Sister Edith Appleton’s WWI diary

imageI received this book for my Birthday, from a friend, so even though I had other plans, I have felt obliged to read it rather sooner than later. Needless to say, I have been reading as fast as I can, so between looking after children, I have finished it in a couple of days. Not to say that it is a light and easy read. I love diaries, but there are diaries and there are diaries. There are people who describe everything, what they feel, what they see, what they think about things, discussions they have had, things they have read. As a historian, I have been told that this is a diary indeed, that teaches future generations something and puts meat on the bone, on the person who wrote it. It really documents life and society at a set time. Then there are laundry list diaries that according to my teachers, are not really classified as diaries at all. In one way, this book belongs to the latter category.

Enter one 38-year-old nurse. Single. Writing a diary  for the purpose of sending it to her mother? Her daily recordings are most of the time very brisk. And of course, being at the front or being a tired nurse in a hospital which is functioning like a regular Gard du Nord, perhaps that is exactly how much one had the energy to record. But eventually the reader, or ME, gets tired of 267 pages of this. She seems to have been more interested in telling the world-after-her’s about all her walks, sea bathing and flower picking, than what really matters to me as a reader. In a way, I guess I can understand why. If it was written for her mother, how much gore would the old woman want to hear about? And I guess, after hours on duty, to get out in the fresh air, away from foul-smelling wounds, and to see colourful flowers and nature, instead of infected wounds and men dying, must have felt like relief.

I am sure that she was the most devoted of nurses, after all she had chosen the job, long before the conflict. But she also comes off on the pages as OLD. She talks of the men as boys. And indeed, she was old enough to be their mother! But it is a strange choice of word, boy, when the armed forces always have made sure to call them men, even if it meant calling a 16-year-old, not old enough to shave, a man. They had to do a man’s job, so they had to be called men, in order not to whimper for their mothers, when the going got tough and they realized this was not the big adventure after all. She also comes off as not getting too involved. The men are just a brain wound, a stomach wound, and she rather discuss all the flowers than her patients, what they have been through, what their names are. Only very seldom does she mention patients and their stories and when she does, she just wish they would die sooner.

I can understand the suffering, and how a nurse would think that way. One poor boy, Lennox from Ireland, waited over a month to die, in great agony. Their wounds were so terrible that the most humane thing, was death and as soon as possible. But in a way, a lot of them just come off as numbers to her. Numbers arriving and numbers to leave for Britain. And perhaps that is what happens to a psyche, when too many patients pass in front of one’s eyes and there is nothing to be done for them, since medicine was still very primitive?

Still, I miss the intricate details of her life. Description of friends. Description of patients who stayed longer than a day. Descriptions of people she worked with. What really could be done, to save a man’s life. Her thoughts on the war. Did she read at all? Was she not very bright? I think that she was, but also a somewhat dippy Edwardian, who recorded and believed in rumours, that later have proven entirely wrong. Why record gossip instead of the truth? Her mother would already have read about the gossip and heard it no doubt. Or?

The worse part of the book, for me, was the fact that even though she joined up three weeks after the war started and was shipped out to France in October 1914, that diary is missing. Why did she join? How did she slip through when they just wanted 25-35 year old nurses? She was two years too old! So many questions and no answers. Her family, at the end of the book, plead that if anyone has the missing diaries, to please contact them. I hope someone does, since it does get worse. Not only does her diary not start until 5 April in 1915 but then it also ,jumps from 15 November 1916 to 21 June 1918 and this really spoiled everything for me. Too much happened during that time. The Americans joined finally. How did she feel about that? The Russians left the scene to have a revolution instead. What did she say about this? One feels like after returning home, after years of absence. Out of place, an outsider, doesn’t understand what is going on. And she  is back or still at a hospital, which is very boring to read about.  She might have been at the front during the missing time, but it did not sound like it. Perhaps they kept her at hospitals after 1915, since she was OLD according to their standards? She does complain that the clearing stations is where she would rather be. And it was the most interesting reading really.  But it was short-lived. So, in one way, the title of the book is very misleading. She was a nurse, who for the most part sat in safety, on the coast, receiving patients who had been treated elsewhere, on their way to Britain. Wouldn’t really call her being a nurse at the front. The front is where the battle is, or?

