Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914 – 1915, Anonymous

Miss K E Luard

She looks a bit scary !

I recently had a re-read of Bevereley Hughsdon’s Song of Songs, saw  War Horse, the DVD and the documentary about the reality on the Western front.  This film had me entranced and hugely irritated, do Americans really think that a gas attack was so easy to recover from???? This all had me fascinated to find out more about the times that Helena lived and worked in. I also have the book, Annie’s War, telling of the life of an Englishwoman who was in Germany at the outbreak of the Great War.   So I went to look for first hand accounts, and there are many free kindle books which are written and edited at the time

My English degree work, kicked in making me look at these works  in so many aspects. There are plenty of books written today, in hindsight of the events of the War, but written through the ideology of our present times, e.g those poor poor horses, when they, at the time were the work  force of the world, there was sentimentality but maybe not as we see it today. So I like to read first hand accounts such as these, written at the time, seemingly in an honest attempt to record the times and happenings. Of course the writers themselves have their own, maybe hidden agendas in wanting to write, but they surely because of their presentness may be more honest than our own clouded perceptions today……..

The from of the book is very much of its time, with the subheadings laid out at the beginning and the infuriating secrecy about names of people, and the different hospitals, always with a dash. Very Victorian in its roots. Then most of all, that in diffidence she had to be anonymous, was it still the culture against women writers that made her hold back, or that she really didn’t want to be identified, to glorify her work? I though of at first contacting the publishers, only to find that their offices were burnt down in the Second world war, so maybe all the manuscripts are gone.(William Blackwood and Son)   So  before I did the Internet hunting for the writer, I did what my studies had told me, ‘that the text says  what the text does not say’, Barthes I think, and see what she unwittingly gave away.

An older, Senior Sister she had served in the Boar War, professional as she was called up but not a regular Army Nurse.  Very well educated as shown in her grasp of languages, upper class, her use of the word, ‘frightfully’ smacked of boarding school and upper class, but perhaps this is MY perception of using such language!  That she was Irish Catholic, she’d been in Dublin  for a while, was I right?

The narrative is true to the events of the time, as they happened, no plot, but the year passes with an almost fictional, logical progression, from the frustration waiting to serve,the work on the trains, to the extreme horror of working near the front in the Field hospitals. She comes across as a strong lady, professionally and matter of factly relating the events, but towards the end, you can read the tension and stress beginning to rise.Why did she feel the need to write this, and who was it to – just dear reader or a family, or thorough a sense of wanting to record history?

She recounts how the different nationalities cope with their wounds, and the way they are just all SO grateful to be out of the trenches.  How at this early stage of the war, the Tommies are just out to get the Germans, there’s no reporting of their own inner fears, but she tells their tale with pride. Is it the early days of euphoria, before the toll on life and spirit? She says, ‘its only when prosperous and comfortable that the Tommy grumbles’. I read that Kitchener endorsed the book, and as a positive view of the psychology and thinking of the time its effective, and despite how things were later, maybe that’s just how it was at the time, we musn’t judge.

It surprised me about how well organised the hospitals and supplies were, the masses of beds and infrastructure. I knew about the societies of the war, where genteel ladies knitted socks, but our Nurse was always giving out cigarettes, chocolate and writing cases from different societies who had obviously formed just for this. I thought of Helena, who arrived later in the war, who just slogged on, such a different case.  Our Sister was also well read, and it interested me about how all the officers would be calling for Newspapers and Punch, Helena never seemed to mention reading the news.  There is also reports of having ‘Telegrams’ with news in them, Annie mentions these two, what were they, shorter papers in the kiosks, something that came in the post? One bit of humour was that the big guns were called ‘Jack Johnsons’ along with the lice that prevailed everywhere. When you read of soldiers arriving with wounds packed with straw, it’s astonishing to our present eyes. In all a fascinating book, but as I’m only just yet beginning to look at the social history of the war, I can’t comment on the battles, and tactical coverage.

So, Who Was SHE?  The books are credited to a Kathleen Luard and a search on the net found out a lot about her.  A professionals she was, follow these links.  There’s also a huge website on women’s first hand accounts and service in the war, I’m not the only one to be fascinated at these times. Of course, watching Downton Abbey doesn’t help, seeing the daughters of the house being married, had me seeing Helene on day she marries……..

Diary of Annie’s war by Annie Droege, Grosvenor House Publishing ltd

http://www.bretonheath.me.uk/history/centen28.htm

http://rcnarchive.rcn.org.uk/data/VOLUME065-1920/page066-volume65-31stjuly1920.pdf

http://www.scarletfinders.co.uk/index.html

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