Saturday, 10 March 2018

A book about WW1 poet Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland - "The Hospital in the Oatfield: The Art of Nursing in the First World War

“The Hospital in the Oatfield:  The Art of Nursing in the First World War” Edited by Natasha McEnroe and Tig Thomas, published by The Florence Nightingale Museum, London, 2014. £7.99 from the Museum Shop.

“A physician gives his blessing, the surgeon does the operation.  But it is the nurse who does the work.”  Henry Souttar, Surgeon
In 1915, French artist Victor Tardieu painted some of the scenes at the Hospital in the Oatfield, organised by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland in France in the early days of WW1. I found out about those paintings while researching women poets of the First World War for an exhibition in November 2012 – Millicent was among the first poets I researched.   The paintings were on display for sale at an auction house in London, so I was very pleased to learn that the Florence Nightingale Museum in London had purchased them.

I was even more delighted to find out that there is a book about the paintings – this is indeed good news for those unable to visit the Museum.  In this beautiful book, you will find a chapter about Victor Tardieu, as well as lovely colour prints of his paintings.

But this is not just a book about Tardieu’s paintings, or about Millicent Sutherland. Natasha McEnroe and Tig Thomas have done a brilliant and meticulous job of editing the eight guest-written chapters and ensuring continuity.  These articles are interspersed with brief quotes taken from diaries and records kept by nurses Olive Dent and Enid Bagnold at the time of WW1, together with some amazing black and white photographs, a large number of which were taken by Dr. Oswald Gayer Morgan who worked with the Duchess of Sutherland. 

The book begins with a Foreword by Millicent’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Millicent, Countess of Sutherland.  Chapter 1, by Simon Chaplin and Natasha McEnroe, is about the Duchess and includes contributions from relatives of two of the doctors who worked with Millicent.  Chapter 2, by Emily Mayhew is about the nurses of WW1.  Chapter 3, about voluntary and professional nursing in WW1, is by the late Sue Light, whose website Scarlet Finders is a wonderful reminder of her work.  Chapter 4, by Eric von Arni, explains the work of The Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, while Chapter 5, by, Christine Hallett, is entitled “The Traumas of Conflict”.  Chapter 6,, by Danuta Kneebone, is about Tardieu and his paintings and Chapter 7, “The Stylish Nurse 1914 – 1918” by Frederic A. Shaarf and Jill Carey, tells us about some of the American nurses of WW1, what they wore and where the sourced their uniforms and leisure wear.

The final chapter of the book, “All the Living and all the Dead” by Holly Carter-Chappell, Collections Assistant at the Florence Nightingale Museum, describes the Victorian and Edwardian ways of mourning which changed dramatically during the war to end all wars and touches upon the collective mourning experienced in Britain that continues to this day, especially for those of us who have relatives killed in the conflict who have no known grave.

I found a lot of very interesting information in the book and it is hard to pick out just a few items for the purpose of this review.  A photograph of a nurse washing her hair using a bowl on page 19, answered a question I have asked for a long time.  I wondered how on earth the nurses managed to keep clean with their long skirts and long hair in the truly awful conditions they worked and lived in.  A photograph of the dismantling of the Hospital in the Oatfield in the autumn of 1915 on page 23 is also fascinating.

I was particularly interested in a detailed explanation of gas gangrene on page 8, followed by the Carrel-Dakin method of wound irrigation. There is a photograph of the system on page 9. 

It is also interesting to read about the recreational activities of the nurses, who worked very long hours in such difficult conditions but shocking to read of the number of nurses killed or drowned by enemy action during the war. 

The last, very positive word, goes to Olive Dent, one of the WW1 nurses quoted in the book, which I feel is very fitting.

With an Epilogue, Bibliography and brief biographies of contributors, this is a book you will want to refer to again and again and it is a fitting tribute to the wonderful women who nursed during the First World War.  When you compare the standards, facilities and medication of the 21st Century with what was available in the early days of the 20th Century, their work, the number of lives they saved against all odds and their dedication and good humour in the most awful conditions, becomes all the more remarkable.