My notes from the book:

At the beginning of the diary, Nurse Appleton is near Ypres, where it seems like imageSir Anthony Bowlby, was present at times, sparing the regular doctors some of the work. He, according to a note made by editors no doubt, was the one who pushed for complex surgery right at the front, saving more lives, since the clearing stations could handle serious wounds within minutes or hours, instead of the hospitals who received the patients days later, usually, when all hope was gone.

The first gas attack came 22 April 1915. I guess it was chlorine, which she does not say, but one soldier described it to her days later, that it came out like from a water spout, green-yellowish colour. She is actually more concerned with the fact that they are going to get to take baths in a lunatic asylum, with water to the edge of the bath tub. She is concerned that four women are to bathe at the same time, in four bath tubs placed in the same room. Strange to imagine a nurse being a prude, after all bodies she has had to see.

imageOn the 9 May 1915, she does not only get to meet Sir Anthony Bowlby, again, during  surgery, but also Sir William Arbuthnot-Lane, who developed early plastic surgery for facial wounds. His hospital treated  5,000 soldiers or more, during the war years.

On 27 October, she gets to see the King, who tried to show his support, by visiting France several times, and finally in July 1917, changed his family members’ names, to more British sounding ones. Nurse Appleton has a very difficult time with the Royal family and their obviously dubious loyalties. One Prince living and working in Berlin for the Germans.

Some of them, still had the time or energy to get up to silliness. I must call it that when a Roman Catholic chaplain, stole a chair and a table for his tent, invited everyone to look how comfortable he had made it for himself, and then the Medical Officer, sneaking in to the tent, stealing the items and hiding them. The chaplain lost it, threw stones at every Medical Officer except the culprit, who snuck back in to the tent and filled the chaplain’s boots with water and the chaplain retaliated by filling everything in the Doctor’s tent, that could be filled, with water. Honestly! I was going to say, boys will always be boys, but they can hardly have been boys, can they? But stories like these, are what makes her front line diary entries much more delightful to read, than the hospital ones. They lack all of this. The personal stories.

Mortuary corporals were in charge of the dead bodies, and it created havoc when name tags had come off the dead. Nurses could not see how it mattered but even in death, there was class society. Officers, had the lid of the coffin, screwed on, but ordinary soldiers, only got the lid of their coffins hammered on with nails! Obviously it is more courteous to the dead, to silently screw a lid on, but at the same time, did they honestly think the spirit of the departed, hung around to listen? No wonder, one sister completely lost it, when she found out, and could not stop her hysterical laughter. I think I would have done the same.

Observations of the Germans, were many, and for the most part they were negative. One of the more human stories, was the trench where snipers from both sides, were at it all night and finally a German voice screamed that if the British stopped firing, then they would too, so that all could get a good night’s sleep. Of course they agreed. Other stories are not as “funny”.

One of the problems, were with the locals and their sympathies for the Germans. She tells stories through the years of spies and that the population is so poor, it doesn’t matter to them who will govern them, since they will always stay miserable. But why would a farmer, who billet soldiers, chat happily with them during the day, and then become a sniper at night, killing them? Terrible! And 20 February 1916, she finds out that their driver and station master, from her casualty station time, had just been shot as spies. The war brings out the worse in people? She also tells of all disrespect shown, by the French, for the dead. They are way curious instead of stepping out of the way, when soldiers are brought to burial.

