Thursday 31 January 2013

Dead Man's Land - Robert Ryan

I'm a great reader of crime fiction, often to the exclusion of doing other, more important things.  On the whole I stick to British authors, like complex plots, skip over too much gratuitous violence, and prefer to arrive at the end actually understanding what's gone on in the middle. So about eighteen months ago I was intrigued and rather flattered to be asked by Robert Ryan if we could meet up to discuss a new book he was working on (these days a bit of flattery is so very welcome).  He intended to include 'some plucky VADs' and wanted to make sure that they would be appearing all present and correct.

Over the next months I was kept up to date with the progress of the book and then asked to check the first draft to see how the VADs were doing.  Anyone who has read this blog on a regular basis will know that of all the bees that float around my bonnet, the indiscriminate placement of VADs in Casualty Clearing Stations on the Western Front is the one that stings hardest, and in this book their inclusion in very forward areas was going to be essential to the plot. If I have learned one lesson from the exercise, it’s this.  If you’re a writer of fiction and make fundamental errors because of inadequate research and blissful ignorance, the wrath of pedants will be unleashed upon you.  On the other hand, if you include factual inaccuracies and weave them in an intelligent way, in full knowledge of your sins, you will always be forgiven (fingers crossed).

Dead Man’s Land was published at the beginning of this month with the full approval of the Conan Doyle estate. It follows Dr. John Watson’s travels around the Western Front during the Great War, and where Dr. Watson goes, death and intrigue are right on his heels. By most estimations he must be getting on a bit in age, but his physical limitations are highlighted, not glossed over, and his place as an elderly medical practitioner in wartime never seems extraordinary. The military setting is sound, and the depiction of hospitals and casualty clearing stations in wartime is thorough. The VADs are skilfully introduced into a place where they would never actually have been, with the difficulties and regulations surrounding their employment made clear. Even I was heard to clap. The story is unusual and absorbing, it has complexity, but with enough clarity to prevent it becoming confusing, especially for those who don’t usually dabble in ‘war,’ and it should appeal to everyone who enjoys crime fiction of any era, but perhaps especially to devotees of Sherlock Holmes.  Yes, of course he’s there as well.

And my thanks to Rob for his kind words in the acknowledgements where he accepts all errors as his own.  May I take this opportunity to clear my conscience and admit that there might just be one that’s mine!

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 !

Sunday 6 January 2013

Canadian VADs

I've been asked several times if I have any details regarding Canadian VADs, as information seems to be hard to come by, and while browsing through some documents which originate at the IWM, I came across this short piece which might be useful (if not earth shattering!).

The first V.A.D. member supplied to the Canadian Red Cross Society was a secretary in 1916 who remained with them until the time of their closing down.
In the spring of 1917, owing to the difficulty in obtaining men drivers, the Assistant Commissioner applied for two V.A.D. drivers to assist in their lorry section; no Canadian women drivers were available at that time but one English and one Australian driver were sent out; they were the first to undertake lorry driving in France and made good.  In the garage, their tact and adaptability overcame any prejudices on the part of the men with whom they had to work; they both put in charge of a 15 cwt. lorry and carried supplies as far as Doullens, Le Treport, and other similar points.
About the same time, the Canadian Red Cross Society requisitioned for V.A.D. members for their Recreation Huts attached to the Canadian Hospitals.  For this work, Canadian members were especially asked for in order that they might have interests in common with the patients who they were to entertain in the huts.  During the year members were supplied to five hospitals (two being attached to each) and in every instance they improved the usefulness of the Recreation Huts (which had previously been under the supervision of an N.C.O.) tremendously, organising concerts and games of all sorts, helping with church services on Sundays, and generally keeping the men happy.
Canadian V.A.D. members have also been attached to Canadian Red Cross Headquarters for the purpose of keeping in touch with Canadian patients in Imperial hospitals, distributing comforts from Canada, ‘home newspapers’, and sending cables and writing letters for them.  In the Canadian Red Cross Stores, both at headquarters and in Paris, members have worked in various capacities as clerks and book-keepers, and at one Canadian Hospital, a member ran the stores entirely, checking all goods in, issuing the hospital requirements and keeping the books.

Saturday 5 January 2013

From the papers

The British Journal of Nursing was a weekly paper for the professional nurse, giving all types of information and clinical advice and providing a meeting place for nurses who were often isolated due to the fact that many of them worked solely in private houses. It often took a rather biased view towards subjects that the editor, Ethel Bedford Fenwick, felt strongly about, and she appeared to take great pleasure in stirring up strong views on every side.  At present I'm browsing the pages to follow the debate surrounding increasing problems with the award of the Royal Red Cross, and have picked out a few news items that have caught my eye along the way.


21 July 1917
At Nottingham recently, Alice Cave, posing as a Red Cross nurse-who took shelter during a heavy rainstorm in the house of Mr. John A. Nugent, and abused his hospitality by stealing a gold watch-was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.  In sentencing her the chairman of the bench, Mr. Snook, said the magistrates regarded her action in obtaining advantages by wearing the Red Cross Badge as the most serious part of the offence. Her crime against the Decalogue would apparently have been less heinous had she been wearing the uniform of the thoroughly trained and certificated nurse-that of the Nottingham General Hospital, for instance.
‘Thou shalt not wear the Badge of the Red Cross unlawfully’ appears to take precedence of the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ in the opinion of Nottingham magistrates.

25 August 1917
  ‘A Trained Nurse of 1901’ replying in The Times to a V.A.D. who asserts that many of the keenest V.A.D. nurses are leaving their detachments because they feel there is no urgent need for their services: also that they are extremely dissatisfied with their prospects after the war, when they will have no recognised status, even though they have nursed regularly for three years or more, writes :-
‘‘ May I remind her that members of Voluntary Aid Detachments were enrolled to assist in hospitals, &c., working in a patriotic spirit, to give help where help was required, and not with the object of gaining a status for themselves ? As regards length of experience among the sick, those who how most of the subject will agree that this does not constitute a ‘training,’ nor give knowledge of the many and varied conditions under which the trained nurse is called upon to act.   If V.A.D. and those others who are dissatisfied with her will enter a recognised training school, take their share also in looking after the women and children of the Empire, and go through the necessary courses and examinations essential to a training, they need have no anxiety.

22 September 1917
The Railway Executive Committee announces that war nurses going on holiday are to be allowed a third-class return ticket on payment of the present-day third-class single fare. The Committee state that the concession will be available for all ‘women nurses, probationers, and masseuses, whose whole time is employed at hospitals, convalescent homes, &c., recognised by the military authorities, but yet not under military Control.’  The nurses must travel in uniform, and must obtain their vouchers from the matron or medical officer in charge of the institution where they are working. Such a voucher can only be issued to each nurse once in every six months. The Railway Executive Committee guard their position by
the proviso that these facilities may be withdrawn at any time.


The British Journal of Nursing can be searched and browsed online