Authors: Olive Dent
‘So sounds the bugle and the stretcher-bearers hurry off. In the course of a few minutes the tent door parts and our cases arrive. Clay-covered, mud-stained, blood-stained, clothing ripped...
“Now, laddie, what is the matter?” ’
Plucky V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Olive Dent served two years of the Great War caring for soldiers in a tented hospital on the Western Front. She wrote this vivid account of her time there and, though a classic memoir of the period, it was long forgotten until BBC researchers working on
The Crimson Field
delightedly rediscovered it, and pored over it for historical detail and dramatic atmosphere.
Reproduced here in full, Olive’s journal tells a real-life story of courage and camaraderie. Her distinctive voice, cheerful resourcefulness and rebellious spirit shine through as brightly now as they must have done 100 years ago.
Olive Dent was an elementary school teacher, who volunteered as a nurse in World War I, and served in a tented hospital in Northern France for two years. As well as writing this memoir, originally published as
A V.A.D. in France
, she also contributed regularly to the
. She died in 1930, aged 45, in the care of a Marie Curie cancer hospital in London, where there was a ward named after her.
My thanks are due to the Editors of the
Yorkshire Evening Post
for permission to use some matter
a small part only
which has appeared in their pages.
WINTER QUARTERS: THE TEMPORARY HOME OF A MEDICAL OFFICER
‘What have I done for you,
England, my England?
What is there I would not do,
England, my own?’
war! It couldn’t be. It must be some frightful mistake. War was the prerogative, the privilege, the amusement of the vague, restless, little kingdoms, of the small, quarrelsome, European States and far-distant, half-breed peoples. War was an unreality not to be brought to
land, not to be in any way associated with England, with
And yet – and yet – there was the dreadful, numbing, awful news in the paper, and newspapers would not dare publish anything untrue which was
prejudicial to the common weal. People with serious expression and tortured thoughts tried to cope with the gravity, the enormity, the surprise of the situation. The dim, almost nebulous fear of years had actually materialised. England was at war! Fire, slaughter, dripping bayonet, shrieking shell, – how were they going to affect us? What was to be done?
One looked at one’s dear ones at home with a passion of over-mastering love. One caught one’s self looking at strangers in the street, on the bus, and in the railway train, – at that worn little mother with the tired, trouble-haunted eyes, the laughing girl-child with the soft, rounded limbs, the crooning baby with his whole, wondrous future before him. Who was to defend them all? For the first time in a happy, even life one felt bitterly resentful of one’s sex. Defence was the only consideration in the popular mind in those early August days. And defence was a man’s job, and I, unfortunately, was a woman.
Some one quoted Kingsley to be fiercely contradicted. True enough, the women would weep, and weep in full measure, but that was no reason for an apathetic acceptation. Meantime there was surely work to be done.
But what work?
Some few of us registered the names of, and arranged visits to, the families of soldiers and sailors immediately called up for service, and the sight of those pitiful, pathetic, utterly helpless families made our hearts ache and strengthened our determination to be up and doing. There came a call for men and more men. The regulars and the reservists had marched away to the war. Motley bands of recruits in ill-assorted mufti fell into line and nobly ambled off to be made into soldiers.
No call had yet come for nurses. And yet the New Army of men would need a New Army of nurses. Why not go and learn to be a nurse while the Kitchener men were learning to be soldiers?
The nursing profession was at that time regarded as very inhospitable to outsiders. No doubt we should be despised and abused, considered as very raw recruits and given only the donkey-work to do. Well, it would not be done any the less efficiently, through having studied as much as possible the science and art of nursing. Besides, weren’t the regulars, from mildly despising the Kitchener men, veering round to a well-merited appreciation and trust? That might happen in nursing. At any rate, auxiliary nursing service would assuredly be required. I would be a Kitchener nurse.
Like every other woman at the time I reviewed my own particular case and weighed up matters. I had had a two-years’ course of hygiene and physiology in college, a half-yearly session at advanced physiology later, had done St. John’s Ambulance work for two or three years, and, provided I had a good aim in view, am what schoolboys term a good swotter. Not a great deal to go on, perhaps. Still it was a beginning.
I resurrected my nursing books, bought others, re-attended St. John’s Ambulance lectures and practices, and was fortunate in joining a detachment whose members used to visit hospitals on observation tours, and also used to enter civil hospitals for service, during as many hours of the day as could be arranged.
If, at the time, I should have needed any spur to my enthusiasm, if I had needed any strengthening of my determination to nurse, I should have received such fillip in plenty. For Belgian refugees soon came to us, piteous little bands of people made apathetic by an exhausting succession of stupendous sorrows and fled from pillaged houses with all their world’s goods held in a string bag or a bundled sheet. They told us of those terrible days on the packed jetty at Ostend where men died and babies were born and people went mad. Frail old ladies, such as Rembrandt immortalised,
were there, old men rich in years and poor in physical strength, young girls with terror-laden eyes, a blind boy. Think of it, – of the horror of hearing the first dreadful news of the oncoming of Uhlans, of the interminable stumbling along the white, sun-baked roads, of physical sufferings, of anxieties untellable, of a confused journey to a strange country where even the sounds were unfamiliar, – all in the maddening, inexorable darkness.
And then our own fighting men came back from the war,
boys with shattered limbs, gaping flesh wounds, bruised, battered bodies.
‘Ever the faith endures,
England, my England:
Take and break us: we are yours,
England, my own.’
England had taken and broken them, and still there were so very many of us women doing nothing of value, nothing that counted. Events were proving that it was abroad where nurses were more urgently required. The war zones of the Western Front and Gallipoli were busy. Personal inactivity was galling. I had no ties. I could give my whole time to nursing, so disliked the
thought of auxiliary, part-time work in England. I volunteered for foreign service, was accepted, inoculated, vaccinated and asked, in August 1915, to undertake service in Egypt. For private reasons I was compelled regretfully to refuse, but enthusiastically accepted service in France in the late summer of 1915.
. SPENT THE
morning at St. John’s Ambulance Headquarters where we were provided with arm brassards, identity discs, and identity certificates in place of passports, the latter most unflattering documents containing a terse, crude and unvarnished account of our personal appearance, age and address. The morning was bitterly raw and cold, but not even the order to prepare for life under canvas damped or chilled our ardour. Spent the afternoon at the stores in a chaos of other V.A.D.s, pukka nurses, khaki men and confused assistants. Bought a camp bed, camp chair, camp bath and camp basin, – they all look refractory and sullen, – a ground sheet, a sleeping-bag, gum-boots, an oil-stove and a collapsible lantern.