Imagine the dismay, excitement and uncertainty of going ‘all that way’ into the uncertain future. I bade a tearful farewell to my family feeling quite sure I wasn’t going to see any of them again. (4).
The autobiography narrates the account of Lorna Kite, who worked as a military nurse during the Second World War. It is titled, ‘Mentioned in despatches; World War II as seen through the eyes of a nurse.’ The extract is a memoir as it depicts her collected memories as a nurse, however, it is also written in the style of a diary, as she narrates her life story. Her anticipated journey starts at the outbreak of war: ‘Imagine the dismay, excitement and uncertainty of going ‘all that way’ into the uncertain future. I bade a tearful farewell to my family feeling quite sure I wasn’t going to see any of them again. (4).’ Thus, she set out to embark on her career in Queen Alexandra’s Military Service in 1938 when she was twenty-two; a year before the war. However, her account was written eleven years after she retired from the service, in 1950.
The overriding theme in the memoir is her devotion and diligence towards her profession, as she was mentioned in despatches which shows her achievement. The tone of the memoir reveals her empathy and compassion towards the soldiers, this is emphasised by how she tries to save their lives. Although in her profession as a nurse she worked alongside working-class women, she came from a privileged Anglo-Indian family and experienced a very different start in life to other authors whose memoirs are discussed on this website. She conveys that she had a ‘protected and spoiled life,’ in India, with ‘servants to do one’s bidding,’ (1). However, Hallett notes that: ‘Not all nurses in Britain and the USA came from wealthy and elite social backgrounds. The majority were still drawn from the lower social classes. Some belonged to impoverished ‘gentry’ families, while others were working-class women seeking social advancement.’ (Hallett, 117, 2016). Thus, Lorna made the decision to come over to London from a mother who didn’t believe in her, saying, ‘give her a few months, she’ll never stick it,’ (1). In spite of these predictions, Lorna was determined to achieve her nursing ambitions with honours.
One of the greatest themes in Lorna’s memoir is war and its memory. As a junior nurse, one of her first jobs was to teach the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). Through this her admiration of the British soldier began. Her duty was to spend many years trying to save his life, comfort him and make his dying more bearable. In September 1939, she had to say goodbye to her family when she was called to a military base at Edinburgh. On this journey, she was talking to a retired operating theatre sister who said women amongst this profession like Lorna were in danger: ‘In 1914 they bombed them as they stood at the operating table in the tent.’ (4). Not long after she became acquainted with the other nurses, they heard the fatal siren which meant that the outbreak of war had begun.
When she moved to Dunkirk, Lorna witnessed the town in flames, where the injured soldiers were being loaded onto hospital trains when the attack started. Stretchers were lying on the side lines. She never saw many of the injured men again as they had died in Dunkirk: ‘They didn’t stand a chance, helping the wounded and exposing themselves to danger, brave and gallant, unsung heroes.’ (20). Thus, she shares her respect towards the other nurses who also put themselves at risk to help the soldiers.
Evoked in the memoir is her enthusiasm towards rescuing those in need. This is highlighted from her work in hospital ships. While being posted to India, she saved an Indian Dhow with its sailor stranded in the middle of the ocean: ‘They showered gifts and food onto him – and he was in urgent need of water.’ (30). When she was posted to Cairo in 1942, it brought back her memory of her childhood– when her Aunt took her to see the Pyramids and the Sphynx.
While situated in the officer’s ward, she met major James from the desert who she starts to date: ‘He really was most engaging, good looking and excellent company.’ (42). When she had two weeks leave, she and James became involved in grand parties; he was always her partner when she was on leave and they soon became engaged. Before the wedding, a friend of James delivers terrible news, that he was already engaged and had two children. She expresses her hurt over this revelation: ‘I was shattered.’ (50). There were instances of bigamy between the nurses and men, such as this example were she did not know he was already married. James tried to convince Lorna that he only loved her, however she ‘dismissed him with anger and hurt pride.’ (51).
Lorna’s memoir sheds a light on the injured victims of war as seen with the crash pilot, who had his legs amputated. Her compassion is evoked in cases such as this, as they would have an unnerving effect on the nurse’s sensibilities: ‘One tried to be objective but it is not easy.’ (40). This conveys her ability to hold her emotions together. Thus, Lorna’s empathetic voice allows us to become immersed into the world of the military nurse. When posted to Tripoli, she recalls crossing the border where the first and the eighth army met. She also stopped a sergeant planned on moving the opposing troops to Italy. She maintains her duty by reporting this sergeant as she was no longer sorry when she seen how British troops were mutilated.
Lorna’s memoir focuses on her postings and her experiences within them. For instance, when she was posted to an American hospital ship she was deserted by the ‘useless Captain and Colonel’ who ‘deserted us in our hour of need.’ (108). She was then posted to Genoa as she describes the hospital grounds: ‘Lovely windows and doors, big airy windows, the lot.’ (108). After four years in Genoa she was posted to the UK, though she was reluctant to return: ‘I dreaded the moment of farewell and left Genoa in tears with all my friends gathered round.’ (113).
When posted to Oxford she was in charge of an examination school, and then worked briefly as a theatre sister again but just for brain surgery. In 1947 after growing weary of this, she then took the opportunity to take twelve nursing sisters to Germany: ‘I was glad to be off, England had been pretty dreary these last two post-war years.’ (121). Thus, even after the war she still maintained devoted towards her nursing duties.
While in Hannover, it is here she met for the third time the man who she marries. After eleven years in the service, the memoir ends with her retirement as she settles down to become an army wife. Lorna believed her decision to be right; as she needed to take care of him after his involvement with the war as he would have needed her emotional support. This reveals that although she held a devotion towards her nursing duties, she also held a loving commitment towards her husband.
Kite, L.E ‘Mentioned in Despatches; WWII as Seen Through the Eyes of a Nurse.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, TS pp 146).
Featured Image: ‘Heroic nurse killed in World War 1 is remembered on 100th anniversary of her death.’ Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/981563/Nurse-Margaret-Fortescue-World-War-1-anniversary-death [Accessed 28/02/2020].
Image (1) ‘Group of Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Sisters.’ Pinterest.co.uk Available at: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/862017184899482571/ [Accessed 14/02/20].
Image (2) ‘A U.S. Marine Corps demolition crew destroys a Japanese position during the Battle of Okinawa.’ www.worldatlas.com. Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/major-battles-of-world-war-ii-ww2.htmlhttps://www.worldatlas.com/articles/major-battles-of-world-war-ii-ww2.html. [Accessed: 28/02/2020].
Image (3) ‘The forbidden diary of a wartime nurse who tended the wounded in the D-Day landings.’ Express.co.uk. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/481145/The-forbidden-diary-of-a-wartime-nurse. [Accessed 14/02/20].
Image (4) ‘Army Nurses Corps: Angels In Olive Drab.’ WarfareHistoryNetwork.com. Available at: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2019/03/29/angels-in-olive-drab/ [Accessed 14/02/20].
Image (5). ‘U.S Army nurses of the staff of an Evacuation Field Hospital.’ Pinterest.co.uk. Available at: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/amp/pin/288863763572350728/ [Accessed 14/02/20].