It's been a bit of a nursey beginning and end to the week on here and brace for more next week because on Dame Margaret Drabble's recommendation I've just read The Squire by Enid Bagnold. An astonishingly frank and perceptive novel about childbirth and motherhood, published in 1938 and one that segues nicely into my current read of Dream Babies by Christina Hardyment in preparation for chairing Christina's event at Ways With Words.
But today it's British Army nurses and if we've been talking about the unacceptability of second best then it was certainly beyond the ken of the nurses that Nicola Tyrer features in her excellent book Sisters in Arms. As I read I couldn't help but wonder just how my training might have equipped me to deal with the trauma that the wartime Queen Alexandra Nurses had to face. We certainly learnt to be innovative and creative as paediatric nurses back in the 1970's as we cajoled, persuaded and encouraged the children in our care, and often we had to steel ourselves to some terrible traumas, but that all seems as nothing and in sharp contrast to nursing war wounded out in the field of battle.
No detail is spared and often told in the voices of the women themselves, on the front line, in the field hospitals but most poignantly at the liberation of Belsen and assisting the return of the Japanese prisoners of war.It's obvious that stoical bravery and acceptance often made these patients model ones, undemanding and long-suffering. For a start just the mention of burns and saline baths in the same sentence, and with no mention of massive doses of pain relief, all spells excruciating to me, for both patient and nurse who had to assist.
But the QAs were 'women of character' as Nicola Tyrer elaborates,
'the stiff upper lip generation...service far more important than personal fulfilment and that to complain was unacceptable. Self discipline was paramount and they put up with hardships unimaginable...when things got really bad, in the best British tradition, they turned the nightmare into a joke.'
I know we certainly shared their sense of humour and the eye
for the ridiculous seems to be a necessary nursing attribute, when
lives are at stake suddenly only the important things matter. Likewise
I too would have laughed at the suggestion that I could access my
emergency rations without the say so of my commanding officer ONLY
after I had been in the sea for twenty four hours and ONLY if I was
absolutely sure there was no commanding officer floating around with me
to give the say-so.
The QAs also knew how to switch off and have fun and relax and it never ceased to amaze me that likewise we were pretty good at that in the 1970's too. We were only nineteen and, like the QAs, for us it became an essential survival mechanism,.
The distinctive but highly impractical QA's uniform cost a fortune and had to be bought made to measure from Harrods no less, even down to a white parasol with a red lining which must have had a thousand and one uses of which I can think of about three.
But parasol or no there can be little doubt about the courage these women displayed in the face of great human suffering, tragedy and hardship rightly earning the respect of all around them and Nicola Tyrer's book does these forgotten women a huge service. It's well-written and revealing in its detail and read alongside Grey & Scarlet Letters From the War Areas by Army Sisters, that beautiful little book with the Robert Austin drawings, this has been a truly rewarding reading project.
Nicola Tyrer will be speaking at Ways With Words, Dartington at 9.30am on Thursday July 17th... as will Jenni Murray, more difficult choices ahead.