At the same time, it is strange that they did help the Germans since they committed atrocities beyond belief. Well, no, not beyond belief, since more awful things took place between 1933-1945. But I guess it is easier to believe the atrocities then, when one realize that they started already during the Great War. The book’s notes say that a lot of the stories spread, were propaganda, but at the same time, she heard eye-witness accounts and what the Germans did to the civilians is just unbelievable. They had marched in to one little village and a little boy had run indoors to tell his mother that they were arriving. He then ran out and when the mother went looking for him, the Germans asked her where her boy was. She said, she did not know and then they showed her. They had cut his throat and put him in a hole by the road and after showing her, they cut her throat and put her in beside her son. An old soldier, according to Appleton, who had been in France since the beginning of the war, told her of marching through villages and seeing “old, bearded men pinned to their own doors on lances and swords, babies lying about naked and maimed, dying and dead, women with their hands and arms cut off.” Another wounded soldier told her of having come in to a house where six Germans had hidden behind a French “woman fastened to the table to make a screen for them – and behind her was a little child with both arms cut off”. Why on earth this cruelty from the German soldiers? What made them do such things? Cutting arms off people, WHY? Predecessor to today’s rape of women, during wars?

She thinks it is so funny that all trenches are named after places in Britain, but imagethen adds that they were ordered to do so. And she reflects over the people who are up in observation balloons all day and night and how seasick they get, when it is windy. She also likes using Prime Minister Asquith’s catch phrase of “wait and see”. The soldiers also using it, for French matches, which did not light on a regular basis, so they were called “asquiths”.

It is pretty obvious that nurse Appleton is the happiest up at the front, feeling that she is doing something for the war. Maybe that is why her diaries are so tame and boring, when she works in hospitals. She doesn’t really feel that she is doing what should could be doing, if allowed? When a new nurse arrives as a replacement, in September 1915, she comments that it is not fair that Appleton has been allowed to stay at the clearing station so long, that others should have been given the chance. So there was competition, envy and no doubt many of them saw it as an adventure, just like the young men did when they went to war. It was an honour to see the men as soon as they had been wounded, and be there trying to save their lives. I guess it is understandable. If one can stand the gore, I am sure that was where they all wanted to be. On the 16 November 1915, she is ordered down the line, to a hospital by the coast. The envy from the other nurses have finally paid off. She is not happy about it and it is when her diary takes a turn, and becomes more of a chore to read. And then you are only on page 77! While patients arrived night and day, at the casualty clearing station, now they always get 12 hours advance notice of patients coming in, so they can get rid of current patients.

SAD CASES: One boy, who had his leg blown off by his own, since he was in front of a gun, mending wire, when a phone message came in to fire the gun right away. Noone cared that he was in front of the gun! They must have seen him?

A wounded Canadian who worried all day, that he was due on sentry that evening and did not really feel well enough. She had to tell him that he was going to go to his dead mother and not go on sentry.

When a company walked by this unit resting. Noone in the unit saluted the officer, who walked by them, just sitting or napping. When the officer walked up to one soldier, to scold I suppose, he touched the person and white stuff fell off his face. They were all dead, from gas. Some where sitting smiling and some looked like they were just asleep. Amazing and sad of course.

One patient of hers were lucky to be alive. He had been buried alive, in an explosion, and had been buried for a long time, not knowing if he would live, since only part of his hand could be seen above ground. But he was found eventually.

The old man, who had lied about his age, to get to go to France, even though he had wife and ten children at home. He had had such severe rheumatism, that when going over the top, he could not move on and an officer had to lift him up and throw him over. Did not understand if the officer threw him back in to the trench or helped him so he could run with the others? Some kind of help if that was the case.

The young boy, after the battle of Somme, whose both eyes had been smashed among his eyelashes and who asked her if he would need an operation since he “can’t see”. He is one of the ones who started to arrive in July 1916. She tells how they ordinarily got telephoned that so and so many were coming with a train. But then they stopped telling how many were aboard the train and eventually, there were so many trains coming, that they were not alerted in advance. She doesn’t seem to mind though that their 1300 beds are full, that they have patients in the Casino, ambulance garage, orderlies’ barracks and in restaurants.

Another sad case was one with a self-inflicted wound. On the neck. He was charged with it, even though he at the time when he cut his throat with his razor, was laying on a field and had been laying there for a while. One leg off, one foot wounded, one hand wounded and one eye wounded as well. He had heard shooting getting closer and could not stand things anymore.

