writes:

Women were not meant to live en masse - except in harems. They inflate the importance of their own little centre of activity until it eclipses the rest of the world. Men manage to pigeonhole their life; work, domesticity, romance, relaxation, but a woman's life is usually as untidy as her desk. She either fails ever to concentrate on one thing at a time, or else fills one pigeonhole so full that it overflows into the others.
I don't know whether the nurses at Redwood were typical of the whole profession, but most of them had no interest in anything that happened a yard outside the iron railings. They never read a paper, except the Nursing times, and only turned on the Common Room wireless when the nine o'clock news was safely over. They were only interested in the war as far as it affected them personally - shortage of Dettol and cotton-wool perhaps, or jam for tea only once a week.
The ward beds had earphones fitted to them, connected with a central receiving set, and while I was dusting lockers, I used to enquire about the seven o'clock news. 'Why d'you always ask if there's anything on the news?' a patient asked me one morning.
'Well, I don't know - because I'm interested, I suppose.'
'Funny,' she said, 'I shouldn't have thought a nurse would be interested.'
That summed up the attitude of the outside world towards nurses and of nurses to the outside world ...

I have a feeling that many of the nursing sisters whose names and lives have become so familiar to me were as disciplined and un-bending as any of those at 'Redwood.' I suspect that a good number might not have made very enjoyable companions. But as a 'type' they were a fundamental part of the hospitals of the time, and essential to the management and smooth-running of military hospitals during the Great War. Let the artists paint and the authors write - without the professional nurse's single-minded, rather blinkered approach, the British soldier might not have been as well served.