As we know, the second world war broke out in September of 1939, a year after Lorna trained to become a QAIMS nurse, in 1938, and signed up to help Britain win the war. While situated at her first military base in Edinburgh, at the outbreak of war, she become acquainted with her other nursing sisters. When the fatal siren went, they heard the broadcast which meant they were at war. They were all drawn together, ‘by terror, mostly, of the unknown. Speculation upon speculation. When would we move – maybe tomorrow. Little did we know the mysterious ways of the army. We soon learnt.’ (5).
Lorna and her fellow nurses were unprepared for what they would find in a war zones, just as Hallett observes of WW1 nurses: ‘Their efforts were rewarded by admission into some of the most dramatic – and horrific – scenarios of the war. Nothing could have prepared them for the seriousness of the wounds they encountered.’ (Hallett, 175, 2016). This shows how the nurses did not know how exactly to prepare for the war that was upon them.
What was significant whilst reading her memoir is how Lorna goes into graphic detail in certain battle scenes; she describes the scene happening right in front of her. For example, she describes the casualties at Dunkirk. When nearing her old village, which was situated at the No.10 military base hospital, she was met by a horrible sight. She learnt what happened to her patients: The patients were being loaded on to a hospital train were the attack started. The town was ‘in flames’ as they drove further south, were ‘the stretchers and wounded were lying on the sidings.’ (13) It seemed as though everything was happening abruptly: ‘Surgical dressings stood open. First aid was being rendered. There were many wounded.’ (13). This creates the sense of emergency and the immense loss of life.
After learning that the Germans were gaining ground, the troops had to evacuate from Dunkirk. Thus, orders came to evacuate the hospital as the troop ship was to take them to the St. Nazarie harbour. The harbour was being attacked and they could hear the sound of bombs. There was the sense of no waiting around. In June 1940, Lorna emphasises the need to get on with the war: ‘One felt a great urgency to get on with the war – sitting at home was no good, so I was glad when I finally set forth.’ (18). The battle of Britain was now raging, and Lorna and her troop used to see the waves of bombers coming over.
Lorna remembers how Southampton experienced the worst bombing. At the time the troop were evacuating: ‘we were in a shelter for hours until the all clear sounded and the sight that met our eyes was horrifying.’ (23). The town was a war-scene, when Lorna depicts how when she was walking among the streets, buildings began to crumble right in front of her eyes. The ‘girders and bits of falling masonry and huge beams fell around us… my face was scorched by a falling beam and I was luckily not to be more severely injured.’ (23). Becoming worried, as she had duty the next day and telephone communications, the only place she could find to shelter was a hotel for the night. When she got back to the hospital, she was filthy from the bombings and everyone was glad to see her safe. Thus, the memories of Dunkirk still haunted her, as it is not long after it has happened: ‘My memory of Dunkirk and the follow up was still fresh in my memory.’ (24). This conveys how the horrors of Dunkirk still followed her conscience.
While in Suez, Lorna heard the drone of a plane, the worst possible outcome. The drone was the enemy’s plane bomber. He was driving so low, they could have almost reached up and touched him. The plane sounded and they fled below as the Italian plane bomber dropped three bombs in the harbour and the debris as a great boulder blew up and went through several decks. This resulted in utter chaos everywhere, with no serous damage. Lorna, ‘rushed to the operating theatre and dealt with the casualties. But no fatal ones, strangely enough.’ (34). However, they had to work through the night to amend the ships damage from the bombing and the people on the dock. While on the way to Tobruk, they had to load the wounded patients onto the ship and get them back to base.
There was still a long way to go with the war. November 1943, while at a small port in Barletta, they had to live in filthy, unfinished army Barracks and Nissen huts. Lorna, despite being optimistic, knew that things were going to test them to a breaking point. (67). Though there was no penicillin yet, she still maintained the sense of optimism in saving lives: ‘The impossible became possible, stretchers lined the corridor – life had to be saved.’ (71). This conveys that even in the cold of winter night, she had to go out to emergency and save lives: ‘our bedclothes were often frozen and so you can imagine getting snug and then knock on the door – convoy. You asked no questions. Emergency out into the hurry, hurry – men are dying.’ (73). Thus, as the war progressed further up, this area of Italy quietened down gradually. Her co-operation with the medics and the R.A.F at this base highlighted how the war in Europe reflected their endeavour; ‘it was through our mistakes that a lot was learned to the benefit and life of many soldiers.’ (74).
After returning back home when Britain had won the war, she was invited to a party on V.J day, with a huge bonfire and everyone drinking. However, Lorna was feeling rather lost at the prospects of being back home: ‘I thought with forced gaity. I gazed into the flames of my private memories.’ (116). Thereafter, this was followed by a wonderful V.E celebration day in their little old hut in the olive groves at Andrea.
With Britain winning the war, Lorna got to see the other side of the coin when she was employed to take twelve other nursing sisters to Germany. While in the German city Wuppertal, the town was in devastation from the bombings; buildings were now empty shells amongst the skyline and the dead were amongst the ruins. When they drove through the town, the stench of decay followed them as they seen the total destruction all around. The nation was totally demoralised: ‘I could read the hate on the people’s white drawn faces.’ (122). Germany was in a dire state as there was a shortage of food and clothing. This highlights both the British and oppositions effects of war, which is described in the end. Thus, Lorna’s war experience is narrated in a vivid and affective style, as she goes into an easy to read, yet detailed account of the horrors of war.
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).
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