25 October 1918, she recorded the sad story of a pilot who came to visit a dying brother, in her hospital. But that was not all, the pilot, flew over the place and dropped a note for his parents, who were there to see their dying son. Taking off, in the dark, he crashed and died. And that was not the only son, the parents had lost. Another son was already dead and one a POW in Austria. She marvels at how the parents can cope. Most of the boys are happy to die but the mothers are another matter, is her comment.

A Jewish chaplain told her how two Jews, one German and one British, had been at each other’s throats, trying to kill the other one. Neither of them knowing they were both Jewish. When they thought their time had come, they had both started reciting the “Shema”, for the dying, realized  that they were about to kill a fellow Jew and saved each other. Interesting sentence followed “Part of the Jewish creed is that a man must repent the day before he dies, but as he never knows the day of his death, he must repent every day”. Very smart creed!

Here and there, one can see the animosity between the different layers of “nurses”. The ones she particularly disliked were the VADs, the untrained volunteers, that according to her, got a lot of money shoved in their faces, so it attracted not so suitable people. When she arrived at her first hospital, she described the four different VADs: the butterflies- in our day, the “bimboes”, the stalkers- shocked at the tasks they have to do, but they do them, the crawlers- who see everything below them and who refuse to do what they are told to do and finally the pushers- who just do their tasks without complaining, reliable, strong and who never forget things. In December 1915, she does receive a promotion, from just having been a reserve, called staff nurse, to being called a QUAIMNS sister, receiving sister pay and stripes on her uniform. And of course trading the grey cape for the solid red one, of the regulars. What an honour!

One of the rules she highly objected to, was the one which came 30 May 1916, which forbade the women to bathe with the men and only at 14:30-15:00 could they bathe with a boat in attendance. If the men of the boat, did not want to go out, no bathing. But in latter entries she does tell of women who nearly drowned, so it must have been a necessary precaution since not everyone were that good at swimming. She moans about it a lot though.

She gets scolded by her Medical Officer as well, for not being married. First in 1916, when he tells her that one should marry if someone loves you, even if you do not return the feelings. They will come later, according to him. Later on in 1918 she answers that it is too late for her. But one starts wondering why she had not married sooner? Had she had an opportunity? The introduction does tell that she married when she was almost 50, so perhaps she just had not met anyone interested in her? She did not seem like a flirtatious woman, not someone who could hold a man’s interest either, from her writings. As a matter of fact, she might have been very shy, since she did avoid social gatherings and wrote of liking to be on her own. And she might not have been an easy person to get along with. In July 1918, she tells why she was sent away from a previous hospital in disgrace. Someone had tried to boss her around and she had not taken to it kindly. One does realize that she was pretty judgemental as well. She couldn’t abide Australians, Portuguese… Other ranks and nursing services, got a shoe. At the same time, she is intrigued by getting to meet so many nationalities.

After the Somme offensive had started in July, 1916, she seems to have received more and more German patients, who acted arrogantly and hateful. She and the VADs treated them when they could, but the Tommies got first service. With the attitude of the Germans, I do not wonder. Later on, in 1918, she tells of the Germans laughing at the seriously wounded and the staff retaliating by telling them, they were to be transferred to the Canadians, that they feared a lot. One German soldier spat at a nurse and when a British soldier then took his rifle and hit him with the butt of it, he was charged, not the German! She tells of the Germans marking their airfields and important military places, as hospitals not to be bombed, but she records more than once of allied hospital ships and hospitals being bombed and torpedoed. In the trenches, in September 1918, the Tommies find all sorts of luxury articles, belonging to the Germans. So all talk of them suffering was exaggerated according to her and they found dug outs with electrical lights, bathrooms with hot and cold water. As well as proof of them having their families and wives with them, even finding women among the dead Germans. When the war is almost over, she tells of how many of the young girls and women, were forced to “work” for the Germans as well, which insinuates sexual demands from the Germans. They had to cook for them and who knows if they were not among the dead in the dugouts?

In the hospital, the German POWs talked of settling in Britain and asked if their wounds “are a Blighty”. Them having the Blighty smile, as well as the Tommies, when being shipped to Britain. The cheek! I guess she had to talk through interpreter and when she did not, misunderstandings happened with these arrogant patients. One had seen her give an air-ring to a neighbour patient and he asked for something for his buttocks. She had a bed-pan brought to him, since that was what she understood him needing, and he had got angry with her since he needed nothing of the sort.

