War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

notes from PhD land - Nurses, VAD's

My head has been in nurses’ accounts of the First World War – V.A.D.‘s and Queen Alexandra’s- for the last while. Many of these women had a tough, tough, go working at the Front in Casualty Clearing Stations and mobile surgical units, just as some modern medics have a tough, tough go (listen to the Movement VIII, the Libera movement of Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation which I wrote for the medics who face the terrible reality of triage). Their job was to clean up whatever they could, however they could – and there was a lot of waiting, a lot of helplessness, a lot of stoicism, and despair.

Those young women who packed their bags and headed towards the eastern and western fronts often came from sheltered, privileged homes. When they signed up to help the war effort, they had no idea of what they were signing up for – to use the non-academic but soldierly term, it was an overwhelming shitshow. But they prevailed – most of them.

What few people realize however, is that the nurses suffered alongside the everyman soldier. They endured bombardment, the cold, lice, rats, pneumonia, influenza, and of course, soldier’s heart (my preferred term for PTSD and shell-shock). And after the war, many nurses died prematurely of war-stress, or else remained unmarried (part of the “two million” man-less women whose menfolk never came home) or became career nurses, never had children. But some met and married soldiers or other war workers and did.

Today on a bus deep into the “wilds” of southern England, where I took my hiking stick, my boots, my pack, for a day’s hike along the south coast, I met a fabulous woman “of an age”. We sat next to one another on the top of the double-decker and chatted madly for the journey as the bus wheeled ferociously down narrow lanes, through tiny grey-stone villages, past piggeries and red-earth farms.

The lovely woman of 89 years (I thought her maybe 75 years) and I chatted about this and that, and then I told her about Joyce Dennys the VAD from Buddley Salteron (where the lady lives) and how I want to get ahold of her diaries because of my current research.

“My mother was a VAD in the First World War”, she told me, “And father was a stretcher bearer”. “They met during the war, but never spoke of it”. Her father also served on a board which determined whether or not a person was sincerely a conscientious objector or not. “What a terrible burden he had” said the woman to me. And indeed, imagine the responsibility of determining whether or not someone was “legitimately” eligible to not serve as a soldier (e.g. a Quaker, and the Quakers served as ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers etc.).

There were no papers, no letters, no diaries from the war years in this woman’s childhood home. But there was a mysterious locked drawer in the bottom of her mother’s rolltop desk. After her mother’s death the desk was unlocked. And inside there were receipts from the government which belonged to the woman’s uncle, a farmer. He supplied comfry, a healing herb, to the Front, and these transactions were the only record left in that home which at heart had been made in the war.


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled notes from PhD land - Nurses, VAD's. It was posted here on March 02, 2013.

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