Wednesday 12 June 2013

Dorothea's War

Dorothea Crewdson was one of more than 100,000 women who served as VADs during the Great War, but in so many ways she stands above the heads of others.  She was one of only a small number of women to receive the Military Medal for her actions during an enemy air raid in 1918* and she is one of the few nurses to be commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, dying during her period of active service in France.  More importantly she is one of that rare breed of nurses who left behind a diary that has survived through the decades.  There are a number of published personal accounts of VAD life during the Great War, most vague about names and places, frequently a mix of fact and fiction making it difficult to judge where truth ends and over-egging the pudding starts. Diaries can provide so much more, usually written with no other motive than to keep an accurate and honest record of a period of life and work which may prove useful at a future time.  As a private account there is no worry about naming friends and colleagues, and no fear of falling foul of the censor by mentioning individual hospitals and locations.

This diary, sympathetically edited by the author’s nephew Richard Crewdson, and accompanied throughout by Dorothea’s own original drawings, covers the entire period of her wartime service as a VAD in France between June 1915 and March 1919. It charts her time at three separate military hospitals and describes VAD life in great detail introducing many friend, relatives, patients and colleagues, some who were with her throughout the period. Very little is written elsewhere about the basic facts of a nurse’s life in France, and in this diary there’s a lot to be learnt about living arrangements, conditions of service, pay, ward work and above all about loyalty and friendship. Although sickness and death have a part in the book, they are not the main players.

The introduction to the book makes no secret of the fact that Dorothea Crewdson’s life was cut short, with her sudden death in France in March 1919.  That knowledge had a great impact on me. As the reader I was aware that I knew that which she did not – that her life was not going to be a long one; that this time next year ...  this time next month ... this time next week ...  I could hardly bear to turn the last few pages and enter her final days, the days that I knew about, but she did not.  The book ends with a letter written to Dorothea’s mother by her Matron, Melina McCord. It’s a heart-breaking tribute, guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of all but the most dispassionate reader.

This diary informs and instructs, but more than that it shows that where loss, death and hardship exist, whether they be personal or professional, ways can always be found to deal with them. It makes essential reading for anyone with an interest in nursing, VADs and hospital life during the Great War.  But be warned – have a handkerchief ready for the finale.

* London Gazette, 30 July 1918: For gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid. Although herself wounded, this lady remained at duty and assisted in dressing the wounds of patients.  DIED 12 March 1919

For a preview of the book, and a glimpse of some of the Dorothea's wonderful drawings, this will whet your appetite:

Dorothea's War - YouTube


Dorothea's War, Dorothea Crewdson: edited by Richard Crewdson; published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 13th June 2013:  ISBN 978 0 297 86918 4
[Hardback and on Kindle]