From the very beginning of Lorna’s memoir of nursing during WW2, the central focus is on her duty: ‘My work always came first – I even took it home with me. My mother patiently listened to all the ups and downs and sometimes some very sorry details of my adventures.’ (1).
Although she worked as a nurse, she also took up the role as a theatre sister: ‘I took over the operating theatre – a large airy school room and we set to with lighting and sterilizes.’ (8). Lorna was on call at night with another four nurses, as they took care of soldiers and troops who became ill at any time. In April 1940, she was then posted to No. 5 clearing station (c.c.s) – this was nearer to the line to the field dressing station. So this was busier, however, Lorna was glad to be in the action. La Beulle, where the base hospital was, which used to be a casino but was converted into a hospital. This was filled with patients, especially from the soldiers wounded from Dunkirk: ‘Then the casualties became heavier and we worked very hard.’ (15). Some of these wards contained more than eighty patients military sisters took care of.
Whilst based at Cairo, in October 1942, preparations were made to evacuate the British troops in their hospitals. Eighteen volunteers were needed, and Lorna bravely joined their force: ‘I said I would be one of them. My Egyptian friends were astonished.’ (54). The second battle of El Alamein had started, and in turn, the casualties and victims were now on their doorstep. Their motivation surrounding her work lies at patriotism for her country: ‘we revelled in work-work-work. We were doing out bit.’ (55). As she left Cairo she was then informed that she would be posted to Tripoli. Here, she should join the Queen Alexandria hospital ship and transported to her new hospital in Tripoli. However, she had been at the Alexandria hospital ship before: ‘It was my old home. This time I was a passenger with a lot of strangers.’ (57).
In other instance of saving lives she also reveals how she helped her friend through an illegal abortion. Not wanting to involve the man she was involved with had got her pregnant, the friend came to Cairo on a week’s leave. She had planned the abortion in private as she knew Lorna was already there. Enter Lorna… ‘The bed was soaked through the mattress and her pulse was pretty thready. Fortunately I was a midwife and worked fast…I wrapped her up with towels and packed her up as tight as I could… I kept massaging her uterus and slowly the bleeding was normal.’ (53).
Lorna’s duty is emphasised as she cares for the prisoners of war, (POW’s). She has to decide crucial decisions on whether to operate on them. For instance, one soldier’s chance of living was 50/50 as his heart contained a shell bomb. This was a risk as the shell may have exploded but Lorna took this risk to save his life. Because of her endeavour, she was promoted to Deputy Matron. This risk to save his life turned out to be the right decision: ‘it was a miracle. The shell had in no way damaged the heart.’ (79). The operation was then completed, the German patient recovered and was eventually sent to a P.O.W camp. She was a member of one of the first units to use the new wonder drug – penicillin; ‘Gold dust as we called it then.’ (79). When it was in more use, millions of patients benefitted from it. When scrubbing for the next operation, the V.I.P came in and told Lorna: ‘turning to Charles he said – I hope you realise how lucky you are – one of the best theatre sisters I have ever known.’ (80).
Volunteer nurse, Corinne Andrews, who volunteered as a nurse during the First World War, was also unprepared for all what lay ahead of her: ‘The story traces her descent from optimistic-but-naive war worker, through disillusionment and flight into romance, to physical and emotional self-destruction through overwork and a damaging relationship.’ (179). This could also be said of Lorna’s life story. Lorna too was very keen on starting out in her career, however she did not know all what lay ahead of her. She had also been through an emotionally damaging relationship – with bigamous James from the desert. However, she overcome her strife.
While based in Tripoli, Lorna was on night call – ambulances had to be on stand as stretchers could not be carried across that sea of mud and it was not wise to leave an unconscious patient to the bitterly cold night air. On one very dark night, as she was coming off duty, she cleared up and dragged herself across the courtyard to the huts across the road. She slipped and fell – and was up to the waist in mud which was icy cold in temperature: ‘I could not move, just sat there and cried with sheer exhaustion and helplessness.’ (72). A nearby ambulance picked her up in his headlights: ‘he might have been handling a child. He hauled me out of the mud saying “there, there I’ll take you home.’ (72). This highlights that just as much as her patients, the nurses could also be exposed to danger as they were too just human beings.
Women nurses writing about their experience in war shows how they too were affected as those fighting in it. Hallett observes, ‘The theme that war can damage women as well as men is taken up by feminist writer Rebecca West in her highly sensationalised War Nurse… Its main purpose, however, is to convey a sense of how women, as well as men, could be irreparably damaged by war: the focus is on the destruction of the volunteer nurse herself.’ (179). This reveals that although nurses were honoured and wanted to help Britain win the war, they also had difficulties, as I have discussed with Lorna’s trials and errors with her career.
Hallett, E. Christine. Nurse Writers of the Great War. Manchester University Press, 2016.
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).
(1). ‘How WWI changed our lives.’ Available at: https://www.mercattoursinternational.com/blog-post/how-wwi-changed-our-lives. [Accessed 17/05/2020]
(2). ‘What was it like to be a nurse during wwii?’ Available at: https://scrubsmag.com/what-was-it-like-to-be-a-nurse-during-wwii/. [Accessed 17/05/2020].
(3). ‘World War II Nurses.’ Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/world-war-ii-nurses. [Accessed 17/05/2020].