Here and there, you do get to find out the mentality of the “boys”. One soldier told her how the best thing was to be two parts drunk when going over the top. I guess you did not bleed as much, according to him, if hit? And you were enough sensible to know what was expected of you and you lacked all fear, but did things in a daring and highly spirited way. One of the reasons the Russians were constantly drunk going in to Germany and Berlin in 1945? Gives you courage to do what you otherwise would never do?

Another interesting thing was what she wrote in August 1918. The War Office wiring parents, family, to go over to the hospitals in France, to be there with their wounded “boys”.  It must have created a logistic nightmare. Trying to get wounded over to Britain, supplies to the front and then all these worried family members in the middle of it all. At the same time, what a thoughtful thing to do. To get to say goodbye must have meant the world to a mother, a father, a sibling, and to the dying. And the ones who could not go to France, did receive letters from the nurses with imageupdates. Also very nice. Although, in the case of Lennox, the boy who refused to die for over a month, nurse Appleton complains of him having a very stupid mother and she did not seem to like writing to her!

Towards the end of the war, she met soldiers who had been patients of the Germans, where they only got dressings changed every four days, no water to drink, broken bones were not splintered but only got some brick attached to weigh bones down. She is horrified but having read what I did, about their treatment of civilians, I did not get surprised at all.

On the 18 October 1918, less than a month before the war ends, she hopes the war will go on for another two years. Well, other people say they think it will and she feels that they still have a lot to give the Germans and that the boys should be allowed to pay back for terrible actions. She also wish to be back at the casualty clearing stations, since they leap-frog, and she loved it so much. Except the shelling and the bombing. With sadness she states that it doesn’t pay to ask for anything in the army. When peace comes on the 11 November, she feels like an elastic has snapped. She expresses no happiness or relief.

The 24 October she reports of discipline problems. She and the Assistant Matron, caught British nurses dancing at an event sponsored by another nation, and while the American and Canadian nurses present were allowed to dance, British nurses never were. They decided to report it unofficially, since they only wanted the culprits to be warned, but it all leads to the Assistant Matron getting punished for not reporting it properly. I guess others saw the offense and reported it the official way.

Her friend is not the only one transferred to another place, last minute. 6 December she is put on a hospital train, and that is where she spend the rest of the time, of her diary. Now, when the war is over, she gets accounts from locals who describe life under occupation. How Germans would go in to a shop and while one of them was shopping, the others would steal what they could carry. One shop owner had false candy and chocolate bars made, so when they opened the bars, they found paper and firewood. A POW described how all parcels sent to them from their families, were gone through and the officers in charge stole the food and sent it to their own families. And the bread served to the POWs in the camps were full of sawdust. She even got to see a piece of bread where she could see the sawdust and pieces of wood.  But now, when the war was over, the greatest shock to her, was the POWs they fetched from German hospitals. They looked like raisins, according to her, skin and bone, with backs full of bedsores. They were so starved that it was difficult to feed them with anything and she describes that their noses and foreheads looked enormous since the rest of the faces were so sunk in. The walking POWs described the food they had been given as cabbage soup without any bits in it. So, I guess the same diet as the WWII POWs received and the concentration camp inmates.

And even though the Germans lost the war, there was zero co-operation from them. They still acted haughty and arrogantly. No wonder it all lead to another war.

26 December was the last day in her diary. But she did not de-mobilize untilimage December 1919. From then on she worked as a nurse in London till 1923 when she and her sister bought a property on Isle of Wight. But she was persuaded by Dame Maud McCarthy, the Matron-in-Chief of QAIMNS, to join the Territorial Force Nursing Service, instead of starting to raise poultry. In 1926, at the age of 49, she married her sister’s 11 year younger, step-son. He died in 1936 and nurse Appleton died in 1958. I guess her great-nephews and nieces have a website where they publish all information they can find on her. But I have not bothered going in search of it. Yet…



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111 responses to “Sister Edith Appleton’s WWI diary

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