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New nursing website posts wartime diaries


Royal College of Nursing, history project, new website, scrapbooks, diaries, nurses, VAD, World War I, “With never to be forgotten gratitude for helpful sympathy in my life’s greatest trial.”

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has launched a new website that uses personal scrapbooks, diaries and photograph albums to bring to life the experiences of wartime nurses.

More than 15,000 nurses served during the First World War as part of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS).

The website, Service Scrapbooks: Nursing, Storytelling and the First World War, showcases material from the College’s archive collection to describe how nurses travelled overseas to work in military hospitals or treated injured soldiers evacuated back to Britain from the frontline.

It focuses on the stories of nine nurses: Beatrice Bowman; Beatrice Longmire ; Beatrice Tanner ; Florence Blythe Brown ; Hilda Hand; Jessie Akehurst; Mabel Pearce; and Nellie Carter, and one VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Josephine Angois, each of whom left behind a scrapbook detailing their experiences in the Great War.

Nellie Carter’s scrapbook, for example, was a Christmas present from her colleague Charlotte Skinner.

As a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) she was sent to France, Gallipoli, Salonica and Egypt during the war. Everywhere she went she took her scrapbook with her. In it she recorded her patients and colleagues’ poetry, illustrations, stories and jokes.

First though, in 1913, she was posted to Ireland, to the Military Families Hospital, Curragh, County Kildare. She was there during the ‘Curragh Incident’ in March 1914, when British officers threatened to resign rather than fight the Unionists who were opposed to the new Home Rule Act. She would have been surrounded by the officers involved in the mutiny. It would have been an incredibly tense time.

She was sent to HMS Asturias on 18 June 1915 – a few months after it had escaped unscathed from hitting a German mine – and worked on the ship for almost a year. During her time on board she travelled to Gallipoli, Salonica and Egypt. The HMS Asturias had been a Royal Mail Ship but in 1914 was requisitioned by the Admiralty to become a Hospital Ship.

It was not just the Allied soldiers who were receiving treatment – German prisoners were also tended to. They were most likely en route to one of the many internment camps dotted across Europe at this time.

On 5 May 1916 Nellie Carter was sent to Abbeville, France. This was very fortunate timing. In March of the following year the Asturias was torpedoed, and 35 of its crew killed.

Mabel Pearce served in the TFNS, first in Lincoln and later in Greece and Italy. Her scrapbooks contain sketches and poems by soldiers, among whom she was clearly popular. One wrote: “With never to be forgotten gratitude for helpful sympathy in my life’s greatest trial.”

Dianne Yarwood, deputy chair of the RCN History of Nursing Society, said: “Being able to handle and read a diary written by a fellow nurse more than 100 ago was a moving and informative experience.

“These first-hand accounts make a significant contribution to our understanding of the professionalism and skill of these women who were actively engaged in caring both for the wounded and for those who were sick as a direct result of their engagement in the war.”

She added: “As we digitised and transcribed their diaries, autograph books and photograph albums, we were also able to catch a glimpse of their personal lives, such as taking tea at Lyon’s Corner House, trips home to visit family, and of singing with patients and colleagues.”

The project to digitise, transcribe and research nearly 2,000 pages of photographs, poems, diary entries and illustrations dating from 1909 to 1919 was supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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